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Common Myths about Interpreting

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The longer I am an interpreter, the more I confirm how little the world knows about what we do, how we do it or what we do it for.

So, I asked Andrea Alvisi, a dear fellow interpreter and, also, interpreting trainer, for his take on the most common myths about interpreting out there.

Here is what he shared with us:

Interpreting is a fascinating profession. So much so that people that listen to us in action either mistake us for all-knowing speaking machines or – more often – are deeply amazed at what we do. As with most professions, however, there’s much more to this than meets the eye. Let’s have a look at some of the most common misconceptions.

You just need to speak a foreign language, don’t you?

Although languages are involved, that is just the tip of the iceberg.

First of all, interpreters must have a flawless command of their mother tongue (aka ‘A language’) and of the languages they translate from. This means being fully conversant in all registers, having a broad vocabulary, not letting accents or unknown terminology easily faze you.

Secondly, often they will either work from a variety of languages (aka ‘C languages’) into their mother tongue only, as is usually the case in large international organisations, or between their native language and another active language, called retour or ‘B language’. Their command of their B language should be similar to that of their mother tongue, therefore developing a true retour takes years and a prolonged full immersion in the respective language/culture is usually required.

Finally, being bilingual may help or be a great hindrance, depending on a variety of factors. Not all bilinguals are the same and they may have been exposed to one of their languages only in specific environments. Language contamination (i.e. mixing up languages) is also a risk.

You just say stuff, how hard can it be?

It’s quite difficult and stressful, actually. Mostly because we don’t simply speak for the sake of doing so, but we listen to the message uttered by the speaker, analyse it to understand the main ideas, its structure, what reaction it wishes to elicit from the audience and much more, then find appropriate ways to convey that same message in a different language. This process may happen consecutively (we listen, take notes, then convey the message after the speaker) or simultaneously (we listen, analyse and speak at the same time as the speaker). All the while, we must ensure what we say makes sense, think ahead, be confident, speak in public, etc.

You will have noticed I also steered clear of saying we “repeat words”. When we listen to a speaker, we look for ideas and concepts, we don’t just focus on the words. Languages (and indeed, cultures) work differently, so often a word-for-word translation may not be enough, appropriate or even recommended – not to mention time constraints usually make it impractical. Our strong analysis skills allow us to understand what the speaker’s message and intentions are and convey them.

I speak a foreign language, I can easily work as an interpreter.

To be an interpreter worth your salt, you need to be trained. This can either happen on the job (though it’s rarer these days) or via a recognised training programme.

I cannot emphasise enough how important this is to ensure you know what you are doing and provide a good service to your clients. A high-quality training programme will teach you the basics of our profession, provide you with a safe environment where you can make mistakes and learn from them, and give you invaluable guidance you would not receive otherwise. In the end, you may even decide this is not for you, but that’s fine. Better to be safe than sorry.

Interpreters know everything, don’t they?

Yes and no. We are not machines, which means we have (some) limitations. That said, professional conference interpreters keep abreast of current affairs and know a little bit about most subjects. This is because our work can be extremely varied (going from a meeting about workers’ rights one day to an insanely technical factory tour the other is fairly frequent), but also because any subject can come up in any meeting, so we must be prepared.

To that extent, providing us with background information about your event and the parties involved – including documents, reports, PPT presentations and agendas – is paramount to ensure we are ‘in the know’ about what is going on. Remember: we don’t work for your company or clients; therefore, we don’t have all of the insights you or they may have. Most importantly, we can’t read minds. Not yet, at least.

All interpreters are the same.

In any field, no two professionals are the same. Conference interpreting is no exception. Because of our training, education, life and work experience and, obviously, our personal interests, every professional conference interpreter boasts a truly unique set of skills. Some of us will be more suited to an event focusing on technology, while others will ensure your European Works Council is a true success.

On that note, do check your interpreters’ credentials, too. Opt for trained professionals with documented experience in the field and do not hesitate to get in touch to ask for information or assistance. We will be happy to answer any query you may have and recommend a more suitable colleague, if appropriate.

I hope this helps you to get your head around the basics of (conference) interpreting. I could go on at length, but if interested you can always contact me directly to find out more. I look forward to working with you at your next event!

“Translating is like walking on a rope lying on the ground, interpreting is like walking on a rope suspended ten feet in the air.” ~Viktor Sukhodrev

Andrea Alvisi - Interpreter
Andrea Alvisi, Interpreter

Andrea Alvisi MA, MITI, AITI (Italy) is a UK-based Italian-native conference interpreter and translator working with English, Russian and French. Over the years, he has specialised in various fields, from marketing and corporate areas to tourism and food. A strong believer in CPD, he trains aspiring interpreters and regularly attends courses to hone his skills and keep on top of industry trends.You can find him online at www.attitudetranslations.co.uk or on Twitter @TranslAAttitude.  

Photo taken by MCL – Dragons guarding the City of London on the Thames North bank.

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