“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–  Sociable or withdrawn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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