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Can tour guide systems replace interpreting equipment?

Aug, 2015
Written by Anja Peschel, translation by Marie Crossland

Customers sometimes ask me whether or not tour guide systems can be used in place of interpreting booths.

What is a tour guide system?

Tour guide systems (TGSs) were originally developed for factory and museum tours, and consist of a microphone and headset receivers. The museum guide speaks into the microphone and listeners hear everything via their headsets, meaning that they are free to move around and the speaker has no reason to disturb other visitors by shouting. The appeal of this solution is clear: only those who wish to listen have to, and anyone wanting to hear can do so (at a volume that they choose).

Interpreting using tour guide systems

Clever people have come up with idea of using such systems at events with interpreters. In the case of bilingual factory tours, for example, this might mean that the interpreter stands close to the speaker and simultaneously interprets what is said into a microphone. Participants are then able to listen to the translated speech via their headsets. The advantage of this is that tours can be given in two languages and that the listeners are free to move around. Surrounded by noisy machines, however, it may be difficult for the interpreter to hear the speaker sufficiently well, which has an impact on the quality of the interpretation. A way of improving this situation is to use two radio channels (one for German and one for English, for instance). Here, the factory guide speaks German into a microphone and his speech is transmitted, say, via channel A. The interpreter, and of course any German listeners, are then able to receive this speech via their headsets and regulate the volume independently. At the same time, the interpreter works simultaneously into a second microphone, from which spoken English is transmitted via channel B. This method has proven successful for mobile events, despite the fact that, in my experience, the quality of the translation is never able to match that of work performed in interpreting booths. Here, interpreters are shielded from all acoustic and most visual disturbances, they have all their tools (laptops and documents) in front of them and they don’t need to walk around whilst working. In interpreting booths, they are able to concentrate exclusively on their actual translation work.

Having heard all that, you may wonder whether tour guide systems could also be employed in conference rooms. At the end of the day, this would save a lot of money on equipment costs. The fact remains, however, that in a conference environment, the disadvantages almost always outweigh any cost benefits. An interpreter’s output always corresponds directly to the input he or she receives. If the acoustic is good, there are no sources of interference and the speaker talks in a clear and understandable manner, the interpreter will be able to perform at his or her best. When TGSs are used, however, the interpreter is distracted by everything that goes on in the room: every cough, rustle of paper or whisper can prevent part of the speaker’s message from reaching the interpreter, and thus from becoming part of his or her translation. This can quickly turn a 50 million dollar profit into 15 million.

A further drawback of using a TGS for conference interpreting is that the interpreter’s voice is not screened by the booth, and is therefore not solely received by those who actually wish to hear it. This encroaches on the whole environment – many conference participants find the constant murmuring or whispering extremely annoying.

Simultaneous interpreters who work with TGSs often whisper or speak very quietly to minimise such disruptions. In this case, however, those listening to the translation lose out, as it is impossible to modulate the voice in the same way when speaking quietly or whispering – speech sounds monotonous and is more difficult to understand.

Last but certainly not least, whispering for long periods places considerable stress on the interpreter’s vocal cords.

In summary, though tour guide systems are suitable for use in some interpreting situations, they are no replacement for interpreting booths. Before opting for this solution, conference organisers ought to consider whether the costs that result from failing to convey a complete message or leaving conference participants unhappy may be greater than those of hiring an interpreting booth.

If you are planning an event and are unsure as what type of interpreting technique best suits your needs, we will be happy to advise you.

Advantages of using tour guide systems

  • Listeners are free to move around during tours
  • The entire group is mobile, which can be beneficial for events with small, frequently changing working groups
  • They offer the option of employing simultaneous interpreters even if there is no room for a booth and it is not possible to station interpreters in a separate room with a video link
  • Tour guide systems are considerably cheaper than interpreting booths

Disadvantages of using tour guide systems

  • Part of the message can be lost, as interpreters are not able to hear everything perfectly
  • Participants close to the interpreter are disturbed
  • Since interpreters are forced to whisper or speak very quietly, their speech is not as pleasant to listen to
  • As this type of work is extremely strenuous for interpreters, day rates are usually higher than for work in a booth
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