Our guide to interpreting
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to interpreting

First published date October 29 2013 Amended date January 29 2015

Stamina. Lightning-fast reactions. A good memory. Solid public speaking skills. Wide general knowledge. The ability to get on with all kinds of people. These are just some of the talents you’ll need to be an interpreter!

Interpreting is conveying spoken words in one language (the ‘source’ language) into another language (the ‘target’ language). It’s an exciting career choice for anyone who is passionate about using their foreign language knowledge, but who is also exceptionally articulate in their mother tongue(s).

So there’s much more to being an interpreter than knowing a foreign language. Interpreters need to understand the culture of the country where that language is spoken. They need to be at ease with regional accents, slang and dialects. Some aspiring interpreters often choose to spend time abroad living and working in their source language countries in order to achieve this depth of knowledge.


Myth buster

‘Interpreting’ and ‘translating’ are often used interchangeably, but interpreters work with the spoken word and translators focus on the written word.


Reasons to study interpreting

Interpreting is a rigorous skill – interpreters often work in 20 minute bursts, as the brain can only cope with concentrating so intensely for so long! Interpreters have said that, in order to do the job, you are constantly having to think ahead of yourself. If you like an intellectual challenge that really forces you to use your brain and be completely engaged in the moment, consider interpreting.

Interpreting also lends itself to freelance work and some people particularly enjoy this kind of lifestyle. Freelancers can find work through agencies (ask more experienced colleagues to help you find a decent one), or through informal networking.

If you want to pursue interpreting at the highest level, you could find work overseas at the United Nations (UN) or the European Commission.


Careers using interpreting

Interpreting can lead to a variety of interesting roles in the public sector. In the UK, interpreters work with the police, social workers, hospital doctors and nurses to support people who are unable to communicate in English. Languages in demand include Polish, Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati and Arabic.

The UK Border Agency employs interpreters to work at airports or ports. Check their language requirements before applying, as they can be quite stringent. Another intriguing option for all linguists is intelligence work. GCHQ (the UK’s Government Communication Headquarters) is looking for English speakers proficient in Asian and Middle Eastern languages; Russian and some European languages are also sought after.

Private sector businesses often require interpreters if they conduct business overseas. Many work on a freelance basis.

And if none of the above appeal, what about working as an Army Interpreter? You don’t need any formal training – recruitment includes an aptitude test to see whether you’re skilled in picking up new languages. If you pass, you’ll train as a member of the Intelligence Corps before specialising as a linguist. You could have the opportunity to learn languages such as Pashtu and Dari (both spoken in Afghanistan).


Types of interpreting

There are two main types of interpreting: conference/simultaneous interpreting and consecutive/liaison interpreting.

Conference/simultaneous interpreters generally work in a soundproof booth (watch out for them when you see TV footage of the UN). They wear headphones in order to listen to a speaker, and convey what the speaker is saying in another language to those relying on them for comprehension. If only a couple of people do not understand the speaker’s language, an interpreter will sometimes whisper the message to them without the use of audio equipment.

Consecutive or liaison interpreting takes place on a smaller scale, often in private meetings with two people or more. There is a pause after each delegate speaks, in order for the interpreter to relay the interpretation to each party. This type of interpreting is more common in public service work, such as work for local government or the NHS.


What to expect

Community interpreting courses are offered by several higher education colleges. They can take the form of evening classes or be full or part time courses.  You can complete a Level 3 Award in Introduction to Community Interpreting Skills, then work towards official National Open College Network (NOCN) qualifications in Community Interpreting, progressing through Levels 1, 2 and 3. You don’t need a degree for studying on these courses.

Graduates in modern languages, linguistics or literature have the option to take postgraduate qualifications in Interpreting, such as a Postgraduate Certificate (PgCert), Postgraduate Diploma (PgDip) or an MA. Some masters degrees combine interpreting and translation; others allow you to specialise in certain areas, such as conference interpreting or legal-related work.

One of the most respected interpreting qualifications is the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSL). Some institutions run courses aimed at preparing candidates for this specific exam.


Interpreters on screen

Interpreters can be action stars, too. Military interpreters were very happy with the way their profession was portrayed in Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty. If that doesn’t whet your appetite, there’s also the thriller The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman, set in the UN in New York. 


By Kate Wilkins

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