Becoming a Better Interpreter

We oftentimes get this question from beginners, students, those trying to achieve certification, and everyone in between. We are also constantly striving to become  better interpreters ourselves, as there is no finish line: this is a lifelong journey. We've long tried to dispense short nuggets of advice to those who ask, but we are simply unable to answer every e-mail with this question, so we promised we'd do a blog post about this important subject. Please keep in mind that not all these suggestions will apply to all linguists and that everyone's individual situation is different and might warrant a very individualized approach. Having said that, without further ado, here's a short (and by no means comprehensive) list of our favorite ways to become a better interpreter:


  1. Go outside of your comfort zone. You won't improve if you always interpret the same things and topics.
  2. Practice every day (or every week); no matter what. Be consistent. Be accountable to yourself. Can you commit to 10 minutes a day? A week? Great. Now go do it. Make it part of your daily routine.
  3. Learn new vocabulary in both (or all) your languages. The more synonyms and alternate expressions you know, the better. The bigger your vocabulary, the better. And yes, you have to do this the hard way: by memorizing and then actually using new words.
  4. Acquire new knowledge. The broader your knowledge, the better an interpreter you will be. If a keynote speaker at a conference keeps on referring to her PR without much context and you know a bit about sports, you'd know she's talking about her personal record. And you can only interpret what you know and understand.
  5. Question what you know. Just because you've used a particular term for 10 years doesn't mean it's necessarily the right one. Perhaps it was never right, or perhaps there's a better term now. Language changes and evolves. Stay up-to-date on the trends. Be humble.
  6. Learn from others. Observe others who are better interpreters than you are. Listen to their recordings if they are willing to share and learn and grow.
  7. Contribute practice materials to sites like Speechpool so we all have more material to hone our skills. Developing speeches is also good for your interpreting skills. 
  8. Join a practice group. If there isn't one that fits your needs, start one. It doesn't have to be in person. The internet is your friend.
  9. Get unbiased feedback. Surround yourself with colleagues who will tell you the truth about your performance. Take a class if you can't find anyone unbiased and get good feedback from the professor.
  10. Work on your voice. Research has shown that clients (=actual users of interpreting services) are attracted to pleasant voices. Work on your entonation and your breathing. Hire a vocal coach if your voice and/or your speech needs an adjustment (we've done that and are happy with the results).
  11. Finish your sentences. Don't leave the listener hanging. Finish the sentence you've started, even if it's a struggle and even if it's not the most beautiful thing you've come up with.
  12. Move on. If you don't like the way you solved a particular sentence, that's OK. Interpreting is mostly ephemeral, and if you stumble, pretend you are an ice skater. Get back up and keep on skating, err, interpreting. If it makes you feel better: most of the time you will actually sound better than you feel.  
  13. Don't be too hard on yourself. Interpreters, even highly qualified and experienced ones, aren't robots. We make (few) mistakes, and that's normal. Not knowing a word or two every few hours when speakers are going at 160 words a minute is a remarkable percentage of accuracy, if you think about it. Be critical of your own performance, but not too critical.
What do you think, dear colleagues? Would you like to add to this list, which will surely grow very long indeed? We figured we'd start with 13--and 13 can be the lucky number, for now.


10 comments:

Miss Dior on June 3, 2016 at 9:07 AM said...

Thank-you for this post it was much needed for me as I am taking my court exam in a few months. I feel a little old, as I am 32, to start in this profession but I really like the ideal of interpreting & hope to one day be a great one. I love you blog by the way!!!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on June 3, 2016 at 10:34 AM said...

@Miss Dior: Our pleasure, and thanks for reading and for commenting! Don't worry about your age, 32 is a great age to get started. It's all about practice, practice, practice (just like learning a new sport or a new language). Best of luck on your exam --which state? Keep us posted.

Miss Dior on June 3, 2016 at 11:39 AM said...

What a wonderful response, as always you both are so encouraging. Delaware is the state where I will be taking the exam. Thank-you again & I will keep you posted - I am so nervous to comment on interpreting blogs because I am not an interpreter but this post inspired me!!! Take care.

Gertrude on June 16, 2016 at 12:26 AM said...

Nice article

EP on June 18, 2016 at 12:17 PM said...

Great advice. I'm going to take item 13 particularly to heart. Good luck!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on June 22, 2016 at 9:51 PM said...

@Miss Dior: Our pleasure. Don't be nervous. You don't have to be a certified interpreter to comment here--quite the contrary. This forum is for everyone, so we hope you feel comfortable here. We are keeping our fingers crossed for you. Please do keep us posted indeed. Hopefully you will have good news very soon!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on June 22, 2016 at 9:52 PM said...

@Gertrude: Thanks!

@EP: Happy to hear you like the post. Yes, #13 is key--and it's something we oftentimes forget ourselves...

London Language Studio on June 23, 2016 at 11:45 AM said...

I think practicing it every day and having a practice group where you interact regularly are the most important ones. If I could add something, I would add "confidence" as the last one. Whether it’s an interpreter or a language learner both needs confidence to become fluent.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 24, 2016 at 5:56 PM said...

@London Language Studio: Very good point indeed--confidence is key for sure! Yes, having a practice group where you can feel supported and nurtured is also very important. All the best and thanks for commenting.

Miriam Arellano on September 8, 2016 at 12:17 PM said...

I'm so glad I came across this blog! It's been useful and instructional. I currently work as an assistant at a personal injury law firm and part of my job is to interpret for our Spanish speaking clients. My boss and coworkers are encouraging me to take the Texas Interpreting exam but I fear it might be very difficult. Hopefully your blog will help me prepare for the exam.

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