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Many conferences and meetings are attended by people who do not necessarily speak the same language or are comfortable understanding everything that is being said in another language.

This is where professional interpreters are useful, indeed indispensable in allowing free discourse during the course of the conference or meeting. Conference interpreters may be freelance, or work for conference interpretation services. Whatever the individual background of the conference or meeting interpreter is, the important thing is that they can provide fast, accurate interpreting services that allow all attendees to effectively communicate.

The role of a conference interpreter

The role of a conference interpreter or meeting interpreter is to convert speeches or comments made during the conference or meeting into the appropriate language used by other attendees. There may be a single interpreter in the event that only one other language is important, or there may be multiple languages, necessitating a number of interpreters, one for each language pair. Important international conferences and meetings like those that occur in the United Nations, or any of its sub-committees, may see dozens or more professional conference interpreters being employed to fulfill the requirements of effective communication. On the other hand, in a courtroom where witnesses being interviewed by the court speak only one other language other than the official language (e.g. Spanish in a U.S. court) only one interpreter may be sufficient.

Different conference interpreting modes

While the role of a conference interpreter changes little from one type of conference or meeting to another, the way the interpreting is actually carried out varies due to differences in the number of speakers, the numbers of languages used, and the time allowed for interpreting to take place. The larger the conference and the greater the number of languages used, the more sophisticated the technology used to satisfy the need for effective interpreting and communication for all.

There are three main modes of interpreting used and professional conference or meeting interpreters may tend to specialize in one or another of these modes. The three modes are:

  • simultaneous interpreting;
  • consecutive interpreting; and
  • relay interpreting.

Simultaneous interpreting

This type of interpreting is used principally in situations where large numbers of speakers are present, speaking and understanding multiple languages. The U.N. is a good example of this. Simultaneous interpreting involves interpreters giving their interpretation of an individual speaker as the speaker is actually speaking. This is often done remotely so that the interpreter may be located in a special room where the conference can be watched and a microphone and speakers are used by interpreters and conference attendees. For example, a Swedish interpreter may interpret a speaker talking in German to Swedish attendees in a meeting of the European Parliament.

Consecutive interpreting

This is where more time is allowed for both the conference or meeting participants and interpreters. One person says something or makes a comment and the interpreter then repeats what has been said in the required language equivalent. When meetings take place between political leaders who are not familiar with each other’s languages, consecutive interpreting is the norm. For example, say an American politician meets his or her Japanese counterpart; this is when this mode of interpreting will take place.

Relay interpreting

Relay interpreting is used when there is no direct way a language can be converted into another. One interpreter first converts the spoken words into an intermediary or common language. This is then converted into another language by another interpreter.


Whatever the type of conference or meeting, it is important for the organizers to employ professional conference interpreters who have experience in the required mode of interpreting services.