What Makes a Good Interpreter

What Makes a Good Interpreter

Interpreters rarely make the news – but when they do, it’s often for some alarming consequence. A case in point is the recent claim that an interpreter for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was incarcerated (“disciplined”) after negotiations with the US failed.


A more well known story doing the rounds is that of an alleged interpreting blunder that led to the decision to bomb Hiroshima in World War II.


However, interpreters do make it to the news in more positive and productive ways – and often we’re not even aware of it. Red Sea Translation’s Adel Alhaimi, a simultaneous interpreter, has appeared in news media interviews several times and his latest appearance was on the Abu Dhabi Sport  Live Channel, where he was interviewed as a member of the Abu Dhabi Chess Club.

As Adel was pointing out how sport serves a greater purpose than merely building muscles, for example by helping to develop social skills, I couldn’t help but reflect on how well rounded a conference interpreter needs to be in order to succeed in this challenging vocation.

Scholarly articles aside, experience in the translation industry highlights a number of qualities a good interpreter needs, such as:

  • Exceptional social skills (high social IQ)
  • The “gift of the gab”
  • Should be flexible and adaptable
  • Quick-thinking
  • Well traveled (essential for the cultural savvy that comes with exposure to different cultures and outlooks)
  • Well rounded – a balanced life style that includes sport and recreation
  • Willingness to take risks
  • Willingness to constantly learn and develop oneself
  • A sense of humour

In other words, a good interpreter, particularly in the conference/simultaneous field is one that strives to be fully human. This conjures up a sense of living life to the full.

But hang on…

Aren’t we all interpreters, one way or another?

Our very humanity calls on us to be interpreters at every level of life. We interpret every day: situations, facial expressions, voice inflections – collecting and interpreting a myriad of information bits daily – merely to exist and communicate in our complex world.

Here’s to good interpreters! Here’s to us all! Sure, we’re not all gifted with vibrant vocal registers, remarkable recall or a vocabulary that stuns – but as humans we owe it to ourselves (and our society) to work at being well rounded, well read and ever willing to learn!