Consecutive or Simultaneous? An Analysis of Their Use in the Judicial Setting

by Holly Mikkelson
(published in Across the Board, Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association Vol. 5 No. 1, 2010, pp. 4-7)

In deciding whether to use the consecutive or the simultaneous mode of interpreting in the judicial setting, interpreters and the users of interpreter services must recognize the impact of these modes on the administration of justice. The most important consideration is the conservation of meaning and the protection of the record. Current thinking in the field of judicial interpreting leans toward the use of consecutive interpreting (CI) when testimony or statements by non-English speakers are interpreted into English for the record, and simultaneous interpreting (SI) when the proceeding is taking place in English and needs to be interpreted for the benefit of non-English speakers. For example, the United States Code (which governs federal court proceedings in the United States) provides that witness testimony should always be interpreted in the consecutive mode unless the judge rules otherwise:

The interpretation provided by certified or otherwise qualified interpreters pursuant to this section shall be in the simultaneous mode for any party to a judicial proceeding instituted by the United States and in the consecutive mode for witnesses, except that the presiding judicial officer, sua sponte or on the motion of a party, may authorize a simultaneous, or consecutive interpretation when such officer determines after a hearing on the record that such interpretation will aid in the efficient administration of justice. Title 28, Part V, Chapter 119, §1827(k)

Thus, for reasons of expediency, such as to enhance understanding, to accommodate a hearing-impaired defendant, or for other reasons, judges or attorneys may decide on occasion to deviate from the standard pattern of SI of proceedings and CI of non-English witness testimony.

The advent of specialized equipment has made SI more prevalent in all settings, including the judiciary. Such equipment is now in regular use in many courts in the United States and many other countries. The use of SI equipment makes it possible to use a single interpreter in multiple-defendant cases, although interpreters still should work in teams to prevent fatigue and to enable defendants to confer with counsel (the state of California requires a separate interpreter for each defendant in order to guarantee this right). When the practice of using equipment was introduced in the Los Angeles courts, Grusky (1988) pointed out the advantage of SI of witness testimony and concluded that it is preferable to use this mode at the witness stand:

It saves valuable court time. As soon as counsel finishes asking a question, the witness’s answer is forthcoming. It is more accurate than relying on the interpreter retaining long passages of oftentimes disjointed information, as is needed for consecutive interpreting. This method makes it unnecessary for the interpreter to request that a question be repeated. Everyone wearing a headset can hear the witness’s answer clearly, in spite of sometimes unfavorable courtroom acoustics. Interpreter fatigue is kept at a minimum, as the tension of trying to accurately retain long passages is reduced. The result is higher-quality interpretation. (p. 13)

There are interpreters who prefer to combine the two modes, rendering English questions into the witness’s language simultaneously and the witness’s answers into English consecutively (Russell, 2005). Another alternative was first proposed by Lombardi (2003) and then by Camayd-Freixas (2005). It involves using a small digital recording device to record the witness’s testimony and then play it back instantaneously into the interpreter’s ear. As the interpreter listens to the play-back, she provides a simultaneous interpretation of the testimony for the record.

The first point that is always made about SI, whether it is used for witness testimony or for proceedings, is that it saves time. With the crowded court calendars that are the norm in every part of this country, time is indeed a major consideration. For example, imagine how cumbersome it would be for everyone to stop after every sentence for the defendant to be given a consecutive interpretation during a preliminary hearing, which is a practice a competent interpreter would not engage in. In the past, summary interpretation (informing the defendant of the gist of testimony or arguments at the trial) was occasionally provided when interpreters were untrained non-professionals who were unable to keep up with the rapid pace of courtroom disclosure. However, this mode is not recommended for use during any type of proceeding. A competent interpreter can give the defendant a precise simultaneous version of what is being said, permitting the proceeding to continue undisturbed by the interpretation process.

In response to the argument that SI is more expedient for witness testimony, saving time is not the most important concern. If the conservation of meaning and legal equivalence are sacrificed, SI is not appropriate for witness testimony. Moreover, Russell (2002) asserts that CI may actually save time by preventing backtracking to fix errors in the interpretation. As for the contention that SI is more accurate than CI, careful consideration should be given to research that suggests just the opposite. Russell (2002, 2005) conducted an empirical study to test the hypothesis that consecutive interpreting in the courtroom is more accurate than the simultaneous mode. She found that in two trials where simultaneous interpreting was used, the accuracy rates were 87% and 83%, whereas when consecutive interpreting was used in two other trials, accuracy rates climbed to 98% and 95% (2005: 151). When the type of discourse was examined (expert witness testimony, direct evidence, and cross-examination), it was found that consecutive interpreting resulted in fewer errors across the board. Moreover, even though the subjects in the study were highly qualified professionals, “simultaneous interpreting, even when performed by experienced and certified interpreters, resulted in dramatic errors that were not corrected during the trials.” (2005: 153). Thus, Russell was able to reach this clear conclusion from her study: “The consecutive mode demonstrated a greater degree of accuracy than did simultaneous interpretation.” (2005: 151).

When asked about their preferences, witnesses who testified through interpreters noted that “they found the interpretation easier to understand when presented consecutively, especially during complicated questioning” (2005: 154). The presiding judges, in contrast, indicated that they liked the fact that simultaneous interpreting “seemed to help speed up the proceedings. However, when presented with information about the nature of interpretation, and potential impact of errors within the interpretation when performed simultaneously, the judges all agreed that the quality and accuracy of interpretation was paramount in the assessment of the evidence” (2005: 154). Russell emphasizes that not only is client education essential for ensuring informed decisions, but interpreters themselves must be properly trained:

The interpreters in this study who were most successful in using the consecutive interpreting process knew how to segment or chunk messages effectively, and had a sense of the appropriate time and place to pause so that part of the overall text could be interpreted. … Interpreters who were viewed as successful in educating the lawyers about their work in the courtroom were those who had non-technical explanations, who were confident about expressing their needs, and who identified that the accuracy of the interpretation was paramount in making decisions about when to use simultaneous or consecutive interpreting. (2005: 155)

Before empirical research was conducted to demonstrate that CI guarantees more accuracy than SI, interpreters (Seleskovitch, 1978a; Weber, 1984; Cokely, 1992) long contended that CI should be given preference over SI when a high degree of accuracy is required. The main reason cited is that the interpreter has heard the entire message before having to interpret it, and thus has the benefit of “thought-wholeness.” The interpreter has time to organize the target language (TL) version and put it in proper form, correctly applying all the rules of grammar, style, and syntax in the TL, so there is less likelihood of awkward constructions or false cognates. This also allows more time to search long-term memory for the proper terminology without losing any of the source language (SL) input. In addition, the interpreter has the opportunity to take notes, and to consult those notes, and even a dictionary should it be necessary, before rendering the TL version. And, finally, the other parties involved have more time to organize their thoughts while the interpreter is at work, so they can formulate their questions and answers more concisely. The latter point supports Russell’s (2002) assertion that CI may actually save time.

In CI, interpreters have more control over the situation: They can clarify ambiguities, ask for repetitions, or determine the meaning of problem terms. Moreover, they can see the reactions of the audience; they can see when the audience does not understand something, and they can adjust their interpretation accordingly (speaking more loudly, for example, correcting their own errors, or making different word choices, as long as they remain true to the register and content of the original). Finally, in CI, interpreters may have the witness pause periodically so that they can intervene and interpret segments of lengthy testimony, thereby ensuring the utmost accuracy. This practice should be kept to a minimum, however, because of the negative impact it has on witness credibility. Interpreters practicing SI have less control over the situation; they have less rapport with the individual they are interpreting for and are less able to monitor themselves for errors. Thus, there is greater potential for mistakes to be made in SI, and very little time to correct them.

Another advantage of CI is that it enables the judge and jury to assess the verbal and non-verbal behavior of the witness, which is particularly important for their evaluation on the issue of credibility. When SI is performed, everyone must focus on the interpreter, and important cues from the witness are missed. Moreover, because everyone in the room can hear both SL and TL versions, any inadvertent mistakes made by the interpreter may be caught by other bilingual individuals, attorneys, the judge, or even the witness who knows some English. This adds to the stress under which the interpreter is operating, of course, but it does make for greater accuracy, and a true professional appreciates the opportunity to correct genuine errors.

The fatigue factor mentioned by Grusky (1988) as a drawback of CI is a significant consideration. Although CI looks simple, it is very taxing mentally. Interpreters are under a great deal of pressure to retain every single element of the SL message, and though their powers of recall can be supplemented by taking notes, they must rely primarily on their memory. If they ask for a repetition, the witness may not give the same answer the second time, and vital testimony may be lost. SI can also be very taxing if it is performed for long periods of time. Regardless of the mode of interpreting they are performing, interpreters should work in teams and spell each other periodically to prevent fatigue.

Another disadvantage of CI is that people are sometimes impatient and do not wait for the interpreter to complete the rendition. This happens when a witness who knows some English answers the question without waiting for the interpretation, or when an attorney picks up a few words of the witness’s answer and launches right in to the follow-up question without waiting for the answer to be interpreted for the record. A great deal of misunderstanding and backtracking can result from this tendency. Moreover, there is no record of exactly what was said. Whenever a witness testifies through an interpreter, the court should adopt the instructions such as those recommended in Hewitt (1995) to make the parties aware of this potential problem and to protect the record.

During the examination of witnesses, it is standard practice in many legal settings, especially depositions and administrative hearings, for interpreters to use CI to interpret questions and switch to SI when objections arise. The problem with this procedure is that attorneys rarely wait until the question has been fully interpreted before beginning their objections. The interpreter does not have an opportunity to interpret the question before the objection to that question, and the witness may be confused.

There are two more reasons for choosing CI: (1) It is a general rule in the courtroom that only one person speaks aloud at a time. This not only contributes to an orderly discussion, but also solves a very practical problem for the court reporter, whose duty it is to record every word uttered. If more than one person is speaking at once, the task for the court reporter is greatly complicated. (2) More importantly, defendants sitting at counsel table without an interpreter by their side now still have the right to hear both the question and answers in their own language. The interpreter’s CI of the questions and answers at the stand should be in a loud and clear voice so that all in the courtroom, including the defendant, may hear the complete interpretation. Not only is the defendant’s right to hear the testimony important, but of course the English rendition is being entered into the record and must be well articulated so that there is no question or ambiguity in the minds of the judge, jury, legal counsel, audience or the court reporter.

If the interpreter uses the simultaneous mode of interpretation, the interpreter will, of necessity, be speaking at the same time as another speaker and, even if whispering into the ear of the witness, will deprive the defendant of the opportunity to hear the question posed by the prosecution. A competent, experienced interpreter should be able to interpret in any mode and to solve the difficulties mentioned. As stated at the beginning of this discussion, the primary concerns should always be conservation of meaning, rendering of a legal equivalent, and the protection of the record.

It is interesting to note that the courtroom is not the only venue where consecutive interpreting has been valued for the additional assurance of accuracy that it provides. In the early years of the United Nations, a great debate took place among interpreters about the relative merits of the two modes of interpreting. Baigorri-Jalón (2004) describes the “battle” on behalf of consecutive interpreting waged by the veteran professionals who had cut their teeth in the League of Nations and other diplomatic enterprises of the early 20th century. They argued that simultaneous interpreters were mere téléphonistes or parrots relegated to anonymity in their booths, in contrast to the “performers” who dazzled delegates with their impressive memories and eloquent oratory. Although the proponents of consecutive interpreting allowed that simultaneous might be acceptable for the debates of the General Assembly and the Security Council, accuracy should not be sacrificed for speed in the delicate negotiations that took place among the ranking diplomats in the Security Council. Thanks to the influence of these pioneer interpreters, consecutive interpreting was the preferred mode of interpreting at the loftiest levels of the United Nations for many years. Even Colonel L. Dostert, who championed the introduction of simultaneous interpreting at the Nuremberg trials and later at the United Nations, admitted that “about fifteen per cent of the time – when an amendment, say, is being drawn that requires absolute accuracy – consecutive translation is better” (quoted in Baigorri-Jalón, 2004, p. 67).

Gradually, however, Baigorri-Jalón (2004) reports that as technology improved and new generations of interpreters came in with highly developed simultaneous interpreting skills (and an admittedly limited ability to perform consecutive interpreting), consecutive was gradually replaced by simultaneous. By the 1970s the latter mode was used in everything but formal bilateral meetings of the Secretary General with “important state dignitaries and [at] high-level working dinners” (2004: 147). Consecutive interpreting is still taught in most schools of conference interpreting and is considered a stepping stone to learning proper techniques for simultaneous. It is also a component of the tests for staff interpreters at many international organizations. Baigorri-Jalón (2004) considers Monique Corvington, the former Head of the UN Interpreting Service in New York, to represent the thinking of many conference interpreters when she calls consecutive “the stuff that makes you a good interpreter” (quoted in Baigorri-Jalón, 2004, p. 130).

In conclusion, scholars and professional interpreters generally agree that consecutive interpreting is preferable when absolute precision is required, but in today’s fast-paced world it is often regarded as a fine art, a luxury that may have to be dispensed with when time is of the essence. In some jurisdictions, precedent mandates certain modes of interpretation, making its use a legal requirement, and the interpreter should follow the law in these matters at all times. As Russell (2005) points out, judges and attorneys should at least be aware of the facts before deciding to opt for simultaneous interpreting rather than the consecutive mode.


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Russell, D. (2005). Chapter 6: "Consecutive interpreting". In T. Janzen (Ed.), Topics in signed language interpreting. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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