The Job and What's Involved

As people of different cultures increasingly come into contact, interpreting is a vital means of helping them communicate.

An interpreter may specialise in one or more foreign languages. They usually interpret from a foreign language into their native tongue, but some may work in both directions.

Interpreters work in a wide range of different settings. The main fields are:

Conference - interpreting at conferences, meetings and informal gatherings where the delegates speak different languages.

Public service - for instance, interpreting for people involved in court cases, or to help them in their dealings with health, education or welfare services.

Business - facilitating trade within and between international companies.

There are two main ways of interpreting.

'Simultaneous' interpreting is done while the speaker is talking. The interpreter may sit in a booth, listening to the speaker on headphones and translating via a microphone. Alternatively the interpreter may whisper directly to one or two people.

In 'consecutive' interpreting, the speaker pauses every so often to allow the interpreter to translate. The interpreter may take notes, so as not to forget anything the speaker has said.

The role is demanding. Interpreters have to be sensitive to the situation and to the nuances of the languages they work in. They must be able to handle a sudden switch of subjects. They prepare by getting familiar with the subject and learning technical jargon in the languages to be spoken.

Besides mastering the language itself, an interpreter also needs to be steeped in the culture of the countries where it is spoken, often by living there for a spell.

The hours vary according to the needs of the role. Evening and weekend work may be required.

Most interpreters work on a freelance basis. Their work may be irregular. Some interpreters combine the role with other work, such as translating or teaching.

Interpreters work in a variety of settings, including conference venues and offices and in the community. The main centres for international conferences include Brussels, London, Geneva and Paris.

Work may involve travel to different workplaces, potentially relocating or staying away from home for long durations.

Salaries for in-house interpreters start from between £18,000 and £26,000 a year. With experience, earnings may rise to around £35,000.

Senior interpreters working for major institutions, such as the European Union or United Nations, may earn up to £60,000.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Interpreting is a small and competitive field, but demand is increasing. The Chartered Institute of Linguists (IoL) has around 6,500 Fellows, Members and Associate Members. The National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) currently lists almost 2,000 UK members, while the International Association of Conference Interpreters has nearly 2,900 members worldwide.

The following employ large numbers of interpreters and translators, some full time:

  • The European Commission, which recruits through the Directorate General for Interpretation.
  • EU institutions, such as the Court of Justice of the European Communities and the European Central Bank.
  • The United Nations (UN).

The European Commission reports a severe shortage of native English speakers with strong language skills and anticipates that a third of current English language interpreters will retire by 2015. Demand is higher for interpreters skilled in:

- Chinese
- Lesser-known EU East European languages
- Urdu and Punjabi

Public service interpreting can involve working in local government offices, hospitals, immigration centres, law courts, police stations and prisons.

Vacancies are listed in the national press and in the specialist publications, The Linguist and ITI Bulletin, as well as the website's of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and Chartered Institute of Linguists (IoL).

The European Personnel Selection Office organises open competitions for recruitment to all institutions of the EU. There are also specialist recruitment agencies such as and

Education and Training

While there are no set entry requirements, most interpreters, especially conference interpreters, need a degree. This may be in:

  • Modern language subjects, or languages combined with another subject.
  • Translation.
  • Another subject area, such as business, economics, engineering, law, technology or science, followed by postgraduate training in interpreting. (This knowledge may be acquired in the workplace and can be an advantage when trying to secure specialist assignments later.)

For a degree, entry requirements are normally five GCSE's (A*-C), plus at least two A levels, including languages, or equivalent qualifications. Internationally recognised qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate are also appropriate.

It can be an advantage to be able to show first-hand experience of another language through living and working abroad.

Some employers have specific requirements. For instance, the EU and UN require interpreters to have a Masters degree from an establishment recognised by the Directorate General for Interpretation.

Equally, public service interpreting requires fluency in another language/languages. With this, entrants may be able to complete qualifications offered by the Chartered Institute of Linguists Educational Trust (IoLET), including:

- Certificate in Bilingual Skills
- Diploma in Public Service Interpreting

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Once in work, interpreters can enhance their skills by undertaking further courses, including the IoLET Level 6 Diploma in Public Service Interpreting. Registered public service interpreters are expected to attain this qualification. Local authorities and some university departments run this course and other short training courses for public service interpreters.

The European Commission in Brussels runs a short training course in conference interpreting for candidates wanting to work in EU institutions. Freelance interpreters working in a European institution must first pass an inter-institutional accreditation test. This enables entry onto the joint EU database of accredited freelance interpreters.

Joining the IoL or the ITI provides professional recognition and access to networking opportunities, professional support and guidance, courses, workshops and seminars to aid professional development. Conference interpreters can also apply to join the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC).

Featured Job Guide - Laboratory Technician

Laboratory Technician

Laboratory technicians carry out routine laboratory tests and perform a variety of technical support functions to help scientists, technologists and others with their work. They can work in research and development, scientific analysis and testing, education and manufacturing.

They are employed in a wide range of scientific fields which affect almost every aspect of our lives.


Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Interpreters need:

  • Great skill and fluency in their own language and at least one other.
  • A clear speaking voice.
  • The confidence to speak in public.
  • Accuracy and attention to detail.
  • A good memory.
  • An analytical mind.
  • The ability to react quickly - for instance, when an unexpected topic comes up in conversation.
  • Stamina and an ability to concentrate for long periods.
  • To be calm under pressure.
  • An impartial and tactful approach
  • Discretion

Your Long Term Prospects

Freelance interpreters need to develop their business by marketing themselves, gaining a reputation and fostering contacts. There are many opportunities for working abroad, either permanently or on a freelance basis. Some may combine interpreting with translating or even teaching.

For interpreters working in international organisations, progression is through a graded career structure.

Get Further Information

Institute of Translation & Interpreting (ITI),
Fortuna House, South Fifth Street,
Milton Keynes MK9 2EU
Tel: 01908 325250

International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC),
46, avenue BlancCH - 1202 Geneva, Switzerland
Tel: 0041 22 908 15 40

National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI Ltd),
Saxon House, 48 Southwark Street, London SE1 1UN
Tel: 020 7940 3166

Other Related Jobs

Additional resources