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Here’s a question that tends to come up a lot when pitching interpreting services to new clients:

“Why do I need two simultaneous interpreters for my event? Isn’t one enough?”

The short answer is no.

Simultaneous interpreters always work in pairs – if not even in teams of three for particularly long meetings. There aren’t really any exceptions to this rule, unless we’re talking about a very short session of about 30-40 minutes max. It may be tempting to overlook this basic standard practice and hire a vendor who’s willing to do the job solo. But the simple truth is that this isn’t in the client’s (or the interpreter’s) best interest. Here’s why:

Simultaneous interpreting is hard

Listening and talking at the same time is already taxing enough, but there’s even more to what we do than that: interpreters actively listen to the source message and analyse it to identify units of meaning that they then reproduce in another language, all while monitoring their own delivery to make sure it’s well-structured and free of grammatical errors. This process happens in real time and is repeated again and again for as long as the speaker has the floor.

Numerous studies have pointed out that the cognitive load of such a complex task is significant, hence the need to take breaks every 20-30 minutes. I can tell you that the quality of my own output generally starts deteriorating after about half an hour, which is when the fatigue kicks in.

Interpreters work as a team

Another thing that’s worth mentioning: switching off the mic at regular intervals doesn’t mean you can chill with a book and a cup of coffee while your colleague is doing all the work. The booth partner is there to provide support when needed, whether it’s looking up a technical term that’s caught the interpreter off guard, or quickly scribbling down names or numbers to make their colleague’s life a little easier.

A lesson I learned the hard way…

About 12 years ago, back when I was just starting out, I was approached by an agency client to interpret simultaneously at a conference near London. Alas, the budget was tight, and the end-customer couldn’t possibly afford to hire two interpreters. “But don’t worry,” they said, “while we understand this isn’t ideal, the agenda will be arranged in such a way that you’ll have frequent breaks and appropriate time to rest between sessions.”

Eventually I said yes but, as it turned out, I didn’t have the luxury of taking ‘frequent’ breaks. In fact, quite the opposite: I was expected to interpret for two hours straight, with barely 5 minutes to take a breather between presentations. I should have pulled out, I know, but the client was very persuasive, and it’s safe to say that at that time I just didn’t know any better.

And how did it go? I somehow managed to make it to the end, but suffice to say my performance wasn’t great and the listeners noticed. After the event, I approached the person who commissioned the service, just to reiterate that this sort of work is usually done in pairs. Her answer was baffling: “We do realise that, but the booth and the technician were so expensive we couldn’t possibly afford to hire two interpreters!” That’s like saying: “We spent so much money on these fancy pots and pans that we just had to make do without a cook!”

But what if the budget is tight?

Well, perhaps it’s worth considering whether you actually do need professional simultaneous interpreters at your event.

If the answer is yes, because your attendees really can’t understand or express themselves in a foreign language and you want communication to happen smoothly, then taking this kind of shortcut isn’t going to do them any favours. You may end up with half a room of delegates only half understanding what’s going on – and the poor interpreter gasping for air down the mic! This will inevitably jeopardise the success of your event and beg the question why you paid for language interpretation in the first place.

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I’m an Italian translator and interpreter based in London, helping clients across the UK (and beyond) communicate effectively with their Italian stakeholders. My specialties include simultaneous interpreting at multilingual conferences and events, along with marketing and creative translation. Need help communicating in languages other than Italian? Let’s talk! I can put you in touch with the right people or, better yet, organise the entire interpreting provision for your event, so you don’t have to worry about a thing.

Make sure you check out Word Of Mouth Translations, the company I co-founded, for your wider-reaching language needs.

Bruno Musarra

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