FAQ - frequently asked questions

Since when have there been interpreters?

The earliest depiction of an interpreter is found on the so-called “interpreter relief” from the tomb of pharaoh Horemheb in Memphis dating back to 1330 B.C. The interpreter is shown as a split personality – to the left he turns towards the pharaoh and to the right to the petitioners.

The earliest written mention of interpreters, however, is found in the Bible (1st Moses 42, 23): “And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for he spake unto them by an interpreter”.

How do you become an interpreter?

Usually interpreters complete a specialist course of studies of several years with comprehensive practical exercise.

How many languages do interpreters speak?

Usually interpreters do NOT speak 10 or 15 languages as some people believe. Instead, they focus on a few languages with excellent command also in various technical fields (e.g. medicine, technology, law, economics, etc) to render even complex matters. Moreover, languages breath and develop – and interpreters must stay up to speed, which becomes more difficult with an increasing number of languages.

Do you always understand what the speaker says?

Usually yes. As interpreters we are also familiar with the most diverse dialects and accents and can usually follow easily. But interpreters always depend on the speaker’s quality of presentation – if the speaker is erratic, unconcentrated, unclear or confused, it is sometimes a challenge even for interpreters.

Do interpreters ever say something wrong?

This is usually not the case. Most simultaneous and conference interpreters completed a specialist course of studies so that they can even comprehend the most difficult matters due to their expertise, experience, and general knowledge. It seems to be more likely for speakers to blame interpreters when trying to make excuses…. like emperor Justin II in Constantinople in 567 A.D. – he blamed the interpreters for his trouble with the Persians.

What do you do if you cannot think of the right word?

Speech is redundant. There are always several ways to express the same matter in other words. Therefore, interpretation hardly ever depends on a single word. Moreover, interpreters always prepare in-depth for each assignment to make themselves familiar with the technical terms and ensure the highest quality.

Are you a native speaker?

All interpreters are native speakers – which only means that they have a mother tongue, which can be English, German, French as well as any other language. Important for interpreters is that they do not only have the skills in one language (i.e. their mother tongue), but both in the source and the target language. For if you do not understand the source language, it will not help if you are in perfect command of the target language – interpretation will still not be possible.

Do you have to be brought up bilingually to become an interpreter?

No. Most interpreters completed a comprehensive course of studies in interpreting. During this time, they acquire all the skills necessary for this profession. Their mother tongue always serves as a reference frame, which may be difficult for people who are brought up bilingually as there is no clear frame of reference and the cross-connection between the languages, which is so important in interpreting, may not be a shortcut.

Do interpreters specialise in a technical field?

Most interpreters are at home in several topics and possess broad knowledge and comprehensive expertise in them. Hardly any interpreter exclusively focuses on a single technical field.

Do people still need interpreters? Nowadays everybody speaks English!

Even today interpreters are still in demand. It is a myth that everybody nowadays spoke English. In fact, many people only have little or no command of English and even though they may feel confident in small talk and basic conversation, it may not suffice for complex matters and technical details. Therefore, interpreters today are usually assigned for complex and highly specialised topics.

Why do we need several interpreters? Our boss says one is enough.

As soon as simultaneous interpretation is required, a minimum of two interpreters per language is a must. This is due to the high level of concentration required during interpretation so that interpreters take turns every 15 to 20 minutes. This not only helps keep up the high level of quality during interpretation but also protects the interpreters’ health and helps maintain their working power.

Do you always understand what you say?

Yes. Interpretation without understanding the exact context is simply not possible.

Do you translate literally/word by word?

Something like a literal or word by word translation does not exist. Language is always expression of different mentalities, perceptions, and emotions relative to the same matter. This is what interpreters try to communicate beyond the mere content. Moreover, there are language, expression, and grammar rules to be obeyed so that a “literal” and at the same time meaningful translation is not possible.

Why do you have to see what is going on? Is it not enough to listen?

That interpreters would only have to listen, is unfortunately not true. During their work interpreters follow the speaker’s nonverbal communication closely to take in additional information, which well exceeds the spoken word. Therefore, the unobstructed view of the speaker is indispensable.