What You Need to Know About the Types of Interpretation
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What You Need to Know About the Types of Interpretation

On the surface, interpretation seems pretty simple. You listen to someone speaking in one language and relay it to an audience in another language. Like for like, just in different languages. The interpreter is the conduit between the two. They are the one ultimately reflecting the message because interpreting isn’t an exact science; it’s open to…well, interpretation.

Maybe you need interpreting services for a business meeting, a client visit, a court proceeding, training, a presentation, a conference…the list is potentially endless when there are groups of people speaking different languages involved.

The one thing you’ll always need is accuracy, even though the interpreter will not provide an exact rendering of the original spoken content. Remember, all languages have different ways of saying the same thing. A good interpreter will also have a feeling for the setting, how formal their analysis of the spoken word should be and how you prefer to present yourself, so they will tailor their choice of language and grammar accordingly.

However, although there are some similarities, there are many types of interpretation, and different ones should be chosen depending on your situation. Here are the main types and the nuances between them.

Consecutive (liaison) interpretation

This is where an interpreter works with the speaker to set the pace and make sure the interpretation is accurate. After every few sentences, the speaker stops and allows the interpreter to speak. This is usually how interpretation occurs in very controlled environments, such as one-to-one meetings, interviews, small group discussions and court proceedings.

Simultaneous interpretation

In this type of interpretation, speakers can speak at their own relaxed pace, without stopping, and an interpreter interprets in real-time, keeping pace with the speaker with just a few seconds of lag. This is common at conferences or multilingual business meetings at which the interpreters are listening in a booth and interpreting into a microphone. The audience listens to the relevant language through headphones so that the speaker isn’t interrupted. If you’ve ever seen a meeting at the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations in New York, this is a good example of simultaneous interpreting.

Whispered interpretation

This is a form of simultaneous interpreting, with the difference being that whispered interpreting, as you’ve probably guessed, is when the interpreter whispers to their person without the involvement of technology like microphones and headphones. This could take place in a large business meeting, the gallery in a court room or whenever only one person needs to hear a simultaneous interpretation to follow the proceedings.

Over the phone interpretation (OPI)

OPI is consecutive interpretation, but it has an added level of difficulty because the interpreter can’t see the speaker. They cannot read the speaker’s body language or get any other visual cues from them, which typically better inform an interpreter. OPI is commonly used by call centres or medical and legal institutions that need interpretation on an ad-hoc basis that might be difficult to schedule in advance.

Remote simultaneous interpretation

This is exactly the same as simultaneous interpretation, but in an online meeting. The interpreters provide simultaneous interpretation via the online platform and multiple audio lines are simultaneously available, so participants choose which language they want to listen to.

Relay interpretation

This involves multiple interpreters. The first one interprets the speaker’s words from the source language into a pivot language, and a second one interprets from the pivot language into the final target language. This is applicable to both continuous and simultaneous interpreting and is often used at large, multilingual events.

For example, if you had a South African speaker at an international conference who was speaking in Xhosa, this might be first interpreted into English, and then the English is used as the source language by various interpreters as they relay the speech to their audiences in French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and so on.

It’s not one-size-fits-all

When seeking the right interpreter, it’s important to look for one who can not only interpret the spoken language, but who also has an understanding of the subject matter. Knowing the environment you need the interpreter for and having a bit of knowledge about the different types of interpretation will give you a better chance of finding the one who will give you greater accuracy in the interpretation.


For more information, check out our other posts on interpreting: