Why being bilingual isn’t enough to be a translator or interpreter

Many people are bilingual. They might have grown up in another country, had relatives who spoke another language, or they have studied for years to become an expert. They might even sound like a native in either language. However, having knowledge of another language isn’t the only skill required to be a successful translator or interpreter.

So what does it take to be a good translator or interpreter? What specific skills qualify a person to provide these services?

First, let’s define what being bilingual means. There are many levels of proficiency, but at the most basic definition, someone who is bilingual can speak, write and read a second language. Professional translators and interpreters have a degree of language proficiency that rises above those who simply understand or have basic competency in a second language – and they’ve often been tested in those skills to prove it. They also typically have advanced degrees, are certified to perform these services, and have undergone years of training. These professionals do much more than provide direct translation or interpretation of words.

Translators work with the written word. This means in addition to being skilled in both languages, they need to be, above all, good writers in the target language. Sometimes they must “trans-create” the text, meaning they come up with words that fit the intent or context of the original without directly translating it. Translators are often exceptional writers since they need to be able to convey the spirit of the work that is being translated, whether it’s a legal document, marketing campaign or a novel.

Translators must also be familiar with the cultural references, idioms and phrases that are unique to the target language. Translators will typically only translate into their native language for this reason.

Additionally, translators require an excellent eye for detail. Being proficient in the language and an excellent writer is a must, but ultimately doesn’t mean anything if the translator skips crucial details, omits text, or otherwise lacks the attention to detail that would render the translation accurate.

Professional interpreters work with the spoken word. They must be able to take someone’s words and relay them on the spot. Whether it’s facilitating an interview between two people or relaying a live speech to a global audience, they must be able to relay the words correctly, and sometimes simultaneously. This is a special skill that very few people master without years of training.

The best interpreters are also able to understand the hidden meaning and inflections of the source language and the second language. They can convey the emotion and intent of both languages, which helps provide the right translation. This requires exceptional memory and/or note-taking skills, the ability to multitask, and a real empathy for both parties.

Lastly, an interpreter must be familiar with the code of ethics required for the assignment and the professional conduct required on the job. Medical interpretation, for example, requires knowledge of HIPAA as well as the professional conduct required in the medical interpreting field. If you’re bilingual and want to start a career as a professional medical interpreter, ALTA has a certificate course available to speakers of 43 languages.

Specialized translation and interpretation

In many cases, in addition to their language skills, translators and interpreters are highly specialized in a field, such as medical, legal, marketing, business, science or engineering. These professions have their own language, with distinct vocabularies that only mean something to another person in that field. It takes a professional with specific knowledge of a particular job or industry in order to provide accurate translation and interpretation.

ALTA can help

Translating a document, video presentation or legal brief – or interpreting between two Just as you wouldn’t trust anyone to create professional, high-quality marketing copy simply because they know English, you shouldn’t look only for language skills when hiring a translator or interpreter. Incorrect translation and interpretation can damage your reputation and even result in legal trouble and fines.

ALTA provides professional translation services in 100+ languages, from over 2,500 professional linguists. Our services include Document Translation, Software and Website Localization, Multilingual Desktop Publishing, Voice Talent, Video Captioning and Subtitling.

We also provide reliable, high quality interpretation services, working with a network of over 2,500 certified professionals who provide consecutive and simultaneous interpreting, Over-The-Phone Interpreting (OPI), and Video Remote Interpreting (VRI).

To request ALTA translation or interpretation services contact us today.


About the Author:
Kristin Wallace is a USA Today Bestselling fiction author and advertising copywriter who is addicted to learning and writing about language, culture and art around the world. She lives and works in sunny Miami, Florida.

1 Comment
  • Matheus Chaud
    Posted at 12:06h, 23 September Reply

    Excellent post. Being bilingual is a great head start for those who want to become translators, but there’s some work to do after that is achieved.
    But the journey is worth it, for those who love languages. I quit a career as an engineer to become a full time translator, and my only regret is not having done it earlier 🙂

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