Interpreting bilateral talks in politics

Interpreting bilateral talks in politics

Remember the 10 minute long speeches that you consecutively interpreted in university, to prepare for real life? Although I am glad for the thorough training that I received, consecutively interpreting bilateral meetings was a whole new world for me.

Two languages – two directions

First of all, in contrast to what we practiced at university, where each class was dedicated to one direction of interpreting, so either into English or into German, in bilateral talks, you have to switch between your working languages quickly. Better do not get confused with which language you just heard and which language you ought to speak now. 

Short statements… 

Secondly, the parts that you interpret are much shorter than 10 minutes. They can range from introductory statements of one or two minutes to one-liners. The thing is that you never know how long a statement is going to be. Whereas you look silly when taking the one-liner to your notepad, you also do not be in a situation where you thought you could remember everything that was said, but then realise that taking notes is necessary for this unforeseen long statement. You need to find a good balance for when you start taking notes.  

…that require a direct response

Since your clients and their interlocutors are directly talking to each other, their statements require a direct response. Hence, interpreting inaccuracies become clear immediately if the response does not really match the question. Additionally, patience is a rare good – many clients clearly signal that are dissatisfied with your work if you take a few seconds to finish our notes before you start interpreting. Especially in bilateral talks, you need to develop a feeling for when the speaker’s statement is coming to an end, so you can start speaking almost immediately after he or she has finished.

Working with two interpreters

Switching between languages and constant concentration can be mitigated when each party brings its own interpreter. In these situations, you should make sure that you agree on the division of responsibility beforehand. Will you both interpret into your native language, or will you both interpret what your party said? Things get more difficult when your language combinations are not the same, say, if a Polish and a German delegation meet, with a PL<>EN and an EN<>DE interpreter.

How much have they understood already

And then, at least with English, you will always have clients to do not need your interpretation services into your native language, as they (think they) can understand English well enough. However, this does not mean that you can get some rest while the other party is speaking. Your client could always have a terminology or general understanding problem and turn to you for help. So make sure you constantly pay attention, no matter if your clients shows you that you are needed or not.


There are some basics that should be a given, however not always are. You should sit next to the head of delegation or whoever will speak most and/or need your services most. You should be able to hear everyone in the room well enough to be able to interpret them. When asked to do chuchotage while the other party is speaking, ensure that you can indeed hear them well enough to do so, or explain that for acoustical reasons, only consecutive is possible in this setting. In these cases, you need to particularly fast in your interpretation, and your clients have already signalled that they do not want to lose time. Sit close, but now too close to your client, especially when you are to sit or even stand behind them. 

I hope these insights into my experiences with consecutive interpreting at bilateral meetings have been helpful to you!

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