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Modes of Interpreting: Simultaneous, Consecutive and Sight Translation

Updated: Jun 29


The modes of interpreting have evolved over time. Three modes are now recognized by the interpreting profession and have been adopted in federal and state statutes and court rules: simultaneous interpreting, consecutive interpreting, and sight translation.

Each mode fits particular needs and circumstances in the judicial process and in legal and quasi­ legal settings. This paper explains the use of each mode of interpreting, gives reasons for the use of each one, and provides practical suggestions for effective use of interpreters when working with individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP).

What is simultaneous interpreting?

Simultaneous interpreting is the rendering of one spoken language into another when running renditions are needed at the same time as the English language communication. The interpreter speaks virtually at the same time as the LEP person. When done properly, it is a true and accurate interpretation of one language to another, done without omissions or embellishments, so that the parties can understand one another quickly.

When is simultaneous interpreting used?

The simultaneous mode is used whenever participants, most often defendants, are playing a passive role in court proceedings such as arraignments, hearings, or trials. The LEP speaker needs to hear what is being said but is not required, at that particular stage of the proceedings, to speak for herself/himself. In order to preserve the defendant’s rights, everything spoken in open court must be interpreted simultaneously. This enables the defendant to be truly present and take an active part in her/his defense.

Keys for proper simultaneous interpreting

In the simultaneous interpreting mode, the interpreter must do several things at once:

  • listen intently to whatever party is speaking

  • accurately interpret from the source language to the target language

  • be prepared to switch languages rapidly whenever the LEP party is directly engaged in the procedure and consecutive interpreting is required.

What is consecutive interpreting?

In consecutive interpreting, the interpreter waits until the speaker has finished before rendering speech into another language. Consecutive interpreting is a true and accurate interpretation of one language to another, spoken in brief sound bites successively, without omissions or embellishments, so that the parties can understand each other slowly and deliberately.

When is consecutive interpreting used?

The consecutive mode is used whenever LEP participants are playing an active role — when they must speak or respond — during examinations, cross­ examinations, and other proceedings .

Consecutive interpreting is often used when parties are addressing a witness or defendant on the witness stand. In legal settings, such as attorney/client or prosecutor/witness/victim interviews, the consecutive mode is the preferred mode of interpreting, as it is in a question and answer session.

Consecutive interpreting can be used during police interviews of suspects and/or witnesses or victims, especially during recorded interviews. The gaps in speech between the parties allow for a clear and accurate transcript to be prepared if necessary for further court proceedings.

Keys for proper consecutive interpreting

In the consecutive interpreting mode, the interpreter must:

  • listen intently to whatever party is speaking

  • be prepared to take notes to aid in recollection

  • accurately interpret after the party has completed her statement.

What is sight translation?

Sight translation is the rendering of material written in one language into spoken speech in another language. It is a true and accurate verbal translation of written material into the spoken form so that the parties can understand what documents written in foreign languages say.

When is sight translation used?

Sight translation is often used when LEP defendants are given forms in court that are written in English, such as rights forms, plea forms, and probation orders. It is also used when foreign ­language documents such as birth certificates, personal letters, and identity documents are presented in court.

Keys for proper sight translation

Recommended practice is to afford the interpreter sufficient time to review the document’s contents before rendering it.

When performing sight translation, the interpreter must: possess a wide vocabulary and knowledge of the specific type of document presented have the ability to quickly scan and understand the main points of the document accurately interpret the document into its equivalent meaning in the target language.


In judicial, legal and quasi­ legal settings, interpreters are obligated to interpret all communication made between parties of different languages directly and accurately, without omissions or embellishments. All those involved, such as judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, law enforcement, court staff, court support services, defendants, victims, and witnesses, can make best use of interpreting services by following these guidelines:

  1. Talk through the interpreter, not to the interpreter. When using an interpreter to address a non English speaker, speak directly to that person as if the interpreter weren’t even there.

  2. Use the first person when addressing the other party. Do not say, “Could you ask him if he is aware of the maximum penalty for this offense.” Instead, turn directly to the party you are addressing and say, “Are you aware of the maximum penalty for this offense?” See NAJIT’s position paper, “Direct Speech in Legal Settings,” for more details on this point.

  3. Do not ask the interpreter for his opinion or input.

  4. Watch your speed. This goes both ways. When speaking extemporaneously, don’t speak too fast, and don’t speak too slowly. When reading something aloud (such as jury instructions, waiver of rights, or a specific evidence code section), keep your pace slower than normal.

  5. Do not try to communicate with the interpreter or otherwise interrupt him/her while simultaneously interpreting. Simultaneous interpreting requires intense, high levels of concentration and accumulated skill in order to be performed properly. Distracting the interpreter during simultaneous interpreting can cause an immediate breakdown in communication for all parties.

  6. Parties must refrain from talking at the same time in order for the interpreter to interpret court proceedings properly. Just as court reporters are duty­ bound to stop parties from talking over one another during recorded proceedings, interpreters have an equal duty do the same in order to protect the due process right of the defendant .

  7. Do not direct the interpreter to convey information to the LEP individual when you are not present.


Certified court interpreters are highly trained individuals who are, in many ways, the “invisible hand” of justice. They are expected to be nearly invisible in the courtroom yet must maintain acute mental presence at all times. They are expected to possess a vast legal vocabulary as well as instant, accurate recall. Often, they are whisked from courtroom to courtroom, simultaneously interpreting for defendants at the arraignment stage at one moment, consecutively interpreting for witnesses or victims at a trial at another, and simultaneously interpreting for parents of juveniles at a hearing in yet another. On many occasions, the interpreter is handed a document and is asked to “read it to the defendant.” Frequently the interpreter walks into courtroom situations without knowing any of the background or context, adding another layer of difficulty to the interpreter’s tasks. Parties occasionally ask their interpreter to simply summarize what is being said, allowing her to pick and choose what part of the conversation is relevant to interpret, which is never allowable.

For parties needing to communicate from English into another language, having some background knowledge of the interpreter’s role in the legal field is fundamental for the administration of justice. Understanding the three modes of interpreting is an essential part of helping ensure equal access to justice to all parties — including members of linguistic minorities — who find themselves in any judicial setting, whether inside and outside of the courtroom.

SOURCE: This article has been originally printed by NAJIT.


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