What makes a good interpreter?

June 13, 2014 by totalityservices

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When it comes to receiving a good service from an interpreter, there are probably two key elements you'll be looking out for – accuracy and efficiency. 

Both are equally important, as incorrect interpretations will inevitably lead to misunderstandings, while an interpreter who cannot keep up with the speed of the speech, conversation or lecture they are supposed to be following is also likely to encounter similar difficulties.

Interpreting is a highly skilled vocation, which requires many years of training and practice and it would be wrong to assume that just because a person is blessed with the talent of being bilingual, they would make a good interpreter. 

On the contrary, many professionals would view being bilingual as just the starting point for someone who would want to pursue a career in this sector – so what else do they need to learn?

Listening and recalling

With consecutive interpretation, where speakers take it in turns to participate in a conversation while an interpreter acts as a go-between, it is essential that the professional has sharpened their listening and memory skills. 

Because the talk between the two or more parties needs to flow as naturally as possible, each person may speak at length before stopping for the interpreter to then convert what they've said into another language. As a result, the ability to recall information and relay it in the same manner as the original speaker intended is something that really has to be honed.

However, this goes to another level completely when simultaneous interpreting is involved. Here, the interpreter and the speaker will likely be talking at the same time, meaning the professional is continually performing what is effectively a juggling act between two languages – something that requires active listening skills.


Especially in the case of simultaneous interpreting, a professional needs to be able to keep a clear head, regardless of whatever might be going on around them.

A capability to remain focused is a crucial characteristic to possess in this instance, as even a slight mistake or misinterpretation can set the interpreter behind in following what their subject is saying, which can then potentially lead to further mistakes, omitted information and, ultimately, miscommunication.

However, everyone's human and errors sometimes do happen. When they do it is important for the professional to remain calm and correct their inaccuracy without letting it disrupt the overall delivery of the conversation or speech. It's always better to admit when a mistake has been made than to continue, as this could lead to further confusion or misunderstanding later down the line.

Planning and organisation

While having a talent with languages is the obvious skill needed to be a successful interpreter, that alone will not be enough. 

To be able to carry out high quality work, good planning and organisational talents are critical. Simply turning up to an assignment and hoping for the best will not result in a successful job being carried out and any employer would expect their interpreter to be briefed and adequately prepared for the job at hand.

So, what do they actually need to plan for? Knowing what the subject of the meeting or seminar will be about is a good place to start, as from this the professional will be able to determine what level of specialist knowledge is required.

This is essential not only because the interpreter might encounter jargon they are unfamiliar with, but also because it provides context to the situation they are about to enter, which can make a significant difference in their own understanding of what is going on.

As a result, do not be surprised if your professional requests background information before the assignment gets underway. If they don't, then don't be afraid to approach them and ask if there's anything you can provide to help.

Written by Helen Fream

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