Saturday, November 24, 2012

Whispering and the Origin of Simultaneous Interpreting

In a recent online discussion between Professional Interpreters about the training that's given in interpreter schools (see References), one object of criticism was the lack of training for chuchotage.
What is chuchotage?
Chuchotage is French for whispering, i.e., whispered interpreting. The Professionals’ use of the French term is a reminder of the influence of French interpreters on the development of modern conference interpreting. I’ll use the English word because, for one thing, whispering is not confined to Professionals.
“In whispered interpreting..., the interpreter sits or stands next to the small target-language audience whilst whispering a simultaneous interpretation of the matter to hand; this method requires no equipment.”
(Though “this method requires no equipment”, lightweight equipment is sometimes used to enhance it.)
The “small target-language audience” is often, indeed is ideally, a single person, because whispering doesn’t carry far. The maximum is three or four people grouped close to the interpreter. Despite this limitation, it can be used to advantage when there are only very few people in a gathering who need the interpretation. Since it needs no equipment and is usually done by a single interpreter, it’s very economical. Besides conference interpreting, it’s used in court and liaison interpreting. Like all simultaneous interpreting, it offers the advantage that it takes up much less time than consecutive. In fact it’s widely used, and many interpreter agencies offer it: see the ads on Google.
When we look at it more closely, we observe some finer distinctions. For example, besides true whispering there’s also murmuring. In whispering, besides its low volume, the enunciation is, as linguists say, devoiced; that is to say, the resonance of vowels and certain consonants is reduced or eliminated: z becomes s and so on. In murmuring, the voicing is retained and only the volume is reduced.
Another distinction is in the manner of translating. The definition quoted above says it’s “simultaneous”, and so it is in the sense that the interpreter whispers while the speaker is still talking. But the interpreter may stick very closely behind the speaker and whisper continuously, or may translate in short bursts with interruptions. There is also summarizing, where the interpreter doesn’t render all that’s said but only delivers bursts of summary. In general, whispering hasn’t been studied much and I don’t know any research that has looked into these finer distinctions.
So whispering has its usefulness, but what are its drawbacks?
First and foremost, obviously, the limitation on the size of its audience. Any attempt to increase it requires the interpreter to speak louder, and then it’s no longer whispering. Worse than that, ‘loud whispering’ disturbs the listening and concentration of people around who are not targeted, including the speaker. Nothing could be more annoying.
Second, it’s a mode of simultaneous interpreting, and like all SI it requires great concentration to listen, translate and speak at the same time, even if the translation is only summarized. Therefore it’s very tiring. Furthermore, "while it takes less effort to produce a whisper, it tires out the vocal cords more quickly." I said above that it’s commonly done by a single interpreter – unfortunately so, because that interpreter ought to have a relief if it goes on for very long. (In my experience, short consecutive interpreting is less tiring.) There was a good discussion in a Kudoz forum a while back about the load on a single interpreter and the professional pay for it (see References).
Third, the listener too has to concentrate because of interference from the ambient noise and the voice of the speaker.
What then should interpreting students be taught and practice, beyond the basic skill of simultaneous translation?
The most important extra skill, and for some people the most difficult, is prolonged voice control. If you're concentrating on listening and translation, your voice volume may rise without your noticing it and you may even slip from whispering into murmuring. In that case you'll usually be called to order by black looks from the other people around who don't want to hear you. Some people have naturally loud voices, which they must make an extra effort to dampen
It's also important to learn to place listeners and speaker in the right position vis-a-vis the interpreter, and to resist any request to 'whisper' to more than four listeners.
To be concluded.
  • What they don't teach you at interpreting schools. Interpreting Journal Club Session 23, October 27, 2012. Read it here.
  • Section on ‘Whispered’ in the Wikipedia article on 'Language interpretation’, which is here.
  • There's also a Wikipedia article on the phonetics of whispering here.
  • Chuchotage. forum discussion, 2008. Read it here.


  1. Really interesting, thank you! As a staff court interpreter and interpreter instructor, this info will be very helpful.

  2. Dear Nicholas,

    I'm happy to salute a fellow ATIO member. Your own web page is very impressive. I did Latin at school but gave it up when I embarked on classical Arabic. However, it's always been useful, for instance for learning Spanish.


  3. I'm looking for someone who can do simultaneous translation for my husband. His construction company is working on a big project for a foreign client. The client is coming to see the progress in a couple weeks and he doesn't speak English very well. My husband doesn't know if he will have an interpreter with him so he wants to have one on hand. How can I go about finding a high quality interpreter?
    Claudia Rosenburg |

  4. I appreciate you sharing this info! I've been trying to learn more about simultaneous interpreting, and this helped a ton. I'm grateful for the amazing service that interpreters provide to many people.