What makes a good interpreter?

By March 9, 2015 October 28th, 2017 For Language Professionals, Interpreting

by Sabina Metcalf, MasterWord Services, London

Over the weekend, I was reading an interesting article by Dr François Grosjean, Emeritus Professor of Psycholinguistics at Neuchâtel University. The article discusses two extreme cases of interpreting (bilingual children who act as interpreters and adult simultaneous interpreters), that differ on many aspects, including age. Dr Grosjean argues that professional interpreters must have certain linguistic and cognitive skills, such as careful listening; processing and comprehending the input in the source language; memorising it; formulating the translation in the target language, and then articulating it, not to mention dual tasking, i.e., letting the next sequence come in as you are outputting the preceding one .

There is certainly a big difference between being fluent in a language and working with it professionally. Can you deverbalise the meaning of the source language? Would it sound appropriate in the target language? Do you have an ability to anticipate? Can you read cues and forestall the context? These are only some of the skills that interpreters acquire through years of study and rigorous training prior to entering the job market. From here, these skills are honed with each passing year of experience.

However, with one out of four of the world’s population speaking English to some level of competence, interpreters to and from various languages across the globe are becoming more and more concerned with whether their profession might one day become redundant. These days, we can broaden our vocabularies and stay abreast of important linguistic developments without making much effort. Hollywood is churning out English-language movies at ground-breaking speed and supplying them in a true conveyor-belt fashion to the mass markets of Russia, China, and the Middle East, amongst others. There are many users of social media habitually relying on the Internet to provide the latest news from the most distant corners of the world and even to spoon-feed them with firm opinions on any subject. However tempting it may be to turn our interest in a language and its surrounding culture into a source of income, in most cases it helps to recognise that by not having the relevant skills, we could be jeopardising some very important situations – think international negotiations or impeding provision of competent healthcare services, for example!

A high-level of competence in working languages is as important as our ability to process information in one language and articulate it in another, and these are the skills we acquire during our professional training as interpreters which, many argue, is a prerequisite for making a career in the field. Nevertheless, I often wonder if there are also inherent personality traits that make a good interpreter? The topic is developed in this thought-provoking article by my esteemed colleague Marta Stelmaszak, in which she questions whether our personality impacts our translation career, focusing on the differences between introverts and extroverts. Marta raises as important question whether being an extrovert is an essential requirement to becoming an interpreter (spoken word) and conversely, whether it is true that most translators (written text) are likely to be introverts.

Nancy Schweda Nicholson from the University of Delaware (USA) for her research paper has used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) in order to see which personality types would be most common among a sample of interpreter trainees. The MBTI is a psychometric questionnaire based on the theories of Carl Jung in his book Psychological Types. Nicholson had a relatively small sample, but found that the trainees displayed an array of different personality types, although the most common type for interpreter trainees (about 18%) was ISTJ (Introverted-Sensing-Thinking-Judging). By comparison, other studies have shown that this personality type is attributed to roughly 6% of the general population. However, Nicholson also found that 50% of those in her sample who are introverts said that they may act extraverted in the workplace because of the reward attached to the outgoing behaviour, and as such, the general perception of all interpreters being extraverted has perhaps been reinforced by the fact that many introverts behave like extraverts.

Perhaps then it is the usual ‘shades of grey’, i.e., a combination of personal characteristics that make a good interpreter, rather than the simplistic stereotype of an extroverted interpreter versus an introverted translator? Based on my own observations of linguist friends and colleagues, together with my professional experience as a linguist, I have offered below a list of behavioural requirements which, in my opinion, distinguish a good interpreter (in addition to a high-level competence in working languages and the cognitive skills outlined above, of course):

1. Being inquisitive. 

Curiosity and inquisitiveness make the world go around: as interpreters, we translate the meaning, never the words, and we would never be able to relay the meaning of any concept in another language unless we understand it in our mother tongue. It is important to be inquisitive about the language, the culture, and the subject area – without first learning how things work, we can never explain it to others.

2. Remaining invisible and trusted.

Coming from a culture where being highly opinionated can be seen as being antagonistic, I wince when facing the need to convey the assertive style of the speaker. But we also need to be able to judge situations accurately and adapt our speaking and listening style to those we interpret for; perhaps even subjugating our personality to that of the speaker. We need to remember that our task is to enable communication.

3. An excellent communicator.

Having people skills and an ability to communicate with individuals from different cultures is also important – we often need to make small talk, observe certain cultural and social rituals, and behave in a certain way. Often, so called born interpreters tend to genuinely like people and become fascinated by the way they think and act.

4. A sense of integrity and team spirit.

Despite most of us being extremely individualistic, we gravitate towards our communities and enjoy interaction with our immediate or remote teams. We also recognise the importance of integrity, cooperation, and confidentiality. Indeed, an ability to operate as part of a team is exceptionally useful when interpreting simultaneously and working in a booth: there are normally two interpreters per booth who alternate every 15 minutes, the one who is not speaking tends to “feed” any numbers and dates to the working interpreter on a piece of paper – if that is not the true team spirit, I don’t know what is!

5. Nerves of steel.

Last but not least, interpreting in high-pressure environments – like the military, healthcare, or politics, for example – is associated with an enormous level of stress, and a further array of practical tools are necessary to help us deal with these situations: such as breathing, pausing techniques, and perhaps meditating.

There are certainly no right or wrong personality traits – there are just those that make us choose a particular career path and work at it. To me, a really good interpreter is an erudite and educated individual with a somewhat superficial knowledge in a broad range of subjects, intelligent and quick-witted, sociable and adaptable, but most importantly, one who always keeps learning!

Personally, if I had to choose between translation and interpreting, I would say that I enjoy the instantaneous nature of interpreting more: how we are able to see how we are aiding the process of communication and brick-by-brick, building small bridges across different languages and cultures. Nothing compares to the rewarding feeling we get when after a difficult negotiations meeting, one or all of the participants thank us for our work saying that they wouldn’t have been able to get through it without our help.

What, in your opinion, makes a good interpreter?