Conference interpreting explained

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What is Conference Interpreting/Interpretation?

Conference interpreting is the interpretation of a conference, either simultaneously or consecutively.

Conference interpretation is usually divided between two markets: the institutional and the private. International institutions (EU, UN, EPO, et cetera), holding multi-lingual meetings, often favour interpreting several foreign languages into the interpreters’ mother tongues. Local private markets tend to hold bi-lingual meetings (the local language plus another) and the interpreters work both into and out of their mother tongues; the markets are not mutually exclusive.

The Conference Interpreter’s Point of View

Mr Fahr and Mr Macri are interpreters for UN meetings.

“The rule of thumb is we interpret for half an hour simultaneously,” said Mr Macri in a recent interview with the BBC.

“After that your concentration starts to wane…so we interpret for half an hour and then we take half-an-hour break.”

Often as many as 100 interpreters will be required at events like the UN General Assembly, communicating between delegates from 192 countries. Often these interpreters work on a freelance basis, and are booked by the UN through a specialist interpreting services agency.

According to Mr Fahr, the question he is most often asked by his non-interpreter friends is how can someone listen to a complex argument in one language, process it, and then interpret it in another language in time to understand the speaker’s next argument.

“I always tell them it takes a little bit of neurosis,” he said in the interview. “They have to be addicted to their own adrenaline.”

If a speaker becomes passionate the interpretation should also always reflect that passion and remain faithful to the speaker. In this sense, being a conference interpreter is part acting – and interpreters seem to have the same adrenaline rush during a big conference as an actor does on the big stage.

It is also important for interpreters to be up to date on current global events. They also need to prepare glossaries and read up on UN documents, so that they are prepared for technical matters covering a wide range of topics.


For more information on organising conference interpreting for an event see TJC Oxford’s 10-Step Multi-Lingual Conference Walkthrough.

We can offer translation and interpreting services at any time of the year, in many locations: London, England, UK (Scotland, Ireland, Wales), Europe, USA, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and other global locations. Please contact us for more information. For Japanese interpreting and translation services, please visit our sister site.

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