The Science Behind Simultaneous Interpreting

Interpreting is a difficult profession. Professional interpreters must have strong listening, communication, and interpersonal skills, as well as a good memory. Furthermore, interpreters working in professions such as legal and medical must often undergo a specific certification program in order to fulfill state or federal criteria.

However, one sort of interpreting is more challenging than the others: simultaneous interpretation. Here’s a look at one of the most well-known—but least understood—types of interpretation, as well as the science underlying it.

What Does Simultaneous Interpretation Mean?

Simultaneous interpretation, as the name implies, is translating a speaker’s words as they speak. In contrast to sequential interpreting, which enables the speaker to complete before the interpreter translates the message into the target language, simultaneous interpreting allows the speaker to finish before the interpreter translates the message into the target language.

Simultaneous interpreting is commonly used at conferences and other events when speakers of various languages are present. (Think of the classic image of United Nations interpreters in glass booths.) While many simultaneous interpreters still work on-site, there are other opportunities for remote simultaneous interpreting.

Which Skills Do Simultaneous Interpreters Need? 

Simultaneous interpreters, unlike consecutive interpreters, have no margin for error. They don’t have time to ask a speaker to clarify their remarks or even take notes. To recreate the speaker’s message in the target language, students must depend largely on their short-term memory. (Consecutive interpreters employ both short- and long-term memory.)

Simultaneous interpreters listen in anticipation to what the following speaker will say. They utilize the meeting context to determine the message and translate it in real time. Because the interpreter has limited time to recollect less known vocabulary or phrases, a thorough comprehension of the subject is required.

Simultaneous Interpreting and the Brain

So, how does the mind of a simultaneous interpreter approach this difficult task? Despite the fact that neuroscientists have been studying language for decades, numerous questions surrounding simultaneous interpretation persist. Researchers believe it is partly due to a region of the brain known as Broca’s area. This area is well-known for its function in language creation as well as working memory.

The brains of multilinguals were studied using an fMRI by researchers at the University of Geneva. They recorded when someone listened to a sentence, repeated a sentence, or listened to a sentence in one language and translated it into another. The researchers discovered that Broca’s area was active similarly for all three activities. During the interpretation test, however, the caudate nucleus, the portion of the brain responsible for learning and decision-making skills, became more active.

Finally, neuroscientists think that interpretation is controlled by no single portion of the brain. This incredible talent is most likely the result of networks spanning several areas of the brain.

Given the needed brain processing power, simultaneous interpreters usually work in 30-minute shifts to give each other a rest. And given how difficult the work is, they certainly deserve it!