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The signs of a good interpreter

We recently wrote about the skills and qualities that we look for in a good translator. While some of these skills may be universal across the board of any linguistic professional, the work of an interpreter requires some very particular attributes.

Language skills and experience

Needless to say, an interpreter must have impeccable language skills and experience. While it is one thing to be able to speak another language, it is a whole different ball game being able to listen to, process, translate and reproduce words in a matter of split seconds over a prolonged period of time – something which can only come with experience in this line of work. That said, without absolute fluency in the first place, interpreting is an impossible end goal.

On top of this and as with the translation talent at our disposal, in order to work as an interpreter for London Translations, we require at least five years’ experience from anyone who wishes to be considered, enabling us to ensure we have the best possible team of experts at our fingertips. With suitable experience should come the references and reputation that are also needed.

Interpreting accreditation

Official certification from a respected authority is another sign that an interpreter means business, as is also the case with translation professionals.

In the UK, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting and the Chartered Institute of Linguists offer accreditation for both translators and interpreters, from which the vast majority of our team of freelancing language professionals have received their stamp of approval.

Not only does this help us to consolidate great professionals, but it also helps to give us an insight into the stage at which interpreters are in their careers. As part of the accreditation, interpreters will need not only to sit an exam, but also to undergo CPD – that is, continual professional development – comprising workshops, seminars and a record of the number of hours they have spent interpreting. This progressive approach to memberships helps us to distinguish more junior members from more seasoned, well-experienced types, in order for us to select our talent accordingly.


It’s not enough to say you are an interpreter, when there are several different subsets within the profession – namely simultaneous, consecutive and whispering (or chuchotage) interpreting. If an individual is claiming they are an interpreter who can fulfil any interpreting role, while this may indeed be the case, it is worth double checking their experience and credentials across the various types.

Simultaneous interpreting happens almost in real-time with the help of interpreting equipment, such as soundproofed booths, audio input interpreting desks, speakers and headsets. Consecutive interpreting comprises a person talking for a brief period of time before they pause to give the interpreter time to translate what has just been said. Finally, whispered or chuchotage involves the interpreter providing delegates with little more than a summary of what is being said.

Alex Cazacu, senior project manager at London Translations, explains how chuchotage might therefore be seen as the ‘worst’ kind of interpreting, as those listening only receive a condensed version of what is being said. However, this can be useful in situations for which gist and comprehension are all that is needed.

“One of the most problematic things is that interpreters who usually do simultaneous work can often do consecutive. However, in most cases, the opposite is not true,” he says. “Take the analogy of manual and automatic transmission – drivers who drive manual can drive automatic, but the opposite is often not true.”

Flexibility and resilience

As with most professions moving with the dynamic pace of modern business, inflexibility is seldom an option and the same could not be more true of interpreting.

While translators will typically work alone on their own terms and very much in their own time, interpreters are far more at the mercy of those for whom they are working.

For this reason, flexibility and a willingness to help are of paramount importance in order to be a good interpreter. It is absolutely no good downing the headset and walking out of the interpreting booth at 3:00pm sharp, even if the event has not finished, simply because this was the time an interpreter was scheduled to clock off. Delegates will be late, presentations will run on, unforeseen circumstances will occur, and it is vital that interpreters are willing to go that extra mile to ensure that the job is completed.

It goes without saying that it is hard work and is most certainly not for the faint-hearted, which is why great interpreters will have an extremely strong work ethic.

Interpreters’ work could end up taking them all over the world at the drop of a hat, working with people who they do not know and in whom they may not be able to readily entrust their confidence. In so doing, they may have to work jetlagged or tired from travelling. They may need to work in hot, stifling conditions, perhaps in booths that are not suitably ventilated, and for long periods of time, should a delegate drone on for hours. This is all part of the job.


When translating text, an individual has the time to consult grammar books and dictionaries, and take their time to consider different ways of saying the same thing. An interpreter – most notably a simultaneous one – is not afforded such a luxury. Therefore, rigorous preparation before a job is absolutely vital.

If an interpreter does not ask for presentations and supporting materials before a conference at which they are working, his or her employer should be very concerned indeed. Especially when a job is likely to be extremely technical or contain a lot of numbers, the few split seconds that an interpreter has to make a linguistic judgement call are unlikely to be enough for them to do a sufficiently high-quality job, while ensuring they keep up.

There are, of course, many other attributes that help a good interpreter to be a great one. For example, being confident, having great public speaking skills and being able to read body language are all vital qualities to succeeding in this profession and ones that will only improve with experience.

However, without any of the above, an interpreter is highly likely to fall at the first hurdle.

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