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Why do simultaneous interpreters usually work in a team of 2 or 3?

Sometimes I can see one person interpreting in the room or in the booth. It seems to work well.

If other interpreters can concentrate for i.e. two hours: Why can't AIIC-interpreters work alone for a short meeting?

asked 24 Oct '11, 21:50

Holger's gravatar image


edited 24 Oct '11, 22:59

Vincent%20Buck's gravatar image

Vincent Buck

Most people can't keep up a decent interpreting performance for more than 45 minutes and 30 is much more reasonable. It's not an AIIC thing, it's biology!

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answered 24 Oct '11, 22:02

Andy's gravatar image


There are other reasons for not working alone as well. Interpreting is teamwork. While one colleague works actively i.e. interprets into the microphone, it does not mean the others do nothing. They can help the active interpreter find the right document, the right place of the document, jot down figures, help with terminology etc. They can go get coffee when colleagues get tired. Indeed, sometimes you see an interpreter alone in the booth - but generally not for long periods of time. If you work two per booth, the other person might be out stretching their legs, getting documents, finding out about transfers to the airport, making phone calls. The booth is a very small space and some meeting rooms have no windows. In such cases, even a five-minute stroll outdoors can do wonders. Spending the entire workday in a small space without natural light is very tiring, not to mention having to interpret as well! However, you have to know your colleague and obtain their consent to leave them alone in the booth. Experienced colleagues generally have no problem with this, but newcomers to the profession might find it an additional burden so normally you wouldn't leave a young colleague alone.

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answered 24 Oct '11, 23:37

Sirpa's gravatar image


Professional interpreters doing simultaneous, whether AIIC members or not, will never work alone in the booth for over 45 minutes, barring exceptional circumstances.

That's simply because nobody can concentrate and continue to provide an accurate rendition of the original after 45-50 min. There was a study some time ago - will try and post the link when I find it - showing that after 50 minutes of solo SI work, accuracy dropped significantly without the interpreters even being aware of it, because they're stressed and running on adrenaline and little else.

Which means that after less than an hour of solo work, you are no longer in a position to provide a professional service, and any claim to the contrary must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Now, we know that one must compare like to like. 50 minutes of a dense, speed-reading, German law professor into French isn't like 50 minutes of a slow-paced, much-interrupted discussion from French into English. But 50 minutes of a dense Herr Dr. Dr. Dr. into any language will drain anyone for the rest of day and leave a bad taste in your mouth. Not least because you'll have ripped your client off by pretending you could manage alone.

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answered 24 Oct '11, 22:57

Vincent%20Buck's gravatar image

Vincent Buck

edited 24 Oct '11, 23:12

I absolutely agree with the previous answers which are in line with my personal experience. While it is always possible to go to the limit of one's physical and mental capacity (or even beyond) in exceptional cases, it is by no means professional or sustainable to accept or even pro-actively offer these conditions in the planning phase of a conference.

While it might be ok for some interpreters (not for me!) to put their professional reputation at risk by accepting to work alone in a simultaneous setting for more than 50 minutes, and while some clients (theoretically!) claim that they are also willing to take the risk of having a slightly less perfect interpretation, it is not fair to the client the interpreter works for the next day - and to his/her colleagues. Because recovering from excessively strenuous working days takes much longer, and you might still be exhausted from your unprofessional one-man/one-woman show when you walk into the booth the next morning.

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answered 15 Apr '12, 07:37

Angie's gravatar image


How short is short? 45 minutes. That is a reasonable time limit for anyone concentrating on input and output in simultaneous.

Other reasons for having at least two in the booth have already been cited. Perhaps you know the correct semaphore signal to the Chairperson when requesting an interpreter comfort break-related adjournment?

The following excruciating experience was a one-off.

A one person simultaneous booth had been provided by the local member organisation of an international federation, other booths being properly staffed and recruited via federation HQ. The lone interpreter was working bi-actively and notionally covered the entire full day meeting. Their interpretation lasted about an hour, after which local listeners were left to follow the easier English speakers direct, while the interpreter worked from the others. Later in the morning, getting tired, the interpreter switched to interpreting the easier speakers, leaving the local listeners to listen direct to fast, information-dense speakers in a foreign language. The interpreter worked back into another conference language for the few interventions in the local language. For long periods in the afternoon, the booth mike was randomly switched off for anything up to 20 minutes at a time while the local interpreter, sitting in the booth, made and received several lengthy calls on a cellphone, quite possibly fixing up their next solo assignment. For more than 50% of the local rate, I dare say.

It was mortifying that a professional team could in any way be associated with this behaviour and was a salutary reminder to me that there are people out there only too glad to trade on the good name the profession has built up by adherence to decent standards of performance and practice.

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answered 15 Apr '12, 08:54

parthenope's gravatar image


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question asked: 24 Oct '11, 21:50

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