Interpreting 101: An Interview with Student Interpreters

By Kimberley Hunt

Interview with Student InterpretersI had a chance to catch up with three interpretation students at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS). As part of the T&I program at MIIS, interpretation classes are mandatory for the first semester to give students a taste of the profession. After that, students can continue pursuing interpretation as a career. Anna Bialostosky, Elizabeth Crowell and Michael Ross are bidirectional French-English interpreters about to graduate. They have all spoken French and other languages for many years, and have lived in Paris, Perpignan, Aix-en-Provence and Nîmes as teachers, students and travelers. They talked with me about the beginnings of their careers, some of their practical experience, and advice for prospective interpretation students.

How did you first become interested in interpretation?

MR: I hadn’t even really thought about interpretation. I didn’t know there was a difference between translation and interpretation until I looked at MIIS, and even at the very beginning, I still thought I just wanted to be a translator. It wasn’t until we were required to take interpretation classes that I thought maybe it would be a nice way to vary my career.

AB: Interpretation appealed to me because it’s a little bit more social, and I thought it would be lonely to be by myself all day long. I also liked the aspect of getting to work in a lot of different subject areas.

EC: There’s also a performative aspect to it, and being a musician, that appealed to me. It’s like being on stage, with the pressure but also the excitement of having to perform on the fly.

What do you find the most fulfilling about interpreting?

AB: I find it to be really exciting. I enjoy the adrenaline rush of getting up in front of people and doing consecutive interpretation. I also find it to be sort of like a puzzle, and it’s very satisfying when everything comes together.

MR: It’s nice to connect directly with your end user. For example, with translation, particularly if you’re working with an agency, you never come in contact with the person who’s actually going to use your work. With interpretation, however, you get to work directly with them.

How did you train your brain when you first started simultaneous interpretation?

MR: We started with shadowing, where someone speaks in English and you repeat everything that they say in English immediately afterwards.

EC: We also started with doing two things at once. We would listen to a speech while drawing a picture, and then we’d have to repeat the speech in the source language. Then we listened to speeches while counting forwards and backwards. We slowly worked our way up to listening and interpreting at the same time.

AB: When we began simultaneous interpreting, we started with personal stories, which have a narrative and are a little easier to follow, as well as fairy tales, since they’re familiar to most people.

EC: We also worked with postcards, which was a lot of fun, because you have the image in front of you and can follow along with what the person is saying to activate your memory.

What is your practice schedule like? Do you practice alone or with each other?

EC: Eight hours a week [of consecutive practice on class materials] is the goal. Some professors say four hours of practice for every two hours of class, others say four hours every day, including classes and real-life opportunities. We also practice with other people in other languages, since it’s very good practice for taking relay. For example, we have a German colleague and she’ll take a speech in German and simultaneously interpret it into English and then we’ll take the English and interpret into French.

AB: We also go vice versa into English so she can interpret into German, which is really great, since it puts extra pressure on you to be very clear and go straight for the meaning when you know that someone is depending on your interpretation.

Do you go back and listen to your practice interpretations?

MR: One of the most important things about listening to your practice interpretations is making sure to animate your voice. Sometimes I might stagger through an interpretation, with lots of pauses in the text, and it’s really unpleasant to listen to.

EC: You have to make sure your tone matches the tone of the original speaker. You can’t sound like someone just died when they’re saying they went to Disney.

AB: If I concentrate on making myself sound expressive and sound like I’m communicating, then I’ll be able to get the ideas better and be idiomatic instead of sounding like Eeyore. No one wants to listen to an Eeyore interpreter.

What sort of interpreting experience have you had outside of the classroom?

MR: Some of the more colorful things we’ve done include taking a trip to a waste management facility in Monterey. We went on a tour with one of the managers and had the experience of walking around while consecutively interpreting and making sure to stay close to the speaker so they don’t get 20 feet ahead of you.

EC: We dealt with some of the issues you can face in that context, like ambient noises, as there was a lot of big equipment and trucks driving by. It was also a windy day, so we had to make sure the pages of our notebooks weren’t flying everywhere and we knew where we were in our notes. Those are good things to practice dealing with.

What advice do you have for someone who may be interested in becoming an interpreter?

AB: Be flexible and creative and be ready and able to adapt to various types of information or incongruous information. I wish I had gone to mechanic school or law school, or I wish I had learned how to fix a car in French or English. Take every opportunity to learn something new and be really curious.

EC: It’s definitely a field where specializations pay off. If you happen to be in another profession and want a career change, interpretation and translation is a good choice because that type of specialized knowledge is rare and invaluable.

All in a day’s work for MIIS interpreters! Thank you Anna, Elizabeth and Michael for your valuable insight into the life of student interpreters. If you have any questions for them, please leave a comment below or email

Header image credit: Life of Pix
Header image edited with Canva

Book Review: Found in Translation by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche

by Jamie Hartz

Book Review - Found in TranslationIf your experience as a language professional has been anything like mine, when someone asks what you do for a living, you always have to qualify your response. “I’m a translator” isn’t going to cut it, but “I’m self-employed as a Spanish-to-English written translator” just might get the conversation going.

Next time someone asks what you do and gives you a blank stare upon hearing your response, hand them a copy of Found in Translation by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche. The work is a compilation of stories and anecdotes which are drawn from many years of careful, thoroughgoing research conducted by the authors. The result is a book that reminds me why I’m proud to be part of this profession and has helped me articulate to my acquaintances what I do, and why it matters.

This book, which the authors have dedicated to translators, is the sort of work that will make you gasp, laugh out loud, and maybe even cry as you read fascinating stories about how language, translation, and interpreting affect every arena of life. It brings to light fascinating stories—some well-known and some untold—about “how the products you use, the freedoms you enjoy, and the pleasures in which you partake are made possible by translation,” all the while educating laypeople and monolinguals about our field and the industry.

I enjoyed this book not only because it was entertaining, but because it lent credibility to everything I do as a professional. By listing statistics about the language services industry, stating the growing need for professional translators and interpreters, and discussing the dedicated (and sometimes dangerous) work that language providers offer, the authors have done an amazing service to the translation community and the world at large.

Found in Translation catches readers’ attention from page one, as the first story in the book is an immobilizing tale about Nataly’s experience as an over-the-phone Spanish interpreter for a 9-1-1 call. From this story on, the book grabs ahold of you and doesn’t let go. Among the other anecdotes mentioned are:

  • The interpreter who played a role in Yao Ming’s integration into the NBA
  • A mistranslation that caused video game fanatics to spend months searching for a non-existent villain
  • An interpreter at the Nuremberg trials whose life was forever altered by the horrors of Nazi Germany
  • Stories of how translation has prevented or mitigated international health crises
  • Interpreters who serve as language intermediaries for the International Space Station
  • How Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament set a foundation for not only a language but an entire religion
  • Jost’s harrowing experience as an interpreter in China for some German tourists who decided to take more of an adventurous vacation than he had bargained for

Savvy Newcomers, you know as well as I do that our jobs aren’t always easy—either to perform or to explain. I recommend this book as an eye-opener for people who don’t understand what you do, and as an inspiration for you to keep on doing your job to the best of your ability. Enjoy!

Top Five Benefits of Attending ATA’s 56th Annual Conference

By ATA’s President-Elect, David Rumsey
Republished from The ATA Chronicle, June 2015, with permission from the ATA

ATA56 badgeIt’s that time again to start thinking about your plans for ATA’s Annual Conference. This year’s conference is being held in Miami, Florida, November 4-7, 2015.

Maybe you’ve never attended, or maybe it’s been a while, but apart from the sunny weather and warm climes of Miami in November, it’s worth considering being part of the experience for the following five reasons alone!

Expand Your Network: Past conference surveys indicate repeatedly that the opportunity to network is one of the biggest draws for attendees. For many people, this means reconnecting with old friends—the people who understand you and the challenges you face as a translator or interpreter. But there are excellent opportunities to network with both clients as well as other translators and interpreters through innovative events like Brainstorm Networking and the Résumé Exchange.

As the number of translators and interpreters advertising via the Internet and social media grows, the one-on-one connections that you can make in person at the conference become increasingly valuable. For instance, staying in the conference hotel, in the center of the “action,” is one of the best ways to ensure you stay well connected.

Learn a New Skill: With over 175 sessions across 25 different topics, including various languages and specializations, the conference offers something for everyone. Veteran attendees know that the best way to get something out of the conference is to push your boundaries and attend a session or seminar that you hadn’t considered before. Sharpening existing skills and exploring new areas to grow are the key to success as a freelance translator or interpreter.

Invest in New Tools: For many attendees, the Exhibit Hall is the highlight of the conference. Here you’ll find a variety of vendors specializing in equipment, products, and programs in translation and interpreting. Products and services run the gamut from the newest and greatest CAT tool, to specialized dictionaries and databases, to headsets and other equipment for interpreters. Recruiting agencies are also included in the exciting mix.

Get Involved! ATA has nearly 10,000 members, making it one of the largest associations in the world for translators and interpreters. Attending the Annual Conference gives you the chance to understand how the organization works and how you can apply your skills to help the Association grow even larger.

There are a host of different activities organized by each individual division at ATA and by representatives from local chapters. There are also a number of sessions devoted entirely to various ATA programs— everything from School Outreach to preparing for the certification exam.

Re-energize Your Career: Let’s face it. Translators and interpreters are perhaps some of the most misunderstood knowledge-professionals out there. There aren’t many people who can relate to the issues we face. We’re asked increasingly to do more, to be faster, and to be more cost efficient. It can all be quite discouraging at times.

Getting out from behind the computer or interpreting booth and spending a few days at the conference to pick up ideas, knowledge, and skills is one of the best investments you can make. The time away from the office can give us a fresh perspective on old problems and leave us feeling re-energized and rewarded. So, when the e-mail arrives in your inbox to register for ATA’s 56th Annual Conference in Miami, seize the moment. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain—including a few days in sunny Miami.

Make sure to keep checking ATA’s conference website for updates. See you there!

Tips for an Interpreter-Friendly Presentation

By Ewandro Magalhães
Featured article from The ATA Chronicle, originally published in August 2012

As much as we hate to admit it, interpreters make mistakes. Yet, holding interpreters solely responsible for successful communication and betting on their infallibility is a utopian dream. Ultimately, speakers should be equally accountable for the clarity and translatability of the ideas and words that make up their discourse. In fact, interpreting quality will improve greatly if some basic precautions are taken and all parties involved are aware of the necessity for an interpreter. The following is a document I used to share with speakers prior to their conferences to help them focus on some important yet commonly overlooked details. Feel free to pass it along to prospective speakers in those circumstances where you have been cleared to approach them directly. Do not contact speakers unless you have permission, especially if you are interpreting meetings through an international organization or an agency.


Dear guest speaker:

Your presentation will be interpreted simultaneously for the benefit of participants who are not proficient in your language. The success of your presentation will depend greatly on the job done by the interpreters. While they have been trained to follow rather demanding and technically complex speeches, the quality of their rendering will be increased significantly if you care to follow some of the recommendations listed below. The idea is to enhance the impact of your communication while minimizing content loss.
Please take a minute to review the list of simple things that you can do before, during, and after your lecture to make sure your presentation is interpreted to the best of the interpreters’ ability.

Before the Conference
• E-mail the event organizers or one of the chief interpreters copies of all materials you intend to use (texts, PowerPoint files, etc.). It does not have to be the latest version.

• Ask your host to disclose your e-mail or contact information to the chief interpreter in charge of the conference.

• Try to reduce, or eliminate altogether, the use of acronyms and abbreviations in your presentation. Depending on the target language, they may not make sense or be nonexistent.

• When preparing your visual aids, make sure to use fonts, shapes, and colors that are legible and clear even for someone in the very back of the room. In most cases, this is where the interpreters will be.

• Make sure to take a hard copy of your presentation and biography with you to the event.

• Save the latest version of your presentation and reference material on a flash drive that you can share with the interpreters.

On the Day of the Conference
• Make yourself available to the interpreters before the event so you can cover the most important points of your presentation and update them on any last-minute changes. This meeting need not take more than a few minutes.

• Point out any terms that must be kept in the original language.

• Try to summarize, in a few simple words, the overall objective of your lecture and the conclusions you hope to reach.

• Leave any printed material you will be reading during your presentation with the interpreters. This is particularly important in the case of quotations and literary texts (poetry and/or prose), but please see the next item.

• Keep the amount of quotations to the absolute minimum. Poetry should be avoided altogether, unless the text has been submitted in advance.

• Let your interpreters preview any videos you plan to use in your presentation.

• Talk to the interpreters about any jokes or humorous remarks you plan to make. Jokes do not lend themselves very easily to interpretation, especially if they involve puns and regional sayings.

During the Presentation
• Speak clearly and audibly at all times. If possible, run a sound check to make sure the interpreters can hear you satisfactorily.

• Avoid overly long sentences.

• Be particularly careful when pronouncing Latin names or words in a language that is foreign to you. Have your interpreters proof in advance anything you may want to say in the audience’s language.

• Make sure to leave any slides or transparencies on-screen a few seconds longer than usual before moving on to the next. This should allow the interpreters time to finish reading any relevant information.

• Get used to a longer-than-usual delay in audience response. Interpreters are often a few words behind the speaker. Also note that those in the audience who do not need the services of an interpreter may react to your words earlier.

• Always speak into the microphone, even if you are addressing a specific person in the audience. Remember that this person may be relying on the interpreters and can only hear what you say through the interpreters.

• If somebody in the audience asks you a question or offers a comment in your own language, please make sure to allow enough time for the interpreters to interpret it for the rest of the audience. Do not bother to repeat questions or comments heard in your own language for the benefit of others in the audience. The interpreters will do this for you.

• Always turn off a lapel mic when you leave the room, especially if you plan to go to the restroom.

After the Conference
• Talk to the interpreters and give them your impressions of the job they performed. Pinpoint any difficulties encountered and call their attention to any misinterpretation of which you are aware.

• Invite the interpreters to provide feedback regarding your presentation. See what could be done to help improve the interpretation in the future.

• Write a brief statement on the quality of the interpreting provided. Your criticisms will help the interpreters identify and correct any shortcomings. Your praise will encourage them to keep up the good work.

Please keep in mind that these recommendations are mere reminders. Follow as many as you can without compromising your natural presenting style. The interpreters, and the audience, thank you for your cooperation.

Speakers may not always adhere to the above, in whole or in part. More experienced speakers may tend to look upon the above as an overkill or TMI (too much information). Some interpreters argue that the tips may sound a bit overzealous and risk making us look unnecessarily vulnerable. In my experience, however, these guidelines have been mostly welcomed by speakers. If anything, sharing them makes you stand out as a conscientious and professional interpreter with a true desire to serve. It may require you to push your ego aside for a moment, but it will make you a better interpreter, guaranteed.

About the Author: Ewandro Magalhães is an experienced conference interpreter with over 20 years of experience. He has a master’s degree in conference interpreting from the Monterey Institute of International Studies Graduate School of Translation, Interpretation, and Language Education, where he is an adjunct professor. He is the chief interpreter at the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva, Switzerland, and a former contractor with the U.S. Department of State, the International Monetary Fund, The World Bank, the Organization of American States, and several other international organizations. He is the author of Sua Majestade, o Intérprete – o fascinante mundo da tradução simultânea. He is a member of the American Association of Language Specialists. You can find his blog, Field Notes, at

Nice Interpreter!

dog in love with a red heart balloon
By Judy and Dagmar Jenner
Reblogged from Translation Times with permission from the authors
Today’s post is about the importance of being, well, nice. It’s essential to be a great interpreter — that goes without saying — but there’s also much to be said about the importance of soft skills. In the interpreting world, these skills are especially relevant in conference interpreting settings, where you will interact with the client who hired you and the people for whom you will interpret. We’ve heard from many clients that if they have two interpreters who are equally qualified, but one is nicer and more approachable than the other, they would undoubtedly choose the former. It’s only natural that clients gravitate towards professionals who do what they promise to do, show up on time, well-dressed and well-prepared, make the client look good, and are pleasant to work with. So what makes a “nice” interpreter? There are many different definitions and schools of thought on this, and ours is only one of them, but here are some thoughts. Be prepared for something we rarely dispense: tough love.
  • Clients are queens and kings. Of course, this does not mean that you should blindly accepts your client’s terms, but it does mean that you should treat your client with the utmost respect at all times. After all, without clients, you don’t have a business and can’t make a living, so you would be well advised to make yourself popular with them. However, we can’t even tell you how many colleagues we’ve heard badmouth the client, even at the actual interpreting event. If there is a problem that the client can’t solve, refrain from commenting on it. As a matter of fact, refrain from saying anything negative at all. You are there as a professional to do a job, so do it without complaining (unless you the problems are preventing you from doing your job, of course).
  • Don’t hide insecurities behind a mask of studied arrogance. It’s not attractive, and no one expects you to know everything. In fact, some of the best interpreters and most well-known university instructors and interpreter trainers, think Holly Mikkelson and Esther Navarro-Hall, are the first to say that they don’t know and that they will have to do the research. Develop the self-confidence to say that you don’t know but that you will find the answer.
  • Don’t show off. Your client has hired you to do a job, so do it, and do it well. This is not the time for you to pontificate about your knowledge of ancient Greek, obscure grammatical tidbits or general irrelevant stuff. We’ve seen this quite a lot: many interpreters aren’t very good at making small talk with clients (a blog post on small talk will be forthcoming), and since they don’t know what to talk about, some opt to boast about their achievements or talk about themselves. Rather, ask the client what you can do for him/her: is everything set for the event? Do they need a restaurant recommendation, as they are probably in your city, which they don’t know well? Do they need anything from you? It’s essential to think a bit about the client’s needs. Go above and beyond what’s required and you might just make yourself popular with the client.
  • Be honest. At a recent interpreting event, one of the attendees, who was listening to Judy’s interpreting, came up to her and thanked her for a great job. He also pointed out that he wanted to be sure to have all the jokes interpreted as well. This was a difficult thing to do, as all the jokes were almost exclusively US-centric, thus making it difficult to get the humor if you haven’t lived in the US (think Gilligan’s Island, The Apprentice, Joan Rivers, etc.) Judy had indeed been struggling with trying to interpret these jokes in a way that made some sense, but the jokes were essentially lost in interpretation.  Judy thanked the attendee for his input, explained the challenges and admitted that some of the jokes might not indeed be funny in Spanish and told the client why that was the case. Of course, he’d never heard of Joan Rivers or The Apprentice, so he’s lacking the cultural knowledge for the joke to be funny. He fully understood and thanked Judy for her honesty.
  • Extreme examples. We recently overheard a conference interpreter ask the project manager for an illegal drug (really). In general, as a profession, we oftentimes complain that clients don’t take us seriously as professionals, but it goes both ways, and we still have a long way to go. In addition, we heard about a court interpreter who decided to change her shirt inside the booth and sat around in her bra while she located the shirt in her bag, treating the attendees to quite a show.