What makes a good interpreter?

April 16, 2018 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Often when we attend a social event and start a conversation with people we do not know, but know about our profession, we are asked what makes a good interpreter. I know there are many answers to this question; all have value and are probably right. In my case, after being asked the same innumerable times throughout the years, in my personal and professional opinion, three things make a good interpreter.

First, the interpreter must be able to communicate concepts from a source language into a target language.  Webster tells us that an interpreter is one who translates orally for parties in different languages. The main goal is to make sure that a concept was conveyed in such a manner that the person receiving the information, who does not understand the language of the speaker, gets everything those who speak the main speaker’s language got.

To achieve this, the interpreter must understand what is being said in the source language, synthesize what was said, and orally convey it to the receiver with proper grammar and vocabulary in the target language, so it can be understood. Good interpreters “clean” the message so unnecessary words that may sound strange in the target language are eliminated. The good interpreter interprets the “meat” and gets rid of the “fat”. (I know this does not apply to some community interpreting, particularity to court interpreting where everything must be interpreted. This is a global answer, thinking of conference interpreting).  The good interpreter must understand, synthesize, and have command of grammar, culture, and vocabulary.

Second, a good interpreter must have a pleasant delivery that everybody understands. Good voice, décalage, volume, rhythm, pace. Listeners must be so comfortable they forget about the voice in their ear and concentrate in the speech. Voice modulation, clarity, enunciation, are a very important part of a rendition. Heavy breathing, coughing, slurping, rushing through the speech, and chasing speakers too close to what they just said make you look bad, even when you are a good interpreter.

Finally, my third attribute of the good interpreter is team work. The good interpreter lives in a conflict-free environment. They support their colleagues in the booth, are fair, and will go the extra mile to save a rendition. Often, a good interpreter who gets along with others is more desirable than a great interpreter who creates conflict everywhere. Do not misunderstand this attribute of a good interpreter. I never said that an interpreter willing to work more for less, or one who accepts deplorable work conditions, or a low fee are good interpreters. They are not. Easy going differs from easy to fool.

There you have it. To me a good interpreter then, is one who understands a concept, digests it, and conveys it to the client in a pleasant clear voice, so it can be understood by the foreign language speaker; and does it all while being a dedicated professional, good colleague, and decent human.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us your idea of a good interpreter.

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§ 7 Responses to What makes a good interpreter?

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