What Interpreters and Translators Do
Interpreters and translators speak, read, and write in at least two languages fluently.
Interpreters and translators convert information from one language into another language. Interpreters work in spoken or sign language; translators work in written language.
Interpreters and translators typically do the following:
- Convert concepts in the source language to equivalent concepts in the target language
- Compile information, such as technical terms used in legal settings, into glossaries and terminology databases to be used in translations
- Speak, read, and write fluently in at least two languages, including English and one or more others
- Relay the style and tone of the original language
- Manage work schedules to meet deadlines
- Render spoken messages accurately, quickly, and clearly
Interpreters and translators aid communication by converting message or text from one language into another language. Although some people do both, interpreting and translating are different professions: interpreters work with spoken communication, and translators work with written communication.
Interpreters convert information from one spoken language into another—or, in the case of sign language interpreters, between spoken language and sign language. The goal of an interpreter is to have people hear the interpretation as if it were the original. Interpreters must usually be fluent speakers or signers of both languages, because they communicate back and forth among the people who do not share a common language.
There are three common modes of interpreting: simultaneous, consecutive, and whispered.
Simultaneous. Simultaneous interpreters cannot begin interpreting until the general meaning of the sentence is understood. Simultaneous interpreting requires interpreters to listen or watch and speak or sign at the same time someone is speaking or signing. It requires a high level of concentration. For that reason, simultaneous interpreters usually work in pairs, each interpreting for about 20 to 30 minutes and then resting while the other interprets. Simultaneous interpreters are often familiar with the subject matter, so they can anticipate the end of the speaker’s sentences.
Consecutive. Consecutive interpreting begins only after the speaker has said or signed a group of words or sentences. Consecutive interpreters may take notes while listening to or watching the speakers before presenting their interpretation. Note taking is an essential part of consecutive interpreting.
Whispered. Interpreters in this mode sit very close to the listeners and provides a simultaneous interpretation in a quiet voice. At least two interpreters take turns.
Translators convert written materials from one language into another language. The goal of a translator is to have people read the translation as if it were the original. To do that, the translator must be able to write sentences that maintain or duplicate the structure and style of the original meaning while keeping the ideas and facts of the original meaning accurate. Translators must properly transmit any cultural references, including slang, and other expressions that do not translate literally.
Translators must read the original language fluently. They usually translate only into their native language.
Nearly all translation work is done on a computer, and translators receive and submit most assignments electronically. Translations often go through several revisions before becoming final.
Translation is usually done with computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools, in which a computer database of previously translated sentences or segments (Translation Memories) may be used to translate new text. CAT tools allow translators to work more efficiently and consistently.
Interpretation and translation services are needed in virtually all subject areas. Although some interpreters and translators do not to specialize in any particular field or industry, many focus on one or several areas of expertise.
The following are examples of types of interpreters and translators:
Conference interpreters work at conferences that have non-English-speaking attendees. The work is often in the field of international business or diplomacy, although conference interpreters can interpret for any organization that works with speakers of foreign languages. Employers generally prefer more experienced interpreters who have the ability to convert from at least two languages into one native language—for example, the ability to interpret from Spanish and French into English. For some positions, such as those with the United Nations, this qualification is required.
Conference interpreters often do simultaneous interpreting. Attendees at a conference who do not understand the language of the speaker wear earphones tuned to the interpreter who speaks the language they want to hear. The interpreter listens to a bit of the speaker’s talk and then translates that bit. Simultaneous interpreters must be able to listen to the next bit the speaker is saying while converting the previous bit of what the speaker said.
Guide or escort interpreters accompany either U.S. visitors abroad or foreign visitors in the United States to ensure that they are able to communicate during their stay. These specialists interpret in both formal and informal settings. Frequent travel is common for these workers.
Health or medical interpreters and translators typically work in healthcare settings and help patients communicate with doctors, nurses, technicians, and other medical staff. Interpreters and translators must have knowledge of medical terminology and the common words for medical terms in both languages.
Health or medical interpreters must be sensitive to patients’ personal circumstances, as well as maintain confidentiality and ethics.
Health or medical translators often do not have the same level of personal interaction with patients and providers that interpreters do. They primarily convert information brochures, materials that patients must read and sign, website information, and patient records from one language into another language. Interpretation may be provided remotely, by video relay, or over-the-phone.
Legal or judiciary interpreters and translators typically work in courts and other legal settings. At hearings, arraignments, depositions, and trials, they help people who have limited English proficiency. As a result, they must understand legal terminology. Many court interpreters must sometimes read documents aloud in a language other than that in which they were written, a task known as sight translation. Both interpreters and translators must have strong understanding of legal terminology in both languages.
Literary translators convert journal articles, books, poetry, and short stories from one language into another language. They work to keep the tone, style, and meaning of the author’s work. Whenever possible, literary translators work closely with authors to capture the intended meaning as well as the literary and cultural characteristics of the original.
Localizers adapt text for a product or service from one language into another, a task known as localization. Localization specialists work to make it appear as though the product originated in the country where it will be sold. They must know not only both languages, but they must also understand the technical information they are working with and the culture of the people who will be using the product or service.
Localization may include adapting websites, software, marketing materials, user documentation, and various other publications. Usually, these adaptations are related to products and services in manufacturing and other business sectors.
Localization may be helped by computer-assisted translation, in which a computer program develops an early draft of a translation for the localization translator. Also, translators may use computers to compare previous translations with specific terminology.
Sign language interpreters facilitate communication between people who are deaf or hard of hearing and people who can hear. Sign language interpreters must be fluent in English and in American Sign Language (ASL), which combines signing, finger spelling, and specific body language. ASL is a separate language from English and has its own grammar.
Some interpreters specialize in other forms of interpreting for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Some people who are deaf or hard of hearing lip-read English instead of signing in ASL. Interpreters who work with these people do “oral interpretation”, mouthing speech silently and very carefully so that their lips can be read easily. They also may use facial expressions and gestures to help the lip-reader understand.
Other modes of interpreting include cued speech, which uses hand shapes placed near the mouth to give lip-readers more information; signing exact English; and tactile signing, which is interpreting for people who are blind as well as deaf by making hand signs into the deaf–blind person’s hand.
Trilingual interpreters facilitate communication among an English speaker, a speaker of another language, and an ASL user. They must have the versatility, adaptability, and cultural understanding necessary to interpret in all three languages without changing the fundamental meaning of the message.