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What is it like to be an interpreter?

By Memrise Team

Learning a language is tough, right? Even with a great app like Memrise! It takes months and years of study, and for what?

What are the amazing things you would do when you finally become fluent? Do you daydream of living in a foreign country, impressing others with your ability to have intellectual conversations in a second language?

Or have you got a dream job in linguistics in mind?

A career in interpreting never occurred to me during those long evenings I spent whetting my English. I came to be a social service interpreter purely by chance, but I loved the experience. While doing the job, I realised the importance of being able to communicate with other human beings regarding vital matters, such as freedom or health. If we could all speak each other’s language, we would remove barriers and probably resolve a lot of conflicts. That’s the daydream I often had.

However, it seems as though very little is known and told about the interpreting profession, so I thought I would share what I know:

The difference between an interpreter and a translator

Most people assumed I was a translator when I told them I did interpreting work. If everyone watched The Interpreter, my job of explaining would be a lot easier, though not all of life as an interpreter involves as much glamour, excitement and danger as the one Nicole Kidman portrayed in that movie.

Provided that you don’t know the difference and don’t have time to watch the movie: an interpreter works with speech while a translator works with written words. On the job, the latter has dictionaries while the former can only depend on his or her memory. That, my friends, is Challenge Number 1.  

The challenges of the interpreting profession


As an interpreter, you have to remember a huge amount of words and, more importantly, be able to recall them quickly. You don’t have a reference book to fall back on or the luxury of going for a walk and waiting until the perfect equivalent word comes to mind. You have to know it there and then, sometimes, as quickly as in an instant.

Brain splits in two

There are two types of interpreting: simultaneous vs. consecutive.

During consecutive interpreting, a speaker stops every few minutes, and an interpreter takes her turn to render what was said into the target language. It means that you, as an interpreter, can listen, then speak. Your brain has to work in two languages, but it can take little breaks in between.

With simultaneous interpreting, the speaker doesn’t stop, so you have to listen to the first piece of information, and repeat it in another language while simultaneously listening out for the next piece of information. This type of work often happens in international conferences or court cases.

It’s extremely hard to listen and speak at the same time and in two languages. Try it, and you will see how exhausting it is. In UN conferences, for example, interpreters have to switch off every twenty minutes. If not, your brain would probably fry.  


An interpreter is asked to keep emotion out of it, so it doesn’t affect her objectivity, which is especially important if she’s working in a court case with a jury.

It’s easier said than done, though. I’ve worked in cases of human trafficking, rape, and organised crime. I saw outrage, desperation, and despair. A lot of it all. And I was supposed to be stone cold and just work with the words as though they were only phonetic symbols with no consequences? It comes with the job description, but it’s far from easy.

The merits of an interpreting profession

High pay

The work is hard, but it pays well. Interpreters often work as a freelancer, and you don’t need to work every day of the month to pay the bills. If you work for the UN, 10 days per month is probably enough.

Free travel

You get paid by the hour, and chauffeured around too. Well, not exactly in a limousine, but most organisations will pay for your transportation because they need you to be in a particular place at a given time.

I travelled a lot in the UK because of my work as an interpreter. I was paid to go to different cities, and I always stayed on after a job to do some sightseeing.

Social interaction

You get to meet people, hear their voices and their stories. The life of an interpreter is much more sociable than that of a translator. A translator can work in his dressing gown from a home office, which is great but can run the risk of feeling rather alone.

An interpreter, on the other hand, always works with others. They have colleagues working alongside them on big, important cases. They have people who need their help to understand what is going on, individuals who depend on them and often show them their gratitude.

It’s very satisfying seeing the impact of your work straight away on the people around you.

Maybe an interpreting profession is not for every bilingual, but it’s an exciting path. It challenges your language skills to the max, and is rewarding in many ways.

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An interpreter turned content writer, Quynh Nguyen writes about productivity, learning and development. She loves languages, cultures and many nice cups of tea. Connect with her @QuynhThuNguyen or visit her at www.quynh.nl

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