What makes a good interpreter? (Hint: not just being bilingual!)

What makes a good interpreter? (Hint: not just being bilingual!)

Being able to speak more than one language fluently is no mean feat. However, that isn't always enough to make someone a competent interpreter. Being able to listen to someone and translate not only their words but their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and context is impressive and requires a range of skills.

It is a reality of modern life that much interpretation takes place in situations which may have life-changing ramifications for the person being interpreted. Such situations include, for example healthcare and medical settings and, of course, consultation with lawyers and, in the worst situations, police interviews and appearances in court.

So, what skills make a great interpreter?

1. Language skills

First and foremost, the interpreter needs to be fluent in at least two languages. This is necessary to become a great interpreter but not necessarily sufficient.

Not only do they need fluency in their chosen languages, but they need an above-average facility with both. They will need a wide vocabulary and an in-depth knowledge of the nuances of each language in terms of grammar, structure and differences in meaning. The ability to understand nuance, translate idioms and interpret metaphors is essential.

2. Knowledge of the subject area

As discussed above, many interpreters work in fields that have potentially life-changing consequences for the people for whom they are interpreting.

Good working knowledge of (for example) legal terminology is necessary to become a good legal interpreter.

3. People skills

In particular, listening skills. The interpreter must listen to and truly hear what the person is saying. In most cases, a rote translation of what has been said won't convey the necessary meaning or context. Also, it's no good trying to interpret for someone if they 'clam up' in your presence or do not fully share things with you. An ability to make people feel relaxed and get them to talk while filtering the information is a must for a good interpreter.

4. An understanding of culture

One of the themes of this article has been the 'softer' skills, and one of the most important is an understanding of culture. There may be certain words, phrases, nonverbal signals or customs that apply in a particular group, and the interpreter must be able to navigate these. To use an obvious example, we've discussed before on this blog, the distinction between "kids" as a reference to baby goats and as a reference to children was potentially a vital nugget of information that could have been missed!

5. Accreditation

To truly become a great interpreter, they must get accredited. This shows a dedication to the craft, and verifies that the interpreter has met the required standards to do the job properly.

An accredited interpreter gives all parties confidence that the person has undertaken professional training and understands the role, has a grasp of theory and is aware of the ethical considerations of their job.

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