The World of Relay Interpreting: An Overview

Relay Interpreting might sound like a technical term, but the concept is actually quite straightforward - and immensely practical.

How does the relay in "Relay Interpreting" enhance communication, instead of complicating it?Diverse group of individuals conversing each representing a different language and culturejpg

Relay Interpreting is a method where interpreters ensure that messages are interpreted across different languages in a chain-like process. 

We'll explore the mechanics of how relay interpreting works, its varied forms, common applications, and both its strengths and challenges.

Understanding Relay Interpreting

Relay interpreting is a practical and often necessary approach to cross-linguistic communication.

So, how does it work?

We’ll provide a detailed example in the next section, but as a summary explanation; relay interpreting is an interpreting method that utilizes more than just source language and a target language; it also utilizes a “pivot language”

Instead of directly interpreting Language A to Language B, the message gets passed through an intermediate, or pivot language (which is often English).

Relay interpreting is particularly useful during large international events or conferences where participants speak multiple languages. By using this method, events can ensure messages are conveyed accurately and comprehensively to everyone, regardless of their native tongue.

How Does Relay Interpreting Occur?

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First off, let's say there's a speaker who's speaking in Spanish. 

Now let's say that their audience only understands French, Afrikaans, and German, and that all three interpreters understand English.Instead of having a direct interpreter for each language pair, we can utilize relay interpretation.

Primary Interpretation: This is where the first interpreter comes into play. They'll listen to what's being said in Spanish and then interpret it into a commonly understood language (in this case English), which acts as our "pivot" or middleman language. Think of it as the primary interpreter sharing the message with other interpreters in a language they all understand.

Relay Stage: Now, other interpreters, who are fluent in English, take over. One interprets from English to French, another from English to German, and the other from English to Afrikaans. They're essentially relaying the message from the primary interpretation into the target languages.

Delivery: The audience gets the message, crystal clear, in their native tongue, even though the message might have taken a couple of linguistic detours to get there.

Why is this method so popular? 

Well, for one, it’s efficient. It allows interpreters to use widely known languages as a base, making it easier to find qualified professionals. Plus, it's super useful in settings like the United Nations, where many languages are spoken and time is of the essence. 

Remember, the key to successful relay interpreting is the pivot language interpreter. They set the stage, and if they're clear and accurate, the rest of the process goes smoothly. And for the listener, it's all seamless, ensuring they grasp the message, no matter how complex the interpretation/s required.

Types of Relay Interpreting

When it comes to relay interpreting, it's easy to think it's a straightforward process, but in reality, there's a bit more to it. Let's break it down.

First off, there's the Simple Relay. Here, an interpreter interprets a source language into a widely known intermediary/ pivot language (like English or French). Then, another interpreter takes it from there, interpreting that intermediate language into the target language. It's like a two-step dance - source to pivot, then pivot to target.

Then, we have the Complex Relay. Instead of one intermediary language, there might be two, three, or even more. 

Why so many? 

Well, sometimes, languages are so unique or rare that there isn't a direct interpreter available. By using multiple pivot languages, the message still makes it to the destination language. Think of it like a multi-step dance, with several partners switching in and out.

There's always the risk of a tiny loss in interpretation with each step, but the beauty of relay interpreting is that it allows communication to occur where it might otherwise be impossible.

Where is Relay Interpreting Used?

Relay interpreting is predominantly utilized in settings where multiple languages converge. For instance, during United Nations meetings, representatives from 193 countries communicate, often requiring interpretations across various languages. Relay interpreting simplifies this process.

At international sports events, such as the Olympics, commentators speak in several languages to ensure global viewers understand. 

Educational webinars that cater to diverse audiences also make use of relay interpreting to maintain clarity and coherence for all participants. 

Global tech conferences, with attendees from a multitude of linguistic backgrounds, rely on this method. Relay interpreting is a pivotal tool in settings where direct interpretation for every language combination isn't feasible. It streamlines communication, ensuring the intended message is conveyed accurately across diverse linguistic groups.

In legal settings, relay interpreting can be essential for ensuring precise communication. One example is the Juracan Juracan Case. This instance emphasizes the importance of relay interpretation in legal proceedings

Benefits of Relay Interpreting

Relay interpreting provides a number of tangible benefits that solve practical issues in multilingual settings. For starters, by selecting a pivot language, it eliminates the requirement for interpreters for every possible language combination.

This effective technique decreases the number of interpreters needed for an event. By restricting the number of language possibilities, it decreases the chances of errors caused by multiple direct interpretations.

This method can be cost-effective because hiring interpreters for fewer languages is often less expensive than hiring many for direct interpretations. Relay interpreting is versatile; it may be used in various scenarios, making it a dependable option in a variety of communication environments.

Challenges in Relay Interpreting

First off, every time you add a step in the interpretation process, there's a risk of losing some accuracy. Think of it like a game of telephone; sometimes, the original message can get a bit twisted.

Then there's the time factor. Relay interpreting isn't as quick as direct interpretation because you're bouncing the message through an extra language or two. This can cause delays, which might not seem like a big deal but can be a bit awkward in real-time scenarios, and there's a lot riding on that pivot language.

If the interpreter interpreting into the pivot language gets something wrong, everyone down the line is working with that mistake. It's vital for all interpreters in the chain to be at the top of their game; a weak link can mess things up for everyone.


Relay interpreting plays a pivotal role in multilingual communication, particularly when direct interpretation isn't viable. By employing a pivot language, it ensures messages are conveyed accurately across multiple languages.

This type of interpretation is a straightforward solution to many international events and meetings that rely on this technique for communication, especially when direct interpretation for a specific language pair isn’t available.

If you’d like to learn more, you can check out our previous articles about other types of interpretation such as whispering interpreting, and consecutive interpreting versus simultaneous interpreting. To find out about interpreting services provided by Interpreter IO, you can contact us by clicking here.