Interpreting, which is oral translation, is an increasingly important profession, as it connects people across cultures, spaces and time, in a world that is ever more interconnected. For those of us who love language, enjoy being challenged intellectually and/or emotionally, and are passionate about constant new learning, interpreting is nothing less than the vocational love of our lives.

However, our profession is often underestimated, and thus undervalued, by the general public. Most people believe that being “bilingual” is enough to be a competent interpreter, and this cannot be further from the truth.

Like with many intellectual endeavors, there can be as many ways to interpret a text as there are ways to eat a kiwi. In Interpreting not all roads lead to Rome. And if they do, you may arrive in a carriage, a train, or perhaps in an airplane, feeling tired, carefree, wonderful, or none—or all—of the above, depending on how the author of the original text would like his or her audience to feel when reaching the Eternal City.

In his book White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation, Harry Obst, the conference interpreter that communicated seven American presidents with other international dignitaries stated: “In challenging situations, accurate interpretation is no less sophisticated, complex, and intellectually demanding than brain surgery. The professional interpreter is required to carry more general knowledge into each job than architects and engineers need in the daily exercise of their profession. It requires the analytical skills of trial lawyers and their acting ability in the courtroom.” I couldn’t agree more.

Unfortunately, most people have little familiarity with professional interpreting, even though we are everywhere: from courthouses to hospitals, from the military to our schools, from the public to the private sector. The general public’s experience with interpreters is typically limited to seeing a colleague in action during beauty pageants, having watched the movie The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman, watching Monsignor Mark Miles interpret for Pope Francis during his recent visit to the United States, or watching Thamsanqa Jantjie, the man who became infamously famous after his fake “interpretation” during the funeral service of the great Nelson Mandela.

Thus, few people around the world get to experience—first or second hand—what we do and what it truly takes to do it right. This is certainly the case in the United States, where many of its citizens do not support the idea of paying for language services with their tax dollars. Despite and perhaps because of this challenge, I have felt the urgency to strive to become a better interpreter, a better bridge between cultures. Fortunately, I enjoy communicating people and the rush of finding equivalents and, even better, adaptations for different concepts that don’t have a direct translation in my working languages. Thus, I have dedicated much of my adult life to the practice and analysis of translation and interpreting.

Since one of the biggest challenges we face in our profession is lack of knowledge about what we do and what it takes to do it well, I will now share what I believe are four areas, the pillars as I often call them, that all interpreters must develop in order to become competent professionals.

In no particular order, although it may seem to be the most foundational, we havelanguage ability. This one is a major source of challenges, since many aspiring or even practicing interpreters are not aware of their true level of proficiency in their working languages. Also, they often don’t know the actual level of competency required to do our job proficiently. Add to this that there is generally lack of quality monitoring in Interpreting, and we have a perfect storm. Put simply, many people don’t realize that interpreting is many times more difficult that speaking in another language.

Many common interpreting errors could be easily avoided if aspiring professionals were trained to avoid linguistic traps, which can result in texts that contain serious meaning errors to ones that “just don’t sound right,” or anything in between. It may even result in the creation of a “third language,” one that is neither the source nor the target language. They are often unaware that every language has its own “personality,” a way that it behaves under certain conditions, in the mouths of different people, as native or non-native speakers.

Closely intertwined with the previous pillar is interpreting skills. You might have heard one of the many analogies that are often used to make this point: “Just because you know how to drive, it doesn’t mean you are a race car driver.” And, it’s true: you may have the language ability, but if you haven’t learned how to interpret, at the right time, speed, register, extracting meaning from oral renditions that may be even difficult for the general audience to follow, etc., you will be quickly at a loss.

Many interpreters whose output have not been evaluated by an experienced professional do not realize that they are failing even in the most basic requirement of Interpreting: communicating the message. Competent interpreting, on the other hand, involves several mental tasks executed simultaneously, one of them being rendering the message as if it had been originally created in the target language. Although competent interpreters can truly make it “look easy,” it takes a great deal of conscious practice and self-monitoring to interpret well.

Another equally important pillar is subject matter expertise. Bottom line, you may interpret very nicely, but if you are not familiar with the subject matter you will lament accepting any technical assignments (e.g. just because you are a bilingual doctor or attorney, it doesn’t mean that you can interpret well). One of the main challenges of technical text is the abundance of technical terminology, and we must learn how to deal with it accordingly, both when we are familiar with it and when we’re not. We must always keep in mind that we cannot interpret what we don’t understand.

This brings us to the last pillar, passive knowledge. This is the knowledge that we carry with us at all times, the one that we have been accumulating since childhood: everything that we may or may not even know we know, but that it’s there, ready to come in handy when we need it most. This is the type of knowledge that helped me and my boothmate make it through a real-time translation from oral speech into screen supertitles, in front of thousands of people at a religious event at the Los Angeles Coliseum. I knew a considerable portion of the vocabulary that I encountered thanks to my primary and secondary education at a Catholic school. Although I had prepared for it, I was still pleasantly surprised at how well I remembered some words and phrases that I had not said or heard in decades. Perhaps it was a miracle, pun intended. I will never know.

Business administration expertise is also important to our practice, but this is more so the case if we are independent contractors. Much of our success or failure as practitioners is related to our ability to manage and promote our businesses.

To conclude, during and after our interpreting training, we must undergo a continuous process of self-reflection, one that makes us doubt about what we know and what we don’t know, as doubting propels us to carry out the preparation and the research necessary to become competent interpreters. How can we interpret well at a United Nations level conference without a strong background in Economics and History, or work in a courtroom without a solid understanding of the different legal and administrative systems of the places and parties involved, or work at a hospital without a sound knowledge of anatomy and physiology? We can’t. We shouldn’t. We need that passive knowledge that helps us fit in the technical puzzle pieces of the subject matter at hand, and we must have the interpreting and language skills that allow us to communicate people across cultures, accurately and naturally.


This article is the property of Daniel Tamayo and GlobalTradu Language Services. Any uses or reproduction of this article requires the copyright permission of the author.