Why is conference interpreting a different skill set?

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What is a conference interpreter?

We could try our best to give you a succinct, scripted one-line response that explains exactly what conference interpreters do, where they work, how rigorous the training is, and that no, your son who spent the summer in Italy isn’t ready to be an interpreter. In the end, we could resign ourselves to a simpler explanation: you know that movie The Interpreter, with Nicole Kidman? Yeah. It’s like that.

It is not surprising that event managers/organisers often don’t know what conference interpreting is and why it is different, after all, it is a very specific category of interpreting and a skill of its own. A conference interpreter sets himself apart through a specific skill set that allows him to convey a speaker’s message to an audience (sometimes large). The best conference interpreters are members of AIIC (International Association of Conference Interpreters).

In what context do you need a conference interpreter?

Conference interpreters are needed for international meetings, summits or conferences when there is a need to convey the speaker’s message to an international audience. In many cases, you will also need specific equipment including an interpreting booth and headsets for attendees.

conference interpreter

What skills set you apart as a conference interpreter?

Simultaneous interpreting

In a soundproof booth with a direct view of the conference room, the interpreter listens to a speaker through headphones and simultaneously transmits the message in another language through a microphone to listeners in the room. This type of interpreting requires very high language and speaking skills as you need to translate and convey the speech very quickly.

Simultaneous interpreting is the most common interpreting type for conferences although sometimes you will see the use of whispered interpreting or consecutive interpreting. In the video below, our CEO explains the differences:


To ensure optimal accuracy of interpreting, the interpreter needs to prepare by studying materials of the event he is going to participate in, such as the guest list, the subject of the conference, the context and of course specific terminology.

Conference interpreters also learn how to prepare by not being prepared. They know how to work with as little as speakers’ names, or the name of an event, and gather a ton of information quickly that would help them prepare. Because they work at live events, they also scout out materials at the event itself when none has been provided ahead of time.

Collaborative approach

Because simultaneous interpreting is extremely demanding, conference interpreters usually work in teams of 2 per language and take turns to ensure high-quality interpretation for the duration of the speech. While one interpreter is working, the other one is usually preparing resources, writing down numbers and names, looking up acronyms and keywords, identifying terminology to help his colleague and preparing for his turn.

Cross cultural

Working under pressure

As they are interpreting simultaneously for a potentially large audience, conference interpreters are used to working under pressure and often face challenges such as a last minute change in the speech, being handed that same speech only 5 minutes before going in the booth, technical issues, coping with lightning fast speakers, having a speaker speaking another language than the one expected, dealing with obscure quotes & references, etc…

The conference interpreter is a specialist in crisis management with his ability to adapt to unplanned situations.

The growing role of technology

Most of the technological advancements in the interpreting industry have been leaning towards remote service delivery. Remote interpreting services can prove to be useful in setups such as conference interpreting. But it is still hard to service. On-site conference interpreters are still the gold standard and many remote conference interpreting proposals are still rejected as the risk is too high depending on the calibre of the conference.

remote interpreting

Find out more on interpreting technology in our blog:  Remote interpreting, when the distance is no longer a barrier

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