“Why isn’t there Japanese in Room 5?”

“This thing is dead. Give me new batteries!”

“I only hear German. I asked for an Arabic unit!”

I lean against the foyer wall and watch Tembua’s staff handle the flood of conference attendees picking up interpreting equipment.

Our company owns state-of-the-art digital interpreting equipment. That means interpreter control panels, transceivers, receivers, and many, many headsets. We rent out the equipment to other companies, but in this case Tembua is providing all the equipment and all the interpreters.

“Can I pick up all the equipment for my group and keep it for the entire week?”

Along with the electronics, Tembua also owns tabletop interpreting booths. These are three-sided roofed enclosures, each accommodating two interpreters. The booths help shield the interpreters from ambient noise and also isolate their constant stream of speech from people in the back of the room.

For this conference, we’ve set up for six languages. An earlier walk-through with the conference audio manager identified the best placement for the booths, one booth per language. The staff has brought pipe-and-drape to set up next to and between the booths to further muffle the sound.

“How come Finnish isn’t on the language list? My grandmother spoke Finnish and I’ll bet I could do Finnish for you!”

I walk into the hall. The simultaneous interpreters have been there for nearly an hour, arranging reference volumes, adjusting the fans and lights we provide in the booths, looking through the presentations that some of the speakers have provided. They are prepared, two to a booth, with glossaries and with relevant sites bookmarked on their laptops, just in case. We don’t have all the conference presentations yet, and they need to be prepared for the unknown.

Many interpreters speak three or even four languages, and as I walk by to the sound booth, they greet me and continue bouncing laughing comments off each other, rapidly switching languages. I have limited professional experience as an interpreter and greatly admire these people who are at the top of their profession.

“This afternoon’s presentation is going to be given in Chinese rather than English. Will that cause a problem?”

The sound crew has tamed yesterday’s tangle of cables with yards of wide tape, and sound checks were completed when the interpreters first arrived. Each interpreting booth is cabled to the sound booth. The wireless signal is sent from the booths to the attendees’ receivers. The sound technicians don’t need me, but I check on them anyway. One technician will monitor the entire conference using equipment just like the attendees’.

As the program starts, the interpreters drink water, roll their shoulders to relax, and go to work. One interpreter in each language will speak for 15-20 minutes while his/her partner provides research assistance. Then, using the control panel in the booths, they’ll switch roles seamlessly. This continues for the entire day. Simultaneous conference interpreting is exhausting. A non-interpreter can simulate the experience somewhat by repeating every word of a broadcast speech, first exactly as spoken and then, as a paraphrase.

I return to the foyer in time to see the latecomers picking up equipment. Tembua’s staff has answered all the questions:

“The on-off switch is sometimes a bit sticky. Let me see if the unit is working properly.”

“We prefer to collect the equipment at the end of each day’s session. That way, we can put in fresh batteries and clean the headsets.”

“Using this dial, you can select the language you need. The language numbers are listed here on the interpreting poster.”

“Finnish isn’t on the list because there was insufficient demand for it this time. Maybe next year. And we’re always looking for talent. Please talk to the conference organizers and send us your resume!”

“Working Chinese to English instead of English to Chinese is no problem for the interpreters. The issue will be that all the attendees would now hear English through their headsets. However, we have it covered. In cases like this, we set up relay interpreting: Chinese in, English out through the sound system to the English-speaking listeners, and English to the other interpreters, who send out the appropriate languages to the remainder of the listeners. The speaker will also be given a headset and receiver for questions.”

“There is Japanese in the main hall, but the conference organizers only ordered one pair of interpreters per language.”
Would you like an informational piece about conference interpreting? See below.


Patricia May
Tembua: The Precision Language Solution