Interpreters convert spoken or sign language statements from one language to another. Interpreting involves listening to, understanding and memorising content in the original 'source' language, then reproducing statements, questions and speeches in a different 'target' language. This is often done in only one direction, normally into the interpreter's native language, but may be on a two-way basis.

Interpreters work in the following settings:

  • business functions such as meetings, conferences, exhibitions and product launches;
  • criminal justice proceedings, known as public service interpreting (PSI), including police and probation service interviews, court
  • hearings, solicitor interviews, arbitration hearings and immigration tribunals;
  • community-based events and assignments within the education, health and social services sectors.

Types of interpreter

Interpreting can be carried out in person, by telephone or via video conferencing and internet-based technologies.

There are several types of interpreting.

  • Simultaneous interpretation (SI): working in a team at a conference or large meeting, the interpreter sits in a soundproof booth (there are separate booths for each conference language) and immediately converts what is being said, so listeners hear the interpretation through an earpiece while the speaker is still speaking. A variation of this is whispering, or chuchotage, where the interpreter sits near one person or a small group and whispers the translation as the speaker carries on. Sign language interpreting is also usually simultaneous. Interpreters typically take turns of about 30 minutes as it demands such high levels of concentration.
  • Consecutive interpretation (CI): more common in smaller meetings and discussions, the speaker will pause after each sentence or point and wait while the interpreter translates what is being said into the appropriate language.
  • Liaison interpretation: also known as ad hoc and relay, this is a type of two-way interpreting, where the interpreter translates every few sentences while the speaker pauses. This is common in telephone interpreting as well as in legal and health situations. The interpreter supports people who are not fluent in the language to ensure their understanding.
  • Sign language interpretation: interpreters convert spoken statements into sign language and vice versa. Interpreting from one sign language to another is another option.

Responsibilities

The following work activities are likely in any interpreting setting:

  • assimilating speakers' words quickly, including jargon and acronyms;
  • building up specialist vocabulary banks;
  • writing notes to aid memory;
  • using microphones and headsets;
  • preparing paperwork - considering agendas before meetings, or lectures and speeches when received in advance;
  • using the internet to conduct research;
  • organising workload and liaising with internal departments, agencies and employers;
  • working to a professional code of ethics covering confidentiality and impartiality.

Salary

The range of salaries for interpreters is varied and there are relatively few salaried jobs. 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.

  • Freelance hourly rates vary but could be in the region of £30 to £60 depending on experience, type of interpreting, location and level of demand for the languages.
  • Beginner staff interpreters at the European Commission start at level AD5 (around 4,384 Euros a month), while experienced interpreters can start at level AD7 (around 5,612 Euros a month).

Traditionally, interpreters have been paid travel time and costs, along with a guaranteed minimum fee (normally two or three hours' work), and cancellation/curtailment fees if appropriate. This is no longer the case in some settings, notably PSI interpreting.

Agencies and telephone interpreting are increasingly being used to reduce costs, particularly in the public sector, as interpreters receive a lower rate per minute or per hour with limited or no travel reimbursements.

It may be difficult to sustain a stable income from interpreting unless you are employed by one organisation as a conference interpreter or by several agencies. Most interpreters have additional employment, for example in translation, teaching or training.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours for freelancers are flexible. Business, routine medical and court-related assignments tend to take place during office hours but evening and weekend work is not uncommon, especially for police interviews and emergency medical care.

What to expect

  • Interpreters may be based inside conference centres or working on the telephone for long periods.
  • The majority of interpreters are self-employed with most finding 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, but the main centres for international conferences include Brussels, London, Geneva and Paris. In the UK, employment opportunities outside London are increasing.
  • Business or smart casual dress is usually required, with the exception of telephone interpreting, which is normally done from the interpreter's 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.

Qualifications

Interpreting is open to all graduates with a high level of language knowledge. For most, this will mean an undergraduate degree in one of the following subjects:

  • British Sign Language (BSL) and interpreting;
  • deaf studies;
  • modern languages;
  • translation and interpreting.

You can still become an interpreter with an unrelated degree as long as you possess the required language skills.

Having specialist knowledge of a certain area such as science, engineering, the environment, business, economics, law or politics can be helpful, as it will show employers that you understand the specific terms and vocabulary.

If you have an HND or foundation degree in one of the above subjects, you will usually be required to progress to degree-level study or a diploma in interpreting to secure a position.

Entry without a degree or HND/foundation degree is unlikely unless you have come to interpreting through life experience, for example, a bilingual upbringing, residence abroad or regular work with speakers of a second language.

BSL interpreters may develop their language proficiency through vocational qualifications such as NVQs.

A postgraduate diploma or Masters in interpreting techniques is usually expected. Some courses focus on particular aspects of interpreting, but there are options which also develop complementary skills, such as translation. Several institutions run both part and full-time courses. Search for postgraduate courses in interpreting.

If you do not have professional interpreting qualifications, you may still find informal work as an interpreter if you are fluent, or almost fluent, in more than one language, but rates of pay will be lower than those for professionally qualified interpreters. Some local authorities, colleges and universities offer short courses in community interpreting for those without such qualifications.

Skills

Pre-entry experience is not essential but, if you want to work as a professional interpreter, you will need to show evidence of the following:

  • an excellent command of English and the other language(s) into which you may interpret;
  • knowledge of at least one additional language for freelance interpreting and two or ideally more for a staff position in
  • conference interpreting;
  • a good memory and the ability to learn fast;
  • the skills to interact well with people and work as part of a team;
  • the ability to use discretion and maintain confidentiality;
  • flexibility to deal calmly with unexpected and difficult situations;
  • reliability, dedication and commitment;
  • knowledge of current affairs, politics and different cultures and customs.

In addition, conference and court interpreters must be confident about speaking in public and have a clear speaking voice.

Employers

Typical employers include:

  • the European Commission, which operates at the very heart of the European Union (EU) and recruits through the Directorate General for Interpretation;
  • other EU Institutions, such as the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Central Bank;
  • international organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO);
  • Ministry of Defence (MoD);
  • the civil service;
  • Capita Translation and Interpreting (Capita TI) for Ministry of Justice (MoJ) work;
  • 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;
  • international exhibitions.

In all sectors and settings the profession is dominated by freelance interpreters, with few full-time jobs advertised each year. Experienced freelancers have to balance the freedom of deciding when and where they work with the potential scarcity of employment opportunities.

Look for job vacancies at:

Only a small number of roles are advertised through these sources. Freelance interpreters can advertise their services on databases held by professional bodies and networks, such as:

Useful online directories include:

Clients can post assignments, while translators and interpreters can create professional profiles and bid for the contracts.

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. Many professional interpreting associations offer membership at a reduced cost to students, which can assist you in developing contacts and knowledge of the industry.

Competition is fierce, particularly amongst the major European languages. But demand for interpreters continues to grow as public services regard the use of community languages as an issue of equality and diversity.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

While a relevant first or postgraduate interpreting degree or diploma provides the required academic training, many of the core practical skills needed in interpreting are gained on the job.

It is beneficial to gain membership with a relevant professional body as it can give you access to training and networking opportunities. Each institution has its own requirements for membership:

  • Association Internationale des Interprètes de Conférence (AIIC): requires at least 150 days of work plus three sponsors for full membership.
  • Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI): Career Affiliate membership is available for those starting out in the career, Associate (AITI) membership for those with a minimum of one year's experience and status as a Qualified Member (MITI) for those with at least three years of professional experience.
  • Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL): requires a proven degree-level qualification and at least three years' professional experience, or a proven postgraduate qualification and two years' experience. Associate membership is available for those who don't yet have this level of experience.

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). The ITI for example, offers support and training on subjects such as note-taking skills, marketing and networking.

Intensive courses are available through the CIOL to enable you to build up your professional skills in areas including conference and court interpreting.

Support and CPD opportunities for BSL interpreters are available from:

British Sign Language (BSL)/English interpreters who satisfy the entry criteria can also become a Registered Sign Language Interpreter with the National Registers of Communication Professionals Working With Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD).

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), which are offered by the CIOL. This will also allow you to register with the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI).

Career prospects

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.

Another route to gaining experience early on is to undertake voluntary work for a charity or voluntary sector organisation.

Freelancers can apply to become staff interpreters. In the European Union (EU) staff interpreters may be promoted to managing a language unit or sometimes into administrative posts, particularly in conference organising.

With a good level of experience, it is possible to move into training or management roles within your particular sector. There is scope for experienced conference interpreters to become consultant interpreters, who recruit teams of interpreters for private employers.

There are limited opportunities for freelance interpreters to work on an ad-hoc basis with other organisations in industry (liaison work), commerce, tourism, and the community (social services departments, local education authorities, police, courts or hospitals).

For many freelancers, career development means the ability to select more interesting or better-paid assignments.