Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment: The Essentials

Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment: The Essentials

Your guide to the history of simultaneous interpretation, simultaneous interpreter equipment, and standard setups for simultaneous interpretation.

Simultaneous interpreting isn’t for the faint of heart. Requiring an incredibly agile mind able to listen, speak, and retain the speaker’s words all at once, simultaneous interpreters save time and money when it comes to first-class interpreting.

Simultaneous interpreting equipment isn’t usually required when only one or a few people need interpretation. But for larger conferences, business calls, and international summits with diverse audiences – simultaneous interpreting equipment is crucial to delivering a quality listener experience.

Simultaneous interpreting is unique from consecutive interpreting in that the interpreter must translate while listening. Consecutive interpreters alternatively take notes and speak in designated pauses.

History of Simultaneous Interpreting Equipment

Although the birth of simultaneous interpreting is associated with the Nuremberg Trials, simultaneous interpretation was actually founded years earlier.

In 1926, British engineer and IBM employee Alan Gordon Finlay patented his idea for simultaneous interpretation equipment. Finlay felt driven by the concept of creating channels for seamless communication within the League of Nations.

Together with American philanthropist and businessman Edward Filene, they created the first simultaneous interpretation system used after World War I. This system included an interpreter booth and interpreter-specific microphones to broadcast translations to headphones worn by audience members.

Simultaneous interpretation equipment was honed and formalized after World War II, during the Nuremberg Trials. The global nature of the trials necessitated interpretation in four languages (English, French, German, and Russian.) These diverse language needs compelled program coordinators to seek out efficient alternatives to time-consuming consecutive interpretation.

Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment at Nuremberg
Simultaneous Interpreters at Nuremberg. Credit: US National Archives, College Park, MD, courtesy of Francesca Gaiba

These trials served as the first highly publicized use of simultaneous interpretation, and formalized the interpretation setups and equipment we still use today.

How Many Types of Simultaneous Interpreter Setups are there?

There are three main simultaneous interpreter setups: (1) permanent, (2) mobile/portable, and (3) whispering interpretation.

1. Permanent Simultaneous Interpretation Systems

Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment: The Booth
Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment: The Booth

Permanent simultaneous interpreting systems feature sound-proof booths, consoles, headphone equipment, and appropriate lighting and ventilation pre-installed on-location. These locations often have on-site equipment technicians to ensure all wiring and sound transmission functions properly.

You might find permanent simultaneous interpretation installations at places like the United Nations, the European Parliament, and other large-scale conference centers.

2. Mobile/Portable Simultaneous Interpreter Setups

Portable simultaneous interpretation setups feature the same equipment as permanent installations, but must be set up prior to the event. Equipment providers often offer technicians to assist in installation so all the sound transmits smoothly and interpreters are comfortable in the booth.

Locations like hotels and conference centers often require portable equipment to meet the simultaneous interpreting needs of summits, conferences, and large business meetings as they arise.

3. Whisper Simultaneous Interpretation

Whisper Interpretation is the only mode of simultaneous interpretation that doesn’t always require equipment. If you need interpreting for only one or a handful of people, the interpreter can skip the equipment and speak directly to the clients.

Whisper interpreting equipment typically comes into play when the listener is mobile, and consists of a standard handheld receiver and wireless handheld transmitter.

Simultaneous Interpreter Equipment

Five pieces of equipment are necessary for simultaneous interpretation: the interpreter headset, microphone, booth, console, and audience receivers.

1. The Simultaneous Interpretation Booth

The booth is where the magic happens. A simultaneous interpreting booth isn’t complete without proper lighting, ventilation, a microphone, and a console to direct transmissions. Companies must build simultaneous interpreting booths large enough two fit at least two interpreters. Additionally, they are typically sound-proof to allow for focus and crisp, clear communication.

2. The Headset

Each interpreter must have their own headset. Sometimes interpreters come with their own personal headset, but you can generally rent or purchase headsets from equipment vendors.

These headsets typically operate on low FM frequencies and direct the speaker’s words from their microphone directly to the interpreter’s headset. From there, interpreters translate their message into the booth microphone.

3. The Microphone

There are a few different microphone setups for simultaneous interpreting.

Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment: Console, Headset and Microphone
Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment: Console, Headset and Microphone

Headset microphone: The microphone is attached to the interpreter headset with a flexible gooseneck arm. This helps maintain the distance between the interpreter’s mouth and the microphone’s head, delivering consistent sound quality. The integrated headset microphone is widely preferred as the industry standard.

Console microphone:  A flexible gooseneck arm connects the microphone to the sound console. This is generally considered the second-best option behind headset-integrated microphones. Console microphones require the interpreter to maintain a consistent distance between their mouth and the microphone. But because these microphones are attached to the console, they prevent the microphone from shifting and creating unpleasant sounds for listeners.

Standalone table-top microphone: This microphone is an independent apparatus and sits in last place for preferred equipment. Similar to a console microphone, it requires the interpreter to keep their head at a consistent distance from the microphone, often requiring them to bend over the table. Additionally, it’s very easy to accidentally bump the microphone and create unpleasant sounds for listeners.

4. The Console 

The console is what interpreters use to receive the speaker’s microphone input and direct their translated communications to their listeners. Physically, it’s a big electronic box with audio connections for the interpreter headset and microphone.

The console controls the interpreter listening versus speaking channels, volume, treble, bass, and muting the microphone.

Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment: Audience Receivers
Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment: Audience Receivers

5. The Wireless Receivers for the Audience

No simultaneous interpretation setup would be complete without wireless receivers for the audience. People requiring interpretation receive headsets that act as wireless receivers for their specific interpreter channel. So if a conference is interpreting for 15 different languages, listeners can tune their headset to the appropriate channel and hear the speaker’s message in their language.

Looking for interpreters to provide first-class simultaneous interpreting at your next conference?

We at Arriva are happy to help. With over 5,000 translators and interpreters in our network qualified in 200+ unique languages and dialects, we at Arriva Translations pride ourselves in offering bespoke, top-of-the-line, white-glove translation and interpretation services to clients in the legal, financial, and medical industries.

Reach out to schedule your interpreter today – We’re excited to meet you!




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