How we work

You may already have seen or heard interpreters at work whispering for heads of state or interpreting in sound-proof booths at large international conferences.

The ability to interpret is a skill many claim but few truly possess. Consider the process of interpretation: the interpreter listens to the speaker, understands the message and converts it into another language, speaks to the delegates and all the while monitors his output to ensure elegant delivery. And while this is happening the interpreter is absorbing the next part of the speech.

What are the processes involved? It is essential to grasp that interpreting is first and foremost understanding the intended message perfectly. It can then be "detached" from the words used to convey it in the original and reconstituted, in all its subtlety, in words of the target language.

Interpreting is a constant to-ing and fro-ing between different ways of thinking and cultural universes.

Conference interpreters usually work in a team put together for a specific conference according to the event's working languages.

Today, interpreters spend most of their time performing simultaneous interpretation. For smaller meetings, where only two or at most three languages are used, consecutive interpretation is also suitable.

The majority of professional conference interpreters now have more than two working languages - on average, AIIC interpreters have 3, 4. But they do not work into all of them indiscriminately. AIIC has defined a strict language classification scheme to ensure quality.

Modes of Interpretation


In a sound-proof booth with direct view onto the conference room, the interpreter listens to a speaker through earphones and simultaneously transmits the message in another language through a microphone to listeners in the room.


Seated at the conference table, the interpreter listens to a speech, takes notes and then renders the meaning of the speaker's message in another language.


Seated in the meeting room, the interpreter whispers in another language, to a maximum of two delegates, what is being said by a speaker.

Language Combination

The term "Language Combination" refers to the languages an interpreter uses professionally. These ‘working’ languages can be further subdivided into ‘active’ and ‘passive’ languages. Below a fuller description is provided of the different terms, following the AIIC classification of A, B and C languages.

Active languages:

Active languages are those languages into which the interpreter works. An active language can be one of two kinds:

A Language: The interpreter's mother tongue (or another language strictly equivalent to a mother tongue), into which s/he interprets from all other working languages, generally in the two modes of interpretation, simultaneous and consecutive. AIIC members are expected to have at least one A language.
B Language:

A language into which the interpreter works from one or more of her/his other languages and which, although not a mother tongue, is a language of which s/he has perfect command. Some interpreters work into B languages in only one of the two modes of interpretation. In principle, an interpreter’s main active language is the mother tongue - the language in which the interpreter was formally educated and feels completely at ease.

An active language which is not the interpreter’s mother tongue can only be acquired after years of hard work and frequent stays in a country of that language. Usually, however, the second active language reaches a satisfactory standard only after many years of practice and is more suited to interpretation of technical discussions where lexical accuracy is more important than style or very discrete shades of meaning. It is customary only to work into the second active language out of the mother tongue.

The very rare case of true bilinguals, i.e. people whose personal circumstances have resulted in their having two "mother tongues", is the exception that proves the rule. Bilingual interpreters are much in demand, especially if they can offer a third language.

Passive languages:

C Language: Passive languages are those languages of which the interpreter has complete understanding and from which s/he interprets. These are what interpreters call their C languages, according to AIIC classification.

Working languages and language combinations

Using the information provided above as a basis, let us take an example of an interpreter with three working languages - English, French and Russian.

By classifying them as A, B and C languages respectively we have that interpreter’s language combination. This means that this particular interpreter may be employed to work from Russian and French into English, as well as from English into French.

Recommended citation format:
AIIC. "How we work". March 11, 2004. Accessed July 10, 2020. <>.

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Tereza Schleider


Since what year is this classification valid? Is it since 2004? 

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