The Science Behind Simultaneous Interpreting

Interpreting is a tough job. Beyond being bilingual, professional interpreters need strong listening, communication, and interpersonal skills—not to mention a great memory. On top of that, interpreters who work in fields such as legal and medical typically need to complete a specialized certification program to meet state or federal requirements.


Yet one type of interpreting stands above the rest when it comes to difficulty: simultaneous interpreting. Here’s a look at one of the most famous—though least understood—types of interpretation along with the science behind how it works.


What Is Simultaneous Interpreting?


Like the name states, simultaneous interpreting involves translating a speaker’s words as they are talking. This is in contrast to consecutive interpreting, which allows the speaker to finish before the interpreter translates the message into the target language.


Simultaneous interpreting is typically used during conferences and other meetings that include speakers of multiple languages. (Think the iconic image of interpreters in glass booths at the United Nations.) And while many simultaneous interpreters still perform their role onsite, remote simultaneous interpreting options also exist.


Which Skills Do Simultaneous Interpreters Need? 


Unlike consecutive interpreters, simultaneous interpreters have no room for error. They have no time to ask a speaker to clarify what they said or even take notes. That means they must rely heavily on their short-term memory to reproduce the speaker’s message in the target language. (Consecutive interpreters use both their short-term and long-term memories.)


Simultaneous interpreters must also predict what a speaker will say next. They use the context of the meeting to help determine the message and translate it in real-time. This requires a deep understanding of the subject matter, as the interpreter has little time to recall less familiar terminology or phrases.


Simultaneous Interpreting and the Brain


So, how does a simultaneous interpreter’s brain tackle this daunting task? Although neuroscientists have studied language for decades, some mysteries around simultaneous interpreting remain. However, researchers believe that it partially involves a region of the brain called Broca’s area. This region is known for its role in both language production and working memory.


Using an fMRI, researchers at the University of Geneva observed the brains of multilinguals. They tracked when someone: listened to a sentence, listened to and repeated a sentence, and listened to a sentence in one language and interpreted it into another. The researchers found that Broca’s region was equally activated during all three tasks. However, the caudate nucleus, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for learning and decision-making skills, became more engaged during the interpretation task.


Ultimately, neuroscientists believe that no single part of the brain controls interpreting. Networks across multiple regions of the brain likely contribute to this amazing ability.


Given the brain processing power required, simultaneous interpreters typically work in 30-minute shifts to give each other a break. And given just how hard the job is, they definitely earn it!