ULG's Language Services Blog

How it Works: Simultaneous Interpretation of the Presidential Debates


Millions of people have been tuning in to watch the 2016 US presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And Americans aren’t the only ones watching. People in places like Israel, Germany and China set their alarms for the middle of the night to watch this year’s nominees debate in real time. But despite its worldwide audience in many countries, the only other language the debates are being officially translated into is Spanish. This is done through a process called simultaneous interpretation.

What Is Simultaneous Interpretation?

Interpretation, as opposed to other modes of translation, is (most often) done by a live person in real time. Through teleconferences and other digital technologies, the interpreter does not necessarily have to be in the same room with the person they’re interpreting.

Live interpretation can be done in one of two ways: consecutively or simultaneously. During consecutive interpretation, an interpreter will not start speaking the translation until after a speaker has finished a sentence or thought.

In small, personal meetings consecutive interpretation can ensure that a conversation still feels natural despite the presence of an interpreter. The medical industry, courts and attorneys like to use consecutive interpretation for this reason. However, consecutive interpretation doubles the time it takes to have a conversation. And in the event of a live television broadcast, that simply won’t cut it.

In simultaneous interpretation, an interpreter has to translate a speaker as they talk, without any time to stop and listen to the next sentence. Large diplomatic or corporate conferences use simultaneous interpreters all the time.

Depending on how many languages a speaker has to be translated into, simultaneous interpretation can require equipment like cameras, wireless headsets and microphones. Although it requires a much more skilled interpreter, and more technology to make it possible, simultaneous interpretation saves time and preserves the format of the event being interpreted. This makes it useful for events such as keynote speeches, large presentations or lively presidential debates.

Interpreting the Presidential Debate

The US presidential debates are interpreted through Spanish-language networks like Telemundo and Univision. They broadcast these Spanish language versions through their respective television stations as well as digital platforms.

For interpreting the presidential debates into Spanish, three interpreters sit in a room together with a television that plays the debate. Clinton, Trump and the moderator for the night each get their own interpreter.

The goal is to accurately reflect the English-language debate on screen. When someone is interrupted or talked over, the interpreters reflect that by also interrupting and talking over one another.

And they do this all without missing a single word.

Challenges Faced by Simultaneous Interpreters

To be a simultaneous interpreter, you must possess a unique and honed set of skills. This goes beyond being fluent in multiple languages.

In order to keep up with the candidate who is speaking, these interpreters have to not only be experienced and fast; they also have to be extremely decisive. They have no time to take a moment and decide whether they should use the casual “tú” or more formal “usted” when someone says “you,” or how to rephrase things that are difficult to translate like idioms.

There’s the additional problem of translating spoken English versus formal, or global English writing. When people are speaking, they’re more likely to use unusual or incorrect grammar or non-standard construction and not finish their sentences. It’s up the simultaneous interpreters to work around these irregularities and translate accurately. They have to make decisions as fast as possible, all while still listening to what the candidate has to say next.

We at ULG know just exactly how difficult the job of interpretation is, and we understand the amount of qualifications and experience necessary to be a great simultaneous interpreter. Our respect goes out to those hard-working interpreters making the 2016 presidential race more accessible for Spanish speakers everywhere.