simultaneous and consecutive interpreting

Frog talking to turtle

Turtles sit-in (rom. sezatoare)

An amateur’s perspective on the choice between simultaneous and consecutive interpreting

A few years ago I made an unexpected discovery in the context of my professional practice as an interpreter; I am not sure whether you are familiar with the distinction I made above, but basically it means the distinction between

  1. talking over the original utterance (usually through microphone, headsets etc. or by whispering near the target audience) and
  2. talking after the speaker is done presenting their argument (this is where you need to take good notes, although you get the benefit of more time to structure your rendering).

In my professional practice, I do both (Japanese-English) and for a long time I didn’t quite understand why I prefer simultaneous over consecutive in some contexts but not in others. After recording some interpreting sessions, it became apparent to me that

the more fluent the speaker is and the more structured their argument,

  1. the harder it is to ‘find the time’ to keep up using simultaneous interpreting &
  2. the easier it is to do consecutive interpreting because of better recall (and better notes, and better links between arguments etc.).

On the other hand,

the poorer the speaker and the more loose their argument,

  1. the easier it is to ‘find time’ to insert (nearly) simultaneous renderings in between the lines &
  2. the harder it is to do consecutive because of partial, disjointed recall (and worse notes, and no apparent links between arguments etc.).

I also experienced a thrill at (re)discovering power relations anchored to speaking time intervals: Those who we consider eligible to talk at length are usually higher placed in the social hierarchy: the politician in the forum, the lecturer in the auditorium, the teacher in the classroom, the husband at home (unfortunately still true in many countries).

On the other hand, whenever someone lower or on the same rung on the social hierarchy breaks the convention, we feel they’re ‘abusing our time’: The cab driver with the conspiracy theory, the work mate we asked ‘how are you?’ and he responded like it was a book, the child elaborating on every little detail of his day in school.

So the question is:

how much time do we give ourselves, and how much time do we allow others?

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