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“Why don’t you apply for a job as an interpreter or translator? You’ve studied foreign languages, after all!” I don’t even remember the number of people who told me this after my graduation back in… well, that’s not important! What matters here is the fact that I didn’t trust those people—not because being an interpreter or translator is boring, but because I simply don’t have all the competencies required for this kind of job.
Working either as a translator or interpreter requires a deep, almost perfect knowledge of one or more foreign languages, as well as the ability to understand them and transform them. It also means perfectly knowing interpretation techniques and mastering the use of translation software like CAT tools. But it’s a long journey; you really need to work hard in order to reach a high level of language knowledge. And there is more—despite what most people say, translating and interpreting are different jobs.
Interpreting is translating the message the very moment it is spoken in the source language. Thus, interpreters don’t have time to think; they must translate in real-time while listening to the speaker. A perfect knowledge of the language lies behind this, as they must sound spontaneous when speaking, have great analysis ability, and be accurate when reformulating a language into another one. The task can become even more difficult if they work with so-called SOV languages—that is, all languages that put the verb at the end of the sentence like Turkish or Japanese. In these cases, interpreters may not be able to say a single word until they have heard the very end of the sentence in the source language.
Generally speaking, there are two main kinds of interpreting techniques: simultaneous interpretation (when the interpreter simultaneously translates for the audience while they are listening to the speaker) and consecutive interpretation (when the interpreter waits for the speaker to finish part of their speech and then translates for the audience). Both require excellent public speaking skills and the intellectual capacity to instantly transform idioms, colloquialisms, and other cultural references into analogous statements the target audience understands.
On the flip side, professional translators have more time, which means that they can spend more time and mental resources to find the correct solution and analyze the meaning of the words. Translating implies possession of excellent writing skills and the ability to express oneself clearly in the target language. Translators are a sort of language craftsman who shape the language to give birth to a beautiful rhythm and pleasant flow of words. This is why translators usually only translate into their native language and within their field of expertise.
To put it simply, both jobs require perfect understanding of the thought expressed in the source language and the ability to explain it using the resources and cultural shades of another language. Yet, many people—and sometimes, many companies—think the two jobs are simply interchangeable or, even worse, think that a MA in a foreign languages or having lived abroad for some years is a sufficient condition to become a translator or interpreter. The reality is that being a professional requires many years of hard study, mistakes, and practice; you can’t simply improvise. (This is, by the way, the reason why I don’t intend to apply for a job as a subtitler for Netflix, although apparently the pay is quite good.)
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Written by Marcella Sartore, Marketing & Communication Assistant @ Athena Parthenos