“A good interpreter is a master of speech and a good translator is a master of the written code.”(Alfredo Vargas). Though both require a distinct set of skills, both also have a shared set of traits. Most of the concepts below also apply to translation, or may be slightly modified to fit the written word.
Interpreting is one of the most complex roles in the world. And it is highly underestimated by society at large. The role of a professional interpreter is to convey faithfully and completely the content of the source language by finding adequate equivalent concepts and terms in the target language, and doing this in seconds, literally. The professional interpreter can make very fast decisions and improvise creatively. He or she must have great interpersonal skills, including great patience and empathy. We must be intimately familiarity with both cultures of the working languages to ensure that each concept AND each term used are thorough, accurate, adequate and is correctly used and expressed in the context of the conversation.
As an interpreter, you need to develop a wide array of technical skills. However, I believe that at the basis of interpreting we need the following: First and foremost, obviously, you need to be fully bilingual. You need to have full command of at least two languages. Next, you need to be a very creative person. You need to love to improvise. To create something from nothing. To switch gears at the drop of a pin. Interpreting is all about being attuned with your environment and adjusting immediately to any change in the environment. Creativity is, in my opinion, at the core of any interpreter’s traits. I believe that if you are not a highly creative human being who feels very comfortable improvising and adapting, it will be extremely difficult to be an interpreter. All the other skills you can learn. Creativity, you have to be. So, my first recommendation would be to ask yourself: am I creative and can I improvise? Or am I a more rigid methodical thinker? Because interpreters are also methodical thinkers, second, improvisers first.
Next, you should develop other non-technical skills, that are: listening, acquisition of knowledge, public speaking, note taking, and memory.
After that, the first thing is to learn how to listen. The interpreter needs, above all, be an extraordinary listener. Listen to what the person is saying, not what you think the person is saying , but what they are really truly saying. You need to learn to grasp the meaning behind the speakers works, the message being conveyed, the context in which that message is being rendered. To do that, you need to hone on your listening skills. My recommendation. Listen to the news on TV and Radio. Just sit and listen. Don’t try to translate or jot down. Sit and listen, during hours and hours. That is your first task. To learn to listen. To learn not to make assumptions. Not to guess what the person is going to say. Not to judge what has been said. Just listen to the words and message of the person talking. To concentrate and keep your thought process centered on the source of the messages, not on your own thoughts. And do this in both languages of your language pair.
Second, be knowledgeable. Read a lot. Read all sort of newspapers, either on the computer or printed. Read magazines about the world. Follow international affairs. Increase your general knowledge in the areas you plan to interpreter. If you can, go and live in the countries where your language pairs are mostly spoken. Learn about the local cultures. If you cannot go and live there, use the internet, watch youtube videos about those countries and regarding those cultures, watch movies, listen to the news, if you have cable TV, get those countries news, buy the magazines that center on those cultures. If you are going to be an interpreter, for example in healthcare, read all sorts of medical magazines. Go to your doctor’s office and read all the brochures, all the magazines. Go to the internet and read read read the blogs on medical and clinical information. Read the websites on healthcare. If it you are going to translate in the legal field, watch all the TV programs you can where there is any type of police or investigative reporting. Watch cop movies. Read law mystery books. And so on.
Third, you need to convey your thoughts appropriately. You need to learn to be very efficient with words. You need to build up your vocabulary. Know about as many subjects as you possibly can. Read glossaries. Make the reading of glossaries your passion. Stop reading just for the pleasure of reading and give meaning to your reading habits. Concentrate on downloading glossaries from the internet on the subjects of your interest and read them. Don’t try to memorize them, just put them in the hard drive of your brain where you will have access to the information when you need it.
Enroll in public speaking groups. Practice speaking out loud. Don’t hold your thoughts, start expressing your thoughts in the shower, in the car, when you are cleaning your home. Talk talk talk, specially in your second language. Become progressively fluent and comfortable expressing your thoughts. Learn to react very fast, to strengthen the connection between your thoughts and your tongue. Every day in the morning and at night try translating the local news for about half an hour. Do not judge yourself. Just let the words come out. It does not matter if at the beginning you don’t get it right. Learning to swim or ride a bike takes time. And the only way to learn it is doing it. If you don’t do it you will never learn it. The same is true for interpreting.You need to develop excellent communication skills, with the ability to express thoughts understandably, delivering your speech in such a way that it is clear and concise in all registers and at varying levels of formality or informality as be required. Do not judge yourself. Just do it, right or wrong, many times. Expertise will come with practice. The more you do it, the better you will improve your skills.
Fourth, extremely important, learn a fast note-taking technique. Take a shorthand writing course, there are many for free on the internet. Or learn to take your own notes. Practice practice practice taking notes. Do it independently of your exercises in listening or your exercises in speaking or your collection of knowledge. Note taking should be a skill highly developed by all interpreters. It is going to be one of the most valuable skills you can have. Once you feel comfortable taking notes fast, start specializing in taking notes regarding numbers and addresses. Turn on the TV to the financial channel and try to take the notes of all the numbers you hear. Do not judge yourself at first. Just let your skill develop. It will take time and practice. Do it do it do it. You have to practice practice practice.
The fifth essential skill is, of course, memory. The interpreter must have a very good memory or a very good memory to remember what has been said. Although the interpreter will be taking notes of much of what is said, it will be impossible to write down everything, so the interpreter must trust his or her memory to be able to ensure accuracy and completeness. Exercise your memory constantly. However it works for you, find a way to exercise your memory. The brain is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the fitter it will be.
Of course, these are just some of the steps you need to develop to become an interpreter. You will need to study a lot and learn to analyze content and develop fast reactions, you need to learn to build and use glossaries, to manage stress and perform within strict codes of conduct and ethics, to be in total command of your native and non-native languages, to become familiar with the cultures of the countries your languages represent. You will need to learn to maintain a friendly attitude, even in very distressful situations. To exercise tact and judgement with people who are rude and obnoxious. And cultivate your curiosity, it is your best friend. Keep yourself current. Make learning into a hobby. Learning what? Everything, anything. It is essential to develop a sense of patience and humor, as you will most probably have to deal with a lot of human tragedy and the load may become overwhelming unless you can see yourself just as a bridge between two points, and not necessarily the superwoman or superman that can solve all situations you come in contact with.
It is essential that you become proficient with computers and modern technology, as they will make part of our every day life. In time, as you become more proficient in your craft, you will need to ensure you are familiar with colloquialisms, idiomatic expressions and slang in both working languages. You need to develop the ability to identify the difference sin meaning due to dialects and regionalism.
To become a true professional, you need to have an open mind and learn about the roles of the interpreter, and the boundaries that you need to have, applicable laws and procedures, cultural competence, ethical and professional behavior, quick decision making, excellent customer skills, ability to prioritize and multitask, a huge amount of patience and humility, problem solving and flexibility.
I train translators, interpreters and bilingual personnel. As such, cultural competency is at the root of our profession, where we transfer content from one language into another, either verbally or in writing. In that context, I stress my alignment with the thought that we humans STILL today function under a “Tribal Mentality“. This Tribal Mentality is a trait that was extremely useful for the development of the species, but which should have become progressively obsolete in the 21st Century. But that has not happened yet, or at least not to the level that our presumably civilized society should require .
Such Tribal Mentality is, in my opinion, one of the largest triggers of conflicts, wars, hatred, and injustice. The “us” Vs. “them” mentality is an “inherent” and “inherited” trait that today prevents our growth as human beings in our interconnected, multicultural world. We must therefore consciously work to expose this trait, if we want to overcome it one day. There are very strong underpinnings of thought and subconscious beliefs, attitudes and feelings that are reflected in our Tribal Mentality, many of which are indeed taught to us by our childhood tribes: family, school, neighborhood, church and the like, to ensure their own continued existence.
Since Culture represents the “models” of things we have in our mind (how we perceive the world, relate with it, interpret things, and even understand ourselves), the fundamentals of Culture may be found in the collective programming of our minds, which differentiate the members of one group of people from another. We are of different races and many ethnicities, different genders, social classes, nationalities, and religions. We have thousands of mother languages. We have huge ideological differences and if we were to talk about something like politics or religion, we might end on opposite sides of the discussion. Some of us might have beliefs and behaviors that are totally unacceptable to others. And yet, when we go out into the world and have to relate with each other, we must find common traits that unite us. Or we must understand the sources of our differences and the origin of our thoughts and our “gut feelings” about others.
What is it about our mind that makes us believe so strongly in the “right” and “wrong” of categories such as race, gender and ethnicity? Why do we feel kinship towards some groups of people and aversion towards others? Why do we sort everything into groups, or kinds of things or events? The answer is that we are “hardwired” to associate in categories. Like computers, that is the “software” we are born with. By default. Our nervous system is predisposed to organize perceptions into groups. This is at the core of one of the fundamentals of humanity: We mostly think in terms of WE vs. THEM (“we” the xyz Vs. “them” the abc — fill in the blank with anything and you will find “opposing” groups we could come up with). As noted earlier, this at the center of most religious conflicts, political adversities, and most rivalries. It is at the core of the concepts of country and culture.
Concepts that denote “my” group or “my” religion or “my” race or “my” country are the true root causes of an incredibly large proportion of conflicts in societies past and present, where mostly one group believes that their “my” is better than the other group’s “my” (known as “their” position). Now then, these issues exist because a long time ago, the Tribal Mind was vital for our survival, because we were surrounded by wild animals and needed to hunt, so group identification and cohesion was important for survival.
But by carrying these thought processes into the 21st Century, what are we really “preserving”? Whose thoughts are we expressing, provided to us in our formative years and remaining with us without challenge? How can we overcome this hardwired structure of thinking in terms of “my” tribes and choose our own way of processing our perceptions?
Our Tribal Mentality should progressively start to serve no purpose in the world of tomorrow – which is already here today. In our Global Village, we need to consciously reflect on our responsibility of owning the US-Vs-THEM concept instead of allowing it to dictated our way of seeing the world. Much of “common sense” is actually totally contrary to nature; for example, in the past, slavery was “natural”; and it was “normal” for women to be the property of their husbands; and more recently, only heterosexuals deserved “respect”. All these concepts were created at one point in history to preserve the “superior” position of a group over another, and later became a prevalent attitude (with corresponding actions) among large groups of people or, as I like to call it, large tribes.
Therefore, in our Global Village of the 21st Century, where our Tribes should be much more homogeneous, in many ways the Tribes have multiplied and have become more aggressive and “territorial”. How many of the “common sense” thoughts and attitudes we hold today as dear are really outdated, unjustified, unfair, and detrimental to our relationships as human beings? How much of our Tribal Mentality is simply wrong? Culture is in essence how we “perceive” our world and how the world “perceives” us. How much of our Cultural perception needs to be revamped?
Remember that our perceptions are hardwired as part of our Tribal Mentality, which is fostered and fed in our earlier years by our family tribe, our religious tribe, our neighborhood tribe, our school tribe, our social-class tribe, our race and ethnicity tribes, our country-of-origin tribe, our language tribe, our gender “ tribe… Each of these tribes is interested in its own survival and thus, in time creates a series of concepts that transcend reality and which serve to define that tribe in society. How many of these concepts do we carry as truths that we never even question, that we are not even aware we have in the background of our mind? Remember it is kind of the “software” that we came into life with by default, which keeps running “in the background” of our heads unless we “update” it to the new values and concepts that we may develop on our own.
Because there are, of course, other tribes we “subscribe” to, either personally or professionally, voluntarily or forced by circumstances, such as our higher education tribes (university students, for example); trade and business tribes (associations, clubs, coalitions, corporations, and the like); country-of-residence “tribe”; social class tribes (chosen in adulthood); technological tribes (user of landlines Vs. smartphones, for example); our secondary languages tribes, our age tribes (Veterans, Baby Boomers, Gen-X, Gen-Y, Gen-Z), and even the tribes we associate to on the basis of our personality types (Extroverts vs Introverts, etc).
The Tribal Mentality tells the members of that tribe what is and what is not possible within the structure of their reality. Since it ensures the survival of the respective group, it strongly imposes values, rituals, symbols, heroes and shared memories to promote group identification and thus loyalty to the “tribe”. In today’s world, the purpose of the Tribal Mentality is no other than to “indoctrinate” each member of that specific tribe on the tribe’s beliefs and rules, to make sure that ALL members of the tribe believe, and agree, and behave accordingly.
There are many other tribes besides those mentioned above, to which we belong by birth, by choice, or by circumstances. What is important is to start understanding and identifying the different tribes that are influencing our “perception” of our reality. Once you start identifying this, you will be able to understand your world much better, and then make your own choices about your own thoughts and actions.
In an interconnected world, the ability to communicate in “my preferred language” (whatever that may be) has become a crucial component of our world. In less than a decade we have gone from simultaneous or consecutive interpreting, to over-the-phone and remote video-interpreting (simultaneous or consecutive), to web-based instant message delivery. Technology is transforming our profession at the speed of light, literally. The term “medical video interpreting” is so new that many in the profession don’t even know of its existence, yet the technology it is based on (and already commercially available) is sure to change the entire profession. Professional associations are scrambling to get to speed with the changes to better serve their members; certification and credentialing is becoming more urgent than ever; education and training are flourishing; and technology surprises us with so many and fast innovations, that it is hard to keep up with it. I believe there is an urgent need for us to be extremely aware of the world in which we live and the fascinating digital revolution taking place around us at the speed of light. I stress the fact that instead of resisting technology, we must embrace it and learn to use it to further our professional advancement and intercultural communication. If we do not become part of the digital revolution, we will soon be left out of the loop of progress… similar to what happened a few decades ago to office workers and freelancers (including translators) who refused to learn how to use a computer … they quickly became professionally obsolete because they were no longer able to interact in the modern interconnected world. This is an attempt to be a “wake-up” call to current and future interpreters about the state of the industry in our Global Village of the 21st century