Common myths about interpreting

With globalisation and international business going through a veritable boom, we need modern foreign languages more now than we have ever done in the past.

However, despite this increased need for languages services, there are many myths floating around about translation and interpreting professionals in particular, which we are keen to put to bed once and for all! So here goes…

Translation and interpreting are the same thing

No matter how many times translation and interpreting agencies promote the difference between the two, many still think that translation and interpreting are synonymous professions. This could not be further from the truth. Put simply, translation deals with the written word, while interpreting involves the spoken word.

As such, the way in which translators and interpreters go about their work differs hugely. For example, translation is a more solitary profession, with the individual doing the work being able to consult dictionaries, grammar books, discussion forums and so on. Meanwhile, interpreters are seldom afforded more than a split second or two to transpose what they are hearing into another language. In this respect, it could be argued that interpreting is more of a dynamic profession.

Interpreting is an easy profession for a linguist

Many people who do not speak languages might think that those who can speak two or more have an advantage, as they can settle comfortably into a linguistic profession with very little effort. However, when it comes to interpreting, this couldn’t be more untrue. As aforementioned, interpreting is a very demanding profession. Interpreters may be expected to travel the world, working when jet lagged and tired in hot, poorly-ventilated interpreting booths. They may work long hours with conferences running overtime as a result of delegates being late, as they are entirely at the mercy of those for whom they are interpreting.

Few jobs require multitasking at the level demanded for simultaneous interpreting, for which an interpreter relays the words in another language at the same time as they are listening to the original speaker and processing what they are saying .

The European Commission reports the results of the Interpreter Workload Study, which was carried out by the International Association of Conference Interpreters. They showed just how stressful the job of simultaneous interpreting is, with quick speakers, fast switches in the subject being spoken about, a lack of background materials, tricky accents and speakers reading from text cited as some of the most stressful challenges of the job. As many as 30% of respondents said they believed such stress had a negative impact on them.

Interpreting is just about speaking

While speaking is of course the primary function of the job of an interpreter, it is far from all there is to it. An interpreter must always have a direct visual of the person whose speech they are reproducing. This is because extra-verbal communication – such as body language and facial expressions – can play a huge role in what they are trying to convey. Those who study for interpreting at an official institution are very likely to study units in these forms of communication as part of their training.

It also goes without saying that an interpreter will need to have flawless multitasking skills as they will need to listen and process what an individual is saying at the same time as translating their words out loud. This requires impressive levels of concentration.

Finally, it is not enough simply to be able to speak another language, which leads neatly onto the next myth surrounding interpreting.

If you are bilingual, you can interpret

“I am bilingual” does not mean “I could be an interpreter” by definition, as an interpreter will be bilingual – and then some. For example, they will need to have a certain level of specialist knowledge about the subject matter for which they are interpreting in order for them to do the job properly. This involves a great deal of preparation before the event or conference at which they are working, poring over materials and presentations to make sure they will be able to do the job well on the day.

Similarly, you need a vast range of other skills as touched upon earlier – the ability to multitask, oratorical skills, resilience and flexibility – in order to succeed as an interpreter.

To interpret, all you have to do is turn up and say the words

Just as interpreting is not just about speaking, it is not enough to turn up to a conference, enter the interpreting booth, put on a headset and repeat the words being said in another language. Of course, to an outsider that might appear to be all that is going on, but behind closed doors, a good interpreter will have invested a great deal of time and effort preparing for their appearance in advance, in order to anticipate what is being said as much as they possibly can.

Even fluent speakers will know that reproducing long numbers or a list of technical terms in a split second is extremely difficult. In some circumstances, an interpreter may be able to turn up and simply wing it. Indeed, this may be the only option – for example, an interpreter called in last-minute for a cross examination of an individual who has been arrested or perhaps a person needing to communicate to doctors after being rushed into A&E. However, in many cases, an interpreter will have put in several hours outside of their interpreting booth.

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