Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How Can I Become an Interpreter?

From time to time, someone bilingual asks me for advice on how to “become an interpreter.” By this they usually mean, how to become a Professional Expert Conference Interpreter, trained and accredited. Recently one of them even asked me straight out, “How can I become a United Nations interpreter in New York?” – which is like aiming for the stars. Well, that level is really beyond the scope of this blog, but since the aspirants are nowhere near reaching it yet, I usually dish them out some advice from my not inconsiderable experience.

Piece of Advice No. 1. Get an advanced general education. Look at the interpreters I described in my last post. They all had at least a university first degree, and one of them has a doctorate – not in translation or interpretation but in something. As Canadian clergy, the nun and the Franciscan must have had at least a BA. The fastest interpreter student I ever remember teaching had a background in journalism, as had several Arabic interpretation students whom I met at the American University in Cairo. There’s no hurry. There are, it’s true, some exceptionally gifted young people in interpreting as in everything else, but generally speaking the best age of entry is from the mid-twenties onwards when you’ve been out in the world.

Piece of Advice No. 2. Forget about the United Nations for a while and settle for beginning on the bottom rung. There are two routes to follow. One is to go for formal training, typically to a university school of translation and interpretation, if you have the time and can find the resources for it. More about this in some later post. The other is to enter by one of the side doors. I’ll illustrate.

At this time of the year, early August, 60 years ago, I would have been shepherding parties of English holidaymakers around Barcelona and the Balearic Islands. I was what is called in the travel industry a courier. It was a summer student job; how I got it is another story, but the point is that hardly any of my flock spoke a word of Spanish, and in those days few Spaniards could speak a word of English. Though I wasn’t engaged as an interpreter, I in fact spent a lot of time interpreting. By throwing me in at the deep end, this did several things for me: (1) it vastly improved my Spanish, which was practically zero to start with, and it even taught me a little Catalan; (2) it taught me to deal with cross-cultural and interpersonal situations, an important attribute for liaison interpreters (you can read plenty more about this aspect by following the Liaison Interpreting in Japan link on my side panel); it gave me confidence to talk to managers and officials, even Franco’s police, and negotiate with them – I became a fixer (see March 21 post); and last but not least, it gave me all that experience as an interpreter without my even realising that that I was one.

Then, in 1953, purposely right at the peak of the tourist season, there was a strike on French Railways. In those days, flying was still an elite form of travel and the great bulk of English visitors to Spain came by train. So we had hundreds of clients about to be stranded in Barcelona. My boss, a man of great initiative, flew out from London to bargain with Catalan businessmen for the hire of coaches (buses to you Americans) to transport his clients across France. He knew how to bargain hard, but he couldn’t speak Spanish, and the businessmen… So I was called in at short notice to interpret alone for a whole hectic week. I was untrained and unaccredited, but my boss didn’t worry about such niceties. Furthermore I was useful to him not only for conveying what he and the others said openly but also for telling him what the other side were discussing among themselves. And that was the start of my sporadic career as a business liaison interpreter, which is just as interesting a career as being a conference interpreter.

Many years later, I was visiting a famous school of translation in the Soviet Union, the Maurice Thorez State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages as it was called then (see photo). I was told Soviet citizens were never unemployed, and they had no problem placing their interpretation graduates because those that weren’t offered jobs as conference interpreters were taken on by the state tourist agency, Intourist, to accompany visitors or to work as tour guides and couriers.

Therefore my advice is: look for any job that involves interpreting. Use it to gain communicative experience and improve your languages, and then don’t hesitate to grasp whatever opportunity may be offered you to do more. If you go for formal training later, it will stand you in good stead.

Photo: Wikipedia


  1. This post would really help those who are planning to become an interpreter. Thank you so much for taking the time to share those useful info, readers would truly learn from this.
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  2. Thank you Seffliva. Glad you found it helpful. I like your web page.

  3. well Get an advanced general education. Look at the interpreters I described in my last post i see it it good but more knowledge need how to become an interpreter

    1. Thank you for your comment.
      I followed your link to the website and found the advice there very sensible. Of course it addresss people who want to become PROFESSIONAL translators and interpreters, and they aren't my main concern. Even so, I note that "The good news is you don’t need to get any specific training or education for phone interpreter jobs. If you have a strong degree of language proficiency, you can apply." In other words, you don't have to be an Expert Translator, at least not to get started.