Why Two Interpreters Are better Than One – And A Team Is Even Better
You’re planning your firm’s annual migration for a global summit taking place in Brussels. While one of your colleagues spent a summer in Provence in college, and a few others took French in high school, you’re well aware that you need a professional interpreter to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Awesome! You’ll get your assistant right on it.
Think you only need one interpreter? Think again!
You may be surprised when you receive your quote from a professional interpreter firm for not just one, but two or even a team of interpreters. What gives?
Interpreter fatigue, that’s what.
The science behind interpreter fatigue
Imagine if you are sitting in a room filled with people who do not speak the same language. You are able to fluently communicate in both languages. The presenter begins talking and you have to instantly interpret his words in real-time to the audience. There is no break, there aren’t a lot of pauses – it’s just you, communicating the speaker’s words and nuances to the room. Then, you may have to switch gears and do it in the other direction, to facilitate audience questions to the speaker – and so it goes. Back and forth. You have to listen to the speaker, understand them, analyze their speech, orally translate what they are saying, check what you are saying yourself – all at the same time… and while keeping your cool!
This process is called simultaneous interpreting and it coordinating many processes at once. It may be familiar if you’ve ever watched the United Nation’s summits on television: interpreters with a headset and a microphone, in a soundproof booth, which is essentially a closet-sized-box, located in the back or above the room
In a professional setting – such as a conference or training session – this type of interpretation can go on for hours, or days. The subject matter can be quite complicated, emotionally complex – or even disturbing – depending on the environment and field.
Since interpreters are human, this continuous stream of words, energy and emotion – all of which must be mentally processed and regurgitated at an incredibly rapid pace – is exhausting. It causes interpreter fatigue and burn-out, which in turn causes the quality and accuracy of the interpretation to suffer if you haven’t built-in some relief and support.
Understanding interpreter fatigue and its remedies
If you want to learn more about interpreter fatigue in detail, we recommend reading a famous study done by researchers in Geneva (the location of one of the largest UN offices) evaluating at what point stress begins to affect the accuracy of simultaneous interpretation.
The study provides “evidence for the negative effects prolonged turns (those lasting longer than 30 minutes) have on the quality of an interpreter’s output and on his attitude towards the task. It is especially noteworthy that while on task interpreters do not seem to be sufficiently aware of the decline in quality that occurs in the course of prolonged turns so as to quit when given the opportunity to do so.”
In other words, after 30 minutes of simultaneous interpretation at normal speaking speed (roughly 100–130 words per minute), interpreters become mentally fatigued. At this point, their interpretations become less accurate or they may unknowingly miss or leave out certain key points or nuances, and unfortunately, the brain does not have the ability to perceive that the drop in the quality of the interpretation.
As a result, professional simultaneous conference interpreters always work in a team, especially in situations that will require long sessions, or in scenarios where the subject matter is technical.
Consider this: Even the United States Federal Courts recognize the need to protect interpreters – and their court proceedings – from interpreter fatigue.
Chapter 3(VII)(C) of the United States Federal Court Interpreter Orientation Manual and Glossary states:
The number of interpreters may vary according to the type of proceeding and the number of defendants that require interpreter services. To mitigate the effects of interpreter fatigue, proceedings estimated to exceed four hours are often covered by two interpreters through a team, or tandem interpreting. The passive interpreter should remain seated in close proximity to the active interpreter and refrain from leaving the courtroom…”
In this instance, the U.S. government recommends mitigating interpreter fatigue by providing professional relief at the four-hour mark – significantly longer than research and interpretation experts recommend.
In most cases, federal courts use teams that alternate off and on, providing ample time for each interpreter to rest and clear their mind until their next turn. This keeps the interpretations as accurate and unencumbered by errors as possible. Businesses and industries should strive to do the same.
A team of interpreters is a must!
If you want to preserve the integrity of your message – if you truly care about what it is your foreign client is trying to communicate and want value for your money by ensuring the quality of the interpretation and therefore of your message, it is crucial to use a team of interpreters. It’s not a recommendation: it’s a must.
Here at CCA, we are conscientious of our clients’ budgetary concerns, so we never recommend more than is necessary. That said, our firm’s reputation relies on the quality of the work our translators and interpreters provide. Therefore, please don’t be surprised if we quote our services with a team of two or even three interpreters. Feel free to contact CCA to learn more about interpreter teams, and how they can protect the integrity of your next international engagement.