You’re attracted to a career that would enable you to work with languages. You’ve heard about conference interpreting but you’re not sure exactly what it involves, what studies to pursue, or what opportunities may be available. Here are some questions to consider, and some further information that may point you toward finding your answers.
How can I study to become a conference interpreter?
What do conference interpreters do?
- bridge the gap in all kinds of multilingual settings where speakers want to express themselves in their own language and still understand one another (conferences, negotiations, press briefings, seminars, depositions, TV broadcasts: you name it!)
- do not do written translation: translators work with written texts, interpreters convey ideas orally
- do not just parrot: they convert ideas expressed in one language (the source language) into another language (the target language) as smoothly and idiomatically as possible, preserving the meaning, tone and nuance of the original speaker
- interpret "consecutively": i.e. the interpreter is in the same room as the participants, listening carefully to what is said, perhaps taking notes; when each speaker pauses, the interpreter conveys the same message from source to target language
- interpret "simultaneously": i.e. the interpreters work in a team sitting in a soundproof booth; they take turns conveying each speaker's ideas from source to target language in real-time; the audience in the conference room listens through headsets
- interpret using "chuchotage" or "whispering": i.e. the interpreter is in the same room as the participants providing a whispered interpretation in real-time to a small number of listeners
- the interpreters who provided the first simultaneous interpretation at the post-World War II trials had to sink or swim: they had no choice but to train themselves, but you don't have to reinvent the wheel!
- since the 1970s, interdisciplinary research has helped us better grasp the complex processes involved in interpreting and develop new and effective teaching methods
- systematic training today is the surest route to expertise and successful practice in any profession
- many hours of effective practice with other trainees and with guidance from experienced teacher/practitioners is essential
- AIIC promotes best practice in schools by surveying training programmes and providing hands-on support to teachers.
To interpret ... or more specifically
- to understand what the speaker wants to say
- to grasp what lies behind the speaker's words
- to keep the message in context
- to convey it consecutively or simultaneously
- to learn a special note-taking technique
- to practice concentration, discourse analysis and fast reaction
- to build useful glossaries
- to develop public speaking skills
- to prepare for different types of assignments
- to manage stressful situations
- to observe a code of conduct
- to prepare for entry into the profession
These are some of the key skills that interpreters make use of at one time or another:
- a polished command of their own native language over a range of registers and domains
- a complete mastery of their non-native languages
- a familiarity with the cultures in the countries where their working languages are spoken
- a commitment to helping others communicate
- an interest in and understanding of current affairs, plus an insatiable curiosity
- world experience away from home and school and a broad general education
- good training (and usually at least an undergraduate university degree)
- the ability to concentrate and focus as a discussion unfolds
- a pleasant speaking voice
- a friendly, collegial attitude
- calm nerves, tact, judgment and a sense of humor
- a willingness to adhere to rules of conduct (e.g. confidentiality)
- Choosing a school is one of the most important steps you will take on your path to becoming a trained conference interpreter. In order to assist you with your research and decision-making, AIIC regularly contacts many schools worldwide which offer conference interpreting training programmes and asks them to respond to a series of questions; the last time the survey was conducted 178 schools were contacted. The schools' answers are published on this website. For a variety of reasons (e.g. curriculum in transition, incorrect contact address, etc.) some schools did not respond to the survey questionnaire. This means that, for the present, you may not find them listed on the AIIC website.
- If you have not already done so, you might want to check out the online Directory of Schools. This Directory will provide you with basic information about any school that has responded to the survey, and give you a link to its own website, if available.
- When comparing schools and training programmes, you might establish a list of specific criteria which are important to you (location, scholarship support, etc). You might also consult our guide to best practice in training and add some of the considerations below to your personal shopping list:
- Don't be in a hurry! Conference interpreters need to have accumulated quite a broad general knowledge as well as an excellent command of their languages (this is one profession where age is in our favor!).
- Spend some time living and studying or working where your languages are spoken before applying to any training programme. The more you are familiar with the relevant cultural context, the stronger your understanding and expression will be.
- Opt for a graduate training programme rather than an undergraduate programme. Graduate programmes assume that applicants have a solid command of the languages in their combination and can therefore focus more on skill acquisition as well as advanced language enhancement and an introduction to the theoretical basis of interpreting.
- Don't be put off if the school you like best requires you to take an aptitude test! This is intended to help both you and the teachers on the jury get a glimpse of your current abilities in order to assess your readiness to start the programme...and is nothing personal! In some countries, the local legislation does not permit aptitude testing.
- Take a look at the school's curriculum:
- Does the school provide any advice on career prospects?
- Are the classes offered going to cover your specific training needs?
- Are classes designed and taught by practicing professional interpreters?
- Do some of the teachers share your native language?
- Does the programme offer classes in both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting?
- Is there a class which explains professional practice (ethics etc.)?
- Do outsiders, especially potential employers, attend final exams?
- Final suggestion: you might consider the possibility of visiting one or more schools and observing a couple of relevant classes. You might also arrange to meet some of the instructors and speak to current students or graduates.
- Some things you can do to increase your chances of success before starting a training programme:
- to enhance all of your languages, selectively and actively read, watch TV and listen to radio in all your languages
- expand your range of command of your native language
- go and live where your languages are spoken and immerse yourself in the culture
- learn more about your planet and your immediate environment
- increase your general knowledge
- follow international affairs
- learn to use a computer
- learn to take care of yourself and to manage your stress well
- develop good study skills
- cultivate patience and the ability to integrate feedback
- research your training options carefully
Try this self-quiz to test your preferences! (There are no wrong answers!)
Will I have to pass a test or competition to get work?
Will I have to develop my own competitive professional profile?
Will I be responsible for finding my own work?
Will I usually work for the same institution/s?
Can I work with agencies or a range of employers?
Will my employer schedule my workdays?
May I decline assignments?
Will I get a regular pay check?
Will I get benefits?
Will I have to assess my own tax liability?
Can I live where I wish?
Will I have to travel extensively for work?
Will I have to travel for language enhancement?
Will I have in-house opportunities for career development and training?
Will I need to belong to a professional network or association?
To find out more about the professional conference interpreter's lifestyle, check out VEGA.
- A very important question... and hard to predict!
- plan your profile BEFORE you train: some combinations are more "useful" and more portable than others; beware of a flavor-of-the-month push to add a language which is likely to dropped in the future
- the tsunami of English continues on its course, no doubt about it: English is more widely used than ever, in all its permutations - and you probably want it in your language combination, specially if you plan to work on your local market
- your decision to work in-house for an international organization or free-lance will probably affect your choice of languages
- the good news: A recent study by the AIIC Staff Interpreters Committee shows that, as the impact of staff changes and retirements becomes more serious, international institutions now are cooperating with schools to try to predict future training needs and cater to a changing kaleidoscope of interpreting needs
If you are interested in working for an international organisation, visit their websites to find out more about their current and future staffing needs; see how often there is a competitive exam for applicants with your language combination. Scroll down to find a list of organisations.AIIC provides all kinds of advice and support for newly trained conference interpreters entering the profession, even offering you the chance to ask questions.
The AIIC Training Committee will do its best to answer any specific questions you may have. Please post them on the message board below: we will try to help you find the answers.AIIC Training Committee
ADB (African Development Bank), Abidjan
African Training and Research Centre in Administration for Development, Morocco
AIPO (African Intellectual Property Organisation), Cameroon
Arab Maghreb Union, Morocco
COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa), Zambia
ECA (Economic Commission for Africa), Addis-Ababa
HABITAT (United Nations Division for Human Habitat), Nairobi
ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), Arusha and Kigali
AU (African Union), Addis-Ababa
UNEP (United Nations Environment Program), Nairobi
UNON (United Nations Office at Nairobi), Nairobi
CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity), Montreal
ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), Santiago de Chile
FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas), Panama
IDB (Inter-American Development Bank), Washington DC.
ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), Montreal
IMF (International Monetary Fund), Washington DC
MF (Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol), Montreal
OAS (Organization of American States), Washington DC.
PAHO (Pan American Health Organization), Washington DC.
UNO (United Nations Organization), New York
World Bank, Washington DC.
BIS (Bank for International Settlements), Basel
COE (Council of Europe), Strasbourg,
CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), Geneva
CEU (Commission of the European Union), Brussels
CICR (International Red Cross Committee), Geneva
ECJ (European Court of Justice), Luxembourg
EP (European Parliament), Luxembourg, Brussels and Strasbourg
EPO (European Patent Office), Munich
ESA (European Space Agency), Paris
FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization), Rome
IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), Vienna
ICDO (International Civil Defence Organisation), Geneva
ICC (International Criminal Court), The Hague
ICJ (International Court of Justice), The Hague
ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia), The Hague
IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), Rome
IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies), Geneva
ILO (International Labour Office), Geneva
IMO (International Maritime Organization), London
INTERPOL (International Criminal Police Organisation), Lyon Cedex
IOC (International Olympic Committee), Lausanne
IOM (International Organisation for Migration), Geneva
IPU (Inter-Parliamentary Union), Geneva
ITU (International Telecommunications Union), Geneva
Latin Union, Paris
NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), Brussels
OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), Paris
OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), The Hague
OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), Vienna
UNESCO (United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization), Paris
UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization), Vienna
UNO (United Nations Organization), Geneva, Vienna
UPU (Universal Postal Union), Bern
WCO (World Customs Organization), Brussels
WEU (Western European Union), Brussels, Paris
WFP (World Food Programme), Rome
WHO (World Health Organization), Geneva
WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), Geneva
WMO (World Meteorological Organization), Geneva
WTO (World Tourism Organization), Madrid
WTO (World Trade Organization), Geneva