Definition of Key Terms

Translation vs. interpreting:

Translators write, interpreters speak. If you are working with written documents, you need a translator. If you want to interact with people in a foreign language on the spot, you need an interpreter.


Interpreters step in whenever people speaking different languages need to communicate with each other. They are trained to carry ideas from one language to another—accurately and efficiently. In the United States, professional interpreters can be federally certified for court interpreting or nationally certified for healthcare interpreting. They may also be state licensed, certified or qualified. For more information, visit and

How do interpreters work?

Interpreting can be done in different ways, depending on the setting, how much time is available, how many languages are used, and whether or not technology is available.

(1) In consecutive interpretation, the interpreter takes turns with the other speakers. The speaker talks, then stops. The interpreter steps in to interpret, then stops. Note taking is important to ensure accuracy. This mode is used in interpreting by telephone, for many meetings, for some medical consultations and for certain court proceedings.

(2) In simultaneous interpretation, the speaker and the interpreter talk at the same time, with the interpreter lagging a few seconds behind the speaker. It is used in the United Nations, at multilingual conferences and in many courts. The interpreters may be in soundproof booths and the audience listens to their interpretation through wireless headset receivers that use a radio frequency or infrared technology. Simultaneous interpreters may also use a portable tour-guide system with microphones, transmitter and receivers. This system is used for guided tours or factory visits. Interpreters usually work in pairs in 15- to 30-minute intervals.


Floor, Source or Passive LanguageThis is the language that your presenter or main speaker is talking in.

Target, Active or Translated Language:The language that is being translated into is called the “active or target language” or “translation feed.” There can be more than one target language depending on the complexity of your setup.


Simultaneous interpretation equipment:

At a minimum, the simultaneous interpretation equipment that you will need includes: headphones and wireless receivers for the audience and a transmitter with a microphone for the interpreter. It’s advisable that the interpreter also have access to a headphone with the audio of the floor (speech to be interpreted) to ensure a better, more accurate interpretation.

For a more professional system, you may need soundproof interpretation booths (one per target language), interpreter consoles, and sound system (also called PA system).

Interpreter Booths:

For simultaneous interpretation you will normally need one booth per target language. The booths should conform to ISO 4043 (built-in) or ISO 2603 (mobile) booth standards. They should be sound-proof, have a silent ventilation system, placed in such a way as to give interpreters an unobstructed clear view of speakers and of the screen used for presentations, and allow them to gauge the reaction of participants.

Interpreter Consoles:

An interpreter console is used to adjust the volume and tone of the sound the interpreter hears, as well as to control the audio of the outgoing channel. The interpreter console has controls that allow the interpreter to activate or deactivate the output from his or her microphone and select the input and output channels. On professional systems, the interpreter console also interacts with the central control unit to allow the use of the relay function between different booths and the routing of the floor signals when the interpreter’s microphone is deactivated.

There are interpreter consoles for a single interpreter and dual interpreter consoles for two interpreters working together. Depending on the number of foreign languages used in your conference or event and whether you use one-way or two-way interpretation (i.e. interpreting from English into Spanish and back from Spanish into English), you may need a bilingual or multi-channel interpreter console. A bilingual interpreter console is usually used for bilingual conferences or in multilingual conferences with one-way interpretation only. Bilingual interpreter consoles also have limited “relay” capabilities compared to the multi-channel interpreter consoles that have full relay capabilities.


Relay interpreting:

It is another term for indirect interpretation, i.e. rather than translate directly from the source language to the target language, an interpreter may work from a colleague's translation.

Relay interpretation can be justified at conferences using many languages where some interpreters do not understand all the working languages, or in cases where an exotic or rare language is spoken or required.
In relay interpreting, the pivot interpreter is the interpreter working directly from the source language, and whose translation will therefore serve as the basis from which other interpreters may work into other languages.

Headset Receivers:

(Also referred to simply as "headsets") The delegate's wireless listening unit. Most are multi-channel and allow the delegate to select from the available languages by turning a channel selector knob. The delegates control their own volume and on/off.