Although interpreters are needed for a variety of languages and different venues and circumstances, there are only two basic systems of interpretation: simultaneous and consecutive. Spurred in part by the invention and development of electronic sound equipment, simultaneous interpretation has been in use since the charter of the United Nations (UN).

Simultaneous interpreters are able to convert a spoken sentence instantaneously. Some are so skilled that they are able to complete a sentence in the second language at almost the precise moment that the speaker is conversing in the original language. Such interpreters are usually familiar with the speaking habits of the speaker and can anticipate the way in which the sentence will be completed. The interpreter may also make judgments about the intent of the sentence or phrase from the speaker's gestures, facial expressions, and inflections. While working at a fast pace, the interpreter must be careful not to summarize, edit, or in any way change the meaning of what is being said. A subcategory of simulaneous interpretation is whispered interpretation, in which the interpreter sits very close to the listeners and provides a simultaneous interpretation in a quiet voice. 

In contrast, consecutive interpreters wait until the speaker has paused to convert speech into a second language. In this case, the speaker waits until the interpreter has finished before resuming the speech. Since every sentence is repeated in consecutive interpretation, this method takes longer than simultaneous interpretation.

In both systems, interpreters are placed so that they can clearly see and hear all that is taking place. In formal situations, such as those at the UN and other international conferences, interpreters are often assigned to a glass-enclosed booth. Speeches are transmitted to the booth, and interpreters, in turn, translate the speaker's words into a microphone. Each UN delegate can tune in the voice of the appropriate interpreter. Because of the difficulty of the job, these simultaneous interpreters usually work in pairs, each working 30-minute shifts.

All international conference interpreters are simultaneous interpreters. Many interpreters, however, work in situations other than formal diplomatic meetings. For example, interpreters are needed for negotiations of all kinds, as well as for legal, financial, medical, and business purposes. Court or judiciary interpreters, for example, work in courtrooms and at attorney-client meetings, depositions, and witness preparation sessions.

Other interpreters known as guide or escort interpreters serve on call, traveling with visitors from foreign countries who are touring the United States. Usually, these language specialists use consecutive interpretation. Their job is to make sure that whatever the visitors say is understood and that they also understand what is being said to them. Still other interpreters accompany groups of U.S. citizens on official tours abroad. On such assignments, they may be sent to any foreign country and might be away from the United States for long periods of time.

Interpreters also work on short-term assignments. Services may be required for only brief intervals, such as for a special conference or single interview with press representatives.

Sign language interpreters help people who use sign language communicate with people who can hear and speak. They translate a message from spoken words to signs, and from signs to spoken words. They are fluent in American Sign Language, and/or sign systems based on English (such as Seeing Essential English, Signing Exact English, and Linguistics of Visual English). Oral interpreters help to deliver a spoken message from someone who hears to someone who is deaf. They also have the ability to understand the speech and mouth movements of someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, and to deliver the message to someone who is hearing. Trilingual interpreters facilitate communication among an ASL user, an English speaker, and a speaker of another language.

While interpreters focus on the spoken word, translators work with written language. They read and translate novels, plays, essays, nonfiction and technical works, legal documents, records and reports, speeches, and other written material. Translators generally follow a certain set of procedures in their work. They begin by reading the text, taking careful notes on what they do not understand. To translate questionable passages, they look up words and terms in specialized dictionaries and glossaries. They may also do additional reading on the subject to arrive at a better understanding. Finally, they write translated drafts in the target language.

Most translators use computer-assisted translation  tools, in which a computer database of previously translated segments or sentences (called translation memories) is used to translate new text. They often use computers and the Internet to receive and submit assignments.

Localization translation is a relatively new specialty. Localization translators adapt computer software, Web sites, and other business products for use in a different language or culture.

Next Section: Earnings

Career Update Newsletter

Tips and tools to help you manage your ideal career.



Health Service Administrator

  • $0
  • 25
  • 50
  • 75
  • 100
  • 100+
Yearly Salary Range (US$ Thousands)