What Does It Take to be a Qualified, Professional Interpreter? (Part 1)

May 21, 2019

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What does it take to be a great interpreter?

According to the US Census Bureau, nearly 31 million US residents speak both English and another language "very well" - that's roughly 10% of the population. But being bilingual - impressive as it is - is just the beginning.

In the article, “Interpreting is Interpreting – or is it?,”Dr. Holly Mikkelson makes the case that professional, trained, qualified interpreters are essential, writing 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?

1. Language Proficiency

It's obvious that interpreting professionally requires fluency in both English and another language. But it's easy to overlook the degree of vocabulary and cultural context needed for true fluency.  

“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," writes Michelle Hof, a professional conference interpreter and trainer. "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.”

2. Listening and Recall

Professional interpreting breaks down into two broad categories: consecutive and simultaneous. Phone interpretation providers like Voiance use consecutive interpretation, listening to the speaker and waiting for them to pause, then relaying their message in the target language. Doing this accurately requires intense active listening, memory recall, and note-taking, since the speaker may speak for several minutes before pausing.

All this active listening and recall requires significant brain power: Experiments testing bilingual subjects acting as interpreters found activity in areas of the brain not activated in normal language use. This suggests a greater need for coordinating mental operations when switching between languages.

These are just two of the skills needed to be a qualified, professional interpreter. Check back for part two of this list, and - in the meantime - check out our e-book on the value professional language services can bring to your organization:

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Topics: Best Practices, Advice and Improvement, Over-the-Phone Interpretation, phone interpretation

Written by Graham Newnum

Digital Marketing Specialist experienced in researching and writing about language access-related topics for healthcare, business, and government.
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