How to pursue a career in interpreting

There are dozens of ways a person can turn a passion for modern languages into a fruitful career. In the past few decades, we’ve seen the introduction of university and college courses tailored to every aspect of trades like translating and interpreting; what’s more, today’s business climate is such that companies of almost all sizes and sectors can benefit from linguistic talent from time to time.

Of course, fluency in a couple of languages is far from a guarantee of success in the field. As we discussed last month, becoming a translator is something that an individual can accomplish in no end of different ways; nonetheless, the best candidates have professional and personal qualities that set them apart from the pack.

The same can be said of interpreters. There are many ways into the career, but a top-flight interpreter will always be a switched-on, adaptable individual with excellent interpersonal skills and an unmatched enthusiasm for languages.

Before a person pursues a career in interpreting, therefore, they need to ask themselves whether it’s the right path for them; otherwise, they could end up confronted with any number of challenges down the line that weren’t apparent at first sight. In this guide, we’ll be discussing the factors a budding interpreter ought to consider before taking the plunge into this unique career.

Background and education

Some outsiders might assume that most successful interpreters come from multilingual backgrounds, but this isn’t actually the case – many of the best individuals in the business had limited contact with foreign languages prior to having lessons in school. This was the case for two London Translations interpreters: Chiara Tixi, who interprets from English, French and Spanish into Italian, and Myriam Garcia Bernabe, who interprets from English and Italian into Spanish.

“The first lesson I had in French was like an epiphany to me – I thought ‘OK, I’m going to work with languages when I grow up’,” comments Chiara. “I didn’t know then that I was going to be an interpreter, but the first time I started learning a language I was hooked.”

Myriam’s experience was very similar: “By the time I was about 13 or 14 I was pretty adamant that I wanted to come over to England to study, so that’s what I did,” she says.

As for education, there are a wealth of courses dedicated to interpreting today; almost any of them will be of value to someone hoping to the career. By the same token, more general qualifications in modern languages still produce world-class interpreters.

Chiara, for example, went to a specialised interpreting school at university, whereas Myriam started as a freelancer after studying for degrees in English and philology, linguistics and machine translation; it was only later that she added a postgraduate qualification in conference interpreting to her CV.

Getting started

As in any field dominated by freelance workers, getting started as an interpreter is a matter of making contacts and networking – something that isn’t always easy for someone straight out of university. Signing up with agencies is crucial, as is marketing one’s services to prospective clients.

Before Chiara took the plunge and became a full-time freelancer, she worked in another profession and developed her translating and interpreting career on the side. However, she emphasises how important it was to keep her language skills up to scratch: “I moved to London a month after my degree because I wanted to improve my English and worked in a logistics department at a company where I could use my languages every day.”

This brings us to an issue that applies to every professional interpreter – it’s critical to engage with modern languages even while outside of the booth. “I have to know what’s happening in government in the UK, Spain and Italy; I have to know about the ins and outs of EU politics, in all these three different languages,” says Myriam.

Types of interpreting

Professional interpreting encompasses a wide spectrum of work, so newcomers to the career have to be prepared for almost anything. For Myriam’s part, she started out in public services and interpreted for courts, housing associations and other agencies. She later transitioned to interpreting for European Works Councils (EWCs) – assignments that today make up the bulk of both Myriam and Chiara’s work.

EWC interpreting typically involves sitting in a booth with a colleague and taking turns to interpret delegates’ statements in real-time. This method is called simultaneous interpreting and is one of four styles in rotation today, along with ad hoc interpreting, consecutive interpreting – which is now falling out of fashion – and whispering.

Regardless of experience or background, a budding interpreter might be asked to work in any of these styles. As such, it helps to be adaptable – there won’t always be the promise of technical aids, or of a colleague who can lend a hand with tricky phrases like foreign names and numbers.

Personal qualities

With the above in mind, the best interpreters tend to have a handful of personal qualities in common. They need to have excellent interpersonal skills in order to communicate with colleagues, clients and agencies; an inquisitive mind and an interest in current affairs; and an ability to plan ahead for potentially challenging assignments.

Both Chiara and Myriam also emphasise the importance of staying calm in adverse circumstances. “It’s so easy to get anxious when something goes wrong – your microphone doesn’t work, for example,” comments Myriam. “You just have to keep your cool about it.”

“Most of the time we ask translations agencies to give us some material beforehand because let’s face it, we’re not walking dictionaries,” adds Chiara. “We often don’t get anything, which can be stressful. Know what you’re worth and know that you can do a good job.”

Inescapably, pursuing a career in interpreting involves working under tremendous pressure – something that might well turn off many prospective candidates. However, both Chiara and Myriam insist that for truly passionate individuals, the pros far outweigh the cons.

“When you’re an interpreter, you’re helping people who do not share the same language to communicate; to me, that’s what makes my day,” says Chiara.

Myriam agrees: “Going into interpreting because you think it’s glamorous? That’s rubbish, it’s a lot of hard work! I love languages, though – you go into a booth, you interpret and you’re ecstatic; you can’t stop talking about it.

“That, to me, is the mark of someone who really wants to be an interpreter.”

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