“The Right Stuff?”

Before I get down to the issues everyone wants to talk about – passing exams, finding jobs, etc. – I feel there is one more underlying matter which needs to be addressed first. Controversy-seekers, take note, because the topic for this week is: is there such a thing as an ideal personality profile for interpreters?

NASA is looking for people with advanced degrees in engineering or physics, 1,000 hours flight time as a jet pilot, and excellent physical shape. Any takers?

If you want to become an astronaut, NASA will happily inform you of the ideal candidate profile. The same thing holds for air traffic controllers, stockbrokers, and a host of other professions. Now, I am by no means implying that conference interpreting is in any way comparable to these other professions (you’ll be surprised to hear what profession it does resemble – more on that in a moment). But I do think it is valid to ask whether there are certain character traits that will help you achieve the goal of becoming an interpreter.

To find an answer to this question, instead of just dusting off all the old clichés and half-truths going around about interpreters, I decided to start by taking the empirical approach to the question: I looked around in the booth to see what sorts of personalities I found there.

At this point, I was reminded of a questionnaire I was asked to fill out recently for the kindergarten my daughter will be attending in September. On the form, I was asked to indicate whether my little interpreter-in-waiting (or not!) was:

–  Sociable or withdrawn
–  Chatty or taciturn
–  Passive or assertive
–  Adventurous or hesitant
–  Fun-loving or serious

… I’ll spare you the rest of the descriptors on the list, since they mostly had to do with table manners and toilet training.

What I did was think about all of the interpreters I have worked with over the years to see if I could find at least one who fits each of the above descriptions. And I can assure you that I had no trouble at all finding examples of each! Good news for the shrinking violets among us – and bad news for the empirical method.

Since I still needed an answer to my question, I then tried to determine the ideal interpreter personality profile by elimination, i.e. by trying to figure out everything an interpreter is NOT and then assuming that the opposite is what makes a good interpreter. I had considerably more luck when I applied this reverse method, because I did manage to determine that:

– I have no colleagues who seem uninterested in the world
– I don’t know any interpreters who can’t handle stress.

Let’s just pause briefly to examine the two traits identified by the above process of elimination.

Intellectual Curiosity

All the interpreters I know really do appear to share an insatiable curiosity about the world. I’d argue that this is possibly the most important trait an interpreter can have.

Conference interpreting is not like some other careers, where you first dedicate an initial period to learning your business and then spend the rest of the time practicing it. As the practicing interpreters among my readers witll know, interpreting entails a constant learning process – with every new client, conference, or meeting comes a new learning curve – and so anyone who doesn’t have this desire (whether inborn or acquired) to always learn more will probably not be able to handle the sheer breadth and depth of information that needs to be absorbed over the course of an interpreting career.

Learning about different languages and cultures at the level required for interpreting obviously takes a lot of time and commitment as well, and I would think that this is easier to muster in an enquiring mind.

Of course, in today’s world, one could argue that most professions require lifelong learning. If that is true, then at least interpreting is no exception to this rule.

Dealing with Stress

To the all-important issue of stress, now. Yes, the job is extremely stressful. AIIC’s recently published Workload Study confirms this.  Having said that, I would disagree with a claim I once heard many years ago that interpreters suffer the same stress levels as air traffic controllers – I may experience stress in the booth or on the field, but I do not hold the lives of thousands of people of people in my hands when I work.

Now, I’m sure a lot of other professions are characterised by high stress levels as well. Just finding a job can be pretty stressful in today’s world! But I think it’s clear that if you want to become an interpreter, you should not be the type of person who deals poorly with stress.

Anyway, stress is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, without stress to activate the release of adrenaline and the subsequent “fight or flight” response, humanity would probably still be several steps back in the evolutionary process.


On that note, I think it’s safe to say that in the booth, stress should probably more often lead to “fight” than to “flight”. It should be more likely to put your interpreting senses on edge and allow you to perform the necessary multi-tasking effectively than to send you shimmying up a tree.

The Right Stuff, Indeed

To sum up, lifelong learning and stress management will always be part of an interpreter’s job, so those who have personalities that suit this profile will probably have an easier time of making it as interpreters.

Of course, that’s not all it’s about. Being able to use a fork and spoon correctly and knowing when to ask to go to the potty will probably help, too… But seriously, AIIC has published a complete list of personal traits that it considers useful for interpreters, which I would encourage you to consult if you want to know more.

For those with a bit more time on their hands who are curious to know more about the research that has been done into the personality profiles of interpreters, take some time to read this academic paper on the subject, which debunks many of the existing myths in a most scholarly fashion (here comes the reply to the question raised at the beginning: one of the author’s conclusions is that interpreters share the same personality type with… librarians!).

So there you have some reflections on what might be considered “The Right Stuff” for interpreters. I can’t wait to hear what readers have to say.

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12 thoughts on ““The Right Stuff?”

  1. Hi,

    Yes, I suppose there is a certain profile most interpreters share or at least, should share. To be curious and to have an insatiable desire to learn new things all the time is a must. To deal with stress and to be flexible even in the worst case scenarios is also useful.
    I read in an interview to Sydney Pollack when he released his movie The Interpreter that most interpreters have a talent for music and an International background.
    I lived here and there when I was a kid, so that could be my International background but I am absolutely no musical talent (I am pretty sure of that).
    I have worked with different kinds of interpreters, some were social, others were shy, unfortunately some were not team players, but most loved languages, learning and communication.

    • @Aida, I think there has been research linking language learning with math skills, and other research bringing together math and music, so I guess if you follow that logic through to the end, Sydney Pollack must be right :)! And an international background, though not a must, will certainly help with the language acquisition.

      I too have met interpreters who were not team players, unfortunately, so I don’t think that is a universal trait, although I personally think it should be. And amazingly enough, I also know some interpreters who are amazingly articulate on mike but who are not very communicators themselves – it’s almost as if they are more comfortable expressing others’ ideas than their own. It really does go to show that it takes all kinds.

  2. Good stuff!

    Re: The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (link to academic article). I think I note an internal contradiction – the author seems to say that she aims to find a way to identify the candidates for training programs with the best chance of success in the profession… but then her test groups are not successful interpreters but student interpreters. Wouldn’t it seem logical to give the MBTI to practicing interpreters with a number of years of experience (i.e. a measure of success in the market) in order to see which “types” predominate among them?

    The only type that she hypothesizes as being possibly more common among interpreters that she finds backed up in her study (of students) is “thinking” (as opposed to “feeling”). The reason she posits is that “thinkers” deal with stress better than “feelers”, which would make sense. Of course, nothing is set in stone: I test positive for “feeling” and have managed to have a long career (maybe too long the feeling me whispers 🙂 So there must be more than one way to skin a stress test.

    Your two criteria – intellectual curiosity and being able to handle stress – ring true to me.

    • @Luigi: I agree with your comments about the academic article. I think the author probably used students beause working interpreters are notoriously difficult to convince to participate in studies :).

      I was interested to see that even an academic attempt to identify typical interpreter personalities was unable to come up with any clear-cut trends or profiles, which would appear to confirm my “empirical” (read: unscientific and completely led by gut feeling) approach to the question. It’s amazing how often science confirms intuition. For example, just today, a cognitive psychologist friend was telling me about research that he had come across showing that interpreters link their languages in ways that “normal” bilinguals never do. That is fully in line with the encouragement I give students (based on instinct and experience) to “build bridges” between their languages that they wouldn’t ordinarily need.

      As for Myers-Briggs, I was told years ago that I’m ENTP. Does that make me a better interpreter than an ISFJ? Does it really even matter? Apparently not…

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  6. I believe in the theory that we humans still work subconsciously from our primitive reptilian brain in terms of the split-second perceptions of our world, on the one hand, and on the other we still (unfortunately for many purposes) still have a highly developed Tribal Mentality, which means that we are “hard-wired” by evolution to associate our world in categories. Third, I also believe in the difference between “fixed intelligence” and “creative intelligence”…. i.e., it was the latter that allowed human evolution to be exponential in the last 20K years. My point here is that although I wholeheartedly believe that indeed interpreters do fall into certain “categories” of personalities (I would say more towards the “A” type than others), it is also true that there might be some deep-rooted biology associated to the WAY how we process thought, how we feel comfortable handling direct, instant and unexpected communication and interaction, how we respond to uncertainty with innovation, how we conceive the world (in terms of brain wave length), how we understand and handle our view of the “tribes” of humans today, how we sort or not in kinds, how we are attuned to some issues of global consciousness, and basically how good we are at modifying our “genetic modules” with or by our “cognitive modules” (for example, how good we are to replace otherwise outdated social modules rooted in superstition or prejudice). This said, I believe CREATIVITY is really on the basis of interpreting, i.e., the extraordinary ability to make something out of nothing, to grasp concepts and transform them (i.e., “translate” them), to change gears at the drop of a pin, to see the invisible and make it obvious. We have this extraordinary combination of exceptional capacity for rational thought with this extraordinary ability to understand and express emotional intelligence. Thank you again for providing food for thought and discussion. Excellent article.

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