Language interpretation

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This article is about interpretation of natural languages. For interpretation of programming languages, see Interpreted language.
"Interpreter" redirects here. For other uses, see Interpreter (disambiguation).
Interpreting booths in the European Parliament simultaneously translate debates between the 24 official languages of the European Union (in comparison, the United Nations have six official languages). The European Parliament is the most multilingual parliament and the biggest employer of interpreters in the world.

Interpretation or interpreting is oral translation of speech or sign from a language into another. Translation studies is the systematic study of the theory, description and application of interpretation and translation.[1]

An interpreter is a person who converts a thought or expression in a source language into an expression with a comparable meaning in a target language either simultaneously in "real time" or consecutively when the speaker pauses after completing one or two sentences.

The interpreter's objective is to convey every semantic element as well as tone and register and every intention and feeling of the message that the source-language speaker is directing to target-language recipients (except in summary interpretation, used sometimes in conferences)[2]

For written speeches and lectures, sometimes the reading of pre-translated texts is used.

Comparison to translation[edit]

The terms interpretation and translation are commonly used interchangeably but are not synonymous. Interpretation describes immediate conversion of source (oral or text) orally (or by sign language), whereas translation is the conversion of source (recorded oral, sign or text) to text. The primary practical distinction is that, in translation, the translator has more time to consider the output and may access resources (dictionaries, glossaries, etc.) in that process. These ought not to be confused with "Transliteration" which, in contrast, seeks to render the sound of one language into the script or form of another with no attendant interpretation or translation of meaning, [3] e.g. a spoken Chinese dialect written using alphabetic characters or spoken English represented in a signed form of English, Signed Exact English, not ASL.

In a legal context, such as court interpretation, where ramifications of misinterpretation may be dire, accuracy is paramount. Teams of two or more interpreters, with one actively interpreting and the second monitoring for greater accuracy, may be deployed.

Translators have time to consider and revise each word and sentence before delivering their product to the client. While live interpretation's goal is to achieve total accuracy at all times, details of the original (source) speech can be missed and interpreters can ask for clarification from the speaker. In any language, including sign languages, when a word is used for which there is no exact match, expansion may be necessary in order to fully interpret the intended meaning of the word.



Simultaneous interpreter's station (Televic Conference) at the European Court of Justice

Simultaneous interpretation (SI) suffers the disadvantage that the interpreter must do the best he or she can within the time permitted by the pace of source speech and the advantages of time-saving and not disturbing the natural flow of the speaker. The most common form is extempore SI, where the interpreter does not know the message until he or she hears it.

In the ideal setting for oral language, the interpreter sits in a sound-proof booth and speaks into a microphone, while clearly seeing and hearing the source-language speaker via earphones. The simultaneous interpretation is rendered to the target-language listeners via their earphones.

The first introduction and employment of extempore simultaneous interpretation using electronic equipment that could facilitate large numbers of listeners was the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-1946, with four official working languages. The technology arose in the 1920s and 1930s when American businessman Edward Filene and British engineer A. Gordon-Finlay developed simultaneous interpretation equipment with IBM.[4]


In consecutive interpreting (CI), the speaker is required to pause to allow interpretation — accuracy is greatly enhanced but the time needed is much greater (possibly double the time needed). Traditionally, the interpreter will sit or stand near the speaker.[5]

Consecutive interpretation can be conducted in a pattern of short or long segments according to the interpreter's preference. In short CI, the interpreter relies mostly on memory whereas, in long CI, most interpreters will rely on note-taking. Consecutive interpreting of whole thoughts, rather than in small pieces, is desirable so that the interpreter has the whole meaning before rendering it in the target language. This affords a truer, more accurate, and more accessible interpretation than where short CI or simultaneous interpretation is used.

An attempt at consensus about lengths of segments may be reached prior to commencement, depending upon complexity of the subject matter and purpose of the interpretation, though speakers generally face difficulty adjusting to unnatural speech patterns.[citation needed]

On occasion, document sight translation is required of the interpreter during consecutive interpretation work. Sight translation combines interpretation and translation; the interpreter must render the source-language document to the target-language as if it was written in the target language. Sight translation occurs usually, but not exclusively, in judicial and medical work.

Consecutive interpretation may be the chosen mode when bilingual listeners are present who wish to hear both the original and interpreted speech or where, as in a court setting, a record must be kept of both.[citation needed]

When no interpreter is available to interpret directly from source to target, an intermediate interpreter will be inserted in a relay mode, e.g. a Greek source language could be interpreted into English and then from English to another language. This is also commonly known as double-interpretation. Triple-interpretation may even be needed, particularly where rare languages or dialects are involved. Such interpretation can only be effectively conducted using consecutive interpretation.


In whispered interpreting (chuchotage, in French) sometimes called whispering simultaneous, the interpreter does not normally whisper, but simply speaks softly using voiced speech. This necessitates very close proximity to the target(s) and can be tiring due to the posture adopted.

Because of the intense concentration needed by interpreters to hear every word spoken and provide an accurate rendition in the target language, professional interpreters work in pairs or in teams of three, so that the interpreters can switch and rest after interpreting for about ten to twenty minutes (depending on the difficulty of the content).



Conference interpreting refers to interpretation at a conference or large meeting, either simultaneously or consecutively. The advent of multi-lingual meetings has reduced the amount of consecutive interpretation in the last 20 years.

Conference interpretation is divided between two markets: institutional and private. International institutions (EU, UN, EPO, et cetera), which hold multilingual meetings, often favor interpreting several foreign languages into the interpreters' mother tongues. Local private markets tend to have bilingual meetings (the local language plus another), and the interpreters work both into and out of their mother tongues. These markets are not mutually exclusive. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) is the only worldwide association of conference interpreters. Founded in 1953, its membership includes more than 2,800 professional conference interpreters, in more than 90 countries.


Judicial, legal, or court interpreting occurs in courts of justice, administrative tribunals, and wherever a legal proceeding is held (i. e., a police station for an interrogation, a conference room for a deposition, or the locale for taking a sworn statement). Legal interpreting can be the consecutive interpretation of witnesses' testimony, for example, or the simultaneous interpretation of entire proceedings, by electronic means, for one person, or all of the people attending.

The right to a competent interpreter for anyone who does not understand the language of the court (especially for the accused in a criminal trial) is usually considered a fundamental rule of justice. Therefore, this right is often guaranteed in national constitutions, declarations of rights, fundamental laws establishing the justice system or by precedents set by the highest courts. However, it is not a constitutionally required procedure (in the United States) that a certified interpreter be present at police interrogation.[6]

In the US, depending upon the regulations and standards adhered to per state and venue, court interpreters usually work alone when interpreting consecutively, or as a team, when interpreting simultaneously. In addition to practical mastery of the source and target languages, thorough knowledge of law and legal and court procedures is required of court interpreters. They are often required to have formal authorization from the state to work in the courts — and then are called certified court interpreters.[7] In many jurisdictions, the interpretation is considered an essential part of the evidence. Incompetent interpretation, or simply failure to swear in the interpreter, can lead to a mistrial.


In escort interpreting, an interpreter accompanies a person or a delegation on a tour, on a visit, or to a meeting or interview. An interpreter in this role is called an escort interpreter or an escorting interpreter. This is liaison interpreting.

Public sector[edit]

Also known as community interpreting, is the type of interpreting occurring in fields such as legal, health, and local government, social, housing, environmental health, education, and welfare services. In community interpreting, factors exist which determine and affect language and communication production, such as speech's emotional content, hostile or polarized social surroundings, its created stress, the power relationships among participants, and the interpreter's degree of responsibility — in many cases more than extreme; in some cases, even the life of the other person depends upon the interpreter's work.


Medical interpreting is a subset of public service interpreting, consisting of communication among Healthcare personnel and the patient and their family or among Healthcare personnel speaking different languages, facilitated by an interpreter, usually formally educated and qualified to provide such interpretation services. In some situations medical employees who are multilingual may participate part-time as members of internal language banks.[8] Depending on country/state specific requirements, the interpreter is often required to have some knowledge of medical terminology, common procedures, the patient interview and exam process. Medical interpreters are often cultural liaisons for people (regardless of language) who are unfamiliar with or uncomfortable in hospital, clinical, or medical settings.

For example, in China, there is no mandatory certificate for medical interpreters as of 2012. Most interpretation in hospitals in China is done by doctors, who are proficient in both Chinese and English (mostly) in his/her specialty. They interpret more in academic settings than for communications between doctors and patients. When a patient needs English language service in a Chinese hospital, more often than not the patient will be directed to a staff member in the hospital, who is recognized by his/her colleagues as proficient in English. The actual quality of such service for patients or medical translation for communications between doctors speaking different languages is unknown by the interpreting community as interpreters who lack Healthcare background rarely receive accreditation for medical translation in the medical community. Interpreters working in the Healthcare setting may be considered Allied Health Professionals.

Sign language[edit]

Two sign language interpreters working for a school.

A sign language interpreter must accurately convey messages between two different languages.[9][10] An interpreter is there for both deaf and hearing individuals.[11][12] The act of interpreting occurs when a hearing person speaks, and an interpreter renders the speaker's meaning into sign language, or other forms used by the deaf party(ies). The interpreting also happens in reverse: when a deaf person signs, an interpreter renders the meaning expressed in the signs into the oral language for the hearing party, which is sometimes referred to as voice interpreting or voicing. This may be performed either as simultaneous or consecutive interpreting. Skilled sign language interpreters will position themselves in a room or space that allows them to be seen by the deaf participants and heard clearly by hearing participants, as well as be in a position to hear and/or see the speaker or speakers clearly. In some circumstances, an interpreter may interpret from one language to another whether that is English to British Sign Language, English to American Sign Language, Spanish to English to American Sign Language and so on.

Deaf individuals also have the opportunity to work as interpreters. The Deaf individual will team with a hearing counterpart to provide interpretation for deaf individuals who may not know the same sign language used in that country, who have minimal language skills, are developmentally delayed or have other mental and/or physical disabilities which make communication a unique challenge. In other cases the hearing interpreter may interpret in the sign language, whichever kind of sign language the team knows and the deaf team will then interpret into the language in which the individual can understand. They also interpret information from one medium of language into another — for example, when a person is signing visually, the deaf interpreter could be hired to copy those signs into a deaf-blind person's hand and add visual information.

Most interpreters have been formally trained in an Interpreter Training Program (ITP). ITP lengths vary, and are usually two or four years to obtain a degree or certificate. Graduate programs are also available.[13]

In the United States, Sign Language Interpreters have National and State level certifications. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), a non-profit organization, is known for its national recognition and certification process. In addition to training requirements and stringent certification testing, the RID members must abide by a Code of Professional Conduct, Grievance Process and Continuing Education Requirement. There are many interpreter-training programs in the U.S. The Collegiate Commission on Interpreter Education is the body that accredits Interpreter Preparation Programs. A list of accredited programs can be found on the CCIE web site.[14]

European countries and countries elsewhere have their own national association of Sign Language Interpreters.[15] Some countries have more than one national association due to regional or language differences. The European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters (efsli) is the umbrella organization of sign language interpreters in Europe.[16] In Canada, the professional association that recognizes and nationally certifies sign language interpreters is the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (AVLIC). Under AVLIC holds several affiliate chapters representing a specified region of Canada.[17]


By its very nature, media interpreting has to be conducted in the simultaneous mode. It is provided particularly for live television coverages such as press conferences, live or taped interviews with political figures, musicians, artists, sportsmen or people from the business circle. In this type of interpreting, the interpreter has to sit in a sound-proof booth where ideally he/she can see the speakers on a monitor and the set. All equipment should be checked before recording begins. In particular, satellite connections have to be double-checked to ensure that the interpreter's voice is not sent back and the interpreter gets to hear only one channel at a time. In the case of interviews recorded outside the studio and some current affairs program, the interpreter interprets what he or she hears on a TV monitor. Background noise can be a serious problem. The interpreter working for the media has to sound as slick and confident as a television presenter.

Media interpreting has gained more visibility and presence especially after the Gulf War. Television channels have begun to hire staff simultaneous interpreters. The interpreter renders the press conferences, telephone beepers, interviews and similar live coverage for the viewers. It is more stressful than other types of interpreting as the interpreter has to deal with a wide range of technical problems coupled with the control room's hassle and wrangling during live coverage.


Interpreting services can be delivered in multiple modalities. The most common modality through which interpreting services are provided is on-site interpreting.


Also called "in-person interpreting" or sometimes colloquialized as "face-to-face", this delivery method requires the interpreter to be physically present in order for the interpretation to take place. In on-site interpreting settings, all of the parties who wish to speak to one another are usually located in the same place. This is by far the most common modality used for most public and social service settings.


Also referred to as "over-the-phone interpreting," "telephonic interpreting," and "tele-interpreting," telephone interpreting enables interpretation via telephone. The interpreter is added to a conference call. Telephone interpreting may be used in place of on-site interpreting when no on-site interpreter is readily available at the location where services are needed. However, it is more commonly used for situations in which all parties who wish to communicate are already speaking to one another via telephone (e.g. telephone applications for insurance or credit cards, or telephone inquiries from consumers to businesses).


A Video Interpreter sign used at locations offering VRS or VRI services

Interpretation services via Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) or a Video Relay Service (VRS) are useful for spoken language barriers where visual-cultural recognition is relevant, and even more applicable where one of the parties is deaf, hard-of-hearing or speech-impaired (mute). In such cases the interpretation flow is normally within the same principal language, such as French Sign Language (FSL) to spoken French, Spanish Sign Language (SSL) to spoken Spanish, British Sign Language (BSL) to spoken English, and American Sign Language (ASL) also to spoken English (since BSL and ASL are completely distinct), etc.... Multilingual sign language interpreters, who can also translate as well across principal languages (such as to and from SSL, to and from spoken English), are also available, albeit less frequently. Such activities involve considerable effort on the part of the translator, since sign languages are distinct natural languages with their own construction and syntax, different from the aural version of the same principal language.

With video interpreting, sign language interpreters work remotely with live video and audio feeds, so that the interpreter can see the deaf or mute party, converse with the hearing party and vice versa. Much like telephone interpreting, video interpreting can be used for situations in which no on-site interpreters are available. However, video interpreting cannot be used for situations in which all parties are speaking via telephone alone. VRI and VRS interpretation requires all parties to have the necessary equipment. Some advanced equipment enables interpreters to control the video camera, in order to zoom in and out, and to point the camera toward the party that is signing.


The majority of professional full-time conference interpreters work for phone interpreting agencies, health care institutions, courts, school systems and international organizations like the United Nations, the European Union, or the African Union.

The world's largest employer of interpreters is currently the European Commission,[18] which employs hundreds of staff and freelance interpreters working into the official languages of the European Union and some others. The European Union's other institutions (the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice) have smaller interpreting services.

The United Nations employs interpreters at almost all its sites throughout the world. Because it has only six official languages, however, it is a smaller employer than the European Union.

Interpreters may also work as freelance operators in their local, regional and national communities, or may take on contract work under an interpreting business or service. They would typically take on work as described above.

The U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan employ hundreds of interpreters to assist with its communications with the local population.


No worldwide testing or certification agency exists for all types of interpreters. For conference interpretation, there is the International Association of Conference Interpreters, or AIIC.

Specific regions, countries, or even cities will have their own certification standards. In many cases, graduates of a certain caliber university program acts as a de facto certification for conference interpretation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ S. Bassnett, Translation studies, p.13-37
  2. ^ NAJIT's position paper on the non-permissiblity of using summary interpretation in legal settings.
  3. ^
  4. ^ "The Origins of Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment". Infinity Translation Services. Retrieved 21 February 2016. 
  5. ^ "Consecutive and Simultaneous Interpretering". Retrieved 2 August 2016. 
  6. ^ Einesman, F.: "Confessions and Culture: The Interaction of Miranda and Diversity". Page 26, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 1999
  7. ^ The majority of state court systems utilize a certification exam developed and administered by the National Center for State Courts. Most non-native speakers of English use the term "sworn interpreter," which is calqued from a civil-law position title common throughout the world. However, there is no common law country[clarification needed] that uses this term.
  8. ^ Kilgannon, Corey (2005-03-15). "Queens Hospitals Learn Many Ways to Say 'Ah'". The New York Times. pp. B1. Retrieved 2008-04-19. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ Ingram, Robert M. (1978). "Sign Language Interpretation and General Theories of Language, Interpretation and Communication," in Gerver, D. & H. W. Sinaiko (Eds.), Language Interpretation and Communication. London: Plenum Press, 109-117.
  11. ^
  12. ^ Ingram, Robert M. (1974). "A Communication Model of the Interpreting Process." Journal of Rehabilitation of the Deaf 7:3 (Jan.), 3-9.
  13. ^
  14. ^ "Accredited Programs". Commission On Collegiate Interpreter Education. Commission On Collegiate Interpreter Education. Retrieved 9 November 2015. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ "efsli Website". efsli. Retrieved 2012-08-31. 
  17. ^ >"Welcome to AVLIC". AVLIC. Retrieved 2016-02-08. 
  18. ^ "DG Interpretation — SCIC". 


  • Bassnett, Susan (1990). Translation studies. London & New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-06528-3. 
  • Bertone, Laura (2006) The Hidden Side of Babel: Unveiling Cognition, Intelligence and Sense, ISBN 987-21049-1-3 Evolucion, Organización intercultural
  • Chuzhakin, Andrei (2007) "Applied Theory of Interpretation and Note-Taking", "Mir Perevoda 1 to 7", Ustny Perevod, Posledovatelny Perevod, Ace Perevoda Mir Perevoda.
  • Gillies, Andrew (2005) Note-taking for Consecutive Interpreting, ISBN 1-900650-82-7.
  • Jones, Roderick (1998) Conference Interpreting Explained, ISBN 1-900650-57-6.
  • Rozan, Jean-François (1956) La Prise de Notes en Interprétation Consécutive, ISBN 2-8257-0053-3.
  • Seleskovitch, Danica (1968) L'interprète dans les conférences internationales, Cahiers Champollion.
  • Taylor-Bouladon, Valerie (2007) Conference Interpreting — Principles and Practice, 2nd Edition ISBN 1-4196-6069-1.

External links[edit]