I love to write about interpreting, intercultural communication, Latin America & the UK.


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Interpreters are not translators.

Translators deal with the written word; that is, they translate documents, books, reports, papers, and more. Their work takes time, so you might need to wait a day, a week, or a few weeks to get your text back but in another language.

Interpreters deal with the spoken word; that is, we translate speeches, talks, conversations, presentations, tours, conferences, debates, and more – live. Our work is done in real time, so results are immediate.

Just as there are different types of doctors, lawyers, and translators out there, each specialising in different fields within their profession, there are also different types of interpreters. That is, qualified, professional interpreters, as not only are bilingual individuals with no proper, formal training in interpreting wannabe interpreters, but they can also be extremely dangerous to work with exposing you to mistakes, misunderstandings, wasted time and money or, even, lawsuits.

So, here is a list of the different types of professional interpreters working in London, together with a few tips on how to spot them and where to find them:

Public Service & Court Interpreters

These interpreters usually work in hospitals and GP practices, assisting foreign patients with their medical appointments.

They also help law enforcement agencies, for example, by interpreting during police interviews or assisting solicitors in their interactions with their non-English speaking clients and during court hearings.

From a technical point of view, the type of interpreting they perform most often is called dialogue interpreting or short consecutive interpreting. They take turns with the speakers and translate a couple of short phrases or sentences at a time. They may also interpret written documents at first sight (that is reading a document written in one language in the opposite one).

The Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI) is the official qualification for public services interpreters in the UK, who are mainly represented by the CIoL (Chartered Institute of Linguists) and the NRPSI (National Register of Public Service Interpreters).

Business or Corporate Interpreters

Working in corporate settings, these interpreters specialise in everything business, from breakfast briefings and table-top exercises to product launch events, negotiations, board meetings, visits to trade fairs, and networking events.

From a technical point of view, we perform either simultaneous interpreting (that is, speaking at the same time the speaker speaks – forgive the repetition there – either by whispering into the recipient’s ear or by use of portable wireless equipment), medium-length consecutive interpreting (that is, taking turns with the speakers to convey the message in the opposite language) or first-sight (oral) translation of written documents.

Business or corporate interpreters usual hold a master’s degree or post-graduate diploma in interpreting and are represented in the UK by the ITI (Institute of Translation and Interpreting), which hosts an online directory of its qualified members.

Conference Interpreters

As the name suggests, conference interpreters work mainly in multilingual conferences; as well as in congresses, board meetings, roundtables, panels, press conferences, and more.

From a technical point of view, they almost always interpret simultaneously from a sound-proof booth usually located at the back of the conference room and tend to follow the conference circuit from city to city, just like tennis players follow the ITF or Grand Slam circuits around the world.

Good conference interpreters are hard to find, especially for rare language combinations. The best ones have undergone extensive training and can easily tackle a wide range of specialist areas.

We are represented worldwide by AIIC (International Association of Conference Interpreters), which thoroughly screens which interpreters are invited to join their ranks.

Diplomatic Interpreters

Diplomatic interpreting is the oldest form of interpreting; however, it grows more complex as the world grows more complex itself. We often find ourselves working in a wide variety of scenarios; from diplomatic, trade, and technical missions to visits to expos, factories, schools, presentations, working lunches, and formal dinners.

From a technical point of view, given the wide variety of situations and scenarios we usually work in, diplomatic interpreters need to master all and every interpreting technique: simultaneous and whispered interpreting, memory-only interpreting, both short and long consecutive interpreting (by protocol, Heads of State speak in five-minute-long slots), and first-sight translation of documents and written texts in all its forms.

We also rely heavily on a series of supplemental skills; such as intercultural communication, international protocol, public speaking, and more.

There is no professional body representing diplomatic interpreters, as it is not considered to be a sub-field within the interpreting profession – yet. However, MCL is working hard towards this end by, for example, talking about it at this year’s ITI Conference in Sheffield, UK.

As diplomatic interpreters work closely with the governments of those countries where their working languages are spoken, they usually adapt to each government’s preferred practices.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” ~Nelson Mandela

Useful Resources

Photo by MCL – The stunning ceiling on the upper floor of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London

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