Relay Interpreting

Relay Interpreting

Relay interpreting forms part of the everyday lives of many conference interpreters. Whenever the interpreters do not understand all the conference languages offered, they rely on their colleagues and use a shared language as their connecting language: for instance, when the speaker is speaking Greek, the Greek booth will interpret into English, and the German booth will interpret from this English version into German – thereby offering a total of three languages at the same time (one original, two interpreted). While being very useful, relay interpreting can be a technical challenge for the interpreters, because they have to change channels very quickly – while one booth is occupying the relay channel, nobody else can use it, and if the next speaker is speaking the language of the relay channel, the original sound does not get through to the other booths. Having served as the Interpreters Coordinator for several generations of aspiring conference interpreters at the Model European Union in Strasbourg, where many had their first encounters with large-scale relay interpreting, I know how difficult quickly switching channels can be at first.

Going remote

This problem has reached a new level in remote interpreting. While interpreters in on-site interpreting booths were at least able to still hear the floor sound through their not perfectly sound-proof booths, remote interpreters can only rely on the sound they receive through their headphones. If a booth occupies the relay channel for too long, important segments of the next statement might get lost. Hence, interpreters need to be even quicker than usually, change and clear channels as soon as the speaker has finished speaking, and therefore work with very little décalage, at least towards the anticipated end of a speaker’s statement.

In late 2019, I participated in a week-long training course at the Technical University of Cologne, in which we learned how to be good pivots (=interpreters who provide the relay). In this function, you do not only need to consider the needs of your client/listener, but also of your fellow colleagues. What makes a good interpretation, what makes a good pivot?

Consider your team

As all workshop participants had German in their language combination, we quickly came to the first conclusion: interpreters need to hear the main verb of the sentence as early as possible. Therefore, if you are confronted with a very long phrase from the speaker, make sure to split it into several shorter sentences that all have a main verb that the other interpreters can work with. This splitting and anticipating can be very challenging, particularly with fast and dense speakers.

This led to another conclusion of the group: do not try to keep up with the speaker’s fast pace and density – your fellow interpreters as well as the general audience will very much appreciate it if you pre-analyse the content and deliver it in a well understandable way. 

Yet, if there were elements that you did not understand properly, do not simply interpret words that do not make sense to you. Neither the audience nor your colleagues will be able to make sense from your rendition. If worse comes to worst, take a step back and deliver the content from a more general perspective, and add the details after you had time to understand the full picture. Often, a few more sentences from the speaker will make all the difference for your understanding.

Be aware of the specifics

Another important factor are names – be it of people, places, products or other. Many interpreters tend to pronounce names as eloquently as possible (to show off their linguistic skills?). However, your colleagues do not speak your working language, and will have trouble rendering the name equally beautiful. Therefore, try to tone down your very e.g. French accent and try to pronounce names similar to the way speakers of the relay language would pronounce them.

This point goes hand in hand with another issue to consider: cultural specifics. The original speaker might mention specific concepts that only apply to their culture or language – consider for instance political concepts, such as the House of Lords in the UK. Whereas you might decide to transfer the English term for a dedicated audience, your colleagues might need a brief explanation to find a proper equivalent in their working languages. Make their job as easy as possible by keeping these factors in mind.

Give and take

And what do you need to consider when taking relay from somebody else? You need to be quick! Your listeners are further behind than usually, as the relay leads to an additional delay, so make sure you have a short décalage, at least towards the end of a statement, to finish your interpretation shortly after the relay has ended. 

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