Interpreters, translators, and other language professionals explained

Working as an interpreter is a job not like many others. It has no claims to fame, it is not listed in many drop-down menus of job selections, and yet there are thousands of people working in a variety of fields and bringing home a steady paycheck. Scores of language professionals work under many titles: interpreters, translators, liaisons, linguists, language specialists, and many others. However, this field remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Is a linguist different from language liaison? Is a translator the same as an interpreter? Let’s look in detail at what is unique and different about these professions, learn how special this field is and why you should show some love to your language professional regardless of their title. 

To start, let’s get a clear understanding of the scope. The language industry has been called the biggest industry you have never heard of. But how big is it exactly? Slator’s 2019’ industry market report states that the industry is worth USD 23.2 bn in 2018 with projections for growth as high as USD 28.2 bn by 2022. (Click here to read the full article). The Association of Language Companies, citing the Common Sense Advisory shows an even larger number of 48 bn in 2018. Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows that in 2018, there were 76100 jobs that fit the description of an interpreter or a translator. 

What do language professionals do? 

To answer some of the questions right off the bat – translators work with the written word, while interpreters interpret the spoken language. That means, your vacuum cleaner’s manual was translated by a translator, but it is the interpreter you need when you would like to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language. Job titles such as language liaison, or linguist are used as a broad term for situations that may involve both interpretation and translation. In some circumstances, like at schools, a language liaison may be called upon to offer cultural insight and advocacy as well. 

This ALC page has a good list of professions with short descriptions of each job title. In this article however we will take a deeper dive into the work of an interpreter. 

The 2005 drama with Nicole Kidman “The Interpreter” showed one of the possibilities of what an interpreter’s work might look like. Granted, not all interpreters deal with international conflict and overhear national security secrets in their headsets as part of their daily routine. But we shouldn’t speak for everyone, maybe the movies involving their incredible adventures at work simply have not been made yet. 

Simultaneous interpreting

The type of interpretation presented in the film “The Interpreter” is called conference interpreting and the mode of interpretation that Nicole Kidman was purportedly shown to be conducting in the glass booth is simultaneous. Simultaneous interpretation requires that the interpreter render their interpretation almost simultaneously with the original speech. Although strictly speaking, this is a bit of a misnomer, since, of course there has to be a delay before the interpreter hears what the speaker is saying. The interpreter hears the speech and immediately starts processing it and delivering the equivalent in the target language. If you are the lucky customer, you get to sit back, relax, and feel like you actually understand the original language!

Consecutive interpreting

Other environments where interpreters are common are business meetings between international partners, large scale professional conferences that attract international audiences, international legislator summits, meetings between heads of state, banquets that follow such meetings and summits, and any other formal events where the guests prefer to use their native languages, lest they misspeak or be misunderstood and cause an international conflict. 

Less glamorous, but probably more common and most definitely just as important are interpreters in schools and medical offices, courts, social security offices, banks, driver’s licensing offices, higher education institutions, administrative hearing locales, at insurance claims adjuster interviews, in real estate offices, at military bases overseas, in the middle of  criminal investigations, routine traffic stops, small claims courts, and many other situations that could not possibly all be listed even in the longest article.Whew, that is a long list!

In many of these settings the prevailing mode of interpretation used is consecutive. That means that the interpreter waits for the speaker to complete their statement and then interprets what was said. This mode of interpretation takes more time, but does not require a glass booth or simultaneous equipment, and is thus easily implemented. And the customers this time hear both the original and the target language.  Some even try to practice their own rusty Spanish on the interpreter and try to correct them. Our advice: never bring internet articles to prove your diagnosis to your doctor, or to the interpreter. Just trust us on this one. 

Consecutive interpretation mode is also suitable to be used over the phone. This is how bankers, police offices, emergency room nurses, and other professionals are able to get help with another language quickly without too much of a delay. Sign language interpreters use video remote interpreting, so that they are able to see and be seen. 

How many languages do interpreters speak? 

Most interpreters work with one primary language pair, and some have an additional language that they can also use. This means that if a given all-day event requires 13 different languages, most likely the organizer will need to arrange for at least 26 interpreters, since in long events interpreters have to work in pairs. If your event is a doctor’s visit or a short interview, however, just one interpreter who speaks your client’s language will suffice. 

Interpreters in the United States are usually a lively bunch for whom often interpreting is not their first career. Some do have degrees in linguistics, translation, interpretation, or the language itself. However, a great many interpreters had completely unrelated careers back in their home countries before immigrating, and decided to learn a new skill and use their language skills upon their arrival in the US. This is very helpful for a career as an interpreter, because in order to interpret the great variety of subjects that interpreters get exposed to, they do have to have a good grasp themselves on the technical, political, or medical explanation they hear in the source language. It is not uncommon that interpreters will choose to specialize in areas close to their previous careers. This can sometimes lead to the interesting scenario in which the interpreter has more engineering experience and better understanding of the concept than a business partner they are interpreting for…

Do you know any talented interpreters, translators, or any language professionals who deserve some kudos? Please, share how an interpreter helped you complete your project and help us share the love!