What is translator and interpreter?

Interpreters and translators are the experts when it comes to translating spoken or written words into another language. They are the ones who enable clients and business partners who do not speak the same language to communicate. While in earlier times, the main focus was on the translation of literature into another language, in today’s globalised world, the provision of a vast number of services is practically unthinkable without a whole team of translators.

Whenever high-ranking politicians are visited by the head of state of another country, they are always accompanied by an almost invisible person – standing just behind the intended audience, the interpreter whispers a simultaneous oral translation of what the respective speaker has just said.

Interpreters and translators are the experts when it comes to translating spoken or written words into another language. They are the ones who enable clients and business partners who do not speak the same language to communicate.

While in earlier times, the main focus was on the translation of literature into another language, in today’s globalised world, the provision of a vast number of services is practically unthinkable without a whole team of translators. Economy, technology, international legal relations or, like in the past, the great world literature – without the expert knowledge and linguistic skills of interpreters and translators to bridge the gap between the languages and, consequently, the cultures, there would be plenty of incomprehension.

Good opportunities for those who deliver good work

It must be noted, though, that in this day and age it takes much more than just good language skills to be a successful translator – technical competence, IT expertise, basic business management know-how and soft skills such as the ability to work in a team and under stressful conditions are just some of the attributes which are characteristic of a good translator. These specifications are provided in a memorandum by Transforum, an independent working group whose members are striving to promote the knowledge transfer between teaching and practice in the translation trade.

Good translators will be offered more work than they could possibly handle, while poor translators will have nothing to do a lot of the time. The more advanced the globalisation of the economy, the greater the need for translators and interpreters even in the more “exotic” languages.
What is important, however, is to gain solid foothold in the market and to keep up with the latest developments.

Am I suitable?

Translators and interpreters are not only required to have an excellent grasp of the respective foreign languages; they also have to be familiar with and understand the culture and history of the corresponding countries. In addition, they need to feel confident concerning the typical communication patterns. Consequently, the prerequisites for a successful career as an interpreter or a translator are a good educational background, a safe grasp of both the mother tongue and the foreign language, awareness of the cultural context of other countries, profound specialised knowledge and the ability to communicate specialised texts in another language in a purposeful and target-group oriented manner. Methodical knowledge to facilitate handling problems typically encountered when translating and interpreting is also indispensable. As interpreters and translators mainly work on a freelance basis, they also have to have the perseverance needed to succeed in the market.

The following candidates are ideally suited for this job:

  • Persons with a diploma, BA or MA in translation
  • Holders of a diploma in technical translation
  • Career changers with excellent specialised knowledge and foreign language skills

What skills are expected of translators and interpreters?

While the task of interpreters is to orally translate spoken words, translators are responsible for reproducing written texts in another language. Interpreters work at meetings and conferences, translate what is said within the framework of business negotiations or before the court and are on the stage alongside VIPs or politicians when the latter face the media. Beyond this, it is not rare for interpreters to be in charge of organising an entire team including the corresponding technology for a conference.
In this line of occupation, a sophisticated appearance and manner and a vast general knowledge are particularly important. Furthermore, careful preparations before the actual event are essential so that the interpreter is absolutely familiar with the relevant subject matter. These may include insight into the official files and preliminary talks. In his actual work situation, the interpreter relies on his mental resources, i.e. the knowledge stored in his brain. Not an easy task – within the blink of an eye, the interpreter has to correctly grasp the statements in their respective contexts and communicate them in another language, with practically no opportunity to make amendments.

Translating the spoken and the written word

Interpreters have two different ways of doing their job – either simultaneously or consecutively. The former refers to the almost simultaneous whispering of the spoken word in the target language, which can be done “live” or via the relevant technical equipment. In the case of “live“ transmissions, the interpreter is on the stage with the speakers; in the latter case, he is likely to be seated somewhere else, ensuring that speakers and guests receive the immediate translation via a tiny device worn in the ear. Consecutive interpreting means that the contents of a speech are reproduced in the other language after the speaker is finished.

Translators, on the other hand, are in charge of the written word. A qualified translator is expected to carefully analyse the text at hand, to keep in mind the purpose of the translation and to subsequently produce a target group-oriented translation.
Therefore, it can be said that a translator not only needs to grasp the meaning of the individual words, but must also take into account potential “hidden meanings“ and stylistic devices in order to understand and consider the respective background.

A broad range of tasks

The range of tasks of a translator covers everything from the translation of certificates via all sorts of specialised texts to translating belletristic literature. However, those with a command of several different languages are not necessarily at an advantage. More languages do not necessarily mean more work. In order to be successful, it is beneficial to specialise in a specific subject area.
Being able to efficiently handle electronic aids such as terminology management systems, DTP programmes and translation memory systems is of vital importance.

Meanwhile, technical translations are assuming an increasingly bigger proportion of the trade. User manuals for cars or technical equipment, documentations or the adaptation of computer software also provide translators with plenty of work. Especially fields like these call for a sound knowledge of the language patterns of the respective countries and, perhaps even more importantly, in-depth know-how concerning the subject matter. After all, someone who attempts to translate a text on semiconductor technology without understanding the contents is not going to be able to deliver a high-quality translation.

Gaining a foothold in the market

Apart from all the professional qualifications, translators and interpreters need to have the perseverance required to gain a foothold in the market, as an increasing number of them work on a freelance basis. Besides language skills and specialised knowledge, plenty of other proficiencies are essential when it comes to being a self-employed entrepreneur. Expense budgeting skills, canvassing new customers and being familiar with the basics of contract law are just some of the prerequistes on the road to success.

The remuneration does not categorically depend on the language, but on the qualification and specialisation of a translator on specific subject areas. The rates are determined by supply and demand. Those who work with an “exotic” language, for example Afrikaans or Vietnamese, have a smaller number of competitors and can consequently usually charge higher prices. However, this is only an advantage to freelancers. Those looking for an employer, i.e. a regular full-time job, on the contrary, are more likely to be at a disadvantage due to the limited demand.

Typical …

Translators produce written translations of all kinds of texts from foreign languages into their mother tongue – or vice versa. Interpreters simultaneously or consecutively provide oral translations of the spoken word.

Where do I get my qualification?

In general, a good grasp of a foreign language or having grown up bilingually is not sufficient. Degrees (BAs/ MAs) respectively diplomas in translation or interpreting can be obtained from various universities and UAS. Those who have acquired the relevant skills without attending university have the option of sitting a state examination in most German federal states.

More and more courses of study to choose from

Modularised degree courses (BA/ MA) for translators and interpreters are currently being prepared at German universities and will be introduced by the year 2010.
This development will open a whole new range of options and opportunities.

Some courses of study offer a broad general education, while the idea behind others is for the students to focus on a specific field at an early stage. The study programme of the Heinrich-Heine-Universität in Düsseldorf, for example, features a course entitled “Translating Literature”, and at the UAS Flensburg, students can opt to study “International Technical Communication”. Some of the courses are held at independent institutes, in language departments or in the faculty of communication and media. Besides four other Bavarian academies, the private institution “Sprachen & Dolmetscher Institut München” (SDI) has made a name for itself.

Where and how can I avail of further education opportunities?

Thanks to the introduction of BA and MA courses at German universities, students will have an increasing number of further education opportunities to choose from over the years to come. In addition, there are plenty of private institutions offering courses designed to enhance existing skills or acquire new ones.

Who are my potential employers?

Both the industry and authorities offer job opportunities for translators and interpreters. The majority of them work on a freelance basis, frequently in cooperation with authorities, organisations, translation service providers or with media and communication agencies. In order to be successful as a freelancer, sound language skills and the ability to establish networks and canvass new customers are essential prerequisites.

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