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A guide to simultaneous interpretation and translation equipment for multilingual business

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In meetings, conferences, and other gatherings, it’s no longer unusual to have people from different countries. Even language isn’t a barrier anymore, since interpreters can be brought in to explain. Interpretation and translation services can be one of the key factors in successful international business arrangements.

Instead of alternating with a speaker, the interpreter translates as soon as the speaker starts, so both the interpreter and the speaker talk at roughly the same time. This is called simultaneous interpretation. It’s much more efficient, but since interpreters don’t know what the speaker will say in advance, there’s tremendous pressure on them to adapt well and translate fast.

How it works

To pull this off, special translation equipment is needed. Interpreters usually stay inside a soundproof booth while wearing headphones. The speaker’s voice is transmitted to the interpreters, and while they’re listening to it in real-time, they’re also saying the translation out loud into a microphone.  In turn, the participants have their own headphones, through which they can hear the interpreter.

While this may seem complicated, setting up the equipment is actually quite easy, especially for a small audience size, and the experience is often smooth and seamless, with little time lag.

Types of systems

There are two kinds of equipment systems for simultaneous interpretation:

Infrared

Infrared systems transmit sounds through invisible pulses of light. A special property of infrared is its inability to pass through walls and opaque objects. This is ideal for confidential meetings that you wouldn’t want to be heard from outside, although a caveat is there should be a clear, unblocked path from the interpreter to the audience. Infrared systems can be more costly and tricky to set up, but they’re also the best for more complex cases such as when the audience speaks more than five different languages.  

FM

FM systems rely on radio waves. Unlike infrared systems, they can’t be distorted by light, and they have no problem with passing through concrete objects. Since FM systems are cheaper and quicker to set up, they’re the top choice for conferences, training sessions, and similar events. The downside is a typical FM system has a limited reach, so if you want to reach a larger audience, you can upgrade to specific longer-range FM systems that are less portable.

Equipment

Regardless of which kind of simultaneous interpreting system you choose, the core components are the same.

Interpreter booth

To avoid noise interference, interpreters stay inside a soundproof booth. This way, they’re protected from distraction by hearing only the speaker, and their interpretation can only be heard by the audience that it’s meant for.

Depending on the size of the audience and number of interpreters, you can opt for a tabletop booth or a freestanding booth.

Tabletop booth

A tabletop booth isn’t closed off. It’s simply placed on a table, but it still does a good job of dampening sounds because it’s made of soundproof material and surrounds the interpreter on most sides. Usually this is positioned at the back of the room. Because of its portability and ease of setup, it’s recommended for small audiences and tight spaces.

Freestanding booth

On the other hand, a freestanding booth is larger and more insulated, complete with four walls, a floor, and a ceiling. Because this can fit as many as four interpreters along with larger equipment, it’s ideal for large-scale events. Assembling it would take longer, though, and you’d need two or more technicians to set it up.   

Interpreter console

The console is located inside the interpreter booth. It serves as the electronic control unit of the system, and all operations go through here, from the speaker’s voice as input to the interpretation being outputted to the audience. In addition, it has switches and dials for several settings, including volume, pitch, and tone adjustment along with temporary muting.

Interpreter headset

Interpreters rely heavily on their headset, which typically contains headphones, a microphone, and a receiver all in one device. The headset is designed for simultaneous interpretation, and some interpreters may even bring their own. It’s common to have the microphone attached to the headset,

but the microphone can also be standalone and attached to the console through a cable.

Audience receiver         

To hear the interpreter, audience members have their own headsets or earbuds and receiver that’s clipped to their clothing or held in hand. From the console, the interpreter’s message makes its way through a wireless transmitter and then into each person’s receiver and headphones. Many receivers are equipped with a dial that you can fiddle around with to choose a language.

Even though professional interpreters have plenty of experience, they still need a briefing on the topic of the meeting and the equipment you’ll be using. Preparation goes a long way towards ensuring a smooth, productive meeting, and using high-quality translation equipment for simultaneous interpretation leads to a satisfying experience for everyone attending.

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