Interpreter Careers

How to become an interpreter

So what does an interpreter do?

Interpreters convert the spoken word from one language (the source language) into another language (the target language).

Simultaneous interpreting is common at multilingual meetings and conferences. It occurs at almost the same time as the original discourse. The interpreter usually sits in a soundproof booth, listening to the speaker through headphones and transmitting their interpretation to delegates through headsets. In 'whispered' interpreting the interpreter talks quietly to one or two people without the use of equipment.

Consecutive interpreting occurs when the speaker pauses after each phrase, sentence or part of a speech to allow the interpreter to reproduce what they have said in the target language. The interpreter may take notes to help with the interpretation.

Interpreters may work in:

  • conference interpreting, at national and international conferences and meetings or formal and informal gatherings where delegates who speak different languages need to communicate, transact business or learn. This usually involves simultaneous interpreting

  • ad-hoc or liaison interpreting where they work in a wide range of settings mediating between two or more people who do not speak a common language. In this case they usually use consecutive interpreting. Settings may include business and diplomatic meetings, sightseeing tours, education or cultural visits, or public services, including legal, health, education, government and social services.


What's the working environment for an interpreter?

Employed interpreters normally work a 35-hour week, although some jobs may require longer hours. They may have to attend conferences and meetings in the evening and/or at weekends.

Places of work vary greatly. Long periods are spent in the confines of a booth looking out over a conference or meeting. Those doing consecutive interpreting work in a room with the other people involved. Conference interpreting usually involves a great deal of travelling and meeting a variety of people in work and social situations. Public service interpreting may involve visiting and working in local government offices, hospitals, immigration centres, law courts, and prisons.

Advances in telecommunication technology and the increasing popularity of tele- and video-conferencing, mean that interpreters often work using a telephone or microphone.


What does it take to become an interpreter?

To be an interpreter you should:

  • be fluent in one or more foreign languages

  • have an excellent command of your mother tongue and a clear speaking voice

  • understand the way other languages are used by native speakers

  • have excellent concentration

  • have knowledge of the field in which you are interpreting, eg politics, economics, or trade

  • have confidence for interpreting in public

  • be able to maintain intense concentration and think rapidly

  • have integrity and a sense of responsibility.


Interpreter career opportunities

The greatest opportunities for full-time employment are as conference interpreters in international organisations such as the European Commission, the United Nations and NATO, or in UK organisations that deal with them such as the Diplomatic Service and the Department of Trade and Industry.

International organisations such as the UN or the EU, and government departments such as the Foreign Office, have a graded career structure which allows opportunities for promotion to senior interpreter or head of department. A similar system operates in large international companies where a number of interpreters and translators are employed.

For freelance interpreters advancement involves increasing the number of clients and the frequency of engagements. Many interpreters combine this type of work with translating or teaching.


What it's like interpreting for the UN

We spoke to Lawrence Viguie, who works for the UN as an interpreter - one of the most prestigious jobs in interpreting. She told us what she enjoys most about her job...

'I really enjoy the intellectual process itself, ie the challenge of interpreting a sentence and a thought simultaneously into another language. Moreover, interpreting constantly broadens my horizons and helps me familiarise myself with a wide variety of topics. This profession has also enabled me to travel to fascinating places. Last but not least, interpreting for the UN means contributing to the UN’s mission around the world and frequently seeing history in the making.'

Read the full interview here


Watch our video

Jade and Oscar explain what education is needed to be an interpreter...

Further information

If you would like to know anything about Interpreter that does not appear on Hotcourses, further information can be found below.

Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIoL)
Saxon House
48 Southwark Street
Tel: 020 7940 3100

Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI)
Fortuna House
South Fifth Street
Milton Keynes
Tel: 01908 325250

CILT, the National Centre for Languages
20 Bedfordbury
Tel: 020 7379 5101