Portable Interpretation Equipment: What to Get and Why


Portable interpretation systems get a bad rap, and the names used to designate them leave no doubt: tour-guide system; bidule (the thingy); valisette (the briefcase).

Yet there are settings where they are the only practical solution available, which explains their increasing popularity with many international organisations for use on field missions and in meeting rooms that would not accommodate a large booth.  And for the convenience and affordability these devices provide, private market clients are getting hooked on them, too.

True, in the old days a standard portable equipment could subject the interpreter to long hours of standing and poor sound quality. With the typical tour-guide system, the interpreter, having no direct audio feed, had to rely on natural hearing, which meant moving about the room to ensure everyone taking the floor was well within earshot. The interpreter also needed to speak extra softly, so that his voice would not override that of the speaker by whom he stood. Not the best working conditions.

Well, those days are gone. A new generation of bi-directional portable equipment has solved all of these issues.  The latest systems come complete with two dual-function transceivers, one for the speaker, one for the interpreter. Using one single piece of hardware, the interpreter can now listen to crystal clear incoming audio and deliver his or her interpretation from a seat at the back of the room.

And should there be more speakers around the table — like in a small boardroom fitted with conference microphones or a lecture hall with a few handheld mics — a docking station can be added that captures any audio feed going through the PA and channels it wirelessly to the interpreter.

So, no more leaning onto speakers and walking about disruptively in order to hear. No more whispering (or chuchotage) either. As for the participants, they can elect to listen to the speaker or the interpreter, choosing the corresponding channel on their battery-operated, compact receivers.

The new systems are a major step up from the old tour guide sets, and they can be configured in many different ways to accommodate more interpreters and languages. No installation needed. No set up. No power. No cables. Open the case and you are ready to go. They are also scalable, meaning you can add transceivers and receivers as you please.

These new systems are affordable and will give you good service for many years. They are also a buy that will pay itself fast. It will increase your employability as more clients will be drawn to you if they know you have the right hardware. You can also capitalise on your portable set by leasing it out to other colleagues.

So, if you are an interpreter and you don’t yet have a portable equipment, I would strongly advise that you invest in one. Be sure to search online for the product that best suits you. If you don’t know where to look, let me know and I will try to steer you in the right direction.

Two final considerations, by way of disclaimer, before I go:

  1. a portable equipment is neither suitable for all circumstances, nor meant to replace high-end conference equipment required for large conferences. It is not supposed to question the value of good consecutive interpretation at high-level diplomatic or commercial bilateral meetings either.
  2. As a conscientious interpreter you must continue to enforce the fine working conditions our profession has fought so hard to establish, especially with regard to manning strength and workload. No equipment in the world should replace that.

That said, a good portable equipment can be a life saver during field missions or if you are called to handle small meetings or presentations. It did save mine, on more than one occasion.

Ever worked with portable equipment? What was your experience?

What brands have you tried? Be sure to leave

Be sure to leave a comment

6 thoughts on “Portable Interpretation Equipment: What to Get and Why

  1. Well said! Completely in agreement with you Ewandro: it’s a tool that can help us in some instances, but it’s not the magic wand and it will hot help in all circumstances.
    One of these days I’d love to chat about which model we prefer in which situation.

  2. Hi Ewandro,

    Your article described exactly what I am looking for in a portable system. Many systems don’t have the bi-directional feature that makes the interpreter’s life so much easier. I am looking to buy one and have already contacted two suppliers and I am curious what you would recommend.


  3. Thank you for the article. It’s awesome. Can you please provide me with more details on the bi-directional system? I’m about to buy my very first bodypack and I’d love to invest in this system you’re talking about. Thank you!

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