A professional interpreter’s job may seem simple: Just learn a different language (fire up the Rosetta Stone for a few months!) and translate. Boom: The world knows what Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to say.
Only it’s not that simple. Getting beyond the fact that learning a new language really isn't that easy, interpreters have to go through far more training just to get the job, and they have to do a lot of training even after they get it. The big concern: It’s one thing to understand the language, but it’s another thing to understand the ideas that speakers try to convey.
For example, in 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was translated as telling Western ambassadors, "We will bury you." But what Khrushchev actually meant was, "We will live to see you buried," meaning that communism will outlast capitalism. That’s still not a very nice thing to say, but not quite the death threat it was initially understood as.
So how do interpreters work to make sure these types of bad mistakes don't happen? TED Ed explains, in a piece narrated by Addison Anderson and based on a lesson by Ewandro Magalhaes:
It takes about two years of training for already fluent bilingual professionals to expand their vocabulary and master the skills necessary to become a conference interpreter.
To get used to the unnatural task of speaking while they listen, students shadow speakers and repeat their every word, exactly as heard, in the same language. In time, they begin to paraphrase what is said — making stylistic adjustments as they go. At some point, a second language is introduced. Practicing in this way creates new neural pathways in the interpreter’s brain, and the constant effort of reformulation gradually becomes second nature.
Over time, and through much hard work, the interpreter masters a vast array of tricks to keep up with speed, deal with challenging terminology, and handle a multitude of foreign accents. They may resort to acronyms to shorten long names, choose generic terms over specific, or refer to slides and other visual aids. They can even leave a term in the original language while they search for the most accurate equivalent.
Interpreters are also skilled at keeping aplomb in the face of chaos. Remember, they have no control over who is going to say what or how articulate the speaker will sound. A curve ball can be thrown at any time. Also, they often perform to thousands of people and in very intimidating settings, like the UN General Assembly. To keep their emotions in check, they carefully prepare for an assignment: building glossaries in advance, reading voraciously about the subject matter, and reviewing previous talks on the topic.
So the job isn’t as simple as listening to someone and just saying what they’re saying. It involves years of training, and perhaps even hours of research on complicated topics and cultural differences in the days before a gig. So like many jobs, some of the toughest parts are what you don’t see.