Interpretation: one profession, several jobs

A talk with Sílvia Camilo on different types of interpreting

Q: I want to be an interpreter!
Q: What are they?
Q: Why the difference?
Q: Do the various types of interpreting have anything in common?
Q: What are the differences between them?
Q: But the general public does not make a distinction between, Court interpreters, Community interpreters and Conference interpreters. Why not?
Q: Can anyone become an interpreter?
Q: So how do clients distinguish between professionals and amateurs?
Q: What does “professionalism” really mean?
Q: Doesn’t that apply to any profession?
Q: One last question: is it a man’s job or a woman’s job?

Q: I want to be an interpreter!


But there is more than one kind of interpreter.

Q: What are they?

Court interpreters
Community interpreters
Conference interpreters

Q: Why the difference?

The different types of interpreter have come into being in response to the different needs of various client groups.

In response to varied and growing needs

For example, UEFA, law courts, Nokia, the Vatican, Oxfam, intergovernmental organisations (like the UN) all have different requirements.

They are not different specialisations, such as you find in the world of medicine: a professional interpreter can take on all the different roles. It all depends on their initial situation, their background and training, or the choices they make in the course of their career. Interpreters are multilingual communication experts who provide a service to a range of client groups who are all experts in their own fields.

Q: Do the various types of interpreting have anything in common?


In a nutshell: the interpreter’s role, conduct and markets, and the image they have in the outside world.

All professional interpreters provide verbal communication between cultures and languages which they know very well, and between many speakers and many client groups. Thus, they all do the same thing.

Professional interpreters are other people’s mouthpiece and keep their own opinions, if they have any, to themselves.

Since most meetings are private, what goes on in them is private too. Everyone must be able to trust the interpreter. Interpreters therefore observe a code of confidentiality.

There are ethical rules of conduct to make sure that the interpreter provides a high-quality service in an atmosphere of mutual trust:

Interpreters must be effective in getting the message across, have proven language skills, be personally suited to verbal communication, respect speakers and listeners, be discreet and restrained, and observe confidentiality and the terms and conditions of work.

Professional interpreters work full time. This does not mean to say that they interpret every day, but that interpreting is their main work activity.

They keep their skills polished and invest in lifelong learning.

In itself globalisation is nothing new to the world of interpreters: people have been moving around for centuries. They set up home all around the world, where they negotiate, get ill, fight, etc. Interpreters are in increasing demand, and more and more languages are needed. This applies to all types of interpreter.

Q: What are the differences between them?

There are several.

Firstly, the social and legal framework and the needs interpreters serve.

The main distinction is between court and community interpreters on the one hand and conference interpreters on the other. Court and community interpreters work in a national system of basic citizens’ rights and the need to achieve results, while conference interpreters operate in a multinational business and intergovernmental world.

Court and community interpreters

Court and community interpretation reflects constitutional principles, both national and international: access to justice, equality before the law, equal rights and duties for all citizens, and so on. The requirements arising are embedded within a single country and have consequences for the individual or individuals in question. Generally speaking, this kind of interpretation involves two people (for example judge and defendant, policeman and suspect, lawyer and witness, doctor and patient) and two languages. The clients are almost always public authorities or national bodies responsible for putting the above principles into practice: government services, law courts, police, social services, lawyers, etc. It is these often clients who decide on contract conditions and settings, and who are responsible for recruiting interpreters.

Conference interpreters

Conference interpretation is not tied to a particular country and covers a wide range of topics. Also, of course, each conference has different delegates. Presentations, debates and negotiations all take place in their own distinctive context. The practicalities are different (many types of listener, many different languages, wide range of venues, generally simultaneous interpreting) and there is no specific outcome that must be achieved. If there is, then it will always affect a group of people rather than one individual. Conference interpreters must be willing to travel to their clients, or with them.

Other differences derive from this. Regulations, places of work, technical equipment, logistics; training, terms and conditions (number of interpreters, working hours, fees, etc.) are different, as are the ways interpreters organise themselves.

Regulations, places of work, technical equipment, logistics:

Court interpreters: a “public service” of sorts, but usually not permanent members of staff. Hearings before a judge, conversations/depositions with defence lawyers and prosecutors, examination of witnesses etc. The languages used always include the language of the country where the proceedings take place. Proceedings seldom require simultaneous mode (booths/equipment/technicians).

Court interpreters often work alone. They are very exposed (they face the court, the parties and the public) and can work unpredictable hours. Communication is often between two parties. The range of languages required is growing. There are seldom any regulations governing training or working conditions, and professional skills are rarely assessed. Rules generally only cover the formal aspects of access to lists of people who can be recruited. The work itself is unregulated and standards are rarely checked.

International courts and tribunals: these often use simultaneous interpreting, and mostly rely on professional conference interpreters. Proceedings take place in the official court languages and the languages of the parties in each individual hearing. The language of the country where the court sits is not necessarily used. For not widely spoken languages, these institutions call upon individuals for fieldwork and often train them.

Community interpreters: a “public service” of sorts, but usually not permanent members of staff. Working with patients, refugees, displaced persons; meetings with lawyers, doctors, police, social workers etc. The languages used always include the language of the country where the proceedings take place.

Never in simultaneous mode. Community interpreters often work alone. They are very exposed and can work unpredictable hours. Communication is often between two individuals. The range of languages required is growing. As with court interpreters, work is mostly unregulated. Lots of charity work, increasingly involving humanitarian bodies and national agencies.

Conference interpreters: Serving the national and international market (companies, organisations, governments) or intergovernmental organisations, often as permanent staff. Very dependent on technology, usually using simultaneous interpretation booths, more than two languages, working in teams, power-point presentations, several speakers involved in discussions, remote interpretation. Organising conferences is a major logistical task in itself, involving numerous contracts – which makes work as a conference interpreter more structured. Conference interpreters are often recruited some time in advance. The range of languages at a conference depends on completely different factors from in the two situations above, and the national language(s) is not necessarily included.

Conference interpreting is very rarely regulated at national level. At international level, the intergovernmental organisations control admission and recruitment both for their permanent staff and for the interpreters they recruit as the need arises (and whom AIIC generally represents).


Firstly : there has been an explosion of interpreter training courses at universities, in response to growing demand. Sadly, most of these are not taught by professional interpreters and do not at present offer adequate training to people wishing to start out as interpreters. You will therefore need to build your experience, skills and ethics up on the job, while working for customers and with the help of professional interpreters. In Europe, the EU set up a network of universities (18 for the moment) under the aegis of the European Masters in Conference Interpreting – EMCI – to curb this handicap and has met with great success.

Court interpreters: For social and historical reasons, some multilingual countries (Canada, USA, Finland, Belgium, etc.) have traditions and regulations in this field and require specific training aimed at the legal and procedural system of the country concerned. Sadly, such training is hard to come by. Clients have very specific needs (such as verbatim interpretation), and interpreters are conscious of the need for precise terminology and of their place in the proceedings.

Community interpreters: Specialised training and regulation are virtually unheard-of, even though demand is strong and growing.

Conference interpreters: Increasingly a postgraduate specialisation, taught by practising interpreters. There are universities with an established record of training in conference interpretation techniques, often covering languages with no connection to the place of teaching. Distance learning is in its infancy. Teacher training is well established. Several initiatives exist to provide further training during the course of the career. Some international organisations run their own in-house training courses. Ever since it was founded in 1953, AIIC has played a leading part in building up a body of training theory and practice for the benefit of future generations.

Working conditions (headcount, working hours, pay etc.)

Court interpreters: Conditions are set and regulated by the client (courts, ministries). Interpreters are rarely in a position to negotiate for themselves.

Community interpreters: Conditions are set by the client. The working situation means that they vary wildly. Interpreters are rarely in a position to negotiate for themselves.

Conference interpreters: Very unlike the other categories. The conference organiser and the interpreter (or recruiting agency) negotiate working conditions directly, on a case-by-case basis. AIIC has drawn up a set of guidelines. Many international organisations, such as the EU and UN, have negotiated collective agreements with AIIC, which acts as workers’ representative.

How interpreters are organised

Court interpreters: National organisations, often together with other fields of work.

Community interpreters: National organisations, often together with other fields of work.

Conference interpreters: National organisations, often together with other fields of work. These are the only interpreters with an international organisation: AIIC. In contrast to many other international professional organisations, AIIC members join directly as individuals and are subject to an admission procedure. They undertake to respect professional standards and abide by the AIIC code of ethics.

Q: But the general public does not make a distinction between, Court interpreters, Community interpreters and Conference interpreters. Why not?

The general public only sees the similarities between them. The differences are only really noticeable to clients, and the interpreters themselves.

Q: Can anyone become an interpreter?

Yes, but:

There are not yet any rules dictating particular types of training, quality standards or certification. The situation also varies from country to country. Clients, of course, eventually learn to distinguish the professionals from the amateurs, and the learning process is sometimes painful.

Q: So how do clients distinguish between professionals and amateurs?

It is not easy. In the absence of regulations and certification, they have not got a clear frame of reference. They can ask around, consulting other users, professional associations, etc.

Misapprehensions about interpreters are widespread. Many clients know nothing about the degree of technical skill, language and cultural knowledge required and have not heard of professional standards.

It is up to us to help them find what they need.

After all, anyone can become an interpreter. There are no rules to stop them. Clients therefore run a serious risk of recruiting amateurs – a disaster for them and also for the reputation of professionals.

Clients often think that anyone with a reasonable command of foreign languages can interpret for them.

The general public, including clients, tend to lump all languages together, overlooking the differences between families (e.g. Romance languages and Slav languages), and within them (if you know Italian you must be able to understand Portuguese, etc.). They have no idea what a very advanced knowledge of the languages and cultures concerned is required for our work.

The general public hardly ever comes into contact with our work, so their image of us is largely imagined. Since interpreters keep a low profile, our best work does not attract attention. Interpreters tend to work in a fairly self-contained world. Media stories about interpreters are few and far between, and they are often negative, since they seek to report exceptional cases.

Interpreters set out to be a discreet, disinterested and passive intermediary. This is often misunderstood, with clients finding it hard to accept that interpreters do not take sides.

Finally, what is the point of interpreters? Everyone speaks English, don’t they?

No: “Global English is not good enough for global business”.

Q: What does “professionalism” really mean?

It takes some explaining

1) Understanding what is wanted of you.

Bear in mind that clients themselves often do not know exactly what they want: it is up to you to provide services that meet their needs (Consecutive or simultaneous? Or perhaps what they really want is a tour guide rather than an interpreter?). Your clients will appreciate your help.

2) Knowing your role and your place.

You are a verbal communication expert, a multilingual, intercultural go-between providing a service to people who depend on you – but who may not have recruited you themselves. You have experience, know-how or training, or perhaps all three. It is your responsibility to prepare thoroughly, bring along everything you need (paper, pencils, glasses, headphone wipes, water, etc.), to turn up in good time, introduce yourself and keep a low profile. You are there for your client, not the other way round.

3) Knowing your technical and linguistic skills, and your limits, and managing your diary so you can give a firm and honest reply when work is offered.

So: do not accept more than one offer of work on a single day, since you cannot be in two places at once; do not accept work if you have not got the right languages; do not turn down a prior offer you have accepted, if something else comes along afterwards. Clients will come to trust you.

4) Make sure that the basic requirements are clear and understood by both sides (client and interpreter), perhaps by signing a contract. You will then be taken seriously as a professional.

You may be working on your own or need to put a team together, depending on the work involved. You may need preparation time or a briefing. There must be explicit agreement on working hours, the place of work, pay and expenses, and the responsibilities of all concerned.

5) In the end, if you build up a reputation for integrity, teamwork and solidarity (between the generations, for example), you will win the respect of other interpreters and the trust of clients. You will be well established on a good career. A bad reputation is almost impossible to shake off.

Q: Doesn’t that apply to any profession?

Yes, in our opinion it applies to any profession.

Q: One last question: is it a man’s job or a woman’s job?

Very few jobs are limited to men or women these days.

Taking a global overview, I may say there are currently more women than men in interpreting. But most professions were dominated by men fifty years ago. Socioeconomic factors have transformed the situation. However, research into cognitive processes has not reached any conclusions yet.

The socioeconomic angle: women make up the majority of the world’s population, they have broken down a lot of barriers and equality has advanced in leaps and bounds. Women of all levels of education have entered the workplace, academe and the corridors of power. All this has created a new social environment in which women can qualify to enter any profession.

The cognitive angle: are women different from men in the way they listen, process information, learn languages, memorise, enunciate, and handle stress and frustration? Interpreting seems to be attracting more women than men at present. Research is ongoing.

Thank you!

You’re welcome.

Recommended citation format:
VEGA Network. "Interpretation: one profession, several jobs". March 10, 2010. Accessed August 23, 2019. <>.

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