Interpreter Job Description - Skills, Requirements and Career Path

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What Does an Interpreter Do?

Interpreter job description

Interpreters translate orally from one language to another. While translators work with written texts, interpreters deal with spoken language.

The services of an interpreter are required if a speaker and their audience have different native languages. In such cases, an interpreter with an excellent knowledge of both languages will transfer the words of the speaker from the original language to the target language of the audience.

To do this, the interpreter listens to the original language and translates its meaning into equivalent speech in the target language of the audience. Since meaning in speech is produced not by individual words but rather by a combination of interacting factors (including, for example, intonation), interpreters are required to listen out for and be able to convey a wide range of different types of information. Interpreters need a very strong command of both their ‘active’ and ‘passive’ languages, including up-to-date knowledge of idioms and technical terminology, and for this reason often specialize in just two or three languages and a small number of sectors (e.g. fashion, medicine, electronics, legal). By restricting their fields of activity in this way, they can ensure that their linguistic knowledge and technical vocabulary is as complete and comprehensive as possible. 

So, what does an interpreter do? 

The most common form of interpreting work is conference interpreting, involving the transfer of an oral message from one language to another, in fluent, natural speech, during conferences, events, shows etc. Conference interpreting may take the form of simultaneous, consecutive or whispered interpreting (also called ‘chuchotage’, from the French verb ‘chuchoter’, to whisper).

Simultaneous interpreting is usually done in a soundproof booth. Interpreters use headphones and microphones to listen to the words of a speaker and translate them for the benefit of the audience. In this form of interpreting, the source language speaker does not pause to allow the interpreter to translate. Rather, the interpreter lags slightly speaks behind the source language speaker, with the message being rendered while the speaker is still talking. Simultaneous interpretation is a complex form of translation, because it requires the interpreter to listen to the speaker, translate and speak, all at the same time, while maintaining a very high level of concentration to ensure no elements of the source speech are missed out, and without any way of recovering any details they fail to pick up on.

In consecutive interpreting, the speaker and interpreter take turns to speak, with the speaker pausing to allow the interpreter to translate. If a speaker’s remarks are broken up into short segments, an interpreter may be able to translate from memory alone, but where longer statements are involved, interpreters take notes to allow them to replicate the speaker’s utterances fully and completely. In consecutive interpreting, speaker and interpreter are both visible to the audience, which exposes the interpreter to a range of potential distractions that may prove problematic.

Whispered interpreting is a form of simultaneous interpreting in which, rather than in a booth, the interpreters sit or stand next to a small group of listeners and interpret what is being said in a low voice. Here, too, the audience may be a source of distraction for the interpreter.

Other specific forms of interpreting include:

  • negotiation interpreting, i.e. assisting companies during negotiations and business meetings
  • legal (or court) interpreting, i.e. providing interpretation services during trials, depositions etc.
  • community interpreting, whose objective is to overcome the language barriers that may exist for minority groups within a society. Community interpreters may work with educational or social services, for example. There is some overlap between this type of work and the field of cultural and linguistic mediation.

Another type of interpreting is sign language interpreting, which involves a hearing person translating speech into sign language for an audience of deaf people and vice versa. Unlike interpreters of oral language, sign language interpreters are obliged to work in a visible position so that their translation can be used by the audience.

A range of work opportunities are open to interpreters, including providing their services to private businesses, organizations, during conferences, both directly and via the intermediary of translation and interpreting agencies. Interpreting services are also often required by government agencies and institutions and international organizations. Interpreters typically work on a freelance basis, setting their own rates and terms, although other forms of employment are possible.

Interpreter Duties and Responsibilities

Interpreter tasks and responsibilities

An interpreter’s duties and responsibilities include:

  • Accurately and immediately understanding statements made in a foreign language, paying attention to aspects of the source message such as tone, intention, nuance, style etc.
  • Transferring the meaning and content of the speaker’s words into an equivalent form in the target language
  • Accurately translating specific technical terminology, idioms, jargon etc.

How to Become an Interpreter - Education and Requirements

How to become Interpreter - Training

There are specific interpreting and translation schools and university courses providing training for those wishing to embark upon a career in interpreting.

The skills required to work as a professional interpreter are numerous and complex, but a knowledge of at least one other language besides one’s own mother tongue is an essential requirement. Additionally, interpreters are required to have studied linguistics to a high level, including lexicography, lexicology, terminology, grammar, syntax, morphology, phonetics, semantics, rhetoric and oratory.

Good general cultural knowledge and awareness is also important, as well as the ability to use the appropriate support tools effectively, e.g. dictionaries, terminological databases, glossaries, etc. The terminology that an interpreter uses when working is often sector-specific. For example, an interpreter working in the tourism sector will need to be familiar with tourism-related terminology, while a court interpreter will need knowledge of the legal language used in courts.

In addition to adequate education and training, interpreters need constant exercise to perfect their language skills. Since spoken language is highly subject to change, spending time abroad in countries where their specialist language is spoken as a first language is essential for keeping their skills up-to date. When transferring a message from source to target language, interpreters must ensure that aspects such as intonation, intention and style are all preserved. For this reason, the best results are usually obtained when translating from a foreign language into one’s native tongue.

Skills and Qualifications

Interpreter skills and competencies

The skills required to be an interpreter include:

  • Perfect knowledge of the foreign (source) language
  • Perfect command of one’s native language
  • Good general cultural knowledge
  • Excellent concentration skills
  • Communication skills
  • Knowledge of relevant IT tools
  • Resistance to stress
  • Time flexibility

Career Path and What to Expect

Interpreter career path

There is a vast variety of both language combinations and sectors (e.g. tourism, medicine, industrial, governmental, institutional) in which interpreters can choose to specialize.

In addition to excellent language skills, interpreters starting out in the business will require a high level of motivation and commitment to obtain their first work assignments from agencies, businesses or other organizations and thus gain invaluable professional interpreting experience. Subsequently, areas that interpreters can focus on and leverage to stand out from the competition and win new business include language skills, technical expertise, ongoing learning and professional development.

It is worth bearing in mind that an interpreter also has the option of branching out and embarking upon a career in written translation or teaching foreign languages.

Top Reasons to Work as an Interpreter

Many interpreters choose a career in interpreting because they have a strong passion for and love of their working languages. Working as an interpreter may be seen as a way of creating a bridge between two languages and cultures by facilitating communication between businesses and their customers, service providers and service users or governments and international institutions. Generally speaking, interpreting is a high-paced and stimulating profession that, although challenging, involving frequent travel and continuous learning, is also highly rewarding.

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