What Interpreters and Translators Do
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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, style, and tone in the source language to equivalent concepts, style, and tone of the target language
- Compile information and technical terms into glossaries and terminology databases for use in their oral renditions and translations
- Speak, read, and write fluently in at least two languages, one of which is usually English
- Render spoken messages accurately, quickly, and clearly
Interpreters and translators aid communication by converting messages or text from one language (typically called the source language) into another language (the target language). Although some people do both, interpreting and translating are different skills: 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 interpreter’s goal is for people to experience the target language as seamlessly as if it were the source language. Interpreters typically must be fluent speakers or signers of both languages, because they communicate between people who do not share a common language. Interpreters may provide their services remotely as well as in person.
The three common modes of interpreting are:
- Simultaneous interpreters convey a spoken or signed message into another language at the same time someone is speaking or signing. Simultaneous interpreters must be familiar with the subject matter and maintain a high level of concentration to convey the message accurately and completely. Due to the mental fatigue involved, simultaneous interpreters may work in pairs or small teams if they are interpreting for long periods of time, such as in a court or conference setting.
- Consecutive interpreters convey the speaker’s or signer’s message in another language after the person has stopped to allow for interpretation. Note taking is generally an essential part of consecutive interpreting.
- Sight translation interpreters provide translation of a written document directly into a spoken language for immediate understanding, not for the purposes of producing a translated document in writing.
Translators convert written materials from one language into another language. The translator’s goal is for people to read the target language as if it were the source language of the written material. To do that, the translator must be able to maintain or duplicate the written structure and style of the source text while also keeping the ideas and facts accurate. Translators must properly transmit cultural references, including slang, and other expressions that do not translate literally.
Translators must read the source language fluently. The target language into which they translate is usually their native language. They adapt a range of products, including websites, marketing materials, and user documentation.
Nearly all translators use software in their work. Computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools, which use a computer database of previously translated sentences or segments (called a “translation memory”) to translate new text, allow translators to be efficient and consistent. Machine translation software automatically generates text from the source language into the target language, which translators then review in a process called post-editing. Translations often go through several revisions before becoming final.
Although most interpreters and translators specialize in a particular field or industry, many have more than one area of specialization.
The following are examples of types of interpreters and translators:
Community interpreters work in a variety of public settings to provide language interpretation one-on-one or for groups. Community interpreters often are needed at parent-teacher conferences, community events, business and public meetings, social and government agencies, new-home purchases, and in many other work and community settings.
Conference interpreters work at events that have non-English-speaking attendees. The work is often in the field of international business or diplomacy, although conference interpreters may provide services for any organization that works with speakers of foreign languages. Employers generally prefer experienced interpreters who can convert 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 or meeting who do not understand the language of the speaker wear earphones tuned to the interpreter who speaks the language they want to hear.
Healthcare 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 in both languages. They may translate patient consent documents, patients’ records, pharmaceutical and informational brochures, regulatory information, and research material from one language into another.
Healthcare or medical interpreters must be sensitive to patients’ personal circumstances and must maintain confidentiality and ethical standards.
Liaison or escort interpreters accompany either U.S. visitors abroad or foreign visitors in the United States who have limited English proficiency. Interpreting in both formal and informal settings, these specialists ensure that the visitors are able to communicate during their stay.
Legal or judicial interpreters and translators typically work in courts and other judicial settings. At arraignments, depositions, hearings, and trials, they help people who have limited English proficiency. Accordingly, they must understand legal terminology. Court interpreters must sometimes read source documents aloud in a target language, a task known as sight translation.
Literary translators convert books, poetry, and other published works from the source language into a target language. Whenever possible, literary translators work closely with authors to capture the intended meaning, as well as the literary and cultural references, of the original publication.
Localizers engage in a comprehensive process of adapting text and graphics from a source language into the target language. The goal of localizers’ translation is to make a product or service appear to have originated in the country where it will be sold. They must not only know both languages, but also understand the technical information they are working with and the culture of the people who will be using the product or service. Localizers generally work in teams.
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, or in addition to, signing in ASL. Interpreters who work with these people do “oral interpretation,” mouthing speech silently and carefully. 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 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 and cultural understanding necessary to interpret in all three languages without changing the fundamental meaning of the message.