Watch This: 4 Essential Interpreter Skills

What does it take to be an interpreter? Well, we won't really have space to list everything here, so for the sake of brevity we'd like to point out a few key skills that, in our humble opinion, interpreters should have to be successful.

These skills go beyond the obvious language skills, memory skills, etc. We purposely picked a few things that we can easily illustrate with videos of... pofessional athletes. Yes, really!  This might sound like a stretch, but please hear us out. We oftentimes hear the -- very applicable and correct -- analogy that interpreting is similar to theater, that you have to perform whenever it's showtime, that there's no way back once you've started speaking (or acting), and that there's no safety net. So: what do interpreters have in common with a tennis player, a cross-country skier, a ski jumper, and a gymnast? Have a look.

1) Interpreters must be fast. 
Interpreters must think on their feet all the time, and they need to speak, think, and process things very fast -- much faster than non-interpreters. Sometimes we feel like we are constantly sprinting, and we are, but there's not always a clearly defined finish line. We like watching videos of all things speed-related right before big interpreting assignments to get our blood flowing, and we particularly like this compilation of best finishes by Petter Northug, one of the best cross-country skiers in the world. He's a two-time Olympic champion from Norway, and you can probably see that it gives him great pleasure to beat anyone from Sweden (big rivalry).

Ready to pick up some speed? Watch this.

2) Interpreters must be precise.
Not unlike Olympic champion gymnasts, such as Aly Raisman, interpreters must be very precise, especially in judicial settings. You need to nail every twist and turn, err, every sentence just so in order to enable communication and keep the register and tone. From the outside looking in, we've oftentimes heard that interpreting seems like magic, and while it's not, it is an art to master. When we need a little reminder of how important precision is, we remember that we have one (just one!) thing in common with American gymnast Aly Raisman: we are very precise (but we are afraid of the uneven bars).

3) Interpreters must be passionate.
We are both quite passionate tennis players (Judy is a former NCAA Division I tennis player), so to illustrate passion and dedication, we could not think of a better example that perhaps the best tennis player of all time (male or female): American Serena Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles--the most in the open era. It's very rare for any one athlete to dominate the sport as much as Serena does. Just like Serena, interpreters must be passionate about what they do, because it requires a lot of dedication and commitment to be a truly great interpreter. Get inspired by Serena:

4) Interpreters must be fearless. 
In a way, interpreting is an act of faith because you never truly know what's coming at you next. It's like jumping off a cliff without being 100% sure that there's enough water underneath for you to dive into. Or it's like jumping off a huge ski jumping hill at a speed of up to 60 miles an hour. Yes, interpreters, on one level or another, have to be fearless (but prepared, of course). It's normal to feel some nerves before important interpreting assignments, but you have to believe that you can do it in order to start. Once you've started, there's no way back. No one knows this better than ski jumpers, such as Austrian world champion Stefan Kraft.


EP on May 20, 2017 at 1:12 AM said...

Totally cool. And I have always felt so bad for German-to-English interpreters. The thought terrifies me. The poor things have to sit there and listen to these elaborate, drawn-out German sentences, listen some more, wait a bit more and yet can't - if they're honest - begin churning it all out into English until they hear that verb at the end! Nightmare.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on May 23, 2017 at 1:59 PM said...

@EP: Yes, German to English can be tough (we've done it!), and waiting for the verb sometimes does feel like waiting for Godot indeed... but it can be done. That said, it's not always very fun, but it feels great when you are in the zone and doing it! Thanks for reading and for commenting.

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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