Interpreting Myths: The Video

Yes, I’m still on holidays. By the time this post is published, I will have celebrated two family birthdays and engaged in some serious R&R, Canadian-style. Soon, I will be back at home and ready to get blogging again for real (just when everybody else turns off their computers for the summer and heads off to the beach – what’s wrong with this picture?).

Anyway, this week’s post looks at a video I did for Lourdes of AIB many moons ago (I’m guessing by the fleece sweater I’m wearing that it must have been filmed sometime around Christmas). In the video, I look at a number of common myths surrounding interpreter training. If you haven’t seen the video yet, then you might want to take 7:41 minutes of your time to do so.

Below, I am also including the original script that I wrote for the video. Anyone who is too busy to watch the video can skim the script for the main ideas. Readers interested in seeing how far an interpreter trainer can go off track when trying to improvise on a theme on the basis of written notes can compare the written and recorded versions of the speech. Also, students wanting to test their consecutive note-taking technique can try to take notes from the video, as it is pretty much in line with the kind of speech I would give in a consecutive class, in terms of length, structure and difficulty of the subject matter (although it might be lacking in figures).


Top misconceptions about training to become an interpreter


Many believe you don’t need any training at all, you just have to speak a couple of languages to become an interpreter. This misconception possibly arises from the fact that when you watch a good interpreter in action, it all appears so effortless. This may lead the uninitiated to think that anyone can do it that easily.

This is absolutely FALSE. It’s like saying anyone who can use a thermometer can be a doctor, or owning a pair of skis will make you a ski jumper. While the thorough knowledge of languages is absolutely essential to becoming an interpreter, it is not enough in itself. The reason why it all looks so easy is because the interpreter has spent years training and practicing the skills required to do his or her job.


Here, the idea seems to be that some people are born with a “knack” for interpreting and others don’t. It is true that a certain number of “in-born” traits will make it easier for one to learn the skills required to become an interpreter. For instance, it helps to:

– be a good communicator
– have a quick and well-organised mind
– have the ability to concentrate and focus, especially in stressful situations
– have strong nerves
– have intellectual curiosity
– be adaptable to new situations
– be a people person (although not all interpreters are extroverts)
– be a team player
– show personal integrity

However, even having all of these things won’t automatically make you a “born interpreter”. In the ten years that I have been training interpreters, I have seen many a promising student show up on the first day with all of these traits, and still not make it as interpreters in the end. The fact is, if you don’t apply yourself and work hard to learn the specific skills related to interpreting, you will never make it.

Which brings me to myth number 3…


This one is actually a bit mystifying for me, since most people seem to agree that pretty much every other profession requires training. You want to build a skyscraper? Go and study architecture. You want to run a multinational? Sign up for an MBA. You want to become an interpreter? Apply to a postgraduate interpreting course.

The idea here behind the myth that interpreting can’t be taught would appear to be that since the whole interpreting process all happens so quickly inside one’s head, there is no way to actually figure out what’s going on in there and then teach the techniques required. This is particularly the case for simultaneous translation, where observers see the interpreter listening, mentally analysing and translating the message, and speaking all at the same time.

I’m pleased to say that this belief is also FALSE:

Decades of theoretical research into interpreting have led to well-developed theories of interpretation which show that interpreting is not just an instinctive activity that can only be “learned by doing”. Hundreds of academic articles and dozens of books have been published on the subject. All this has led to a theoretical and practical understanding of just how the interpreting feat is accomplished – and this is what is taught to aspiring interpreters.

During an interpreter training course, the interpreting process is broken down into different phases and skill sets. Each is tackled separately first, and then brought together to create the final product. I liken the process to learning how to juggle. It’s a matter of first learning to throw the balls separately, and then gradually managing to keep them all up in the air. Inevitably, a lot of balls will end up on the floor as the learning takes place, but the end result will be students who are able to do all of these skills apparently “at once” and perform the act of interpreting.

The whole process of becoming an interpreter, far from being impossible to learn, is actually very long and painstaking, and students themselves often complain that one year is not enough (this is the usual length of a postgraduate degree in conference interpreting). This stands in stark contrast to the views of laypeople, who seem to think that no training at all is required, or indeed, even possible.

If you are going undertake training as an interpreter, you had better make sure that you are at the right place, where the job is going to be done right.

Which brings me to my fourth and final myth about interpreter training:


This is simply not true. Just as I’m sure you would do a lot of research before applying to an executive MBA, I highly recommend prospective students research various interpreting schools before making their choice. They shouldn’t necessarily just pick the course closest to home, or the one at the university their friends plan to attend.

What to look out for? According to the AIIC (the International Association of Conference Interpreters), which has drafted a list of best practice for conference interpreting training programmes, a course should be at the postgraduate level, be at least one year long, be taught by conference interpreters, include an aptitude test, and teach both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting techniques.

The AIIC’s recommendations, as well as a number of other tips for prospective students of interpreting, can be found on the website of AIB, along with a lot of other useful information about the profession. AIB offers objective, useful information and debunks a lot of myths, including the four I have talked about today.

Related Post

“The Right Stuff?”

8 thoughts on “Interpreting Myths: The Video

  1. Thank you for this post. It is a good overview to point aspiring interpreters to.
    I would also venture to say that new interpreters will need to learn to walk a fine line between being bold enough to accept assignments that will require them to “stretch” and having the integrity to not “overreach”.
    Enjoy your holiday!

  2. Pingback: Interpreting Myths: The Video « The Interpreter Diaries | LinguaGreca |

  3. Excellent article. I will be recommending your blog to others in the language industry. Your “juggle” example is excellent. I usually compare learning interpreting skills to learning how to swim. There are techniques and there is an absolute need for practice. I differ a little from your position in that I do stress practice above theoretical knowledge. The theory is essential, of course. It is at the base of the issue (if you don’t know you must use your legs to swim, or how to use them, you will drown). However, in my opinion, practice is really the key element (unless you go into the pool and practice practice practice, you will never learn to swim, no matter how many books or non-practice courses you may take). But I think that, in essence, I agree with everything you express and admire the condensed way you capture the most important aspects in your piece. Thank you for a wonderful writ. I will use it as reference material often.

    • Thanks for the kind words! I agree, interpreting is often a “sink or swim” experience ;).

      My other favorite metaphor is surfing, which I use to describe to beginning interpreters how to work with very fast speakers – you either “catch the wave” and surf along in time with the speaker, or you don’t, and end up floundering along behind him the whole time.

      I fully agree with you that practice is paramount – you simply can’t learn interpreting from a book. My point about theory, however, is that it does exist, and knowing the theory can help with developing the technique – a fact that is all too often ignored on courses.

      Of course, all students will learn differently. Some will find having an underlying theoretical structure to work with helpful as they tackle the technique. Others will go more for the instinctive approach – in which case it’s the trainer’s responsibillity to make sure that everything is in place and that the student understands that there is more to it than just winging it and hoping for the best.

      But I am getting a bit ahead of myself – I am hoping to look at aspects of training in my blog starting in September/October, when the new academic year starts. Please stick around, we can talk theory (and practice) then!

  4. Pingback: Interpreting Myths: The Video | Web Review |

  5. Thank you very much for an interesting article on myths about interpreters. However,only to some extent would I agree with your opinion on the myth whether you need to have inborn features to be a good interpreter. In my opinion, you need both to have special talents and to be properly educated. Iterpretation is art so If you have not ‘this something’,
    you won’t be able to put your vast knowledge into practise. Your interpretation will be proper, but not very good. You may be highly educated sculpturer, but your piece of art is especial when you are especial.
    Warm regards
    Bogdan Malec

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