Interpreting as language practice

Interpreting is oral translation. There are two modes of interpreting: simultaneous and consecutive.


Simultaneous interpreting

Simultaneous interpreters translate at the same time as the speaker speaks.


This often happens at conferences, where interpreters sit in soundproofed booths and delegates listen to the translation on headphones, without having to interrupt the speaker. The interpreter listens to the speaker, remembers what is said, and speaks the translation into the microphone ... and at the same time listens to the next thing the speaker is saying.


For conferences, at least two interpreters are required per language combination. The interpreters relieve each other every half an hour to ensure consistent concentration and quality throughout the day. On some occasions, where only one or two delegates require translation, the interpreter may sit close to the delegates and speak the translation softly in their presence or in their ears. This is referred to as whispered interpreting. Sometimes whispered interpreting can be performed with the aid of special equipment that allows the interpreter to whisper into a microphone for delegates wearing headphones. Whispered interpreting should not be used for large conferences and it can cause a disruption in small meetings, with delegates often disturbed by the interpreter.


Interpreting for the deaf, using a signed language like SA Sign Language, is also a type of simultaneous interpreting.


Consecutive interpreting

Consecutive interpreters wait for a speaker to stop talking before they give the translation, and the speaker waits until the interpreter is finished before continuing. This type of interpreting is more suited to boardroom situations or small meetings, but it is time-consuming and slows down the proceedings. It is also more stressful for the interpreter, as they have to cope with secondary noise and other distractions. For this reason consecutive interpreting can also not be performed by one person for more than 30 to 40 minutes.


There are two types of consecutive interpreting:

  • Long consecutive interpreting is the more formal or ‘proper’ type of consecutive interpreting. It includes formal lectures and prepared speeches that may be half an hour or longer, e.g. at the UN. Important skills for long consecutive interpreting are note-taking and analysing skills.
  • Short consecutive interpreting involves a few sentences at a time. The situation is often less formal and does not generally involve prepared speeches. Interviews and community interpreting are types of short consecutive interpreting. Court interpreters also use consecutive interpreting. A quick mind and the ability to comprehend quickly are important skills for this type of work.


Liaison interpreting

A special type of consecutive interpreting is liaison interpreting (also called community interpreting or dialogue interpreting). Here the interpreter facilitates a conversation between two people, e.g. a doctor and patient or a tourist and government official. Liaison interpreting uses less formal speech and shorter sentences than in a formal conference setting. This is a fast-growing field in South Africa.


Prospects for interpreters

There is a growing demand for interpreters in Southern Africa. Interpreters in African languages are required for courts, parliament, provincial legislatures and metropolitan councils. Freelance interpreters are often used for ad hoc assignments such as meetings, international conferences and accompanying foreign business people and tourists.


An increasing number of international conferences are taking place in South Africa, offering opportunities for freelance interpreters in languages such as English, Afrikaans, French, German, Spanish and Portuguese. Political organisations such as the United Nations and the European Union are the main employers of interpreters worldwide.


Becoming an interpreter


Key characteristics of interpreters

A successful interpreter boasts the following:

  • A very high degree of linguistic proficiency
  • A broad general knowledge, including knowledge about current affairs and a variety of technical subjects
  • Insight into cultural and political background of the speaker and the audience
  • A quick mind, analytical skills and a good short-term memory
  • The ability to stay calm under stressful conditions
  • Note-taking skills (especially for consecutive interpreting)
  • Knowledge of the subject matter and the particular industry



Aspirant interpreters should consider studying a bachelor's degree with languages as major subjects. Some South African universities offer postgraduate qualifications in general and legal interpreting. The Department of Justice provides training for its own court interpreters.


Experienced simultaneous interpreters can also apply for SATI accreditation.


Go to the Training page for details of language practice training in South Africa.


Translation versus interpreting

Written translating and interpreting require different skills: translators can take their time to think about the best word or phrase, but interpreters have to understand and respond almost immediately. Translators are not necessarily successful interpreters, and vice versa, but as each profession requires specialised skills and training.


More information

Use the link below to download information in pdf format.




Interpreting as a career (25717 bytes)




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