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Back to the Basics: Nimdzi Answers Key FAQs about Interpreting

Article by Rosemary Hynes

You can find a lot of information about interpreting on Nimdzi’s website – from the latest investments in interpreting technology to interpreter certifications to vicarious trauma and acoustic shock – but we thought it was time to go back to the basics. So, we’ve put together the following FAQ aimed at shattering common myths and filling in blanks around core interpreting concepts you may have heard about but don’t quite fully understand.

What is the difference between a translator and an interpreter?

I’m sure you’ve heard it, “the translator speaking at our conference” or “I used a translator to communicate with the patient”...FALSE! You should actually be referring to an interpreter. 

Whereas these terms may seem interchangeable, there is actually a huge difference between the work of each. Both do in fact work closely with languages and both transpose meaning from one language to another BUT the way they work is fundamentally different.

Translators work exclusively with the written word, which means they work with documents, books, and other texts that they translate from one language into another. For example, the French translator Jean-François Ménard is best known for translating the Harry Potter books into French. Translators, therefore, have to be writers and experts of the written word. They translate nearly exclusively into their mother tongue because translation requires an in-depth knowledge of the subtleties of grammar, style, and turn-of-phrase in that language.

Interpreters, on the other hand, work with the spoken word. Interpreters interpret the message from one language into another. Their job is to facilitate communication between two or more people who don't have a language in common. They work, for example, in courts, in medical settings, and at conferences. The European Union is the largest employer of interpreters in the world thanks to its highly multilingual environment. Interpreters have to be able to process information quickly, filter out the main message, and then find a way to convey the same message in another language within seconds. They also have to be good public speakers and good researchers, so they can become experts in the topic of their assignment.

What are A, B, and C languages?

 Interpreters refer to their language combination which is made up of A, B, and C languages.

  • ‘A’ language is the interpreter’s mother tongue (or primary language) into which they work from all their other working languages. Typically an interpreter only has one ‘A’ language, but exceptionally some may have two. 
  • ‘B’ language is a language in which the interpreter is perfectly fluent, but which is not a mother tongue. An interpreter can work into this language from their ‘A’ language. Because it takes so long to fully achieve an interpreter’s level of mastery in a foreign language, interpreters typically only have one ‘B’ language. 
  • ‘C’ language is one which the interpreter understands perfectly but into which they do not work. They will interpret from their ‘C’ language(s) into their active languages. Because it is far easier to learn a language to the point of understanding everything but not speaking it, interpreters often have several ‘C’ languages. In fact, some EU interpreters have more than five ‘C’ languages!

Source: AIIC, https://aiic.org/site/world/conference/glossary

What is the difference between simultaneous interpreting and consecutive interpreting?

The difference might be intuitive, but let’s dig in to be doubly sure!


Consecutive interpreting and simultaneous interpreting are the most common modes of interpreting.

Consecutive interpreting is when the speaker utters their message in one language while the interpreter takes notes and then the interpreter delivers the speaker’s message in the target language. This mode can be used for a speech that lasts a maximum of five to six minutes. Consecutive interpreting is frequently seen in conversations between two people for example between a doctor and a patient or when one person wishes to deliver a short speech to a group of people. This type of interpreting can be done with the interpreter present in-person, but also remotely using over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) or video remote interpreting (VRI).

Simultaneous interpreting is when the interpreter interprets the speaker's message from one language to another with only a few seconds lag. This way the listeners can hear the interpreted speech at almost the same time as the original. Simultaneous interpreters only work for twenty to thirty minutes on their own before handing over to a colleague since this kind of work is so mentally taxing. It is typically used at larger conferences where a message has to be transmitted to many listeners without the delay of consecutive interpreting. The interpreters can either be in-person at the meeting venue, where they sit in soundproof booths, or they can be present online using remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) platforms. In both cases, they need a special technical setup so that they can hear the original audio and deliver the interpretation at the same time. 

What is OPI, VRI, and RSI?

You may have seen that we bolded these acronyms in the previous section. These acronyms all refer to technological solutions for the different modes of interpreting. They fall under the catchall term virtual interpreting technology (VIT) – yes, another acronym!

You can find out more about each of these solutions in a Nimdzi article on this exact topic here. Below, you will find a summary of these different VIT solutions.

OPIVRIRSI
Main featuresAudio onlyConsecutiveAudio + videoConsecutiveAudio for listenersAudio + video for interpretersSimultaneous
How is it done?Landline or smartphoneDual handset phoneCall via online platformOnline platformMobile appSpecial portable tablets in hospitalsOnline platformMobile appBrowser extensionBrowser link
Who is it for?Emergency services, hospitals, police stationsConference calls for businessesCall centersHospitalsConference calls for businessesIndividual travelersOnsite conferencesWeb conferencingWebinarsBusiness meetings

I’ve heard about machine translation but what is machine interpreting?

Machine interpreting,or MI, is when speech in one language is automatically converted into speech in another language using technology. Instead of appearing as captions, the target-language speech is spoken by a synthetic voice. Solutions like these currently use a mix of speech recognition, machine translation, and text-to-speech technology. Machine interpreting can be used on handheld devices, earbuds, or even smartphones. It is most commonly used in the tourism industry to help facilitate communication for everyday events. However, a few companies have brought out solutions that target clients from the business sector. The image below taken from the Nimdzi Language Technology Atlas 2022 shows the different MI solutions on the market.

Interpreting-FAQs-machine-interpreting-tools

This article has been written by Nimdzi's Interpreting Researcher, Rosemary Hynes. If you wish to learn about the latest trends in the world of interpreting and interpreting technology, reach out to Rosemary at [email protected].

22 August 2022

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