Simultaneous Interpreting: Accurate or Timely?

“Elephants have six toes.” “Sally sells seashells by the seashore.” “My friends are named Sam, Stan, Stu, San, Sandy, Dee, and Dan.” What do all these phrases have in common? These three phrases are typically used in the popular children’s game “Whisper down the lane.” In some parts of America, this game is called “Telephone” or “Pass the message.” Children will either sit in a circle or stand in a line; the person in the front of the line will choose a silly or funny phrase, ranging from rhymes, jokes, or tongue-twisters. Each person will whisper the phrase to the person next to them. The goal of this game is for the message to reach the last player, with no mistakes. Typically, the message will end up being garbled or completely wrong, which makes the game even funnier to play.

So, what does this game have to do with simultaneous interpreting? Researchers from the University of Texas conducted a listening study in 1997. The results of the study were quite surprising when it came to word retention. The study showed that people tend to remember 20-25% of what they hear. This study was done on people who were listening, not interpreting simultaneously. One has to wonder how much we can retain if we are both listening and interpreting at the same time.

Oddly enough, a study conducted by Professor Deb Russell from the University of Alberta found that consecutive modes of interpreting in a judicial setting tended to be more accurate than simultaneous modes. In studies from 2002 to 2005, Dr. Russell looked at American Sign Language interpreters in the judicial settings. In several court cases, she noted that the accuracy of interpretation when using simultaneous interpreting was between 83 and 87%. When she conducted the same study on ASL interpreters using consecutive modes of interpreting, the accuracy was higher, between 95 and 98%.

If studies have shown that consecutive modes of interpreting are more accurate than simultaneous modes of interpreting, then why do courts insist on simultaneous interpreting?

One reason is that simultaneous interpreting saves time. If a court-appointed interpreter were to use consecutive interpreting, it would double or triple the length of the court case. Court calendars are always full and constantly relying on continuation hearings to finish up all their booked cases.

Another reason is the cost. It is more cost effective for the courts to use the simultaneous modes of interpreting. The longer it takes to interpret, the more time is put on the clock. More time on the clock means more money being shoveled out to pay for the court-appointed interpreter’s time.

A third and final reason is that most court cases involve a passive LEP, who will not be speaking a whole lot in their court case. In most of the court cases that I interpret for, the Marshallese LEP is merely listening to the judge, prosecutor, and public defender. The LEP might say a few words here and there, but due to the passive nature of most court cases, the simultaneous mode of interpreting is preferred.

There are certain deviations from the norm, however. For example, consecutive interpreting is used in court when the interpreter speaks Navajo or Dine (the indigenous word for their language and people). Dine is the only language for which consecutive interpreting is required at a federal judicial level. The reason for this is that Dine doesn’t have specific words for certain court terms in English, requiring the interpreter to provide explanation and more wording to explain to the LEP what the words mean. Some courts make allowances for other languages, too. The language that I interpret is Marshallese. Similar to the Dine language, Marshallese doesn’t have an expansive vocabulary for court terms. Therefore, most judges and courts that I work with tend to allow me to use the consecutive mode of interpreting. When court proceedings take place over Zoom, it can also be very difficult to facilitate the use of simultaneous interpreting modes.

Depending on which mode of interpreting you prefer, both have advantages and disadvantages. Regardless of your preferred method of interpreting in a judicial setting, it is interesting to see the studies and statistics provided by research on the matter.

In the end, I expect to hear that Sally is still selling her seashells by the seashore and that your friend group still consists of Sam, Stan, Stu, San, Sandy, Dee, and Dan.

Bethany Fisher has been a professional Marshallese interpreter since 2017. She is qualified and “considered credentialed” as a Marshallese interpreter in North Carolina. She and her family are pioneers for the Marshallese language in the United States, having moved to the Republic of the Marshall Islands in 1989. They currently live in South Carolina. Contact:

Featured image and text-body photos courtesy of the author.

7 thoughts on “Simultaneous Interpreting: Accurate or Timely?”

  1. Remedios Bashi says:

    Bethany, thanks for this informative piece. I didn’t know what studies show about accuracy and I’m surprised, I always assumed simultaneous was more accurate. Fun note on the “telephone” game- in Mexico it’s called “broken down telephone”.

    1. Taina says:

      “Broken down telephone” makes even more sense! Thanks for that nugget

  2. Kathleen Valle says:

    Great article! I would be interested if you have statistics around the accuracy of consecutive modes of interpreting in a judicial setting for oral foreign language interpreters?

  3. Janis Palma says:

    Thank you for your very thoughtful piece, Bethany. I would just add perhaps a fourth reason for the use of the simultaneous mode is that an LEP defendant in the United States has a constitutional right to be informed of everything that takes place in a proceeding against him or her. Judiciary interpreters must be skilled in both simultaneous and consecutive modes because they each have a place in a legal proceeding. Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule and Marshallese is evidently one of them.

  4. Melinda Gonzalez-Hibner says:

    Thank you for this article, Bethany. I would like to clarify that consecutive interpretation is not mandated for Navajo interpretation in the federal courts. I work in New Mexico, at the federal court, and have the great honor of working with two federally certified Navajo interpreters, both of whom interpret simultaneously, using our interpreting console. I agree that every situation and language is different, and in some languages, the skills and knowledge of the interpreter covering the hearing probably play a role in making simultaneous interpretation possible.

  5. Ciriaco León says:

    Very helpful comments. I really appreciate them. Keep up the good work.

  6. N Sobhian says:

    Thank you Bethany. I can see how Simultaneous interpretation could be less accurate in situations in which interpretation is in to a language that may not have exact equivalencies from the words used, and interpreter may skip things in order not to fall behind. I see this in official speeches, and wonder if the complete message was relayed after the fact.
    Your article is appreciated. Thanks.

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