How does a bilateral interpreting work?

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Many people may understand that conference interpreters work in a sound-proof booth, but in fact, they also work at a business meetings or bilateral meetings.

Conference interpreter Berry Slaughter Olsen explains what it is really like to be a professional interpreter. Barry goes behind the scenes of his vocation, breaking down the many real-life scenarios he faces on a day-to-day basis. From simultaneous and consecutive interpretation to chuchotage (whisper) and decalage, take a peek behind what it really takes to be professional interpreter.

Who are interpreters?

When you think of interpreters, what comes to people’s mind is that those people who are in the sound-proof booth and interpret real time to the government officials below.

Slaughter Olsen said, “But interpreters often do their job in private close-door meetings. This is called “bilateral interpreting”.

If anyone knows about Trump and Putin’s meetings, it is a very real situation that the meeting just has a limited number of people in the room.

“And those people are sworn the secrecy,” added Slaughter Olsen.

What is “bilateral interpreting”?

Most of the times, terms of agreements have been prepared in advance of the meeting.  Agenda has been negotiated in an outline. They can range from arm reduction to economic corporation. There are plenty of plausible topics to get started.

To start, interpreters have to position themselves somewhere in the room. You may think that the interpreters sit in the middle of somewhere that they get to hear well. But in fact, when in front of the press, they don’t want to be the center of the attention or in press photos. So, interpreters have to be somewhere out of the pictures’ frame or anyway in the pictures that can be cropped out.

Bilateral interpreting begins!

So, before the meeting begins, questions might be raised if the meeting can be recorded, if the record can be kept, and who are going to attend.


Simultaneous and consecutive interpretations are used in a bilateral meeting. Consecutive interpretation is a common side in a diplomatic situation. Here is the example scenario:

  • An American diplomat speaks to a Spanish diplomat; then an American-side interpreter does the interpretation from English into Spanish from the Spanish diplomat
  • The interpreter waits until the speaker pauses.
  • Then the Spanish diplomat replies; and then a Spanish-side interpreter does the interpretation from Spanish into English for the American diplomat. Like this, back and forth.

On and on speaking!

Bilateral interpreting is simple, right? And what if the speakers go on and on speaking. Bilateral interpreters translate words for words. Instead, the interpreters remember the specific ideas and translate them accordingly. But when the speakers speak on and on for long time, interpreters rely on notetaking.

“Different interpreters have their own note-taking style. Interpreters usually come up with different symbols before hands. Some interpreters have their one “cheat-sheet”, which

prepares the symbols before coming to the conference venue. And the preparation of symbols beforehand is from what the conference organizer tells the interpreters and related documents given prior to the conference,” added Slaughter Olsen.

“Chuchotage” simultaneous interpretation  

Simultaneous interpretation is usually used with earpieces and microphone, and the interpreters are working in a sound-proof booth. But simultaneous interpretation for bilateral meetings are different. The interpreters sit side by side with their speakers and they employ what they call it “Chuchotage”, which means “whispering” in French. This is not an ideal. Whispering for a long time is bad for vocal cord. It can be difficult to hear due to the ambient noises around like ventilation noise in the room.


With simultaneous interpretation, interpreters are trying to maintain an optimal distance to the original speakers. It refers to “decalage” or “ear-voice span”, or it is called E.V.S. When one diplomat starts speaking, the interpreter who employs Chuchotage will probably start at 2 – 4 seconds right after the speaker starts. Even the speaker speaks 100-120 words per minute, research says that is also the optimal speech for interpreting. It can be the fact that if the interpreter starts his or

her translation beyond the E.V.S point, he or she can screw up in term of short-term memory, which results in forgetting and skipping many words. But if he or she pitches too close to the E.V.S. point, he or she may screw up things like grammar, syntax, and style.

Fatigue and burn out    

Of course, after 30 minutes, interpreters can feel fatigue and burnt out, which can occur after straight 30-minute interpreting. This is why simultaneous interpreters often switch out in around 30 minutes are less. If pushed to the limit, interpreters can really suffer.

Slaughter Olsen said, “You may recall in 2009 incident in which Muamar Gaddafi’s interpreter collapsed at the UN after the simultaneous interpreting for over 75 minutes.”

When conversations turn emotional during bilateral meetings

What will happen when the conversations turn emotional during the bilateral meetings? Or the speaker becomes rude. Interpreters are not meant to be a mediator.

Slaughter Olsen said, “Our only job is to stay true to the message of the speaker. If someone is angry and rude, if threats are made, we are supposed to interpret those threats

faithfully. Although the speaker may become emotional and gesticulate, the interpreter is not going to pair the ways of the speaker.”

Deal with tensions

When the situation is quite intense, may be joke will help lighten the mood. But jokes are the difficult things to interpret because you can get lost in translation.

 Slaughter Olsen said, “Sometimes it can be untranslatable pun. Attempt of humor are often lost. There is not much the interpreter can do. There is anecdote about an interpreter who faces untranslatable jokes imply said “The speaker has shared a joke. It is untranslatable.  Please laugh now.””

Bilateral job is tough. There are many things to do. The interpreter needs to interpret well and accurately. And this job is important because it makes communications possible between the countries and between people.


Barry Slaughter Olsen is the professor of translation and interpretation at Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

  • The techniques employed in these scenarios are not all applicable to interpreting in a courtroom setting, where expectations regarding accuracy and completeness can be quite different. In this sense, legal interpreting is unique.

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