Readers’ Questions – All About Interpreting: April 2018 Edition

I get a lot of questions about working as a freelance professional language consultant, be it a translator, interpreter, or other language expert.

When I get these questions, though, I realize that there are likely hundreds of other people that have these exact same questions.

So, in order to help as many people as possible, here are some answers to a few of the latest questions I’ve received. These are all about interpreting.


How can I train to be an interpreter?

Specifically, the question was, “As an aspiring interpreter, how can I retain so much spoken information?”

This is a great question. However, the reason it’s a great question isn’t necessarily because of the answer, it’s because it shows how often times we have incorrect views of what it means to be a language professional.

For example, here it’s important to understand that while interpreters have to have a good body of knowledge, they don’t need to “retain so much spoken information.”

Interpreters do indeed have a skill of being able to comprehend what is being spoken and pass along that information in another language. An interpreter friend of mine explained that this is what happens to him while he is interpreting:

First, I have a general idea of what the topic will be so that I can do some prep work beforehand. Then, when it’s time to interpret, I listen to what the speaker is saying in chunks, spits out the corresponding fragment in the other language, promptly forget the section I interpreted, all the while listening to the next chunk, and repeating the process.

I don’t claim to know if this is how the majority of interpreters do their job, but I do know that if you ask an interpreter specifics about what they interpreted after the session is over, many times they do not remember because they are simply not storing the information in long-term storage because that would require too much processing power, if you will.

So, as an aspiring interpreter, the main thing you’ll need to remember is that you don’t have to remember everything you interpret. In fact, the best practice for training to be an efficient and effective interpreter is practice multitasking while interpreting, or just while repeating a speech in the same language. This helps train your mind to focus on multiple things at the same time, which is what interpreters have to do constantly.

How can I improve as a simultaneous interpreter?

The next question is specifically about simultaneous interpreting.

If you’re just beginning to explore interpretation as a career choice, the first thing you need to know is that with simultaneous interpretation, you’re multitasking like crazy. You listen to what the speaker says, wait a second or two, interpret what they said while at the same time listen to what the speaker says next and remember that so you can interpret that segment correctly when you’re done with the current one your working on!

That’s why a simultaneous interpreter needs at least a 5 minute break for every hour of interpretation.

So in order to improve your skills, you need to be able to multitask on a high level. The very first step then is to do something called shadowing. Shadowing is repeating what the speaker says word for word in the same language. This will get you used to maintaining the correct delay and will help you listen to what the speaker says while repeating what he/she has just said.

The next step is to add another element while your shadowing. This can be something simple like bouncing a ball to yourself or drawing a simple picture while you’re shadowing. What this does is get your brain used to doing multiple things at once. The goal is to get to where you’re doing things on a subconscious level because if you have to think while you interpret, you’ll be dead in the water.

Finally, when you can do multiple things while shadowing (in both languages), it’s time to add in the actual interpretation. It is a jump to go from shadowing to full-fledged interpretation, but the shadowing part is necessary to help you get a feel for the super-linguistic phenomenon you’ll encounter in the actual interpretation, such as the speed of different speakers, how much you can delay, and endurance.

The great thing about practicing simultaneous interpretation is that you can do it anywhere. While you’re driving, tune your radio to talk radio and shadow what the host and callers say. While exercising with your iPod, listen to some podcasts and practice shadowing or interpreting what is being said. Shadowing while exercising is definitely multitasking!

Just remember that even though interpretation is difficult, it is a skill that can be learned after a lot of practice, so if you’re willing to stick to it, you will reach your goals.

What skills do I need to become a telephone interpreter?

Simultaneous is one mode of interpretation. However, telephone interpretation is becoming more and more popular, especially with hospitals that serve multilingual clientele.

These skills must be mastered by any would-be telephone interpreter:

1. Absolute fluency – This is obvious, but many don’t realize that interpretation requires fluency in both the source and target language.

2. Organizational skills – Telephone interpreters must be able to organize the ideas and concepts expressed by both parties. Being able to take good notes (and then communicate from those notes) is essential.

3.Objectivity – It is also important that the interpreter express the ideas accurately and objectively without adding anything or not including anything.

4. Ability to recognize voice tone – In most interpretation settings, the interpreter has a view of the person they are interpreting. However, this is not the case for a telephone interpreter. Over-the-phone interpreters (or OPIs) must rely on voice tone to help them interpret because it is the only nonverbal clue they will have access to.

5. Cultural sensitivity – Telephone interpreters must be able to adapt to different cultures and different dialects at a moments notice.

6. Adaptability – Telephone interpreters don’t quite know what they will be interpreting before the session starts, so it’s important that they can quickly adapt to different subjects being discussed.

What are some things I should worry about as a court interpreter?

Court interpreters have to be ready to translate full tilt. Not only are there multiple things going on during a trial that could be distracting to the interpreter, the professional interpreter has to be extra focused on what the witnesses say, especially when these witnesses don’t make things easy for the interpreter by mumbling or not speaking lough enough or clearly.

These distractions can very often lead to court interpreter mistakes and if you are a court interpreter or are interested in becoming one, there are things you should do to educate the trial lawyers beforehand so they can make your life a whole lot easier (and make a stronger case for them).

One of the problems with court interpreting as it is now is that there isn’t really a standard for interpreting inside a courtroom. Yes, there are more standards and regulations now than there used to be for federal interpreters (and even state ones), but there are still too many court cases than the current number of qualified interpreters can handle.

Because of this lack of professionals, a lot of times what happens inside the courtroom is that a relative ends up interpreting for the person on the witness stand. While it’s good to have an interpreter (and the witness on the stand obviously has the right to know what is being said), this can often lead to problems and different types of court interpreter mistakes.

Not only that, but a lack of understanding of the interpreter’s role by the lawyers could also lead to unneeded mistakes, which could have been easily remedied had both parties spent some time understanding what interpreters bring to the table.

Types of interpreting mistakes

So what kind of court interpreter mistakes can be made? Well, when a relative is used as an interpreter, he/she is usually not qualified to interpret and has probably not had too many opportunities to interpret before then. Interpreting is super challenging and asking someone to interpret in that kind of situation when never having done it before can be incredibly daunting.

In addition to this, there are mistakes often made when the interpreter doesn’t know a specific word or know how to interpret a specific phrase. This can be difficult because court interpreting usually happens at a constant pace and interpreters usually don’t want to interrupt the proceedings.

Mistakes can also arise when the lawyer speaks to fast and doesn’t give the interpreter adequate time to process and interpret.

So how do you avoid court interpreter mistakes?

With a lot of preparation, you can avoid a lot of the easy mistakes that can befall a court interpreter. Instead of listing everything you can do, I’ll just refer you to a great page I recently ran across outlining step trial lawyers can take when working with interpreters (the post is from 2008 but is still very relevant).

It’s great for interpreters who are looking into court interpreting and I highly recommend reading it and implementing the suggestions.

For instance, one great suggestion that lawyers might not think about is to ask shorter questions to get shorter answers. Think about this. By following this one suggestion, it’s easier for the witness to stay on track by understanding exactly the question asked, and giving a precise answer. The interpreter as well knows exactly how to interpret the question and answer without having to decipher extended dialogue. Finally, the short questions and equally short answers give the jury a better understanding of the specifics of the case.

If you are a court interpreter (or a trial lawyer planning on using a court interpreter) and want to avoid court interpreter mistakes, print off this list of 21 tips. You will be better educated; the lawyers in the case will be better educated; the trial will be more fair; and the case will hopefully go that much smoother for everyone involved.

How do I become an interpreter?

I get this question a lot.

Here’s what I tell everyone who asks it.

Just like with translators, there is no single road you should take in order to become an interpreter. If you are just starting out in the language field, and have an interest in pursuing interpretation as a career, one of the things you should first understand is that interpreters interpret in all sorts of different settings. Interpretation does not only encompass interpreting at the United Nations for world leaders. In addition to conference interpreting though, there are also court interpreters, telephone interpreters, accompanying interpreters, etc. However, no matter what type of interpreter you are interested in becoming, there are steps you can take to better your chances of becoming an interpreter.

Step 1 – Experience

Whether you would rather work through interpretation agencies, find work on your own, or do some of both, you’re going to need experience. Experience, though, serves two goals. First, you obviously need to know how to interpret. And you’re not going to know how to do it effectively if you don’t have any experience under your belt. Second, it’s important to have experience that you can point to when pitching potential clients.

Remember, clients (or agencies) at first don’t know you from any other person out there selling interpreting services. The best way you can win the job is by showing them who’ve you worked for before. Using these people/companies/organizations as references will give you more leverage over interpreters that don’t have this resource. And it doesn’t matter if your interpretation experience was a paid job or something you did for free. As long as you did a good job and can get a positive reference, then you will be considered over many other interpreters.

The question then becomes, how does someone go about getting that experience? Well, like most things, the trick is to start off small. Look for opportunities at your local universities for example. Many times they host conferences and forums with foreign dignitaries or others that might be in need of interpretation. Sometimes these conferences use foreign language students as interpreters and don’t necessarily pay them, but it is experience nonetheless.

Another option is to look for volunteer opportunities in your community. One of the best places is your community hospital. Hospitals are in continual need for interpreters and volunteering won’t take up a lot of your time. This experience could be what gives you an edge when applying for those interpreter jobs.

Step 2 – Interpretation Degree

This isn’t really a separate step from the one above, but is a good idea for anyone interested in becoming an interpreter. Interpretation agencies will always consider experience and any relevant education, so if you have both, you’re a much better candidate to them.

Going to school to get an interpreter degree can be very helpful for becoming an interpreter. There are many advantages to getting an interpretation degree. Taking courses in interpretation gives you an opportunity to learn some of the techniques that interpreters use to become better. Additionally, you will have more contact with people (professors and other professionals) who can provide more opportunities for work in the interpretation field.

If you don’t get an interpretation-specific degree, another good thing to do is to get a degree in the field you are interested in interpreting. For example, if you want to become a medical interpreter, you would be served best by getting a degree related to the medical field. If you want to become a an interpreter for the U.N., it would probably be beneficial if you got a degree related to international studies.

Step 3 – Understand Interpretation Regulations

In addition to the above suggestions, another step you should take is to research the type of interpretation certification you might need for the specific type of interpreting you want to do.

Let’s take federal court interpreting, for example. Federal court interpreters have to pass a few different interpretation tests in order to be certified to work in the federal court system. it is important to remember that for some types of interpretation, there are specific steps that must be taken in order to become an interpreter. Court interpretation is a good example of this type. Federal court interpreters, for example, have to pass two different tests (a process that takes at least two years). State’s have their own requirements (Here’s the requirements to become a court interpreter in Texas, for example.)

Step 4 – Market Yourself

This is probably the most crucial step for language professionals of any kind. I often tell beginning translators that the most important thing they can to find work is to market themselves. A lot of times it’s not necessarily the best translator that gets the job, it’s the translator that has his or her name out there the most visible.

The same can be said for interpreters. It’s important that interpreters, especially those that don’t have an established client base, market their services at every opportunity. This could mean building a webpage that helps build your client base, talking to everyone you know about your job prospects, and scouring your local state and community for interpreting opportunities.

I’m an interpreter. What do I need to know about conference interpreting equipment?

Most interpreters that work as individual freelancers are not going to need to worry about interpretation equipment. The same goes for interpreters that are contracting their services through interpretation agencies.

This is because most interpretation jobs that you will get through agencies and through freelance means will only require your interpretation skills, not your ability to organize the appropriate interpretation equipment.

However, as an interpreter, it’s vital that you understand what constitutes interpretation equipment so that if you get called to interpret somewhere where this type of equipment is being used, you can have fair warning beforehand and understand a little bit about setup.

As an interpreter, it’s important to not only know how to interpreter, but also the way that interpretations are carried out in different settings.

For example, interpretation equipment is a vital component to many of the thousands of conferences that are held every year around the globe. Without specialized language equipment, interpretation would simply not happen. Especially when you consider conferences where two or more languages are going to be interpreted. Without the equipment, interpretation would simply turn to chaos and essentially be useless.

In order to prevent that from happening, conference organizers ensure (though this doesn’t happen all the time) that the right tools for the job are available for the interpreters working the conference.

Take the United Nations, for example. There are hundreds of conferences run every year through the UN system, and it’s important that the UN provide an optimal system for interpreters to work so that the conference attendees can understand what is being said.

And one of the most important ways that conference organizers can provide good working conditions for interpreters is to provide optimal equipment to work with.

While I don’t know for sure, I imagine that the UN has its own interpretation equipment that it uses for all of its interpreters, simply because it has been in the language business for a long time and knows what it needs to do a proper job in that area.

However, that’s not always going to be the case.

A good number of conferences don’t have their own interpretation equipment, mostly because it is cost prohibitive to do so, conference venues change every year or two, and most organizers don’t really know how to best set up the equipment for interpreters and conference attendees.

So, instead of doing it themselves, these organizers simply turn to translation and interpretation companies to provide them with the right tools and the proper setup.

Choosing the Right Interpretation Company

There are a fair number of these types of companies and there are some things you should remember if you are going to be an interpreter at one of these conferences, or if you are responsible for finding a company to run the equipment and the setup at the conference.

Interpreters and Equipment

The first thing to understand is that the company you rent your interpretation equipment from will most likely not be the company or agency you get your interpreters from. So it’s best not to think that the equipment provider will be bringing interpreters only to discover at the last minute that they are definitely not.

That’s not a great way to start out at a conference or other venue where you’re being counted on to get the language part right.

The Complete Package

The second thing to keep in mind is that it’s usually better to rent the entire interpretation system from a company, rather than only renting some of the components. The reason should probably be pretty obvious, but remember that you want to make your life as easy as possible when trying to deal with setting up the interpreting equipment. It’s quite possible that some equipment you get from one rental company might not be compatible with interpreting equipment from another company. And on top of that, the equipment needs to be compatible with the system you’ll be running on at the site of conference or seminar.

In addition, it’s important to make sure you’re getting everything you need from the supplier, i.e. microphones, headsets, PA equipment, booths (if needed), etc. It does no good to rent interpreting equipment if you don’t order enough of it in the first place. Make sure there is enough equipment for the interpreters as well as those who will receive the interpretations.

Running the Equipment

The company should also provide a technician for the duration of the conference or event to fix any technical glitches or problems that come up. The technician should also be able to answer any questions on setup. One thing to remember, though, is that the technician that helps you troubleshoot the equipment might not understand how to best set up a conference that will be using interpreters. So if you have questions on proper setup of interpretation booths, how to best maximize your interpreters and give them the best working environment possible, make sure you either ask someone at the company to provide that information or find someone that can look at the venue first hand and help you come up with the optimal solution.

Setting Up Booths

And speaking of setting up booths for interpreters, you might not have known this but there are ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standards for how to properly set up and use interpreter booths. While these standards aren’t adhered to all of the time (ask any experienced interpreter and they’ll tell you stories!!), it’s a good idea to follow them. These requirements address concerns such as the location of the booth in relation to the event and the sound booth, the construction and physical dimensions of the booth, ventilation and lighting in the booth, and acoustical conditions.

Trust me, you don’t want your interpreters to keel over from not getting enough air ventilation in the booths, nor do you want them sweating to death because they can get any air. These standards are really for your benefit as much as for the interpreters themselves, because when the interpreters are in a comfortable working environment, they will do a much better job at interpreting.


Did you know you can make money with your language doing other things besides interpreting? Here’s how.

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