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Interpreting as a Profession

Many people grow up loving language and wanting to become professional interpreters. Foreign language Interpreting as a profession is heralded by a

ASL Interpreter

ASL Interpreter. Photo by Amelia Hamilton.

few modern conventions: (1) neutrality, (2) confidentiality, and (3) competence. Interpreters are expected to be neutral – but accurate – conveyors of information from one speaker to another without interjecting their own personal bias or opinion. They are expected to work in utmost confidentiality – in fact, in the State Department and many other government agencies around the world, the job requires top secret security clearance. Lastly, they are expected to be  unassailably decorous, highly-skilled, well-educated, and to stay abreast of new developments within multiple fields across multiple languages.

So, why become a professional interpreter? And what differentiates a professional from someone just paraphrasing for a friend or family member? Well, interpreters fulfill an increasingly important role as people move around the world at an ever greater pace and interact with speakers of different languages all the time for business, necessity, or pleasure. Interpreters make those interactions possible and allow us all to take part in our globalized society.

Translation vs Interpreting

Backing up slightly, interpreting – often used interchangeably with the more general word interpretation – is the oral (or sign) translation from one language to another. While there is clear overlap with the art and science of translation, the two professions require vastly different skills apart from the fluency in several languages. Translation deals specifically with the written word, and – as such – does not have the same demands on memory, verbal fluency, interpersonal skills, and cross-cultural communication that an interpreter must meet. While a language professional may perform both tasks, the training required for translation and interpreting are quite different.

Another significant difference between the two linguistic tracks include the technologies: translators avail themselves of digital and print aids constantly. They use dictionaries, phrase books, academic papers, and computer programs to verify specific terminology, maintain consistency across time and platform, and choose the most accurate word in each case. Professional interpreters, on the other hand, rely almost entirely on their personal knowledge, experience, and skills. Any preparatory work is done before or after sessions of interpreting – they cannot pause to reference even a mobile app while in the middle of interpreting a politician’s speech or patient’s consultation with their doctor. They must also work on demand – when the speaker starts talking, the interpreter must be ready to begin listening, taking notes if possible, and preparing their phrasing in the new language immediately. This means that an interpreter must be both self-reliant and healthy: confident in their own abilities and strong enough in mind and body to work at peak performance for long sessions.

Another facet of a professional interpreter’s life is that it often involves travel. Translators can work remotely from the comfort of their home and take clients anywhere in the world. A French linguist may deliver a document for use in France in the morning and receive a new project to work on for Morocco that afternoon. Interpreters, on the other hand, usually need to be physically present. (Although, telephones and video-conferencing technology have extended the range of some interpreting jobs, such as for call centers.) Telecommunication’s effects notwithstanding, most interpreters have to travel for their job – either keeping it regional and taking jobs within a day’s car or train ride or working internationally with large organizations. This often leads to a very different lifestyle from the more sedentary translator who needs to be able to access all of their reference materials while they work.

UN interpreters

How to Become a Professional Interpreter

interpreting notes

Sample notes for interpreters Gillies, A. (2017). Note-taking for consecutive interpreting: A short course. Routledge.

Most professional interpreters start their education in one of the modern languages, although a significant minority begin in the sciences or another field in which they become subject matter experts first. Later, they may receive a degree in language or interpreting as they make the switch into a linguistic career. Nearly all professional interpreters today are part of one or several professional associations – such as the American Translators Association or the International Association of Conference Interpreters. These associations uphold professional and ethical standards, provide certification or other career development services, and organize consensus around quality standards within the profession. Most interpreters will also have passed some formal language testing such as the United Nations LCEs, the US State Department ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview, or any of various federal and state court interpreter exams.

Next, the interpreter will focus on a particular field or fields in which to specialize. Many of us are familiar with the idea of medical and court interpreters, in addition to high profile political and business interpreters – but there are also interpreters that specialize in tourism, academic conferences, and entertainment. A professional interpreter might focus on one area – such as court – and work exclusively in that arena, or may keep up with several subject areas – such as business, finance, and automotive – to allow more flexibility. Either in a formal course or under the mentorship of a fellow interpreter, they will also hone the specific skills needed to interpret for clients in real time, such as: mnemonics, verbal fluency, listening comprehension, and a unique notation style.

So after all this training, how does one actually begin interpreting? Many new interpreters begin as volunteers for nonprofits, community organizations, or family members. Most interpreters then begin taking freelance work and this continues to be their main source of employment for the rest of their careers. Occasionally, highly-qualified interpreters gain full-time, permanent employment for individuals, companies, or governments – however, this is only a small percentage of all interpreters working at any one time. In order to thrive as a freelance interpreter they need to develop: good business skills to manage their finances and self-promotion, good client relationships to keep consistent work, and a good reputation among their peers to gain references and referrals.

Interpreting with Language Solutions

At Language Solutions we work with professional foreign language interpreters all the time. We have worked with such obscure languages as Krio from Sierra Leone or one of several Guatemalan dialects of Mayan – but we also work with more familiar languages such as Spanish and Bosnian – surprisingly common for St. Louis. Following our reputation as a high quality boutique translation agency with a personal touch, we form long-term relationships with our professional interpreters and choose the perfect person for each assignment. Over the years we have provided interpreting for large government contracts, medical appointments, and court hearings. Under US law (Title VI & ADA), almost all agencies that receive federal funding are required to provide language services in order to ensure equal access to services. We are happy to help organizations meet this requirement, but the real satisfaction is from helping individuals with limited English to be able to receive fair treatment and participate fully in their lives – even in a new country.