Is it difficult to be a Simultaneous Interpreter?

31st Jan 2014

Is it enough to know a few languages fluently, to be able to work as a simultaneous interpreter?

“It’s happening again… Can’t understand a word… My hands grasp the microphone…”

A Russian-French-English interpreter who has been working for over 25 years for UN, trying to adapt Russian and French sentences into English, describing a few moments.

Simultaneous interpreters usually work in pairs but they are actually interpreting on their own, hidden away from the audience inside soundproof ‘booths’, claustrophobically small cubicles containing two chairs, two consoles, two headsets, two microphones, and a window that provides an excellent view of the backs of the delegates’ heads and of the podium at the front of the room. The booths are marked with the name of the target language for instance: English-booth interpreters interpret into English, French-booth interpreters into French.

A simultaneous interpreter’s job is compared to an air traffic controller’s job, regulating numerous flights at once. “A colleague once suggested that the interpreter is like a soldier who spends endless hours in training and then has three seconds in the heat of battle to make a series of life and death decisions”.

When interpreting you have these moments, like “going on automatic pilot” which can be very dangerous. You can never be sure that some sort of phrases you’ve heard a hundred times won’t appear to you completely differently the next time you hear them.  As you are getting more and more experience, you have certain phrases you interpret one way in one language and differently in another.

The interpretation process is listening, processing and speaking. How, in a few seconds is it possible to listen, process and verbalize the message in a different language? Add to this, difficulties such as ‘a slip of the tongue’, foreign accents and odd intonations. As an example here: ‘And now I want to put the water tanks’ turned out to be ‘I want to put the vote of thanks.”

In situations when you have no idea of the meaning of a phrase, the solution is .....just switch off the microphone. Specific knowledge – could be another barrier for an interpreter. A UN interpreter, not only has to keep up with the latest developments in international affairs, but he or she also has to have a broad knowledge of topics ranging from climate change and oil and gas investments to international trade law, terrorism, Aids and human rights, and the new terminology these fields acquire daily. For the interpreter into English the responsibility is even greater, as English is the language most used by the media.

Being a UN interpreter is not only about knowing two languages, but also being a fully focused person, who is up to date with world developments in all spheres and being able to manage any kind of odd situations on the go.

For information on how Pearl can help you with your simultaneous or conference interpreting requirements, please call us on 020 7253 7700 or email

Alesia Zolnowska, Senior Account Manager


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