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The various types of interpreting

Let’s clarify one thing straight from the start. We are talking about interpreting, not translation. Translation is written. Interpreting is spoken.

There's a difference between the two professions as they both require different skills. Translation is about being a good writer, enjoying attention to details, researching, spending time at your desk. Interpreting is about being a confident speaker, coping well under pressure, having people skills and being flexible. Of course, I couldn't possibly mention the entire spectrum of skills required in just one paragraph. This is an example of some of the different skills needed.


Now that this has been clarified, let’s take a closer look at the various types, modes and settings of interpreting. By types I mean all those different labels or names given to interpreting assignments. Modes refer to the methods of delivery and settings have to do with location. So let's take a look.


1) Community interpreting or Public Service Interpreting (PSI)

It usually takes place at local community settings such as a GP practice, hospital, care home, someone’s house, the registry office, the police station etc. There’s usually one interpreter who interprets between the civil servant (nurse, doctor, police officer, carer etc.) and an individual.

Individuals are often accompanied by family members and the interpreter can end up confused not knowing who they need to interpret for. Interpreting in a room with several people speaking at the same time, each one of them having a different agenda to push, can be challenging. For a successful outcome, roles need to be clearly defined from the beginning.

2) Court interpreting, legal or judicial interpreting

Takes place in legal or paralegal settings such as courts, administrative tribunals, police stations and conference rooms. It demands knowledge of legal language and systems, confidence, and coping well under stress.

3) Business interpreting

Takes place during corporate meetings, trade shows, dinners and lunches among corporate delegation or partners regarding various business topics such as mergers, acquisitions, HR processes, marketing campaigns, and signing contracts.

4) Conference interpreting

Is simultaneous interpreting in conference settings during international, multilingual events. The interpreter interprets what the speaker says from a both at the back of the room for the delegates listening to that specific language channel.

Usually, there are several different booths, one for each language. The interpreter listens to the speaker through headphones and speaks to a microphone. Conference interpreters work in teams.


Now that we’ve looked at the various types and settings, let’s look at the modes.


1) Simultaneous interpreting

The speaker speaks and the interpreter listens, processes and interprets at the same time. The interpreter uses technology (headset, mic, tablet, laptop) and is located in a booth usually at the back of the room and hopefully in the same room with the speaker.

This type of interpreting requires very high concentration levels. There are two interpreters in each both, sometimes three, interpreting in turns, taking breaks usually every 20-30 minutes.

2) Consecutive interpreting (liaison)

The parties speak in turns. For example, in the case of medical interpreting, the doctor would say a few sentences and during this time the interpreter is probably taking notes. And then once the doctor is finished the interpreter will interpret to the patient. The interpreter uses their memory and notes to reconstruct meaning in a different language.

Consecutive interpreting is liaison which means it’s bi-directional. Meaning the interpreter is required to interpret both ways: what the doctor said to the patient and what the patient said to the doctor. This kind of interpreting could double the length of a session.

3) Chuchotage

This is also simultaneous but without the technology. It’s whispered to the ear of the person requiring interpreting. It takes place when there’s usually only one person within an audience that requires interpreting in that specific language.

Given speaker and interpreter speak at the same time within the same space, this type of interpreting can cause some disturbance. It requires even higher levels of concentration than conference interpreting. Two interpreters per language pair are needed here too.

4) Telephone interpreting

Consecutive interpreting that takes place through the phone during a three-way call. Technical issues can often hinder the process. The parties do not establish rapport easily, therefore, it is not recommended for important negotiation meetings. It is my least favourite mode of interpreting, but of course, it is the cheapest.


In summary, out of the four types of interpreting (PSI, legal, conference and business), only conference interpreting follows the simultaneous mode.

Usually, factors such as the venue, technology, audience, setting and language direction determine which type of interpreting you'll need.

But remember; if you cannot decide which one is the best for you and your situation or if you don't feel confident that you know enough about the subject, discuss your interpreting needs with an expert interpreting consultant.


Vasiliki is a translator, interpreter, transcreator, blogger, consultant and director of Greek to Me Translations Ltd. She works with English and Greek and specialises in legal, creative, and psychometrics. She is a Chartered Linguist, member of CIoL, ITI and PEM and she is registered with the Greek Consulate as a certified translator and interpreter. She holds a BA in English and Masters in Business Translation and Interpreting. She is a Steering Group Member of the CIOL Translating Division and CIOL Business, Professions and Government Division. She is an Associate Lecturer in Legal Translation at London Metropolitan University, a public speaker and writer for industry magazines. Her mission is to help you achieve your goals through the power of words. You can follow her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


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The contents of this blog belong to Vasiliki Prestidge, Director of Greek to Me Translations Ltd and cannot be copied or reproduced without the prior written permission of the author.

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