Simultaneous interpreting – Friend or foe?

‘I’m terrified of the simultaneous interpreting part of the exam. I feel like I don’t know how to prepare’ or ‘What if the professional doesn’t give me a chance to catch up’ or even ‘What if I get lost and completely mess up? They’ll think I’m incompetent!’.

These are all thoughts that have been expressed by learners and experienced interpreters alike. For some reason, the thought of simultaneous interpreting puts fear in a lot of us, even if we are confident in our interpreting abilities. And with the recent announcement concerning reopening of courts, catching up with a 500,000 strong backlog of cases and extended court opening hours, including weekends, the demand for court work can be expected to go one way only. So, what exactly is this interpreting method all about and should we fear it?


According to Wikipedia, ‘simultaneous interpretation (SI) is when an interpreter translates the message from the source language to the target language in real-time. Unlike in consecutive interpreting, this way the natural flow of the speaker is not disturbed and allows for a fairly smooth output for the listeners.’.

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

Well, in theory, yes. And certainly, for interpreters who make a career out of conference interpreting, working for organisations such as the UN or EU, it may come easily (after extensive and targeted training, of course). But, for those of us who wish to work in the community and obtain a general Level 6 qualification with a relatively small element of SI in it, it may come as a surprise when at your first court hearing, you are expected to conduct whispered simultaneous interpreting to the defendant while the counsel are having heated exchanges with the bench. I personally am not ashamed to say that despite being fluent in both languages and having obtained a Level 6 Diploma in Community Interpreting without too much difficulty, I was taken aback when I found myself in this situation for the first time.


That’s a tough question with no straightforward answer. OnCall state that ‘simply put, simultaneous interpreting is the process of listening to, comprehending, and instantaneously translating a speaker’s statements into another language.’. As such, there is no easy way to learn this technique. Purely practice, practice and practice. A firm command of both languages is a MUST, as there is no time to think, Google, or thumb through dictionaries. The interpreter must be so well-versed in creating a flow of utterances in the target language that it comes so naturally, they don’t even need to think about it. And the only way to achieve this is through putting in the hours.


ANTICIPATE – Interpreters are essentially doing two things at once: listening and interpreting. That is why the ability to anticipate what’s coming next can be useful. With experience, you’ll naturally get better at this skill, but it’s something you can work on outside of work as well.

UNDERSTAND CULTURE – Knowing a language is a given when doing simultaneous interpreting, but culture is another matter. Every culture has words and phrases that only make sense to people in that culture. Being unprepared for one of these colloquial phrases can trip you up. That’s why is important to understand each language along with its cultural background.

STAY CALM – This may be a given, but it warrants repeating. Make sure you don’t react to anything the speaker is saying or doing; that’s not your job. No matter what happens, stay focused on providing the best interpretation at the same time.

AND FINALLY – KEEP YOUR BRAIN SHARP – Stay on top of your game. Interpreting is a difficult task, so challenge yourself with an even more difficult task to prepare yourself. Practice, practice, practice. And not just with police TV programs, although this is a pretty popular avenue.  You can download TED talks and shadow them – i.e. repeat whatever was said in the same language it was said. This will train your brain to listen and speak while continuing to listen at the same time. Alternatively, listen to a speech while focusing on another task. This can be something as simple as writing down a grocery list or making a list of all your friend’s birthdays. Afterwards, try to see how much of the speech you can remember. This is will train your brain to somehow concentrate on both tasks without sacrificing quality. If you keep doing brain exercises like this, your skills of interpretation at the same time will start to improve.

PREPARATION MATERIAL – if you would like to have a go at conducting SI exercises in the legal and immigration settings, take a look at here. These activities are aimed at students looking to sit their DPSI exam, but are also a great tool for improving skills generally. Or if you are interested specifically in the police sector, this Assault and Battery webinar will give you plenty of material in terms of glossary, terminology, processes and procedures involved from arrest to charge and everything in between.


What if it all goes wrong, you ask? What if the speaker just goes on and on in technical or legal jargon at a speed that all of a sudden you cannot keep up with? No need to despair. We are all human. Remain calm, make eye contact with the speaker, smile and raise your hand – make them aware you need assistance. Do not forget your role in the setting – your services are crucial in order to facilitate understanding between the professional and the LES. It is in their interest to ensure that you are able to render the interpretation of their message. In my experience, I’ve never come across a professional that would have an issue with slowing down or look exasperated at the interruption. On the contrary, they are always apologetic, frequently remarking that they had forgotten about the presence of the interpreter.

Be confident in your position.

You are a qualified professional with nothing to fear.

Especially not the simultaneous interpreting technique.