One of the points where German differs from other languages are the split verb sentences where the two parts of a verb form can be placed quite some distance apart, for example:

Ich habe nach langer Fahrt auf der nächtlichen, schneebedeckten Straße endlich einen gemütlichen Platz zum Rasten gefunden.

I wonder how a synchronous interpreter handles these sentences when he has to wait for the verb which comes at the very end of the sentence. Any insights?

Update on 2012-02-27:

I just heard another example for that problem, which not only forces the interpreter to wait for the 2nd part of the verb, but suggests a different meaning at first until the 2nd part appears, so I add it here:

Er setzte sich, nachdem er den Angriff überstanden und sich den Staub von den Kleidern geklopft hatte, in Bewegung.

  • 1
    After a long drive at night on a snow-covered street, finally, I ...(short break, I sustaining) 've found a place to rest. PS: Was ist eigentlich eine nächtliche Straße?
    – Em1
    Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 13:08
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    Ja, die Straße kann strenggenommen nicht die Eigenschaft "nächtlich" haben, aber als "literarische" Beschreibung einer Straße bei Nacht ist das sicher nicht unüblich. Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 13:44
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    Er wartet? Eine Anekdote dazu: Sie will den berühmten Redner Bismarck im Reichstag sprechen hören und hat einen Dolmetscher engagiert, um seine Rede zu übersetzen. Bismarck legt los und redet und redet - doch der Dolmetscher schweigt. Unruhig stachelt sie ihren Übersetzer an und zischt ihm schließlich zu: “Was sagt er?” Worauf der Dolmetscher antwortet: “Madame, ich weiß es nicht, er hat das Verb noch nicht genannt.” ( linthout.nl/Beugungsformen.html gibt es aber in weiteren Varianten)
    – knut
    Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 20:41

3 Answers 3


In his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain wrote

Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.

A little bit of hyperbole there, but Twain has a point. So how do we conference interpreters handle the wait for the verb? We employ three strategies:

  1. Temporizing: Lean back and give the fish plenty of slack before you reel her in. So instead of staying half a dozen words behind the speaker, increase the distance to a dozen, two dozen or even more. If you can afford the luxury of waiting, you'll get the verb right the first time when it finally comes. Unfortunately, the little box in your brain labeled "ultra-short-term memory" can only hold so much. After seven seconds (give or take, depending on how much information is packed into these seconds) the contents of that little box start degrading rapidly.
  2. Anticipation: This sounds spooky, almost like mind-reading, because instead of waiting you go right ahead and say the speaker's thought before she has expressed it. However, there are a number of heuristics that you can employ, based on what you know of the subject matter, what was said before, non-verbal clues, experience, and intuition.
  3. Fast footwork: Inevitably you will manoeuver yourself into a tight spot and then you need to extricate yourself. The simplest way is to correct yourself in mid-sentence. Ordinary people, and even experienced lecturers, misspeak and then correct themselves in mid-sentence. It's not unusual. So if you as the interpreter goof up, then take your mistakes in stride and correct them immediately. The people with headphones on listening to you down on the floor won't even notice as long as you maintain a competent, assured tone throughout.

Finally a little nitpick. It's called "simultaneous", not synchronous, interpreting -- although from my remarks above, I hope it's clear that an interpreter is rarely simultaneous, but either a short distance behind, a step ahead, or (hopefully not too often) scrambling to get back on track!


It gets much worse when you have to interpret a sentence like:

Die Parlamentarier applaudierten dem Antrag des Kollegen Sowieso zum Thema Wasweissich unter Rücksichtnahme auf Dieses und Jenes nicht.

Such sentences are especially difficult to interpret, since in about every other language the "nicht" or "not" is placed right next to the verb. Interpreters solve this problem by trying to formulate a question out of the long phrase followed by a "No!".


The parliamentarians applauded the request of colleague Sowieso....? No!

  • But how do they know when to phrase a question? They won't do it for every sentence, will they do?
    – Em1
    Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 21:34
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    when they hear the word "nicht" they are usually at the word "Rücksichtnahme". So there's enough time to raise their voice to a higher level at the end, to make it sound like a question that can be answered with "No". And they do it if it is unclear at the beginning of the sentence whether there is a "nicht" on its way or not.
    – mawimawi
    Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 21:43
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    "The parliamentarians applauded the request of colleague sowieso... NOT!". Pretty easy. ;)
    – Core_F
    Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 14:09

An educated guess:

  1. They wait for the verb and translate at the end

    Seems inefficient, but guarantees an exact translation.

  2. They change the order of the words / clauses, so they can keep pace with the speaker. In your example:

    After a long nightly ride on the snow covered road, I
    {now waiting for the end }
    found a place to rest.

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