The Path to Becoming a Simultaneous Conference Interpreter
Want to become a successful simultaneous conference interpreter? Or, perhaps you’re ready to hire a conference interpreter and want to know more about what it takes – or what to look for – before hiring a qualified candidate?
In this post, we’ll outline the steps required to enjoy a career working in one of the most exciting and high-pressure linguistic arenas. We also recommend reading our recent interview with CCA’s Julien Brasseur, who has enjoyed decades of experience providing simultaneous conference interpretation all around the world.
Conference Interpretation 101
First, let’s do a quick review of the various capacities held by professional interpreters. Some of them work across the spectrum, while others specialize in one or two areas.
- Escort interpreters. Also called liaison or traveling interpreters, these linguists accompany their clients domestically and across borders to facilitate spoken communication while en route and at meetings or tradeshows. Escort interpreters interpret short sentences, and also take on the role of cultural liaison. They sometimes also translate and interpret written forms and documents. In many ways, an escort interpreter is like a high-level personal multilingual assistant while working and traveling in foreign countries.
- Consecutive interpreter. Consecutive interpreters are conference interpreters who take notes for several minutes, then relay spoken language back and forth between the speakers. This mode is used most often in a smaller, more intimate setting, such as between two heads of state, as well as social gatherings. Click here to read more about consecutive interpretation.
- Simultaneous interpreter. These conference interpreters usually work in a team of two or three, and relay real-time, spoken communication to their client(s). This is the type of interpreting you see on TV if you’ve ever watched UN summits. Simultaneous interpretation utilizes soundproof booths and other equipment to keep the communication flowing without any breaks or gaps. Within this category, there are “pure” interpreters – who work only into their native language – as well as “bidirectional” interpreters, who translate into multiple working languages.
Conference interpreters can do all of the above. This is very different from community interpreters, who work exclusively as consecutive interpreters in community settings. Read, The Difference Between Community Interpreters and Conference Interpreters, to learn more about that.
It Starts with a Hefty Dose of Natural Ability
Simultaneous interpretation is the most demanding, high-level, high-pressure job in the world of linguistics, especially when you’re on the front lines of international arbitration, in the midst of a war, or negotiating at the top levels of corporate and political organizations.
In that way, top-level simultaneous conference interpreters are like the professional athletes of our industry. While practice can certainly make perfect in terms of general language fluency, we’ve yet to meet a successful conference interpreter whose story begins with, “I always struggled in Spanish, but I just kept at it – and now I work for the UN!”
Instead, most of them start out with the same story: they had an early fascination with language, reading, and semantics, and they soaked up foreign language(s) like a sponge. That’s not to say that they don’t work hard at their trade and that they haven’t spent thousands of hours learning, practicing and gaining experience – but, odds are, any conference interpreter worth his/her salt had multiple working languages up their sleeve before university.
Next Comes Graduate-Level Education (and Travel)
Not all interpreters come from multilingual households, but it’s certainly a common thread for many of them. If they didn’t come from multilingual homes, they often lived in foreign countries when they were younger, giving them an edge when it comes to native accents and depth of cultural/geopolitical standing.
Either way, conference interpreters attend prestigious universities and/or accredited linguist programs that are recognized worldwide.
Some of these include:
- The Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) at Monterey, in California. This is the alma mater of CCA’s co-founders.
- The University of Maryland (UMD)’s Graduate Studies in Interpreting and Translation
- The Institute of Intercultural Management & Education (ISIT), in Paris, France. This is the alma mater of CCA’s translation services manager.
- École Supérieure d’Interprètes et de Traducteurs (ESIT), in Paris, France
- University of Geneva (ETI), in Geneva, Switzerland.
- The University of Mons, in Belgium
- The University of Bath, in England
Although these are the most esteemed graduate programs, there are others out there. Holding a degree and/or certification from one of these universities earns industry respect from around the globe. Graduating from one of the above programs is also a solid step to becoming a member of peer-reviewed organizations, such as the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) and The American Association of Conference Interpreters (TAALS).
Visit our post, What Qualifications Should I Look For in an Interpreter, to learn more about the educational path required to become a conference interpreter, or to help select the most qualified conference interpreter for your needs.
Finally, Comes Loads of Experience
We’ve mentioned before that simultaneous interpretation requires high-level skills, and that includes exceptional multitasking and the ability to remain calm in the face of high-tension environments or adversity. Our article on The Roots & History of Simultaneous Interpretation, which grew out of WWII and the Nuremberg trials (talk about high pressure!), frames the importance of training, experience and the exceptional skill sets required by simultaneous interpreters.
Here at CCA, we only work with interpreters with a minimum of five years of conference interpretation experience – the equivalent of 200 working hours. Attending the right school(s), as referenced above, is a major step in the right direction as graduate degree programs offer real work experience. Once you’ve graduated, having drive and tenacity helps take a junior conference interpreter into the big leagues of conference interpretation.
- Keeping in touch with your alma mater, its professors, and your colleagues so you’re in their referral networks.
- Joining AIIC and TAALS, and connecting with their colleagues near you.
- Participating in conferences, continuing education courses, and anything pertaining to simultaneous conference interpretation – networking, networking, networking!
- Considering pro bono work as this puts your skills/ability at the forefront and exposes you to the right people who hire you for pay down the road.
- Always adhere to the interpreters’ code, so you present yourself professionally at every level.
We wish you luck as you pursue the path to becoming a simultaneous interpreter, one of our industry’s careers of a lifetime. Looking for a qualified interpreter to support your business, organization, or mission? Contact us here at Chang-Castillo and Associates to obtain a competitive estimate for our language service solutions.