Interpreting is an increasingly important profession, as it connects people across cultures, space and time, in a world that is ever more interconnected. However, our profession is often underestimated and, thus, undervalued by the general public. Most people believe that being “bilingual” is enough to be a competent interpreter, and this cannot be further from the truth.

In his book White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation, Harry Obst, the conference interpreter that communicated seven American presidents with other international dignitaries stated: “In challenging situations, accurate interpretation is no less sophisticated, complex, and intellectually demanding than brain surgery. The professional interpreter is required to carry more general knowledge into each job than architects and engineers need in the daily exercise of their profession. It requires the analytical skills of trial lawyers and their acting ability in the courtroom.” I couldn’t agree more.

Unfortunately, most people have little familiarity with professional interpreting, even though we are everywhere: from courthouses to hospitals, from the military to our schools, from the public to the private sector. The general public’s experience with interpreters is typically limited to seeing a colleague in action during beauty pageants, having watched the movie The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman, watching Monsignor Mark Miles interpret for Pope Francis during his recent visit to the United States, or watching Thamsanqa Jantjie, the man who became infamously famous after his fake “interpretation” during the funeral service of the great Nelson Mandela.

Since one of the biggest challenges we face in our profession is lack of knowledge about what we do and what it takes to do it well, I will now share what I believe are four areas, the pillars as I often call them, that all interpreters must develop in order to become competent professionals.

1.Language ability

“many people don’t realize that interpreting is many times more difficult than speaking in another language”

Language ability is a major source of challenges, since many aspiring or even practicing interpreters are not aware of their true level of proficiency in their working languages. Also, they often don’t know the actual level of competency required to do our job proficiently. Add to this that there is generally lack of quality monitoring in Interpreting, and we have a perfect storm. Put simply, many people don’t realize that interpreting is many times more difficult than speaking in another language.

2.Interpreting skills

“Just because you know how to drive, it doesn’t mean you are a race car driver.”

Closely intertwined with the previous pillar is interpreting skills. You might have heard one of the many analogies that are often used to make this point: “Just because you know how to drive, it doesn’t mean you are a race car driver.” And, it’s true: you may have the language ability, but if you haven’t learned how to interpret, at the right time, speed, register, extracting meaning from oral renditions that may be even difficult for the general audience to follow, etc., you will be quickly at a loss. Although competent interpreters can truly make it “look easy,” it takes a great deal of conscious practice and self-monitoring to interpret well.

3.Subject matter expertise

“we cannot interpret what we don’t understand”

Another equally important pillar is subject matter expertise. Bottom line, you may interpret very nicely, but if you are not familiar with the subject matter you will lament accepting any technical assignments. We must always keep in mind that we cannot interpret what we don’t understand.

4.Passive knowledge

“everything that we may or may not even know we know”

This brings us to the last pillar, passive knowledge. This is the knowledge that we carry with us at all times, the one that we have been accumulating since childhood: everything that we may or may not even know we know, but that it’s there, ready to come in handy when we need it most. This is the type of knowledge that helped me and my boothmate make it through a real-time translation from oral speech into screen supertitles, in front of thousands of people at a religious event at the Los Angeles Coliseum. I knew a considerable portion of the vocabulary that I encountered thanks to my primary and secondary education at a Catholic school. Although I had prepared for it, I was still pleasantly surprised at how well I remembered some words and phrases that I had not said or heard in decades. Perhaps it was a miracle, pun intended. I will never know.

To conclude, during and after our interpreting training, we must undergo a continuous process of self-reflection, one that makes us doubt about what we know and what we don’t know, as doubting propels us to carry out the preparation and the research necessary to become competent interpreters. Moreover, we need that passive knowledge that helps us fit in the technical puzzle pieces of the subject matter at hand, and we must have the interpreting and language skills that allow us to communicate people across cultures, accurately and naturally.



This article was copied from the  Services website. It was reprinted with the express written permission of its author, Daniel Tamayo. ©2016. Any further use or reproduction of this article requires the copyright permission of the author. For more information, contact him at [email protected] or visit