If you're an excellent multilingual communicator who wants to work with languages and are ready to enter a highly competitive industry, interpreting could be your perfect job

As an interpreter, you'll convert spoken or sign language statements from one language to another. 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.

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. A variation of this is chuchotage, where you will sit near one person or a small group and whisper the translation as the speaker carries on.
  • consecutive interpretation (CI) - you'll listen to the speaker talking for typically five minutes or more 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 situations such as business meetings, training and presentations.
  • liaison interpretation - also known as ad hoc and relay, you'll typically interpret into and out of the target language using either consecutive interpreting or the whispered form of simultaneous interpretation. It's common in smaller meetings or negotiations and in legal and health situations.
  • 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 may carry out interpreting in person, by telephone or via video conferencing and internet-based technologies.

You can work as an interpreter in the following settings:

  • conference - where simultaneous interpreting is the main form used and is based within large conferences, meetings, groups and presentations.
  • business - smaller functions such as meetings, negotiations, business discussions, training, business/factory tours, or formal dinners.
  • 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, 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.

Responsibilities

As an interpreter, you'll need to:

  • assimilate speakers' words quickly, including jargon and acronyms
  • build up specialist vocabulary banks
  • write notes to aid memory
  • use microphones and headsets
  • 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.

Salary

  • 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. Most interpreters have additional employment, for example in translation, teaching or training.

Working hours

As a freelance interpreter, your working hours will be 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

  • You may be based in a conference centre or working on the telephone for long periods.
  • It's likely you'll need 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, 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 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

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.

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 also 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 employers will usually look for a related postgraduate qualification.

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.

If you're a BSL interpreter, you may develop your language proficiency through vocational qualifications such as NVQs.

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. In this case, you may find informal work where pay is likely to be lower than for professionally qualified interpreters.

Skills

You'll need to show:

  • 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
  • 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 on the matters you're interpreting
  • flexibility to deal calmly with unexpected and difficult situations
  • reliability, dedication and commitment to projects
  • knowledge of 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.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience is not essential but comes in helpful for securing work. This may include language and interpreting projects from your undergraduate or postgraduate qualifications, examples of how you've used your other language(s) in practice, or any work you've carried out in a foreign language.

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.

Employers

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:

  • the European Commission, the European Court of Justice and European Parliament
  • 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.

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:

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.

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.

Professional development

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 as from this you'll gain 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.

Support and CPD opportunities for BSL interpreters are available from:

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).

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.

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.