Multimodal processing in simultaneous interpreting with text: Interpreters focus more on the visual than the auditory modality

Agnieszka Chmiel, Przemysław Janikowski and Agnieszka Lijewska
Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań | University of Silesia in Katowice


The present study focuses on (in)congruence of input between the visual and the auditory modality in simultaneous interpreting with text. We asked twenty-four professional conference interpreters to simultaneously interpret an aurally and visually presented text with controlled incongruences in three categories (numbers, names and control words), while measuring interpreting accuracy and eye movements. The results provide evidence for the dominance of the visual modality, which goes against the professional standard of following the auditory modality in the case of incongruence. Numbers enjoyed the greatest accuracy across conditions possibly due to simple cross-language semantic mappings. We found no evidence for a facilitation effect for congruent items, and identified an impeding effect of the presence of the visual text for incongruent items. These results might be interpreted either as evidence for the Colavita effect (in which visual stimuli take precedence over auditory ones) or as strategic behaviour applied by professional interpreters to avoid risk.

Publication history
Table of contents

Simultaneous interpreting is sometimes likened to the job of an air traffic controller working at a very busy airport (Zeier 1997; Leeson 2005). Just like the air traffic controller has to monitor the position, speed and altitude of numerous aircraft in the assigned airspace and communicate with pilots, the interpreter has to juggle multiple tasks, such as listening to the source language text, expressing the same meaning in the target language and monitoring their own output. Interpreters’ performance oftentimes sparks awe among their listeners who admire bilingual processing under extreme temporal constraints. Although simultaneous interpreting seems a very difficult task in itself due to the cross-linguistic multitasking involved, professional interpreters are successful even when yet more multitasking is required, as is the case in simultaneous interpreting with text. In this type of interpreting, interpreters have access to the text of the speech to be read out by the speaker. In this case, the interpreter has to control three different channels – the speech produced by the speaker in the source language in the auditory channel, the self-produced interpreting in the target language in the auditory channel, and the source language text provided in the visual channel. Since the speaker may depart from the written text while delivering the to-be-interpreted speech, the interpreter has to constantly monitor both input channels. Additionally, self-monitoring gains importance in this type of interpreting because interpreters have to avoid source language interference not only from the auditory, but also from the visual channel (i.e., the written text).

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