Do you have what it takes to be a simultaneous interpreter?

nicole-kidman-the-interpreterThere’s a reason the phrase “lost in translation” is so popular: Flawlessly translating thoughts, concepts, expressions, and idiomatic expressions (among other things) into another language is really hardBut lots of people in the translation and interpreting field will tell you there’s something harder still, something so tough that many seasoned professionals won’t go anywhere near it: Simultaneous interpreting.

Simultaneous interpreting is what it sounds like: An interpreter listens to a speaker in one language and translates their words into another language with just a few seconds’ delay, all while the person continues speaking…and the interpreter continues translating. I recently explored how, until recently, scientists were downright baffled by how the brain could manage this.

While all interpreters and translators love language and a good challenge, not all of us find such an intense work situation appealing.  But maybe you’re reading this thinking you’d like to give simultaneous interpreting a shot.  Here are some qualities you’ll need to have if you want to be successful.

Let’s start with the basics.  The International Association of Conference Interpreters gives a helpful must-have list, including:

– mastery of your native and non-native languages
– a deep understanding of the cultures involved
– being fully informed about what’s happening in international news
– being committed to helping others communicate
– a high capacity for concentration
– tactfulness
– a sense of humor
-“insatiable curiosity”

Sound good so far?   There’s also:

– excellent professional training in simultaneous interpretation- a friendly personality
– an agreeable speaking voice
– the ability to stay calm under pressure

If you tick all the boxes, congratulations!  Now let’s check out what another expert has to say.  This simultaneous interpreter would add that you must be:

– intrigued by, and willing to learn, new terminology that you might come upon in even a one-off interpreting gig
–  unfazed by a lot of travel
– an “adrenaline junk[ie]” who thrives in demanding, non-stop situations

In addition to all that, translator and interpreter Diana Singureanu recently published a study examining the benefits of emotional intelligence on simultaneous interpreters.  She points out that characteristics like:

– self control
– motivation
– empathy

can help simultaneous interpreters better do their jobs, and also generally feel happier and better able to manage stress.

She’s not the only one searching for insight into simultaneous interpreters’ personalities.  University of Delaware professor Nancy Schweda-Nicholson studied a group of simultaneous interpreters to determine which of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator characteristics were most common among them.

Among other things, she discovered that:

– There was double the amount of Thinking types than Feeling types.
– Surprisingly, there were just as many Introverts as Extraverts.

In fact, Schweda-Nicholson’s research could give hope to anyone reading this and feeling their dreams of becoming a simultaneous interpreter fading away.  Because, despite all of these lists I’ve shared, Schweda-Nicholson found that every personality type was represented to some extent, even in her small sample group of simultaneous interpreters.

So it seems like knowing the huge challenges simultaneous interpreting entails, and still wanting to go for it might be the most important quality of all.

by Alysa Salzberg

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