What’s conference interpreting after all?

How to define “conference interpreting”

We will be celebrating AIIC’s 70th anniversary in July. Earlier this year, we celebrated the German VKD’s 20th anniversary in Berlin, where I handed over the responsibility of chairing the VKD admissions committee. Both occasions as well as many inspiring conversations I have had recently left me musing about a somewhat fundamental question about our profession: What is conference interpreting after all? Or rather: What isn’t? What defines “conference interpreting” and distinguishes it from other forms of interpreting?

I suppose that our areas of activity have diversified a lot since the post-war era, and that the lines have become increasingly blurry, what with sign language interpreting, simultaneous court interpreting, written interpreting, video-conferences etc. Especially when dealing with the proof of a certain number of days worked required to be admitted into our professional associations, it is important to know where to draw the line, and I found this increasingly difficult recently.

For all these reasons, I thought it might be interesting to share my thoughts and get to know your points of view on the following questions:

  • Which criteria define conference interpreting?
  • Which novel/neighbouring/unusual forms of interpreting would you (not) include in the concept, and why?

I order to make sure I get things right, I looked up AIIC’s and ISO’s definitions first:

Here is what AIIC says:

Conference interpreters translate a spoken message from one language to another in a formal setting.

Conference interpreters translate spoken language in real time. [A thorough knowledge of languages, nerves of steel, attention to detail and boundless curiosity are the hallmarks of the professional interpreter.] Interpreters work at every kind of meeting and in any venue. They work for the major international organisations and for business clients.

Furthermore, the Buenos Aires Assembly, in 2012, resolved that AIIC recognises sign languages as fully-fledged conference languages and accepts them for the purposes of membership and language classification.

And here comes the ISO 23155 definition:

3.2.10 conference interpreting

interpreting (3.2.6) used for multilingual communication at technical, political, scientific and other formal meetings

3.2.6 interpreting/interpretation

rendering spoken or signed information from a source language (3.1.4) to a target language (3.1.5) in oral or signed form, conveying both the meaning and language register (3.1.10) of the source language content (3.1.15)

And ISO 20108:2017(en) — Simultaneous interpreting — Quality and transmission of sound and image input — Requirements:

3.2 – simultaneous interpreting

mode of interpreting (3.1) performed while a speaker is still speaking or signing

Note 1 to entry: For the purposes of this document, the activity requires specialized equipment.

From these definitions, the following features could be derived to check different forms of interpreting against:

Formal setting, but diversity of meetings, subjects, venues

Medium: visual-gestural and oral-auditory Real-time




Meaning + language register
TV simultaneous interpreting + + + + +
Court interpreting + + + + +
Interlingual written interpreting (from spoken to written language, target language output transcribed by Software) + -/+ + + +
Sight translation + + + +
Sign language interpreting + + + + +
Business interpreting, liaison interpreting + + + + +
Whispered interpreting with or without tour-guide system + + + + +
Diplomatic interpreting (delegations) + + + + +

Important to know: while oral and written communication “only” differ in medium and style, sign language is considered a language of its own. This means that interpreting from one sign language to another (or between a sign and a spoken language) is considered interpreting, while transcribing or respeaking a spoken text is just a transfer between different media, but not between languages, thus no interpreting. In this sense, written interpreting, or even real-time translation of e.g. a chat from one language to another would not count as interpreting, while I think it somehow requires similar skills.

All in all I must say that I am not completely convinced of this classification scheme.  I would say that not all types of interpreting require the same level of skills and/or don’t deliver the same quality. For example, whispered interpreting, due to the acoustic constraints, does not allow for the same quality as simultaneous interpreting using adequate equipment (also defined in an ISO norm). And liaison, diplomatic, or court interpreting, in some instances, do not require the mnemonic and note-taking skills consecutive interpreting does.

While none of the variations of interpreting is better than the other, I think that the high-standard skills of the “classical” interpreting modes, simultaneous and consecutive, are transferable to other forms, like whispered, diplomatic, or court interpreting. However, this wouldn’t necessarily work the other way around. And, by the way, to my mind, the skills of consecutive and simultaneous interpreting are not automatically transferable between each other either.

If I had to find a common denominator to simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, “non-intrusiveness” is what comes to my mind. Both simultaneous and consecutive interpreting give the speaker the highest possible degree of freedom – simultaneous if the situation allows for proper simultaneous interpreting equipment, consecutive if it doesn’t. Once you master the two high-standard techniques, you can use them in all kinds of non-conference settings, no matter what are the requirements in terms of non-intrusiveness and quality.

In the end, maybe nowadays what makes the difference is not the (conference) setting, but rather the level of skill and quality. However, the term “conference interpreting” is probably bound to stay as a tribute to the genesis of our profession.


Now, while these are my personal thoughts on the subject, I would be very interested to know what other members of the profession think. What would you include, what are the defining features, where are the differences, and … does it matter at all?

About the author

Anja Rütten is a freelance conference interpreter for German (A), Spanish (B), English (C), and French (C) based in Düsseldorf, Germany. She has specialised in knowledge management since the mid-1990s. She is a full member of AIIC, an accredited freelance interpreter with the EU institutions and the European Patent Office, and has vast experience as a university lecturer.





4 responses to “What’s conference interpreting after all?”

  1. Aude-Valérie Monfort avatar

    Dear Anja,
    Your quote about the AIIC 2012 Assembly resolution might be misleading to outsiders. So let me explained, as one of the initiators of that resolution at the time: Sign languages were admitted and recognised by AIIC as working languages, e.g. to apply for membership, but only in a conference setting. Therefore the same difference is made between „ordinary“ interpreting and „conference“ interpreting, whether one‘s language combination includes sign and/or spoken languages. Which brings us back to your initial question and the topic of this blog article: how to define conference interpreting 😉

    1. Anja Rütten avatar

      Dear Aude-Valérie, thank you for this important explanation. I think you are right, this brings us back to my initial doubt: Is interpreting = conference interpreting just because it takes place in a conference, irrespective of the modalities? And is anything outside a typical conference setting not?

  2. Andy avatar

    Thanks for this post Anja. I have long been dissatisfied with the “definitions” (or lack thereof) of “conference interpreting”. Neither the ISO nor the AIIC descriptions actually allow us to identify a given bit of interpreting as “conference” or not. A “formal setting” could be almost anything for example, like an immigration interview (which would not be “conference”).
    I ended up giving this quite a lot of thought and arrived at something similar to you but expressed differently. My conclusiong – made in a film I made with Lou de Rioja for A Word in your Ear – was that conference interpreting might be “being able to do long consec and simultaneous” properly. I think this echos your “non-transferability of high-standard skills like consec & sim”

  3. Anja Rütten avatar

    Great video And yes, I think that we agree in that interpreting technique/skills are a more essential factor than the setting …

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