What does an interpreter do?

Interpreter place at the European Court of Justice

Image via Wikipedia

If you read my post What Does a Translator Do?, you’ll remember that translators handle written texts while interpreters deal with spoken language. When people picture an interpreter, they typically conjure up a headphone-wearing, glass-enclosed United Nations type interpreter, like Nicole Kidman in the movie “The Interpreter.” While this is a fairly accurate portrait of what some interpreters do, it is just one facet of the language interpretation profession. I’d like to present a brief outline of the different types of interpreters and what they do.

First of all, interpretation comes in two forms: consecutive and simultaneous. In consecutive interpretation, a speaker talks in short segments, typically 15-60 seconds, then the interpreter presents the message to the audience. This usually requires the interpreter to take notes to be sure nothing is missed. The interpreter usually is visible and speaks into a microphone for the whole audience to hear. This sort of interpreting is common for short speeches or events where the schedule allows for the additional time needed for the interpretation. Consecutive interpretation is by far the most common form with interpreters working in all fields. Though some government entities, courts, and hospitals employee their own interpreters to handle their daily needs in specific languages, the majority work as independent contractors. Consecutive interpreting can also be provided telephonically. You might have noticed that some stores now have special language telephones set up next to the customer service desk to allow non-English speaking shoppers access to an interpreter within a few minutes. Telephone interpretation has become more prevalent in recent years with many hospitals and government agencies relying on it as a quicker and cheaper alternative to having a physical interpreter come out to their location. When an interpreter needs to be mobile during a presentation, such as a company plant visit or city tour, the interpreter is referred to as an escort interpreter. This is an unfortunate name given some of the requests I have gotten over the years with specific physical descriptions of the “interpreter” the client desired. Consecutive interpreting tends to be used more in shorter events since it doubles the time necessary to convey the message.

In simultaneous interpretation the interpreter begins to interpret the message nearly at the same time as the speaker. In fact there is a brief 2-10 second lag before the interpretation begins to enable the interpreter to gather the whole meaning of the sentence. With languages where the verb comes at the end, like German, the interpreter must wait until the end of the thought before starting to interpret. This type is usually for large conferences, corporate meetings and in some courtrooms. Simultaneous interpreters are often referred to as conference interpreters since these are the types of venues for which they most often interpret. This sort of interpretation is frequently judged to be more difficult since it requires the interpreter to both listen and speak at the same time. Consequently, there are fewer simultaneous interpreters in the interpretation field and they can be quite expensive to book. Like consecutive interpreters, most work as freelancers. However, unlike consecutive interpreters they are much more likely to travel aross the world from one venue to the next. The interpreters are equipped with a headset and microphone to hear the speaker and then relay the interpreted message into the microphone. The interpretation is transmitted either by radio or infrared waves to the audience that has wireless receivers. In the case of a multiple-language event, the audience may be able to choose from several languages on different channels. Simultaneous interpreters always work in pairs, trading off every 20-30 minutes. They are often unseen and work in either an enclosed interpretation booth or glass-walled room in order not to distract from the event.   

Depending on the circumstances, both types can be used. I have personally been in depositions where I have whispered the interpretation simultaneously into the person’s ear while the lawyer was asking the questions, then consecutively interpreted the answers back to the lawyer. This is just a very brief glimpse into the fascinating and high-demand field of interpreting.

What does a translator do?

When I tell people  I’m a translator, most really don’t seem to know what that means or what I do. The first question is usually, how many languages do you speak? While many translators do work in more than one language pair, this is by no means a requirement. Some people assume that I travel all the time, which is sadly not the case. First, let me start by defining some key terminology in the translation industry before I get into what a translator does. The terms translator and interpreter are often used interchangeably, but they are two distinct professions requiring very different skill sets. A translator deals with written text and an interpreter deals with the spoken word. I’ll discuss interpreters in another post. Source language is the language from which a document is translated and target language is the language into which a document is translated. A working language is the one that a person knows well enough to work in at a professional level.

The translation process goes well beyond the simple replacement of a word in one language into another. A translator not only needs to have a thorough understanding of the source language text and subject matter, but also the ability to convey (translate) the meaning, mood and style of the author accurately, naturally and completely into the target language. Merely being bilingual does not qualify a person to translate any more than being able to write makes one a poet. Translators must have excellent grammar and writing skills to produce translations that don’t sound like translations. As a general rule, translators translate from their working language(s) into their native language. There are some exceptions, such as second-generation speakers who have grown up with essentially two native languages, though even in these cases, one language is tends to be more dominant.

The work environment for translators varies by country. Here in the U.S., many companies and government entities do staff in-house translators, providing the stability of a 9-5 job without the need to find new clients on a regular basis. Nonetheless, most translators work as freelancers. This allows them quite a bit of flexibility as they aren’t tethered to any one location and can literally work anywhere in the world. Since they are usually paid by the word and rely on work from different sources, speed and quality are vital to their livelihood. That’s why even though most translators are generalists, they usually specialize in one or more fields. It’s much easier to translate a subject that you are familiar with than to struggle for hours with one that you don’t even understand well in your own language. Most translation agencies seek out specialized translators for subject-specific projects since the quality is almost always better than a generalist’s translation of the same material.

Technology has completely changed the translation profession. Nowadays all translations are done on a computer, usually with the assistance of on-line dictionaries and glossaries. Most translators also use translation memory and terminology management software. This is not computer-generated translation, but rather specialized software that archives a translator’s own work for use within a large document or for future updates of the same or similar documents. The software also enables translators and translation companies to share translation memories, which are files containing previous translations and accepted terminology, that the software uses to help maintain consistency among different translators over time. Typically when a translation agency sends a freelance translator a document to translate, the request is accompanied by a translation memory. Before delivering the translation, it should be thoroughly reviewed and edited for technical accuracy and correct grammar.

This is just a brief glimpse into the profession I love. Translators are the unseen individuals responsible for helping the world to communicate every day. You undoubtedly read their work all the time. When it’s done well, you don’t even notice.