What makes a person a successful interpreter? Who is a successful interpreter? What qualities must they have? Is it enough to just speak two (or more) languages fluently?
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I am sure many individuals have asked themselves those questions, as I am sure various people answer it in a different way. Below, I give my answers and some “golden rules” I follow. So far, they have not let me down.
First if all, in order to be successful, you have to be good. But what exactly does that mean? Perhaps these points can help answering that:
1. ALWAYS BE PREPARED. (I suppose if the other rules are golden, this one needs to be platinum!).
A good interpreter will always want to ensure they do a high quality job. Try to get as much information as you possibly can about the meeting to be interpreted. You need to know the subject of the meeting and the level of specialisation that is required. Once you do, assess (being truthful with yourself) whether you are the right person for the job. I can assure you that if you feel unsure about the assignment and recommend a more experienced colleague, the client will appreciate that. Undertaking any assignment wishing for the best WILL NOT make you successful. The quality of the job will be remembered and will mark your reputation!
Usually, the client is happy to provide the interpreter with some material regarding the company and the meeting in order to give you some more background (the client wants you to do well too!). Do not follow the “do as little as possible” rule. Perhaps you need to refresh some terminology? Do as much research as you can on the topic – you will feel better prepared and come across as a true professional.
2. BE ON TIME!
The interpreter is needed at the meeting – it cannot happen without them. Both sides that need interpreting can get really frustrated if they cannot communicate. If they become so, the atmosphere at the meeting can make you feel nervous and you will make mistakes. Therefore make sure you are always on time (it is even preferred that you are early – especially if any equipment needs to be set up). Allow yourself extra time to get into the meeting – things can happen on your way there and you do not want to have to excuse yourself, whatever the reason.
3. ASSESS WHO YOU ARE INTERPRETING FOR.
This is often disregarded as unnecessary, but in my opinion is highly important. There are two aspects here. The first one is the cultural background of who you are interpreting for. People speaking in different languages come from different backgrounds – i.e. they are diverse from the cultural point of view. As an interpreter and also a language teacher I understand that a language and culture are hardly separable and you have to consider both, otherwise it can lead to gross miscommunication. It might sound incredulous to some, however one word said in two different tones of voice can mean something else (e.g. it might have an ironic rather than literal meaning). A good interpreter needs to be sensible to cultural issues – and the more diverse the culture, the more important that is.
Another aspect is the level of language used by both sides. You need to remember that the level of language has to be corresponding to the one used by both sides you are interpreting for. Is it formal or informal? Colloquial or professional? Simple or sophisticated? That also brings us back to point 1 – assess the level of specialisation required.
4. WHAT IF YOU MAKE A MISTAKE?
Given that you are thoroughly prepared for the meeting the risk of making a mistake or not understanding something is fairly low. However, we are all just human and it can happen! So – what to do if it does? If you make a mistake correct yourself as soon as you realise. Just say “the interpreter would like to correct him- / herself” and give the correct version. That is not the end of the world and it is better to do it rather than leave it unsaid. Make sure it does not happen too often though – that would just mean your knowledge in the given subject is not sufficient.
If there is anything you do not understand, you can ask for it to be repeated or for an explanation or clarification. Again – it is better to do it this way rather than guess the meaning and look puzzled (and unprofessional!).
These are some main rules that apply and if you are dedicated to follow them, you are on a good path to be successful. However, a couple of things to remember: firstly, success is a subjective matter and means something else to everyone. Make sure you make your aim clear to yourself and work towards achieving it. Secondly, success is a dynamic concept – being successful means never forgetting to look for improvements and new golden rules! On that note, I would be delighted to hear your insights!