What Makes a Great Interpreter Part 1

As a nation proudly made up of immigrants, the United States has numerous bilingual people. According to the US Census Bureau, there are nearly 31 million people in the United States who speak another language than English at home and also speak English very well – roughly 10% of the population.

Being bilingual is often seen as only the starting point for the training needed to become an interpreter. Interpreting is a highly specialized profession that requires training and practice. Professional-level interpreters acquire many skills that the average bilingual person does not possess or have not sufficiently honed.

In the article, “Interpreting is Interpreting – or is it?” by Associate Professor of Translation and Interpretation at the Monterey Institute of International Studies Dr. Holly Mikkelson states that “The fact that many individuals who are called upon to interpret in certain settings lack these [professional interpreter] qualities does not mean they are not needed; it simply means that the client requesting interpreting services does not appreciate their importance.”

So what skills are necessary for someone to be considered a quality interpreter? In order to give this topic sufficient coverage, we will break it into two separate blog posts. The first part will cover language skills and listening and recall:

1.     Language skills: This one may seem like a given, but what most people don’t realize is the extent of knowledge and vocabulary needed just for his or her native language. Michelle Hof, a professional conference interpreter and trainer who runs a blog called The Interpreter Diaries, writes, “As an interpreter, you need to be able to express yourself well in many different registers and have access to a broad active vocabulary covering different fields. Just growing up speaking a language does not automatically mean you will have these skills. I see it all the time in the early days of a course, when students can’t seem to stop themselves from talking like they do to their friends in the bar and start sounding like interpreters.”

And that’s just for the interpreter’s native language. On the International Association of Conference Interpreters’ website (AIIC), it says that in order to be an interpreter, his or her “understanding of the language should be comparable to that of an educated native speaker of the same language.”  

2.     Listening and recall: In the field of interpreting, there are two major interpreting methods: consecutive interpreting and simultaneous interpreting. Consecutive interpreting is the modality performed by Voiance’s interpreters, and it requires waiting until a speaker pauses before interpreting. In order to produce an accurate interpretation, this requires intense active listening, memory recall, and note-taking, since the speaker could talk for a few seconds to several minutes.

Interpreting requires more brain power than usual. Scientists have conducted experiments on bilingual subjects and found when a person transitions between two languages, the brain uses regions not traditionally used in normal language use. The use of those regions suggest that there is a need for greater coordination of mental operations and that phonological processing is more difficult when having to switch languages.

Voiance Language Services provides multilingual support in over 200 languages to business and government. Our employee interpreters receive 120 hours of training, including language testing and instruction in listening and recall. Organizations use Voiance’s telephone interpretation to facilitate communication with customers. Voiance is a subsidiary of CyraCom International, Inc., the 2nd largest provider of Phone Interpretation in the United States.