Are You Cut Out to Work as an Interpreter? Six key traits of professional interpreters

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Are you a bilingual or multi-lingual individual thinking about putting your language knowledge to work? Perhaps already working as a translator and looking to branch out? Interpretation is rewarding work, but knowledge of languages is only a starting point for success in the field. Do you have several of these six traits of successful and fulfilled professional interpreters? You might be cut out for a career as an interpreter! 

Good listener. The ability to speak fluently in multiple languages is, of course key, but more than half your time as an interpreter will actually be spent listening! Interpretation requires focused, attentive listening, often for long periods of time. Your client is depending on you to capture every detail and aspect of an interaction and to convey their meaning accurately, so it is important to be fully attentive to all parties. In addition to the very focused listening required while interpreting in the moment, at the outset of any job you will have to listen to your clients and make sure that you have a clear understanding of their needs and of the situation that you will be entering as their interpreter.

Ability to multitask. Interpretation requires a very particular type of fast paced, mental multi-tasking. Interpreters have to watch and listen (often while taking notes), absorb the meaning of what was said, as well as non-verbal cues, mentally translate the meaning, and then speak clearly and fluently. It is a rapid process, and the interpreter must also be able to easily alternate between translating and speaking both languages.

People skills. While translation can be a solitary, cerebral occupation, interpretation is a highly person-oriented occupation. Good interpreters are not just attentive, focused listeners, they are compassionate and patient listeners. They have the ability to connect with people and establish trust, sometimes under very difficult circumstances such as a medical appointment or court appearance.

Cultural competence. Communication involves much more than spoken language. Non-verbal cues inflect the meaning of the words that we choose, and make up a significant component of how we make ourselves understood. Like words, expressions and gestures vary across culture. An interpreter should have sufficient fluency in both cultures to interpret non-verbal cues. Understanding of cultural norms and expectations is also important to understanding both parties and helping to navigate misunderstandings that go beyond language.

Specialty knowledge (or the motivation to acquire it). Interpreters work in many different areas of specialization, such as community, medical, court or conference interpretation. Each of these areas has its own sets of technical vocabulary and cultural norms that must be mastered not just in one language, but both. If you have existing knowledge of the court system, for example, this is an advantage to becoming a court interpreter. What is more important, however, is the motivation and passion to do the additional learning required to master a specialization.

Emotional resilience. As an interpreter, you will be doing highly demanding work. This is what makes interpretation rewarding. But, you may also find yourself in emotionally difficult situations, such as having to interpret bad news from a doctor, or supporting someone in the legal system, or in the middle of a conflict. While good interpreters are compassionate, they must also be able to maintain boundaries. It is important to be able to sustain your own mental and emotional well-being, as well as your professionalism and dedication.

Does this sound like you? Do the challenges and demands of interpretation sound engaging and rewarding? Then interpretation might be your best next career move!