Is there any more powerful a display of language learning mastery than the magic of an interpreter in full flow?
If you’ve recently started learning language and are appreciative of the sheer scale of the task ahead, it may seem like an unattainable goal.
If you’re already skilled in one or more foreign languages and thinking about a language career, you may be wondering whether you’re good enough to be an interpreter.
So how do you become an interpreter and what is a career as an interpreter really like?
I’d like to share what I’ve learnt from talks that I’ve attended on a career as an interpreter and the results of my own further investigations.
Some masters and their craft
At the Polyglot Conference in Novy Sad, Nataša Šofranac gave a talk entitled “Translation: techniques, options, risks, dangers” (about interpreting, not written translation). At the Language Show in London I heard Helen Campbell, Director of the National Network for Interpreting, on “Conference interpreting: What future?”. At the Polyglot Gathering, Lýdia Machová spoke on the “Pleasures and pains of working as a conference interpreter”.
I first came across working interpreters when I lived in Wales, where some meetings, including full and committee sessions of the National Assembly and many local councils, are held in English and Welsh. This is the domain of the conference- or simultaneous interpreter, who transmits to an audience equipped with headsets.
In consecutive interpreting, in contrast, the speaker has to pause regularly while the translation takes place. Consecutive interpreting is also suited to more intimate settings, such as one-to-one meetings between political or business leaders or court proceedings (an aspect of “public service interpreting”).
Who’s it for? Introverts need not apply….
“Reflex, speed is the name of the game”, said Nataša Šofranac. The best alternative maybe on the tip of your tongue but you don’t have time to wait: take second best. Lýdia Machová also stressed the need for educated guessing.
You sometimes have to settle for the best approximation. A translator of the written word, in contrast, would be able to ponder and consult reference material.
As Helen Campbell said, translators sometimes stereotype the spoken word interpreter as someone who is extrovert and articulate, looking for variety; superficial and maybe a bit arrogant. Interpreters return the compliment: translators are seen as lovers of routine, introvert, perfectionist.
Interpreters need stamina! The job may require a lot of travel. For consecutive interpreters, there can be late nights mediating the meandering fire-side chats of dignitaries. The level of concentration required in the conference interpreter’s booth is such that colleagues work in twenty or thirty minute stints, followed by a break. This could go on for eight or ten hours.
The job can be stressful. No matter how well prepared you are, the unexpected tends to happen.
“You find you know at the end of a job what you needed to know at the beginning”, as Machová put it.
In the UN, meetings and topics can change at the last minute. You may have been given a copy of the speech earlier, but people depart from them live.
There are consequences if you get it wrong in front of a large audience.
As Šofranac said, the quality of the simultaneous interpreter’s work can influence a VIP’s experience of the country.
Machová also emphasised the need for a good memory and an ability to concentrate a lot, with split attention. I think that these skills can be improved with training, as can the good public speaking skills that you’ll need.
….but neither should prima donnas!
However important the work, it will be other people who get to enjoy the limelight.
As a conference interpreter you’re hidden in the booth.
Consecutive interpreters, in contrast, are very visible. It can be important to look the part. Men need to appear smart and sober while women, as Šofranac put it, often have a chance to “glam up”, to be seen (albeit in the background) on TV.
At times, it can seem that you only get noticed when you make mistakes. In the words of Šofranac: “when nobody comments on your performance, all went well”. This is starting to sound just like being a lawyer 🙁 .
Perks of the job and occupational hazards
The interpreter’s job can offer fascinating glimpses of otherwise hidden worlds.
Yes, said Machová, the skills are widely admired and the career can also involve exciting travel. She accompanied a small group to Maccu Piccu and got to meet a 90 year old shaman.
Machová showed us a picture of herself in action at a private meal for several heads of state and their wives. What was discussed? Machová remained a model of complete discretion.
After a hard day interpreting at a Tony Robbins event, the man himself came to the booth to thank Machová and the rest of the team.
On the other hand, Machová also warned of “parrot syndrome”. That’s the frustration which some interpreters may come to feel at always translating the words of others and never being able to express an opinion of their own.
How to deal with it, if it strikes? Find other ways to express yourself in other ways, outside work, Machová said.
When asked whether she’d have preferred to be one of the politicians, Campbell said yes, jokingly, but without hesitation.
You have to be very good in your target language…or languages
How good is very good?
Formal course entry requirements vary but they all require the highest levels of linguistic competence.
London Metropolitan University’s MA course in Conference Interpreting, which I first discovered from their stand at London’s Language Show, requires of applicants a “Near-native proficiency in their first foreign language….and/or a good command of their second foreign language….”. The university holds its own periodic admissions proficiency tests.
In Paris, admission to the “Master professional Interprétation de Conférence” course at the École Supérieure d’Interprètes et Traducteurs (Sorbonne, Paris 3) requires a “mastery” in the relevant language(s). They hold multiple choice pre-admission tests (épreuves d’ admissibilité) for the right to take an oral admissions test (épreuve d’admisisons). You also have to have had at least 12 months consecutive residence in a country of your “B” language (and six months in a country of any “C” language is advised).
For the MA in Conference Interpreting at Heidelberg University’s Institut für Übersetzen und Dolmetschen you have to present written evidence of a “C2”-level qualification. (That’s the highest level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.)
The UN requires a “perfect command” of one its six official language of the United Nations (it will be your “main language” even if not your mother tongue). English, French, Russian or Spanish interpreters must also have “excellent oral comprehension” of two other official languages. Arabic or Chinese interpreters have to work bi-directionally and must also possess excellent command of English or French.
As the UN requirements suggest, writing in your languages is obviously less important, though – if you’re competent in the other language skills – you’ll probably already be able to do this at a reasonably high level anyway (and will have to in order to meet the entrance requirements for some post-graduate courses).
Post graduate courses are not, then, focussed on improving your language….but that doesn’t mean you won’t need to keep getting better, during the course and throughout your career.
Šofranac stressed that, even from such a high admissions base, you have to work constantly on your vocab and language. Campbell said that she often translates the radio or TV news while doing housework. You’re going to be doing a lot of reading of a broad general nature and specialist preparation for particular jobs.
Something else to work on is your native tongue. According to the European Union website (see link below), “Your most important language as an interpreter is your mother tongue.” You need a rich and ready vocabulary. You need to be able to speak clearly with what Campbell called “a good register”.
Given the range of topics that you’ll have to interpret, you need to be widely interested in the world around you and be up to speed with the news agenda, though the medium of all your working languages. At political meetings the language is quite simple but the context, including history, is all-important. (For me, as a former historian and current affairs junkie, so far, so good.) Campbell also mentioned being up-to-speed with the latest football results. (Hey-ho, that’s just killed my chances 🙁 .)
Wide prior and ongoing life experience obviously helps. Older applicants may have an advantage here. (Erm, looks like I’m back in the race 😉 .)
Another big plus is knowledge of a specialist field in which work is to be found, such as medicine or law. (Great! 🙂 .)
Education or training?
“Are interpreters self-made or trained?” asked Šofranac. “I know only a few,” said Machová, “who do it by intuition”.
That’s because it’s a special skill which is developed by practice.
Yes, there should be a theoretical underpinning, said Šofranac, but the key is experience. It’s learning by doing. The educational emphasis should be on training and coaching.
Campbell too advised that you should choose a course taught by experienced practitioners. It’s only they who can draw on deep experience.
One of Machová’s tutors used to bring a drill to training sessions to provide some unexpected background distraction. He thus simulated what had happened to him once when the handle fell off the booth door. He had no choice but to keep on interpreting as workmen noisily repaired it.
Choosing a course
My first awareness of interpreting education came when I was working at the University of Heidelberg and met students on the course mentioned above. Other university courses in Germany include the ones at the Fachhochschüle Köln (only German, English, French and Spanish) and at the University of Mainz. Both of these institutions offer 2 year MAs. Unlike Heidelberg, they are open to those with first degrees in other disciplines).
In France another well-known institution, besides the ESIT, is the Institut de management et de communication interculturels (“ISIT“). In Switzerland the University of Geneva – well located for the UN – offers an MA in conference interpreting.
In England, besides London Met, other postgraduate possibilities include the University of Westminster (also in London), the University of Leeds (which also offers Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese) and the University of Manchester.
In Canada, Campbell is involved with a course provided at Glendon College (a federated campus of York University, Toronto). The first year of their two-year MA is taught entirely online.
In the United States there is the masters at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, where the languages include Russian, Korean and Japanese. On the American pattern, the fees appear eye-watering but there are many scholarships available covering a large chunk of them. The University of Maryland has a variety of courses with a good range of major languages.
If the language you are offering is not a world language, your first port of call will probably be a local institution, which may well offer the local language and one or more of world language. Besides ESIT and ISIT in Paris, courses under the umbrella of the “European Masters in Conference Interpreting” consortium are offered at 9 further institutions (in 8 smaller European countries and Turkey).
In addition to major high education institutions, there are private providers who run full courses, such as the SDI Hochschule für Angewandte Sprachen in Munich (which is a social enterprise). It is also possible to find shorter courses such as summer schools, perhaps more suited to existing, experienced language professionals.
When choosing an institution, you clearly need to make sure that your languages are offered (and the range of choices may vary from year to year, perhaps according to demand). Be aware too that the institutions may restrict your choice from their list. In Mainz or Heidelberg, I would not be able to choose Russian because it is only available to native German speakers. ESIT offers a range of World languages, but you must include French and English in your combination.
Now for some jargon
Your mother tongue is referred to as your “A” language. “B” languages are those in which you have an “active ability” (you work in both directions (“bi-directionally”) between a “B” languages and your “A”). “C” languages are those where you have a “passive” ability (you only interpret out of them, into your A language). The B and C languages can be combined in various ways on the different courses. For example, one B language only, a B and one or more Cs, two or three Cs.
At many institutions you will have several courses to choose from , with differing emphasis and coverage of simultaneous and consecutive interpreting or public service interpreting (sometimes with additional modules covering related areas of knowledge such as law or medicine). Some courses combine interpreting with translation. This seems initially attractive – offering variety and an employment “hedge” – but will you end up really good at neither?
The answer to that may depend in part on the length of the course. Many courses are two years long. There are also one-year masters and nine-month diplomas. Everything I’ve heard suggests it takes two years of hard work (on top of your high linguistic starting point) to become a good junior interpreter. Some of this work could take place after completion of a shorter course. At London Met, for example, students are able to continue to use the facilities in the year following graduation while preparing for the EU or UN interpreting exams.
The bottom line: earning potential
How do I start making money as an interpreter? Šofranac’s answer to this vital question was that it’s what precedes the money-making stage that counts. What pays is the years of practice, not the latest six hours of work.
Established interpreters are in demand for a range of work: conferences, smaller meetings, in travel and tourism, in the court and immigration services, in health services.
Campbell described conference interpreting as “a real ivory tower” because there are big potential employers offering permanent posts with generous packages. If you are European Union citizen, work in EU institutions is a huge opportunity. For a wider range of applicants, the United Nations is also a major employer. In Wales, National Assembly has a translation and interpreting service as will other countries with more than one official or working language.
How do you get such jobs? Campbell said that to work in EU you need a university degree and training in conference interpreting (usually postgraduate). The EU also offers 5-month traineeships from two languages into mother tongue. For a job or freelance work at the EU, you have to have passed their own accreditation exams. The UN also runs its own entrance examinations.
Machová works as a freelance and this is common among interpreters. When an agency calls about a potential up-coming job, they go through the details of what it will involve (and the price) together. Earnings, said Machová, depend on the employer and on experience but a day’s work (six to eight hours) could bring in. The EU website says that net earnings for a day’s work may be 400 euro.
Check out market rates in your own country and be aware of any changes afoot. The government policy of outsourcing public service court interpreters to the highest bidding middleman, for example, has been a recent issue in the UK.
Your language combinations are also key in determining your prospects. Campbell said that the UN are desperate for native English speakers to translate into Russian. There will be a 30% turnover in next five years as people retire.
An ability to work in several languages can obviously increase your chances. Campbell has English as her mother tongue and a passive knowledge of three languages foreign languages. She described this as “typical in the EU”. Speakers of “small languages” may find they have to offer more combinations and work in both directions.
Breaking in to the freelance market can be difficult. “You will be in demand once you get established but you need to be flexible and have to take the work that there is”, said Šofranac. She encourages her students to begin with youth events or other less high-stress events, such as educational conferences. This helps build confidence.
In the same vein, Campbell mentioned a recent graduate from her online course had worked at a film festival.
While packaging is important for high-profile public meetings, Šofranac cautioned women: “you can only use your looks once. If you blunder, that’s it”.
Šofranac’s own lucky break was more muck than mascara: on the job at meetings of people in the seed breeding industry; an unglamorous field about which she initially knew nothing. She was the able to get more work in the agricultural sector, ended up visiting dairy farmers and slaughterhouses. Mmm. When you’re getting started it seems you really do have to take what comes.
Specialisation in one area is not enough and would be risky. Better, Šofranac said, to aim to be an “omniscient ignorant”, just like a good journalist does.
Tricks of the trade
Bespoke preparation is important for each specific commission. Once she has details of a job, Machová makes a glossary. She goes beyond the materials that the client has provided to do an on-line search. You will need specialist terms which you may not have come across in the mainstream media, for example a term like “surges of voltage” for an electrical engineering conference. In comparison, as Šofranac said, “president to president is easy, it’s all about peace and co-operation…..You can, up to a point, be less precise.”
The conference interpreter, explained Machová, lags behind the speaker a little. Not only do you have to remember what’s just been said; you have to split your attention further: it’s normal to take in the speaker’s address through one headphone only, leaving the other ear uncovered to you monitor your own delivery.
“Interpretation” will be just that. It won’t be not be a literal, word-for-word translation, Šofranac said. “Ad verbatim” often won’t capture the meaning. There would not be time to do it anyway.
“In consecutive interpreting, you don’t translate, you retell.”
Stage fright can block the consecutive interpreter’s memory. Šofranac always has a pen and notebook to hand. “Write down the bones, remember the flesh”, she said. Cross out notes when you’ve covered the point. Don’t be afraid to stop the speakers when you need to. Don’t let them talk for 45 minutes. People like you to be friendly, like eye contact. There are courses in how to take notes but you can develop your own symbols (upward arrow for grows, downward for declines, “gvt” for government and so on). “With simultaneous – we often anticipate the end of the sentence”, she said.
In the booth colleagues communicate by passing notes. Listeners would lose confidence if they could hear background whispering through their headphones, Šofranac said.
“When in doubt, leave it out”, Šofranac said. With consecutive, you can ask the speaker to repeat. If there are a list of five things say the three that you remember and add “and suchlike”. The key is to round off the phrase.
Given the need to anticipate, differing word order in different languages can be a real challenge.
Question (posed rhetorically by Šofranac): when a German verb finally checks in at the end of a long and complex clause, what do you do if it’s in the negative and you’re anticipated a positive two sub-clauses ago? Answer: round things off with “and this is not true”.
The convention is for the interpreter to speak in the first person. You must to be faithful to the speaker, Šofranac stressed. The speaker should never be mocked. Strive to emulate the speaker’s tone in an expressive and convincing way. Don’t decide for the speaker what he or she really meant. That would be unethical and it would interrupt the flow to correct stylistic or structural mistakes in your translation.
Good packaging came up again: besides rounding off your phrases well, this includes minimising hesitancy and sounding confident. All the same, said Machová. you should always correct any serious mistake in meaning that you yourself make.
What about if the speaker makes a mistake? Machová recommended correcting any obvious slip of the tongue but don’t make any substantive correction or there will be a risk that your listeners get a different message from the rest of the audience.
What happens when a crisis strikes? Machová listed several and how to deal with them:
- you don’t know a word (take whatever makes the most sense from the context and, if it fits, you can alliterate and switch if it becomes clearer);
- the speaker stops using the microphone (tell your audience and they will wave at the speaker and they’ll soon wave at you if transmission fails from your mike);
- someone in the audience corrects you (a humbling experience you just have to accept);
- the speaker tells a joke (some interpreters suggest prefacing your translation with “I’m going to tell you a story” or saying “the speaker is telling an untranslatable joke, please laugh now”, though Machová did not personally endorse this approach. It may be more honest just to risk the joke falling flat in translation).
What’s the future?
Overall, Campbell was confident about future, even though the profession and technology will evolve. (She had recently worked at an event near London which was the first case when the booths were located in a tent outside the main venue.)
Somebody in the audience asked Campbell about the impact of the spread of English and the tendency to use more English in meetings and among politicians. ” It happens much more than when I started, but it’s stable”, she said.
My impression is that demand for top-class interpreters appears to be ever-growing as a result of globalisation and the communications revolution. Another positive sign for applicants is that many interpreters belong to the baby-boom generation and are approaching retirement. The shortage of qualified interpreters is mentioned several times in the UN/EU video below. If the interpreting profession is able to ride the wave of new technology – the rapid development of web-based conferences and “remote interpreting” – there should always be demand for highly skilled practitioners.
We’ve seen that getting to lift-off is not easy in this demanding profession. We’ve also seen some of its many rewards. If it appeals to you, now might be a very good time to start.
What goes in isn’t what comes out. Interpreting may seem like magic but, as so often, once a craft is demystified, we have grounds for a truer appreciation.
You find that it isn’t magic after all.
You end up being more impressed than ever.
– – o – – O – – o – –
Further discussion and finding out more
Writing this piece has helped me to get my own impressions clear. I hope it will help you the same way.
Are you training as an interpreter or already experienced? If so, do you have corrections or things to add? Are you thinking of entering the profession? Please do contribute to discussion in the comments section below.
I have striven for accuracy in quoting the speakers from my notes and in checking course details but entrance requirements and procedures change and you should check the latest information from the relevant course providers and employers.
If you’ve read this far, you clearly have the application and the stamina to make it in as an interpreter 😉 and if you do want to find out more, here are some good places to look:
The EU Directorate General for Interpretation (“SCIC”) has a lot of general info on the profession and specific detail about how to become an EU interpreter. Start here
UN has a language careers page here.
To get a sense of post-graduation course entry standards, try the useful English and French clips on the ISIT site. There are also specimen audio clips in French, English and Russian on the ESIT site here.
The International Association of Conference Interpreters website has a lot of general and careers information.
Another good source of information are the trade associations, such as Interpret America. IA’s blog has wide discussion, not least around the effect of new technologies.
Machová recommended two books: Roderick Jones “Conference Interpreting Explained” (1998) and Andrew Gillie “Conference Interpreting: A Student’s Practice Book” (2013), pictured above.
This informative nine-minute joint UN-EU “Interpreting in a globalised world” has many quotable comments by movers and shakers in both institutions and stresses the shortage of suitably skilled staff.