Some multilingual situations are more complicated than others. When the challenge ramps up, a relay interpreter might just be the solution…

Perhaps a Chinese keynote speaker will need to have their speech translated into English first – and then the French, German and Russian which their audience also needs.

Because relaying interpreting is, essentially, very much what it sounds like:

A small series of interpreters who work together to bridge the gap between languages.

What is relay interpreting?

Relay interpreting is sometimes referred to as “indirect interpreting”.

In this method, one interpreter will listen to a speech and interpret that message into a target language – usually the common language among all the other interpreters. This shared language is called the pivot language. Often, but not always, this language is English.

The other interpreters can then convey the message from the pivot language into their target language.

In this way, multilingual situations become much easier to handle and difficult language pairs become easier to support.

Much like more regular interpretation, relay interpreting can be both consecutive and simultaneous:

Simultaneous relay interpreting – how it works

Simultaneous relay interpreting will usually be called for at large conferences. For example, picture a business conference where the CEO of a Japanese corporation is addressing a room of delegates from Europe:

The CEO speaks to the audience in Japanese. The first interpreter verbally translates his speech into English.

The English translation is listened to by the members of the audience who speak English. But it is also listened to by the other interpreters. One will then translate it into French, one into German, one into Spanish and so on.

Consecutive relay interpreting – how it works

Although most people think of relaying only being simultaneous in nature, there are many situations where consecutive relay interpreting is called for:

Imagine that a speaker of a language (let’s say Kurdish) which doesn’t have a large number of speakers in a country (let’s say Italy) needs to visit a hospital:

To overcome the language barrier to treatment, two medical interpreters may be needed. One would translate from Kurdish to a pivot language (possibly English). The other would translate from English to Italian, and then back again.

When is relay interpreting useful?

In general, a relay interpreter may be a good solution:

  1. Any time that multiple target languages are going to be present.
  2. When there is no single interpreter available who can support all languages.
  3. When an unusual language pair cannot be supported by a single interpreter.

Specific occasions where this kind of linguist is commonly called for include:

Multilingual conferences

Many multilingual conferences, such as large-scale business conferences, trade shows and meetings between nations such as the UN or ASEAN often use relay interpreters without any of the attendees realising it.

The method is particularly useful when there are attendees who speak a language spoken by a small minority of people. Or for situations which there are very few – if any – professional interpreters who speak both the source and target languages.

Deaf, blind and deaf-blind relay interpreting

Deaf, blind or deaf-blind people may use a variety of different communication methods as well as speech, including:

  • Manual signing
  • Visual frame signing
  • Hands-on signing

They may also speak a wide variety of different sign languages:

In the UK, BSL (British Sign Language) is the most common. But there are many others, including Welsh Sign Language, Scottish Language and Irish Sign Language. International Sign Language may also be spoken – by people who grew up outside of the UK, for instance.

The likelihood that there may be a difficulty providing a single interpreter who understands, for example, both Welsh Sign Language and spoken Polish means that relay interpreting is a sensible and often-used solution in all manner of situations, from doctors appointments to legal settings to business meetings.

How to prepare for using a relay interpreter

Like any professional interpreter, a relay interpreter will need a few pieces of equipment and a particular set-up in order to give you the best results. These will include:


Simultaneous interpreting – whether delivered as a relay or not – will require a soundproof environment, a clear view of the speaker or a video link as well as microphones for the linguists and headsets for the audience.

In addition to this, a relay interpreter will most likely need a console which can be switched between receiving and transmitting.

Most Language Service Providers can help you source or at least recommend the right kind of equipment.


You should always choose an interpreter with experience and/ or qualifications in the topic which will be discussed.

However, alerting your linguist to any specialist topics, fields or terms you think might come up beforehand is always worth the time though.

This allows them to do a little research or top-up their knowledge of that particular field before the event. Pre-event consultationMeeting with your interpreter or Language Service Provider with plenty of time to spare before the event ensures your linguist/s are properly prepared.

It also gives you an opportunity to provide that briefing.

Consider timing

One of the factors to consider when planning to use this kind of interpretation at your event is that oral translation from one language to another to a third takes more time than “normal” simultaneous interpretation.

Only the slightest delay is usually noticeable. But it’s still something to bear in mind.

Why is a relay interpreter’s job so difficult?

From the examples above, you can see why relay interpreting is such a challenge:

First of all, because it’s very much like a game of Chinese whispers. The only way to guarantee that the message is passed accurately is to ensure that all of the interpreters involved are highly skilled and experienced professionals.

It’s also a task which relies on a team of linguists working together efficiently. Many simultaneous interpreters who work at large-scale multilingual events will already be used to this – make sure yours are.

In short, all of this makes the skills and training of your linguist of paramount importance when selecting the right professional for your situation.

This is true no matter what kind of interpretation you need. But it’s especially true of relay interpreting.

Wondering if a relay interpreter might be right for your event?

Chat with us. Asian Absolute provides interpreting services to companies in all industries around the world.

Leave a question in the comments below. Or why not contact us directly? We’re here to help 24/7.