There’s More To Being a Professional Interpreter Than You Might Think

A couple weeks ago, we took a look at what it takes to become a professional translator. There’s definitely more to the profession than just being able to speak multiple languages. Many experts recommend getting certification, knowing what to charge, and working your way up as important steps on this particular career path. However, what if you would like to be an interpreter? Because interpreters often have to translate orally in real time, the profession is wrought with more pressure than what your average translator might experience. And, just like translating, it takes more than just a few intense language lessons to prepare you for the job of an interpreter. Unless you develop cultural know-how, a deep understanding of a language’s nuances, and an ability to think quickly on your toes, life as a professional interpreter may not be for you.


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“I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.” ― John Locke

Working as a professional interpreter doesn’t mean that you just translate everything someone is saying literally. Since interpreters need to speak while they listen, they train by shadowing someone and repeating every word they hear in the same language. Over time, stylistic additions are made by the student, and then they begin practicing in a second language. Interpreters are often required to keep up with a brutally rapid pace of speech, which means that there isn’t a lot of time to think over how you plan on translating something. This is why a vast knowledge of the appropriate cultural use of certain words and phrases is absolutely necessary. It has to be like second nature for you to understand how a phrase like ‘barking up the wrong tree’ doesn’t so much have a literal translation as a stylistic one. It’s up to you to convey the proper meaning, not give a word-for-word exact translation of phrases like these. Avoid the faux pas experienced by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 when he was translated as telling ambassadors ‘We will bury you.’ when in reality he meant ‘We will live to see you buried.’ (Meaning communism would outlast capitalism.)


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“Power is so characteristically calm, that calmness in itself has the aspect of strength.” – Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

A huge part of being an interpreter is, without a doubt, being able to remain cool and calm in the face of pressure and chaos. Often, interpreters have to perform their duties in front of a large number of people, which can definitely increase the stress factor. Furthermore, as an interpreter it is your job to blend in to the background and simply facilitate communication between cultures and languages. This means that you have no way of knowing which way the conversation will go, what someone will say, or even how articulate the speakers will be. Anything and everything can happen in these situations which means that you need to prepare as much as possible for any scenario. Preparing for an assignment includes doing extensive research on the topic or topics to be discussed, building a glossary of terms beforehand, and brushing up on your cultural knowledge of all the languages that will be used. An interpreter’s job extends far beyond the hours spent putting someone’s words into another language, it requires hours of preparation outside the boardroom, assembly, or meeting.


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“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.” ― Voltaire

Much like a translator’s job, you never stop learning and acquiring knowledge as an interpreter. Languages tend to change quickly and without warning, new words and phrases are constantly making their way into our vocabulary, and even the meaning of words can transform over time. This means that if you want to be an interpreter you’re going to have to resign yourself to a life of constantly studying up, maintaining your current skills, and adding to your ever-growing glossary. You’ll need to keep learning about humor, stay on top of jokes and popular phrases, and even keep up with the influence pop culture can have on the way we speak. An interpreter’s job may seem never-ending, but the payoff can be great if you dedicate time and effort to your craft. Walking away from a job knowing that you helped people from different cultures and backgrounds surpass the language barrier and truly connect is a reward in and of itself!

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