Simultaneous Vs Consecutive interpretation - Why are they so different?

1st Feb 2013

An interpreter is a mediator for people who are dealing with language barriers. They convert a thought or expression in a source language into an expression with a comparable meaning in a target language. The interpreter's function is to convey every semantic element (tone and register) and every intention and feeling of the message that the source-language speaker is directing to target-language recipients.

Interpreting services can be delivered in multiple modes but the two main ones are consecutive and simultaneous interpretation.  Let’s look at the two modes more closely!


The first introduction and employment of simultaneous interpretation was the Nuremberg Trials which were series of military tribunals held by the Allied forces of World War II in 1945-46.  Then in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, United Nations officials introduced simultaneous interpretation as a preferred method for the majority of UN meetings because it saved time and improved the quality of the output. 

In Simultaneous Interpretation (SI), the participants wear headphones, and the interpreter renders the speaker's words into the target language as quickly as he or she can formulate it from the source language, while the source-language speaker continuously speaks; an oral-language SI interpreter, sitting in a sound-proof booth, speaks into a microphone, while clearly seeing and hearing the source-language speaker via earphones. The simultaneous interpretation is rendered to the target-language listeners via their earphones.

Simultaneous interpretation is normally for congresses or conferences and it’s very intense. 


In Consecutive Interpreting (CI), the interpreter speaks after the source-language speaker has finished speaking. The speech is divided into segments, and the interpreter sits or stands beside the source-language speaker, listening and taking notes as the speaker progresses through the message. When the speaker pauses or finishes speaking, the interpreter then renders a portion of the message or the entire message in the target language.  Consecutively interpreted speeches, or segments of them, tend to be short. Fifty years ago, the CI interpreter would render speeches of 20 or 30 minutes; today, 10 or 15 minutes is considered too long.  Sometimes, however, depending upon the setting or subject matter, and upon the interpreter's capacity to memorize, the interpreter may ask the speaker to pause after each sentence or after each clause. Sentence-by-sentence interpreting requires less memorization and therefore lower likelihood for omissions,

Consecutive interpretation is frequently used in medical interpreting to communicate between patients and clinicians.

Simultaneous Vs Consecutive

In deciding whether to use the consecutive or the simultaneous mode of interpreting, interpreters and the users of interpreter services must recognize the impact of these modes.  Consecutive interpreters have more control over the situation: They can clarify ambiguities, ask for repetitions, or determine the meaning of problem terms.  Consecutive interpreting is still taught in most schools of conference interpreting and is considered a stepping stone to learning proper techniques for simultaneous interpreting.

 Simultaneous interpreting saves time.  For example in courts it saves valuable court time. As soon as counsel finishes asking a question, the witness’s answer is forthcoming. It is more accurate than relying on the interpreter retaining long passages of oftentimes disjointed information, as is needed for consecutive interpreting. This method makes it unnecessary for the interpreter to request that a question be repeated. Everyone wearing a headset can hear the witness’s answer clearly, in spite of sometimes unfavourable courtroom acoustics. Interpreter fatigue is kept at a minimum, as the tension of trying to accurately retain long passages is reduced. The result is higher-quality interpretation.

In conclusion, scholars and professional interpreters generally agree that consecutive interpreting is preferable when absolute precision is required, but in today’s fast-paced world it is often regarded as a fine art, a luxury that may have to be dispensed with when time is of the essence.

Pearl Linguistics can provide both consecutive and simultaneous interpreters.  Please choose the mode of interpreting you require and contact us today!

Afshan Deen, Head of Interpreting Department


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