What is Relay Interpreting

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What is Relay Interpreting

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What is Relay Interpreting


Relay Interpreting is a technique used in conference interpreting when you have presenters (or audience) communicating in multiple pairs of languages, and you need to translate the speech in any direction.

Scenario 1: English to Spanish

Consider the following basic scenario: you have an event with attendees from Latin America. You have speakers presenting in English. You need a single pair of interpreters: English-Spanish. The illustration for this setup is below:

Conference Interpreting Spanish
English presenter is translated into Spanish and also broadcast in English on a separate channel

Note, that English presenter is translated into Spanish, but also broadcast (we call this “passthrough”) in English on an available channel. It is often not required, especially if the majority of the audience understands English already, and the presentation is always in English. Then, you could have your PA broadcast the English language, and only have the Spanish attendees wear the headset to hear Spanish interpreters.

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Scenario 2: Spanish to English

Now, scenario 2: there’s a question from the Spanish audience, or the presenter switches to Spanish language. Now, you need to do a reverse translation: interpreters listen to Spanish, and then translate that into English. Illustrated by the diagram below:


English conference interpreting
Interpreters switch to the English channel and translate from Spanish to English

Interpreters in the English-Spanish language pair switch the output of their mics to the English channel and translate the speaker (or questions from the Spanish audience) into English. Now the “passthrough” audio goes to Spanish channel 2, and translation goes to English channel 1. Either it is then broadcast over PA, or, transmitted to the English audience via headsets.

So far so good. Now, let’s make this a little more interesting:

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Scenario 3: English into Spanish and French

Your event got wildly successful, and now you have attendees coming over not only from Latin America, but also France (or French Quebec). You would like to add French language conference interpreting to the mix.

You need one more pair of interpreters: English-French. Your speakers and presenters are English-only, so all you need to do, is add another channel – let’s say, channel 3 – and multiplex your feed from the floor (main mix from the stage is called “the floor” in translation setup terminology). Take a look at the diagram below:

Conference Interpreting into Spanish and French
Speaker feed is delivered to the Spanish and French interpreting team. Spanish is broadcast on channel 1. French is broadcast on channel 3. English is passthrough on channel 2.

As you can see, the floor (speaker) is broadcast into interpreting team 1 (English-Spanish) and interpreting team 2 (English-French). Now, we slightly skipped a step ahead in this setup here, and you can see that two interpreting consoles are connected by a floor bus here. You can easily see, that it’s just as easy to split the main floor cable coming in and feed it into each console. This is what we normally do if presentation language does not change, and translation is uni-directional. Working with XLR cables leaves you room to adjust gain independently per each interpreting booth.

Now, with this setup, English-Spanish team is still broadcasting on Channel 1, and the added English-French team is broadcasting on Channel 3. English is passthrough on Channel 2, just as we had before. Each attendee can choose a channel they want to listen to based on their language of choice.

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Scenario 4: Relay Interpreting

So far so good. But what happens if the speaker language changes? Right until now your presenter was speaking English, and both teams (English-Spanish, English-French) can understand English. Now a new presenter (or an attendee) speaks, and they speak in French. This is not a problem for the French team – they will interpret back into English for English-speaking attendees. But the English-Spanish team is now in trouble: they don’t know French. So they can’t understand what’s being said, and they cannot interpret for Spanish-speaking attendees either.

So, what can we do? We can do relay. When the floor (speaker) switches to French, the French team switches to reverse (French to English), and the Spanish team switches to Relay mode: instead of listening to the speaker, they listen to the French interpreting team. They can understand English, so they can interpreter into Spanish now. So, the chain of languages looks like: French – English – Spanish.

This is a common technique used in multi-language meetings, and can scale to any number of languages. You just have to have a common denominator language understood by every interpreting team. For example, you have English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese – with every team working in English as one of the pair languages. Now, no matter who takes the floor, one team goes into reverse, and the other teams switch into relay:

Japanese – English: French, Spanish, Chinese
Chinese – English: French, Spanish, Japanese

and so on.

The diagram below illustrates the setup:

Relay Interpreting into Spanish and French
The floor switches to French and interpreting teams switch to relay interpreting. French team interprets back into English, and Spanish team works off that English translation.

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It is important for the language vendor to understand the flow of the event, and what speakers will be presenting, as well as their native language. This will determine the setup at the event, and the teams that will be engaged.

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