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What makes a successful interpreter?

Caucasian businessman with his interpreter speaking with Asian businessman
(Getty Images)

Here on CultureReady, and in products such as our VCAT courses, we’ve discussed how to work with interpreters in the military. This could be through simultaneous, consecutive, or escort interpretation, and your interpreter could be a military specialist, a contractor, or local of the area. But have you ever wondered what it takes to be a professional interpreter?

In the following TED-Ed talk, Ewandro Magalhaes walks viewers through the importance of accurate interpretation (in this case, highlighting simultaneous interpretation), and the kind of training that someone needs to become a successful interpreter.

Miscommunication happens, and sometimes it can be damaging to personal, professional, and geopolitical relationships. In order to avoid communication blunders, it is usually preferred (though not always possible) to have a professionally trained interpreter. Interpretation involves not only fluency in a language, but knowledge of specific topics: medical interpreters, for example, must not only know the terminology for different medical conditions, but also information regarding doctor-patient confidentiality and other privacy laws.

Miscommunication happens, and sometimes it can be damaging to personal, professional, and geopolitical relationships. In order to prevent communication blunders, it is usually preferred (though not always possible) to have a professionally trained interpreter. Interpretation involves not only fluency in a language, but knowledge of specific topics: medical interpreters, for example, must not only know the terminology for different medical conditions, but also information regarding doctor-patient confidentiality and other privacy laws.

The United Nations (UN) has an extensive examination process in which “candidates who fail to interpret any speech in a satisfactory manner are automatically eliminated.” UN interpreters must have “a wide-ranging knowledge of world affairs, subjects (including technical terms) and United Nations processes,” as well as the ability to not only speak in at least one of the UN’s official languages but to also understand different dialects and accents as well. While not every organization may have as in-depth a testing and hiring process as the UN, it is still a good example of what is expected of a successful interpreter.

Want to know more about working with interpreters? Take one of our VCATs, which go into more detail about how to interact with interpreters and during an interpreted scenario. VCATs are hosted on JKO and available for all CAC-holders. Don't have a CAC? If you know someone with one, they can sponsor you so you can obtain a JKO account.

If you are interested in taking on interpretation jobs but don’t know where to start, apply to join the National Language Service Corps (NLSC). The NLSC provides interpretation services on a short-term, as-needed basis to federal agencies with which they have established a formal partnership.


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