Author: Isabelle Perez


Interpreting can be taught both as a language exercise and with professional training in mind. This article reviews the modes and types of interpreting, as well as of the institutions and organisations providing interpreting courses.

Table of contents

1. Modes and types of interpreting

In order to define interpreting in general, it is useful to relate it to another activity with which it is often confused, i.e. translation. The two activities are similar in that they both involve the understanding of the source language and of the underlying meaning, but they are different in terms of the process used to transfer and deliver the message in the target language. In most cases, translation involves written texts and therefore the translator has the opportunity of revising and improving the previous version of the translation. Unlike translators, interpreters have to deal with fleeting messages which they have to convey orally under time constraints, with very little room for error repair or stylistic improvement.

As far as types of interpreting are concerned, the main distinction is made between conference interpreting and liaison interpreting.

Conference interpreting. Most people would have some understanding of what is meant by conference interpreting. There are two sub-types within this category, based on the interpreting mode used by the interpreter: simultaneous, which occurs virtually at the same time as the original discourse, and consecutive, which, as its names suggests, follows a segment of speech varying in length from one short statement to an entire speech:

  • simultaneous interpreting is the most common form used for multilingual meetings and involves all floor contributions being relayed by microphone to the team of interpreters who are located in soundproof booths within the meeting room and transmit the interpretation (usually in their mother tongue) back to the delegates through receivers by headsets.
  • consecutive interpreting, on the other hand, is most often used for single speeches and requires the interpreter to take notes before giving the interpretation at appropriate intervals or at the end of the speech.

Liaison interpreting (LI). This is less well known, and the situation is complicated further by the fact that it may also be called community, ad hoc, cultural, dialogue, bilateral interpreting and even consecutive interpreting (by reference to the mode of interpreting used rather than to the type of settings in which it takes place) Roberts (1997:7-26) provides a complete review of these terms. Yet it is probably the most common form of interpreting activity today, given that it takes place in varied settings in which the interpreter - working between two languages - is usually physically present, mediates between two or more individuals who do not speak each other's language and usually uses the consecutive mode of interpreting. Examples of the settings in which LI is used include various general professional environments such as business and diplomatic meetings, sight-seeing tours and education or cultural contacts, as well as many situations in which people who are not fluent speakers of the official language(s) of the country where they reside have to communicate with the providers of public services, i.e. in legal, health, education, government and social services settings.

Interpreting in these contexts is specifically referred to as Community Interpreting or is known as Public Service Interpreting (PSI) in the UK. It is appropriate to mention two variants in the area of PSI: telephone interpreting, which is increasingly used by ambulance and other emergency services, and whispering interpreting or 'chuchotage' - in other words interpreting in the simultaneous mode but without equipment - which might be used occasionally as an alternative to consecutive interpreting, for example at certain stages in court or during police interviews. Indeed, whispering is also quite commonly used in many other settings where full simultaneous interpreting is impracticable.

2. Courses in higher education

Interpreting as a transferable skill

A handful of universities in the UK (see web links below) offer undergraduate languages degree courses which usually combine translation and interpreting studies. It should be noted that in many cases, the degree courses in question are not explicitly aimed at training fully-fledged interpreters and that the practice of interpreting is seen primarily as a means of language learning. In keeping with the shift of emphasis in favour of more communicative and task-orientated language learning, interpreting tasks have, in some cases, come to replace or complement the standard (open ended) final oral examination. Students on such degree courses are trained as linguists with transferable vocational skills and are, therefore, able to adapt to the varied demands of specific sectors of the job market. In such a context, interpreting is used for the dual purpose of language and skills acquisition. Some of the transferable skills more specifically fostered by interpreting courses include personal development and self-management skills (e.g. multi-tasking, reflective/critical thought, development of self-confidence), analytical skills (e.g. understanding and analysing, perceiving structures, problem solving, extracting key information), and oral communication skills (e.g. public speaking fostered through classes where students develop short-term memory skills, the technique of note-taking, and the ability to produce coherent speech using the appropriate register).

In addition, LI in business settings, for example, clearly fits in well with the overall objectives of joint degree courses since it combines both halves of the degree course, namely subject specific topics and language, in a single activity, and it is also realistic in terms of the professional prospects of the students concerned. Indeed, it is not unusual for graduates to report that they are called upon by their employers to act as liaison interpreters and that the grounding acquired through their university course has given them the basic techniques to perform adequately. It therefore seems appropriate, at least to some extent, to correlate course objectives and assessment criteria used in Higher Education Institutions with the skills required to practise LI as a professional activity. The activity is relevant not only in relation to the outside world and the job market in particular, but also for those who practise it, i.e. the students themselves. Although many students find the activity quite stressful, they also report that they can derive a considerable sense of achievement from the exercise, precisely because it forces them to 'think quickly', analyse ideas and come up with appropriate and relevant forms of expression in the target languages. In other words, given the right progression through the course coupled with effective feedback mechanisms, they find the LI activity very motivating, and motivation undoubtedly plays an important part in the learning process.

Professional training

Professional training in conference interpreting is offered at a small number of UK universities such as Heriot-Watt, Bath, Bradford and Leeds through one-year postgraduate degree courses which combine translation and interpreting studies. The exception to this model is the course offered at Westminster which focuses on interpreting techniques only. In that sense, this is closer to the continental model where translation studies constitute the first stage at undergraduate level beyond which students can sit a competitive examination in order to proceed to a training course in conference interpreting. This is certainly the case in a number of institutions in France (ESIT), in Ireland (Dublin City University), in Germany (Germersheim, Heidelberg, Saarbrucken), and in Switzerland (ETI, University of Geneva) - see web links below. All course programmes in the UK include the study of relevant theoretical issues and give the students whose overall performance allows them to proceed beyond the Diploma stage the opportunity to conduct more in-depth research for the purpose of writing a dissertation.

PSI training

As previously mentioned, many undergraduate and postgraduate students enrolled in modern languages or translation/interpreting degree courses in UK universities follow LI modules, but usually in settings which are in line with their language and background studies, such as political or business negotiations. PSI training on the other hand appears to have been the remit of Further Education colleges and the only professional qualification following completion of a special training programme is the DPSI - Diploma in Public Service Interpreting - run by the Institute of Linguists. This is not the case, however, for students studying interpreting between British Sign language (BSL) and English; these students who study mainly - though not exclusively - to work in public sector settings follow courses at university level: Heriot-Watt, Bristol, Wolverhampton, Central Lancashire and, shortly, London. This is also the pattern in many other European countries, e.g. Germany, Sweden and Finland.

3. The role of employers

In principle, the main employers of interpreters, including EU institutions such as the Interpreting Directorate of the European Parliament and the Joint Interpreting and Conference Service of the European Commission, do not provide basic training in conference interpreting. However, a limited number of traineeships and insertion programmes or grants are available to young interpreters who have graduated from accredited institutions (e.g. members of the Conférence Internationale d'Instituts Universitaires de Traducteurs et d'Interprètes - CIUTI - or training members of the International Association of Conference Interpreters - AIIC), and who have successfully passed entrance tests. Of course, other organisations, such as the United Nations, Immigration Services or even commercial agencies provide in-house training and monitoring. In addition, continuing professional development courses are offered by a number of training providers - such as Heriot-Watt - as open courses for individuals or designed specifically for the needs of organisations.

4. Concluding observations

It is difficult to ascertain what proportion of those students who follow Interpreting courses will actively pursue careers as interpreters rather than as translators or something quite different. It is equally difficult to obtain figures from the European institutions since they no longer train interpreters directly: the European Commission, for example, has delegated the training of interpreters to a number of specialised schools and universities. What is clear, however, and has recently been highlighted by the main employers of interpreters (the EU, UN, etc.) is that they anticipate a drastic shortage of interpreters in years to come, in particular of English mother tongue interpreters.

Until recently, the practice of training interpreters has been largely underpinned by common sense, intuition and studies of a speculative nature. More systematic and scientific research carried out, broadly speaking, in the last two decades is beginning to feed back into training courses and into training for interpreter trainers' programmes (such as the one run by ETI/Geneva). Liaison Interpreting constitutes an even newer area of research but it is gaining momentum - against a background of growing political interest in the UK in the whole area of social inclusion/equality of access to public services, in particular in connection with the arrival of asylum seekers. The face-to-face setting which is a specific feature of LI has implications in terms of the interpreter's role in the exchange (i.e. to what extent s/he is 'visible'). This particular debate centres around issues which have possible implications in terms of interpreter training, in particular in relation to ethical obligations which weigh upon the public service interpreter.


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Related links

Heriot Watt University School of Management and Languages

University of Salford School of Languages

University of Bath European Studies and Modern Languages Programmes

University of Bradford School of Social and International Studies

University of Westminster

University of Leeds School of Modern Languages and Cultures

University of Sheffield School of Modern Languages and Linguistics

Dublin City University School of Applied Languages and Intercultural Studies Postgraduate Degree Programmes

Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris III École Supérieure d'Interprètes et de Traducteurs

Université de Genève École de Traduction et d'Interprétation

Institute of Linguists

Institute of Translation and Interpreting

Conférence Internationale d'Instituts Universitaires de Traducteurs et Interprètes

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