How can I become a better interpreter? 2 Top Tips

Become a better interpreter

Two top tips on improving your interpreting skills

Become a better interpreter? How?

Whether you are new to the interpreting profession, or you have been interpreting for several years, you may have asked yourself the above question.

Becoming a better interpreter shows that you care about your profession and you want to improve your interpreting skills. It also shows that you are aware that, as professional interpreters who abide by a national code of ethics for interpreters, we are expected to continue our professional development through ongoing interpreter training.

Attending industry conferences, symposiums, even webinars, is always an excellent choice; however, they may not always be an option. So, what can we do to practice and self-assess on our own time?

Throughout my time as an interpreter trainer, I have been asked for the best way to continue self-improvement of the interpreting skills learned in class. My response starts with this statement: “It is not enough to just want to be better; we should strive to be the best interpreters we can be.”

To be the best interpreter  you can be, it is critical to start with a self-evaluation of your interpreting skills. Once you have identified particular skills that may need improvement, you can set a clear and realistic goal that can be obtained through a deliberate practice.

Here are two skills that interpreters, including myself, should continuously practice, and recommendations to become a better interpreter.

1. Note Taking:

The most typical response I get in class when learning this skill is: “The notes are getting in my way! I am better without them.” If you have never taken notes during an encounter, you may find it difficult to start doing it suddenly. That’s why it’s better to start practicing at home; you can start watching a few videos and start taking notes as you go. Pause it regularly and try to interpret from your notes.

a. Develop your own shortcuts and abbreviations. Make sure you are completely aware of what each symbol or acronym you write stands for. The last thing you want is to write something and then not understand it when you are reading it. If you are already familiar with some acronyms used in medicine, use them.

b. Less is more. You don’t have to write everything that you hear; trust your memory skills too. Do not stop listening while you take notes, instead, fully focus on understanding the core message and only write down things that are easier to forget such as numbers, proper nouns, or long lists.

2. Expand your vocabulary to find the right equivalent:

Most of us have probably walked out an interpretation thinking: “I should have interpreted that word differently.” Perhaps the one we used didn’t have the same impact as the one used by the speaker, or perhaps there is another one that is a closer equivalent in register and/or meaning. Building a broader vocabulary is achieved through the years, but it does not happen by itself. It has to be a conscious effort.

a. The more you see and hear, the more you learn. The fastest way to expand your vocabulary is to watch videos on different topics. I recommend watching TED talks; most videos have a transcript available and some of them are even translated into a few other languages. As you are watching and reading along, ask yourself these two questions:

“How would I interpret that?” and “Is that the most accurate way to do so?”

Pro Tip: Interpret a few utterances at a time and record your rendition on a smart device. Then, go back and check for accuracy, additions, or omissions.

b. Consider cultural differences. A good interpreter is both bilingual and bi-cultural. Finding the right equivalent is as much about finding the exact translation for a term, as it is about finding a culturally appropriate term. Keep in mind that each culture is generally subdivided into subcultures; not all Arabic-speaking, Spanish-speaking, or English-speaking countries use the same vocabulary. Broaden your scope of cultural knowledge by interacting with people from different backgrounds and be inquisitive about terminology and customs. This will help you when using cultural expansions and reductions and it will ultimately expand your mental glossary that will take your interpretation to the next level.

Learning is a constant process, and I am always looking for new ways to keep learning from my fellow interpreters. Share some your top interpreting techniques by replying below.


by Mauricio Suarez


  • Beatriz J. Urdiales says:

    Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips, and even though I take notes in the exact way you said it and I have been working as an interpreter for a long time but your advice is very appropriate to serve me as a reminder to improve what I am already doing and also helps my colleagues who are just starting in this profession.

    Great job!

    • You are welcome Rachel. You bring up some interesting tips as well. Keeping certain parts of our brain “awake” is critical and those techniques that you use are perfect. One of the things I always recommend to people who are starting in the profession as interpreters or translators, is to read, read, and read some more. Familiarizing ourselves with native terminology is a key aspect of the bi-bi framework that we use in the field. Thank you for your comment.

  • That’s right Mauricio! Professional and Certified Interpreters like professionals in other specialties never stop learning! Here at Memorial Hermann we take this seriously and appreciate reading about those that do too. Congratulations, you are a great Interpreter. Glad you had a good turnout this year with your new partner. Sorry we could not attend.

    • Thank you very much Lizette. I find extreme joy when I see my colleagues working hard to improve their skills and the profession as a whole. I hope to see all of you again soon.

  • Rachel Wittmann de Rosello says:

    Thank you for the tips and encouragement! What a great article…

    Not always, but at times, I´ll practice simultaneous in the car while listening to the morning news. Even though simultaneous is not the main mode I use at work, I feel like it helps “wake up” that part of the brain that needs to be ready for anything once I place foot in the hospital! I like to watch TED talks in Spanish, compare English and Spanish versions of Medline Plus articles, keep personal glossaries, read mid to high register news and novels in Spanish and follow along subtitled movies, etc. Since transferring the message in real-time is not an issue, I also find that translation work is very helpful for growing my vocabulary and find that “right word” — I learn a lot of new vocabulary options from reading forums, checking usage of certain words or terms by natives, investigating terms on medical sites, etc. Self-study is one of the most important pieces to my career. Between self-practice, webinars and conferences, I feel like I can continue to grow and improve as a professional medical interpreter which makes me feel accomplished and, I imagine, puts my clients at ease during an encounter.

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