Translators | 27.03.2010

What skills do you require to be an interpreter/translator?

Ross, the current work placement student working with our Glasgow office has been considering the skills required to be a successful interpreter and/or translator:

Before commencing my MA Interpreting and Translating at the University of Bath I was, as are most people who have never studied either of these disciplines, ignorant of how complex and varied these two areas of study are in reality. Being bilingual will certainly prove useful when it comes to interpreting and translating, much in the same way having an F1 race car is to an F1 motorist, but unless you learn and practice these disciplines diligently then naturally you will never be as good as you could or, rather, should be. Here I will attempt to communicate a few skills other than being bilingual that are vital for an interpreter or translator.


1. Acting – This does not mean you must have a prolific career where you spent most of your time on a London stage as a Shakespeare protagonist, fear not. Rather, it is necessary for an interpreter to be able to act in the same way as the speaker for whom they are interpreting. For instance, if the speaker is lecturing in a rather serious tone about the harsh reality of domestic abuse based on personal experience, you the interpreter are going to look slightly incongruous wearing a jovial smile, interpreting in an upbeat tone. In other words, you must be wary of the speaker’s mood while they are speaking, how they move around and how they emphasise parts of their speech.

2. Confidence and Composure – When interpreting, unless you are a native speaker in both the target and source language, there will always be words and, if you are unlucky, even overall meanings that you will not understand. If in said circumstances you lose your composure even for a second or two it can have detrimental effects on your interpretation and how you are perceived by the speaker and audience. For instance, if a word unbeknownst to you in the source language throws you off and you lose composure it’s likely that you will wear it on your face. It’s also likely that the audience be aware of this, which could disgruntle the speaker; which could lead to the end of your and the speaker’s amicable working relationship. Therefore it’s vital to remain composed and focus on interpreting the 95% of speech that you understood, and gloss over the one or two words you missed. Or, even better, if you have the confidence to ask the speaker what it was they meant, this not only reassures the speaker that you are a professional who is determined to perform to the best of their ability but it also does so the audience as well. However, there is a limit to how many times you can question the speaker’s meaning; overdoing it will expose your lack of relevant knowledge and ruin the speaker’s rhythm.

3. Affability – If you have been hired by a company to interpret an hour long power point presentation on a given topic you will, in normal circumstances, have an opportunity to meet the speaker. This is an advantageous occasion for the interpreter who can use it to become acquainted with the speaker. By showing the speaker that you are interested in the contents of or even excited about his or her presentation it will win you favour and ultimately improve your performance on the day as you will work better with the speaker. Accordingly, one can say that being affable and socially confident is a boon to the interpreter; if not a requirement. Also, members of an audience may want to communicate with a speaker to clarify parts of his or her speech or exchange contact details. It is important, no matter how mentally and physically fatigued you may be at this time, to remain courteous and be willing to communicate. Not doing so may tarnish the speaker’s reputation.


1. Background knowledge – This is tantamount to having an area of specialisation and it also applies to interpreting. No matter how good you may be at translating one type of document, say for example an operation manual for a cooking hob, it does not follow that you will necessarily be adequately proficient at translating a novel. The reason for this is that stylistically the two are worlds apart and appeal to different audiences and were written for different purposes. Therefore, there are often times when your background knowledge and ability to research the source text matter are as important as linguistic competence.

2. Time management – Producing a top drawer translation is one thing, but doing so in a given time constraint is another. Through my internship here at The Translation People I have learned that whether or not you, as a translator, can deliver work by the time the client desires can decide if you receive work or not. There will be occasions when a translator will simply not be able to accept a translation due to their own heavy workload or the client’s unrealistic expectations. However, if as a translator you accept a translation then you must deliver, lest you adversely affect a client’s business. Consequently that client or translation agency may inconveniently not require your services again.

3. Technical know-how – In other words being able to utilise basic MS Office programmes such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or translation specific tools such as Trados. In particular, some clients will require that their translators use translation tools as doing so reduces the time to deliver and also the cost of the job. For instance, The Translation People will discount a translation if words, phrases, or even sentences have been previously translated and stored on their Trados memory. In addition to translation software, if a translator can submit neatly formatted translations that match the source text in terms of where the words are on the page then clients and agencies will not be required to do so themselves; although, some businesses will have an ‘in house’ style and a person employed to proof read translations and deal with formatting. Arguably this is not the translator’s job but doing so may leave a good impression with a client or agency.

Need help with a translation?
Get in touch with us

Whether you have a specific project you want to discuss, need a translation quote or simply want to discuss your requirements, do not hesitate to get in touch with us.

Get in Touch