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Interpreters convert speech in one language to another, which can include sign language.

What does an interpreter do? Typical employers | Qualifications and training | Key skills

Interpretation divides into two main types: simultaneous and consecutive. Simultaneous interpretation occurs at the same time as the speaker is talking and it is usually used at large conferences; the interpreter may use technology to convey meanings or ‘whisper’ it in person. Consecutive interpretation occurs after the speaker has paused, usually sentence by sentence.

Interpretation work can also be categorised into conferences (which can include large political summits), business (eg day-to-day commercial interactions) or public sector (eg for the judicial system). Over time, it’s not uncommon to specialise in one of these three.

Typical responsibilities include:

  • attending meetings or conferences
  • listening carefully
  • comprehending languages
  • accurate and succinct reproduction in the specified language(s)
  • using technology where appropriate, such as microphones, headphones, telephones, video and the internet.

The work can involve a considerable amount of travel and your hours will be organised to suit your client.

Typical employers of interpreters

  • Translation and interpretation agencies
  • International businesses
  • News services
  • Local, national and international governments and international bodies, such as the United Nations
  • Other public sector bodies, such as the judiciary and the NHS
  • Charities and non-governmental organisations.

Most positions are located in major cities including London, New York, Paris and Brussels, and attract strong competition. Vacancies are typically advertised on jobs boards, via careers services, through recruitment agencies or on the websites of professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) and the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI). Government positions – such as those with the intelligence services and the United Nations – are usually advertised directly on their websites.

Many interpreters are self-employed, however, working as freelancers or for specialist agencies. Aspiring interpreters may need to build networks and apply speculatively to gain work: get more advice on making speculative applications here.

Qualifications and training required

Some government organisations, such as the United Nations, require a degree in the appropriate language, and conference interpreters are generally expected to have a masters in interpreting, which should preferably be approved by a relevant professional body such as the ITI. Other employers do not ask for a degree but may ask for another language qualification. This is most commonly a certificate in community interpreting (CIC) at level 3 or a diploma in public service interpreting (DPSI). The DPSI is generally perceived as the ‘higher’ qualification and is awarded by the CIOL.

Sign language interpreters in the UK usually require at least a level 3 in British Sign Language or an alternative approved course run by Signature, an awarding body for deaf communications qualifications. It can also boost your employment prospects to register with The National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD), which requires undertaking one of their approved qualifications.

If your interpreting work is likely to bring you into contact with children or vulnerable adults, your employer will require you to undergo an enhanced DBS (disclosure and barring service) check.

The CIOL and ITI offer a range of professional memberships and/or qualifications. While optional, these can testify to your skills and boost your employability. Sign language interpreters may find it beneficial to join the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI).

Key skills

Interpreters need the ability to comprehend accurately and quickly what is said in their working languages, including colloquialisms. In consecutive translation, a good memory is particularly helpful. Equally, excellent concentration and the ability to think quickly are essential. Those working in international conferences should have good political and current affairs awareness.

Excellent interpersonal skills, a good sense of time management and IT skills are also beneficial.

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