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 Home > Event-related > European SF > FSE-ESF 2006 > Helpful documents for interpreters

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(Date: 8 February 2006)

An ABC for interpreters for the social movements

Simultaneous interpreting

Speech in one language is orally translated into another while the speaker is talking. The interpreter sits in a booth, listens over headphones and speaks intoa microphone. Interpreting is tiring, which is why there are at least two interpreters sitting in the booth who take turns interpreting into the same language.


Interpreters working in the same session form a team. Together they cover all the languages required. In addition to sharing the work with their booth colleagues, interpreters depend on the other interpreters in the team for relay (see Relay). If a speaker uses a language that interpreter X does not have, then she will listen to interpreter Z in another booth who does understand the language and interpret from there into the target language. That means that X’s performance depends on the relay she is getting from Z.

Team coordinator

A team will function better if one of them acts as team coordinator, responsible for good communication within the team, for sorting out problems that crop up, where necessary liasing with the meeting organisor ,central coordinators or speakers during the session, for example in order to obain information and texts (or to return them to speakers at the end of the session) or to draw attention to the interpreters’needs,

Background information, texts and preparation

Information on the theme of the meeting or the content of the speeches/talks etc to be interpreted. This makes a great difference to the interpreter’s ability to do the job, because they provide the relevant context, terminology, definitions etc. No interpreter, however good, is an expert in everything.

If the interpreter is to be able to perform well, organisers and speakers need to cooperate. This means having a definitive programme (containing brief summaries of the themes of the individual workshops and plenaries) ready in good time and a list of speakers for the interpreting coordination. Even then, some last minute changes are inevitable, and interpreters just have to adapt.

It is very important for speakers to get their speeches, abstracts or lists of key words to the interpreters beforehand. 15 minutes before a session starts is better than nothing, but does not allow the interpreters to prepare properly. That is why material should be sent to the interpreting coordination at least two weeks in advance, so that the interpreters responsible can have a copy. Of course, speakers may change their minds about what they want to say and interpreters must expect this, but at least interpreters arrive adequately prepared. It goes without saying that speakers who so wish have copies of texts etc returned to them after the meeting. Speakers should put a note to this effect on any material they make available.


The “dashboard” in the booth with the headset and microphone attached. The main functions are the volume control for the headset and the on/off button for the microphone. All interpreters need to know how to use the relay button ( which lets you listen to the relay or pivot interpreter in another booth), remembering to switch it off when they want to listen to the speaker again, otherwise they will find themselves still listening to another booth and not the floor. Interpreters providing a retour need to know how to use the channel switch button as well.

Channel switch

For interpreters providing a retour (see below). The channel switch button allows an interpreter in one booth to take over the interpreting channel of another booth. It is very important to remember to switch it off when the retour has finished, otherwise the wrong languages go out over the wrong channels, some listeners get silence, and chaos ensues.

Active Language

Language spoken in the meeting and interpreted out of. There may be more active than passive languages (see below) at a meeting. For example, there might be active French, German, English, Greek, Portuguese and Polish, but passive French, German, English and Portuguese. That means that delegates can speak the first six languages, but only listen to interpretation in the last four.

Target languages or passive languages

The target languages is the languages interpreted into, that participants can listen to from the interpretation booths.

A Language

The interpreter’s mother tongue, or a language that has been learnt to the same level. The latter only occurs if the interpreter has grown up in a bicultural and bilingual environment, or has spent several years, at least, living in another language culture. An A language that is not the mother tongue is only classified as such if the interpreter cannot be distinguished, or barely be distinguished, from a native speaker. ( see B Language and C Language).

B Language

A non mother tongue language (see A Language) spoken so well by the interpreter that he can interpret into it with the same assurance as into the mother tongue.

C Language

A language that the interpreter understands very, very well and can interpret from into the mother tongue ( A language) or B language.

Language combination

The interpreter’s language combination consists of all his or her A, B and C languages. It is very important for interpreters to realistically assess their own language skills when classifying them as A, B or C, since organisers depend on this when allocating interpreters to workshops and plenaries.

Linguistic competence

There are different sorts of linguistic competence. Good linguistic competence in the mother tongue and foreign languages are the basic prerequesite, but other language skills play an important role in ensuring a professional performance and guaranteeing quality , as well as a team where interpreters complement and support one another. The most important linguistic competences are cultural, foreign language, mother tongue, communicative and translational.

Mother tongue competence

Total spoken and written fluency as to be expected from someone who has learnt the language as a child and has grown up speaking it as their main language. As multicultural societies expand, the number of individuals growing up in a bi or multicultural environment is increasing, individuals who often have A level fluency in two languages.

Technical linguistic competence

When an interpreter knows is familiar with a particular specialist area , knows the technical vocabulary well and possibly has good technical background knowledge as well.

Translating competence

Interpreters have this, either because they have had professional training, or because they are unusually gifted linguistically. In this case the interpreters have not had formal training, but their particularly high cultural and language skills and sensitivity and /or their genuinely bicultural background mean that they are able to interpret into and out of two languages at a level stylistically and linguistically equivalent to the interpreter who has been professionally trained.

Communicative competence / intercultural communication

Interpreters are translating not just between two languages, but also between two cultures.
Interpreters have communicative competence when they have special social, human or cultural qualities together with a natural creativity and linguistic sensitivity which enables them to convey not only the speaker’s words but also his or her spirit, or the real message that the speaker wants the listeners to get, i.e. to overcome cultural barriers to communication.

At international meetings and conferences there may be many different language combinations present at the same time. More and more frequently, the strict principle that “all interpreters must, at the very least, have all conference languages as a C Language in their combination” (see C Language) no longer applies, and a system of “pivot booth” is used.

For example, interpreters in the German booth cannot interpret out of all the languages spoken in their meeting. If a speaker uses a language they do not understand, say Greek, then they listen into the “pivot” booth, in this case English. That is to say there will always be a relay in the English booth, either because someone sitting in the English booth can interpret direct , or because someone in the relevant language booth, in this case Greek, “takes over “ the English channel and interprets from the language being spoken into English. However it is done, the German interpreter can tune into the pivot English booth and interpret from English into German.

In this language the agreed relay language for all interpreters would be English, to be used whenever a booth cannot interpret directly from the meeting.

Unlike “Chinese whispers”, information is not lost if the relay is provided by a good interpreter aware of his or her particular responsibility. Without a system of relay, no justice can be done to the linguistic diversity of the social movements. Hence the importance of volunteer interpreters accurately assessing what they an do, and the importance of coordinators knowing well in advance what languages are required in a given session.

Relay interpreting

Relay makes it possible for speech to be interpreted where the interpreters cannot do the language directly. Links between the booths mean that interpreters can listen to each other and that “double” interpretation takes place, unbeknownst to the listener. The speaker is interpreted by one interpreter into one of the target languages, interpreters in other booths listen in and interpret this into their respective target languages.

Pivot or relay

If relay is used, the interpreter bridging the linguistic gap for the others is called the pivot or relay interpreter. That means he or she is not just working for the listeners in the meeting room, but also for other interpreters in the team who do not understand the speaker’s language. This means that the work of the pivot interpreter is even more demanding than that of the interpreters who “only” work for the listener in the room, because all communication depends on the pivot at times.

Retour interpreting

Generally speaking, interpreters work into their mother tongue or A language. Sometimes an interpreter works back into a second language from the A language booth when the A language is spoken. It works like this. Say you have a Polish booth (where the interpreters work into Polish) and one of the interpreters can work back from Polish into French. Nobody in the French booth speaks Polish and other booths need a relay out of Polish as well. The Polish participant starts to speak. Obviously there is no need to interpret from Polish into Polish, so the Polish booth would normally be silent. The interpreter with French can press the channel switch button and “take over” the French booth so that his interpretation into French comes out over the French channel. The listener has no idea that the interpreter is not sitting in the French booth and any interpreter who needs to takes the French booth on relay. When the speaker has finished, our Polish interpreter switches off the channel switch, his colleagues can start working into Polish again, and the French colleagues into French.

(made by Babels-Berlin - for fair use only)

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