Budding interpreter FAQ
Everything you always wanted to know about conference interpreters but did not know whom to ask!
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Q: What do conference interpreters do?
Q: What does it take to become a conference interpreter?
Q: What are the main differences between interpreters and translators?
Q: Do interpreters parrot?
Q: Are interpreters made or born?
Q: How visible are interpreters?
Q: Are interpreters privy to secrets before they make it into the media?
Q: What languages should I learn, and where should I train?
Q: What about general education?
Q: Will the profession survive All-English?
Q: Will machines replace interpreters?
Put succinctly, conference interpreters make multilingual communication possible.
They must learn how to listen actively to what is being said in the source language, ie:
- Fully understand the message
- In the appropriate context
- On any specific subject
Their skill lies in transposing what is being said into their own (target) language whilst keeping to the original meaning – tone, intention and style – of the speaker.
Personality, training and a professional attitude.
Anybody intending to train as an interpreter needs a clear aptitude, an inquiring mind and steady nerves. It goes without saying that good language skills and wide-ranging general knowledge are fundamental requirements.
Would-be interpreters must be able to understand and process information quickly, have great powers of concentration, the ability to react promptly and calmly to a changing situation, physical stamina and strong nerves, a pleasant voice and excellent public-speaking skills. They must also combine intellectual curiosity with tact and diplomacy.
Those with the requisite skills need to undergo specialised training in the methods and techniques of interpretation.
Finally, interpreters must be intellectually rigorous. They need a clear sense of what constitutes good professional behaviour as enshrined in the fundamental rules governing the profession (confidentiality, professional standards, etc.)
The reasons for this are:
- To ensure quality of performance
- To protect health and extend working life
- To be recognised by their peers
- And, ultimately, to inspire trust in clients.
Translators work with the written word. They generally have little contact with authors and their audience, but have more time to produce a written translation. To the translators' credit, their output is there to stay. It may be published, read again over time, used and re-used and occasionally may become a standard reference.
Interpreters work with speech and have to find the best wording promptly, as they are part of a communication process directed at a live audience.
Interpretation is all about understanding what the speaker means in the context of a particular meeting and communicating it to a live audience whilst taking into account language and cultural differences. Word-for-word translation of any type produces poor results. This is particularly true for interpretation, where real professionals will constantly be looking for the meaning that lies beneath the words. The interpreter’s maxim is think before you speak.
It takes training, practice, a professional attitude and enough determination to stay the course for a career as a professional interpreter. Acquaintance with many foreign languages and cultures is simply not enough. Before you can begin to work as a professional you must master interpretation methods and techniques by attending an appropriate university-level course. You do not necessarily have to be brought up speaking many languages to become an interpreter. Nowadays most of those who become interpreters have acquired their foreign languages, but to a very high level of proficiency.
Professional interpreters accomplish their exacting task with discretion. Ideally, delegates should communicate so effectively that they don’t notice the language barrier.
This can happen but professional interpreters always keep what they have learned to themselves. Professional secrecy is at the very heart of the AIIC code of professional ethics.
In theory international conferences and meetings could be held in any language, but some are in greater use than others. Although it is difficult to predict which languages are - or will be - useful to a conference interpreter in a given market, demand will always be higher for some of the more widely spoken languages. For instance, anyone hoping to work as a conference interpreter clearly needs to have (active or passive) English in their language combination. However, given the depth and breadth of language proficiency required to work in this profession, there are clear limits on the number of languages any conference interpreter can master. It is therefore advisable to concentrate on one’s mother tongue as well as on the languages for which one feels an inclination, provided that there is a market for them.
Work opportunities vary from country to country. Some countries host major international institutions whilst others depend on local businesses or government agencies to provide work. Although there is no absolute answer to the question of which languages to learn, languages used in conferences will indicate those in demand. AIIC believes that interpreter training has to concentrate on language combinations for which there is, or will be, a demand.
You should be aware that:
- Thorough mastery of the mother tongue is crucial to the quality of the interpreter’s work; this can sometimes be forgotten in the drive to learn foreign languages.
- The professional’s deep and thorough knowledge of languages requires lifelong commitment and study.
Interpreters generally need a university degree and a subsequent post-graduate qualification in conference interpreting techniques. The first degree need not necessarily be in languages, but anyone considering a career in interpreting clearly needs to have attained a high level of language knowledge. For most, that means a first degree in modern languages.
Clearly, a degree in a completely different subject followed by a post-graduate course in conference interpreting may prove an excellent combination, provided the candidate has the required language skills. Every field of knowledge can come in useful in the conference world.
Conference interpreters work for a wide variety of clients and audiences at many meetings on subjects ranging from economics and finance to law, politics, science, IT, theology, sports, and medicine, just to name a few.
Although experts in intercultural communication, interpreters cannot be experts on every subject. An interpreter's main asset is an enquiring mind and the enthusiasm and willingness to learn every day.
Preparation is the key to processing any type of speech and dealing with all kinds of speakers. Not only must interpreters understand what the speaker is saying, but they must also be able to transpose the meaning into the target language.
Interpreters need to keep abreast of international events and enhance their general knowledge continuously. Professionals will become the proverbial “snappers-up of unconsidered trifles”, as you never know when a nugget of information might come in handy.
It is up to conference organisers to choose which languages will be interpreted from and into. Their choice may be guided by political considerations (e.g. EU languages or the official languages of the Swiss Confederation), by diplomatic considerations (e.g. the language of the host country in addition to other international languages), by expediency reasons (e.g. English plus the national language for medical conferences,) or even by tradition.
Greater use is being made of English at international meetings, because an increasing number of people have learned the language and are able to use it. This does not mean, however, that they use English properly or have a perfect command of all its nuances, or even that they feel at ease speaking the language. Many people have realised that speaking and listening to a foreign language - even in a technical area one is very familiar with - can be very tiring, and that using professional, well-prepared conference interpreters enhances communication.
Language is inextricably linked to cultural heritage, so everyone can draw on resources in their own language that are denied them in a foreign language. It is with this in mind that AIIC has drawn up its declaration on language diversity.
There may be a discernible move in some regions and some disciplines towards holding meetings in English only - especially where English fulfils an aspirational function, thus conferring status. But language demand is far from static. Alongside traditional conference languages like French, Spanish, and German, the European Union also needs interpreters for Czech, Finnish or Polish. Chinese is used more and more widely. And international bodies like the International Criminal Court require interpreters in the languages of the cases they deal with. It is therefore extremely hard to predict whether there will be high demand for a specific language combination.
Machine translation has been the Holy Grail of the language professions since the 1960s. Improvements to existing systems have come incrementally rather than in the form of a major breakthrough. Machine translation lends itself to high volume traffic of the same kind of text, for example the translation of tender documents or weather reports. Spoken language is far more complex than written text. Significant progress has been made on voice recognition, but current technology is still very a long way from being able to replace a human interpreter.
At the same time, interpreters have largely benefited from recent developments in technology. Terminology and meeting documents are now available on electronic media and can be carried on laptops. Also, videoconferencing is increasingly used these days. Although it may change the way interpreters work, the profession has embraced technological innovation.
Recommended citation format:VEGA Network. "Budding interpreter FAQ". aiic.net January 25, 2005. Accessed March 20, 2018. <http://aiic.net/p/1669>.
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