As an interpreter, you'll need to listen to, understand and memorise content in the original source language and then reproduce it in the target language
This is usually done in only one direction, normally into your native tongue, but you may be required to interpret on a two-way basis.
You may carry out interpreting in person or by telephone, video conferencing and internet-based technologies (remote interpreting). Interpreting can be done in different ways:
- simultaneous interpretation (SI) - you'll typically sit in a soundproof booth and immediately convert what's being said. Listeners hear the interpretation though an earpiece while the speaker is still speaking. Bilingual booths are used at many large conferences, where you'll work in more than one language. A variation of this is chuchotage (whispered interpretation), where you will sit near one person or a small group and interpret straight into their ear as the speaker carries on.
- consecutive interpretation (CI) - you'll listen to the speaker talking for the whole speech, which can last up to between 20 and 30 minutes, and then interpret what's been said into the target language. You may need to take notes to help during long speeches. This is mainly used in smaller meetings such as business meetings, training and presentations. Chuchotage may also be used in business interpreting.
- liaison interpretation - also known as ad hoc and relay, you'll typically interpret into and out of the target language a few phrases at a time. You may also use chuchotage in one-to-one situations. It's common in public service interpreting and at smaller meetings or negotiations.
- sign language interpretation - you'll convert spoken statements into sign language and vice versa. Interpreting from one sign language to another is also an option. Sign language interpreting is usually simultaneous and you'll typically take turns with other interpreters of about 30 minutes each, as this method demands such high levels of concentration.
Types of interpreter
You can work as an interpreter in the following settings:
- conference - where simultaneous interpreting is the main form of interpretation used. You could work in-house for a large international organisation or as a freelancer working within large international conferences and events, European council meetings, political events, lectures and trade fairs.
- business - smaller functions such as company meetings, negotiations, business discussions, training, business/factory tours, or formal dinners. This work could be undertaken by either conference or public service interpreters.
- public service interpreting (PSI) - includes the criminal justice system, police and probation service interviews, court hearings, solicitor interviews, arbitration hearings, immigration tribunals and local government meetings. PSI can also include community assignments within social services, housing, work, health and education.
You may work across all areas of interpreting, but specialising in a certain area, such as conferencing or legal work, is common.
As an interpreter, you'll need to:
- listen carefully to what the speaker is saying
- assimilate speakers' words quickly, including jargon and acronyms
- build up specialist vocabulary banks
- reproduce what has been said in the relevant language
- write notes to aid memory
- use equipment such as microphones and headsets where appropriate
- prepare paperwork - reviewing agendas before meetings, or lectures and speeches when received in advance
- conduct research to make sure you're fully informed on topics before assignments
- organise workload and liaise with internal departments, agencies and employers
- work to a professional code of ethics covering confidentiality and impartiality.
- The majority of roles are freelance, and hourly rates can vary widely depending on your experience and qualifications, type of interpreting, location and level of demand for the languages.
- The highest paid jobs tend to be based outside the UK. Working conditions and pay are considerably better in the private market sector for conference interpreting than in the UK's PSI/commercial agency sector.
It may be difficult to sustain a stable income from interpreting unless you're employed by one organisation as a conference interpreter or by several agencies. You may need to take on additional employment, for example in translation, teaching or training.
As a freelance interpreter, your working hours will be flexible. Business, routine medical and court-related assignments tend to take place during office hours. However, evening and weekend work is not uncommon, especially for police interviews and emergency medical care, where you may be called upon to work at short notice.
What to expect
- Depending on the area of interpreting you work in, you may be based in a conference centre, office or business premises, at a police station, court, prison or hospital. In some roles, you could spend a lot of time working on the telephone.
- You're likely to find work through networking and registration with professional directories or language agencies. It can take time to become established and build a regular client base.
- Opportunities for employment may arise anywhere, especially for community-based assignments and telephone work. The main centres for international conferences include Brussels, London, New York, Geneva and Paris.
- Business or smart casual dress is usually required, with the exception of telephone interpreting, which is normally done from home.
- The role requires a huge amount of concentration, which can be tiring.
- You may be required to be away from home overnight or to be abroad for long periods.
Being fluent in two or more languages alone isn't enough to become an interpreter, as the majority of employers also look for a formal qualification in interpreting and/or languages to show that you have the skills needed to be an interpreter.
Undergraduate degrees are available, which can help to demonstrate your skills and knowledge. These include:
- interpreting and translation
- modern languages
- British Sign Language (BSL) and interpreting
- deaf studies.
It's likely that you'll need a postgraduate qualification but this can vary depending on the style of interpreting you wish to do. An MA in interpreting is usually required for conference interpreting, while if you want to work within the public sector, the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI), or an MA in public service interpreting is usually needed. Business interpreting doesn't have specific training requirements but you'll usually have trained as a conference or public service interpreter.
Some universities that offer relevant postgraduate qualifications are Corporate Education Members of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI). You can see a full list of them at ITI Universities and Courses.
You can also search postgraduate courses in interpreting.
To work as a sign language interpreter, you'll usually need as a minimum a level 6 Diploma in Sign Language Interpreting, or a postgraduate degree in interpreting or translation. To join the National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD), you must complete one of their approved courses. For Scotland, see The Scottish Register of Language Professionals with the Deaf Community (SRLPDC).
Having specialist knowledge of a certain area in which you'd like to carry out interpreting work, such as science, engineering, the environment, business, economics, law or politics, can be helpful, as this shows employers that you understand the specific terms and vocabulary.
If you have a languages HND or foundation degree, you'll usually need to progress to degree-level study in order to secure an interpreting position.
Getting an interpreting job with no formal qualifications is unlikely unless you have substantial language skills and proven experience through, for example, a bilingual upbringing, residence abroad or regular work with speakers of a second language.
You'll need to have:
- an excellent command of English and the other language(s) you'll use
- knowledge of at least one additional language for freelance interpreting, and two or more for a staff position in conference interpreting
- excellent communication skills in order to reproduce accurately what the speaker has said
- a good memory and the ability to learn fast
- active listening skills
- analytical skills so that you can quickly and accurately analyse a message
- the skills to interact well with people and work as part of a team
- resilience and the ability to work well under pressure
- the ability to concentrate for long periods of time
- time management and organisation skills
- the ability to use discretion and maintain confidentiality on the matters you're interpreting
- flexibility to deal calmly with unexpected and difficult situations
- reliability, dedication and commitment to projects
- note taking skills (for consecutive interpreting)
- knowledge of and interest in current affairs, politics and different cultures and customs.
In addition, if you're carrying out conference and court interpreting, you must be a confident public speaker and have a clear speaking voice.
Some interpreting agencies offer internships, which is a good way of getting experience and finding out whether you would enjoy the career. You may also be able to get work experience, either paid or voluntary, with local councils or other organisations that provide community interpreting services.
Other useful experience includes language and interpreting projects from your undergraduate or postgraduate qualifications, examples of how you've used your other language(s) in practice, or any other work you've carried out in a foreign language.
Living or working in another country can also be beneficial as you will get a feel for different accents, colloquialisms and dialects, as well as an understanding of the culture of a place. These are useful skills to have when interpreting.
Experience that demonstrates your skills and knowledge in a particular area in which you'd like to interpret are also useful, for instance community work, attendance at business meetings and conferences or legal practice.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
In all sectors and settings the profession is dominated by freelance interpreters, with few full-time jobs advertised each year. As an experienced freelancer, you'll have to balance the freedom of deciding when and where you work with the potential scarcity of employment opportunities.
When jobs do arise, typical employers include:
- national and international governments and institutions
- international organisations, such as UNESCO and NATO
- private sector businesses, such as larger multinational companies, legal firms or media, although most interpreting work here is arranged through agencies
- academic institutions, for international conferences
- language agencies
- public services - police, courts, local authorities, social services departments
- new services
- charities and non-governmental organisations
- international exhibitions.
Look for job vacancies at:
Only a small number of roles are advertised through these sources. You can advertise your freelance interpreting services on databases held by professional bodies and networks, such as:
- Association Internationale des Interprètes de Conférence (AIIC)
- Association of Police and Court Interpreters (APCI)
- Association of Welsh Translators and Interpreters
- Find-A-Linguist - database of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL)
- Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI)
- National Registers of Communication Professionals Working With Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD) - for British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters.
Business and public sector organisations are increasingly outsourcing their interpreting requirements to specialist language agencies. You should use speculative applications in order to approach agencies when seeking work.
Specialist interpreting and translation companies include:
- Capita Translation and interpreting (Capita TI)
- Clarion UK (BSL interpreters)
- Prestige Network
Competition is fierce, particularly amongst the major European languages. Despite this, demand for interpreters continues to grow as public services regard the use of community languages as an issue of equality and diversity.
While your degree or postgraduate qualification may have given you the required academic training, many of the core practical skills needed in interpreting are gained on the job.
You should consider getting membership with a relevant professional body, which provides access to training and networking opportunities. Relevant bodies include the AIIC, CIOL and ITI.
Varying levels of membership are available as you progress through your career.
Keeping up to date with developments in your particular area of work is vital, especially in business and politics. The key professional bodies support continuing professional development (CPD) and offer training and events on relevant topics such as networking, marketing and conference and court interpreting. You must also practise and keep your language skills up to date.
Support and CPD opportunities for BSL interpreters are available from the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI).
If you work in public service interpreting (PSI) you may want to take the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI) or the Diploma in Police Interpreting (DPI). This will also allow you to register with the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI). See their website for details of the qualifications and experience you need to register.
Career development can be quite varied, depending on the sort of work/life balance you would like.
Developing a successful career as a freelance interpreter requires a proactive approach to networking. This means keeping in touch with key professional bodies, interpreters' groups and potential employers, both nationally and internationally. You should also try to attend workshops and seminars to find out more about sources of work and work providers.
It's possible to move into training or management roles within your particular sector once you've built up a good level of experience. As a conference interpreter, you could go on to recruit teams of interpreters for private employers, working as a consultant.
For many freelancers, career development means the ability to select more interesting or better-paid assignments.