What Does An Interpreter Do, And How Do You Become One?

It’s wonderful to have your sights set on working for the UN, but you’ve also got a lot of other options if you’re thinking about becoming an interpreter.
interpreter mediating a conversation between two older women in their kitchen how to become an interpreter

When you hear the word “interpreter,” what image comes to mind? A United Nations convention? A school? Megan Thee Stallion’s ASL interpreter nailing every lyric during a performance and somehow still managing to sign along with the beat? Interpreters wear many hats in society, and there are innumerable situations that call for the presence of someone who can fluidly translate language in real-time. If you’re wondering what an interpreter does exactly, or how to become an interpreter, you’re in the right place.

What Is An Interpreter?

First, it helps to establish that an interpreter is not a translator — at least, not exactly. In a very simplified sense, translators deal with written language, and interpreters work with oral and signed languages, which means they’re not generally sitting behind a desk translating written material — they’re often translating language on the fly, or in the context of a real-time conversation.

Of course, the advent of translation technology is making the distinction between translators and interpreters a little blurrier. For the purposes of this article and when referring to a human whose job it is to relay information from one language to another, then this is a pretty good rule of thumb to keep in mind.

One of the reasons for this distinction — besides being specific about what we’re talking about — is that translators and interpreters use slightly different sets of skills. For instance, it’s more important for an interpreter to have strong listening skills, so that they can hear what they’re interpreting correctly (and in the case of signed languages, dexterity, so they can make coordinated movements). A translator would place greater emphasis on honing their reading and writing skills.

In a nutshell, an interpreter is someone who quickly relays information between languages in real time. They’re generally needed when there’s a dialogue or exchange occurring between people who speak different languages. This can range from situations like a doctor’s visit to an international summit where policy talks are occurring.

Types Of Interpreters

There are many different methods of interpretation, and there are even more categories of interpreter based on which industries they serve.

If you’re wondering how to become an interpreter, you might have to start by considering the method of interpretation you’d be best at, or that you’d be required to perform, as well as the field you want to go into. Often, becoming an interpreter requires you to have specific skills and knowledge sets tailored to the exact kinds of situations you’ll be confronted with. For instance, a knowledge of foreign affairs is necessary if you’re working in international relations, whereas you might need medical jargon if you’re working in doctors’ offices.

Consecutive interpreting is when the interpreter waits for a person to finish a sentence before translating what they just said. While this is a slower way of going about it, it’s handy in group situations where there needs to be a consensus understanding. Often, the interpreter takes notes while people are speaking.

Simultaneous interpreting is when interpreters speak over the person they’re translating in real time (you’ve probably heard this on the news). This tends to work best in situations where a secondary audience is trying to follow along with what’s being said. This is almost always the type of interpretation used in sign language interpreting.

Whisper interpreting is basically simultaneous interpreting, but quieter, so it’s less distracting. This is usually done for a single person.

Over-the-phone interpreting is, well, any interpreting done over the phone. This is actually the type used by the United Nations to allow communication across many languages at once.

You might have to favor one method over another depending on the industry you’re working in. Here are just a couple examples of where you could go in this field.

Travel interpreters accompany anyone ranging from journalists and ambassadors to rich tourists on international trips.

Diplomatic interpreters (including the kind you’ll find at the United Nations) accompany ambassadors and politicians during important summits and talks. There are multiple interpreters present at UN meetings to provide simultaneous interpretation for the official UN languages, but all speaking into headsets.

Medical interpreters facilitate communication between doctors and patients, ensuring patients can accurately explain their medical histories to doctors. They also need an understanding of the doctor’s diagnoses and treatment options. They must have a solid grasp of medical terminology (in both languages), as well as various privacy laws.

Mental health interpreters are a type of medical interpreter, except they accompany patients to therapy and psychiatry visits. Though they also need to be familiar with healthcare settings, their jobs require a special set of skills to accurately convey difficult emotional experiences that are deeply personal.

Legal interpreters use both their foreign language knowledge and their handle on legal vocabulary — sometimes even a law background — to facilitate communication in courtrooms.

Conference interpreters go to conferences where different languages are being spoken. Often, there will be multiple interpreters present to serve various linguistic needs.

Community interpreters perform translation services during town halls, for NGOs and social organizations, during press conferences and more.

How To Become An Interpreter

Although it’s possible to find work as an interpreter without any formal training, you’ll most likely need, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree and proficiency in the two (or more!) languages you’ll be working with. You might be fully bilingual because of your upbringing, or you might choose to major in a foreign language if you’re in college. There are other options in between, too — a degree in a language is not always necessary. However, it helps to be able to demonstrate your level of language proficiency via an exam or test.

Depending on the field you want to go into, you might need some specialized training and certification. For instance, there are often training programs, certificates, and continuing education required for court and medical interpreters via associations like the American Translators Association, the National Association of Judiciary InterpretersCertification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters and National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters. You’ll probably need some non-official experience in your specialized role, too, as well as familiarity with the language and culture you’ll be interfacing with.

Volunteer work and internships are a common way for translators and interpreters to gain experience. If you’re interested in sign language interpreting, you might look for a community organization you can volunteer with. It’s common to also seek a mentoring relationship with someone more established in your field.

You probably won’t need a certification unless you’re a medical or court interpreter, but if you’re interested in going the certification route anyway, you can get language certification via the American Translators Association, and sign language certification via the National Association of the Deaf and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. You can also get certified for consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting, or conference-level interpreting via the U.S. Department of State. There are also associate degree programs available at some schools for translation and interpretation.

With a sufficient basis of experience, many interpreters become self-employed and will continue to advance in their careers based on reputation and referrals. They might also join an association of professional interpreters to network, learn about new job opportunities, and stay up to date with industry happenings.

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