Interpreter Education and Training        

In the US, interpreter training is a relatively young discipline in higher education.  The University of Illinois is one of only a handful of universities that offer interpreter training programs.  With no universally recognized pedagogical standard, interpreter trainers are still trying to figure out what works best.  Because being a skilled, professional interpreter requires a whole host of competences of various types, it is not easy to determine the best approach to training aspiring interpreters.  The Center for Translation Studies offers one course in community interpreting (focusing on consecutive interpreting) and another in conference interpreting (focusing on simultaneous interpreting)  The aim is to strike a good balance between several different areas of focus, in order to maximize the benefit of each course for the students.

Linguistic competence

It goes without saying that an interpreter needs to have a high level of proficiency in two languages. Ideally, interpreting students should already possess that degree of proficiency before starting their training, but often students have gaps in their knowledge of their non-native language or even their native language. Should the instructor devote class time to helping students improve their language skill?  This may not be practical, especially if the student’s need for improvement is great, in which case students should seek that improvement elsewhere before starting their interpreter training.  For example, they could spend some time living in a country in which their non-native language is spoken.  They could also read extensively—especially the news—and listen to the radio in that language.  An interpreting class is no substitute for advanced language learning.


General language proficiency is one thing; terminology is another.  While an interpreting class cannot realistically be expected to cover every possible set of terminology an interpreter may need to master, it may be practical to focus on some high-demand types of interpreting, such as medical interpreting and legal interpreting, and introduce students to some of the relevant terminology (such as medical terminology and legal terminology) by including, for example, activities requiring students to do terminology research.  As terminology presents one of the biggest challenges in this profession, even for the most seasoned interpreters, it is wise for student interpreters to be aware of the importance of terminology for their success and to get some practice with terminology.  Terminology is addressed in many CTS courses, including the interpreting courses, and students can expect terminology-focused exercises and activities.

Techniques and skills

There is much more to interpreting than language proficiency and even terminological competence.  Professional interpreting requires many techniques and skills above and beyond linguistic skills.  These include memory, coping skills, note-taking, and others.  When untrained interpreters serve as ad hoc interpreters, the results are often subpar.  Thus, techniques and skills are quite possibly the single most important element any interpreter training program should include.  In each interpreting class at CTS, about half the time is spent training the students to develop the techniques and skills they need in order to be good interpreters.  This requires a great deal of practice, and students are required to practice regularly outside of class.  Although this makes the classes rigorous, our students have achieved remarkable results, and they would probably all say all the practice was worth it!

Ethical standards and professional conduct

Interpreters do not interpret in a vacuum.  A student can be highly proficient in two languages, know the terminology in a certain field, and be able to successfully apply a variety of interpreting techniques, but she may still fail as an interpreter if she is not aware of ethical and professional standards (such as the California Standards for Healthcare Interpreters).  Interpreters often interpret in settings that are very formal, involve high stakes, or both, so it is very important for them to know and be able to apply ethical and professional standards.  What should you do if a client says something and asks you not to interpret it?  Are you required to provide cultural explanations?  Should you interpret repetitions?  How should you dress as an interpreter?  Can you accept gifts from clients?  A professional interpreter needs to be able to handle these real-world situations in order to represent the profession well and continue to be gainfully employed.  In the interpreting classes at CTS, a significant amount of time is spent discussing ethics and professional behavior.  One way to further enrich the students’ understanding and grasp of these things would to be to include mock interpreting scenarios for students to practice applying ethical and professional standards.

Getting work

Even all of the training described so far could prove to be of little use if an interpreter finds himself unable to find work.  Nowadays, most interpreting work is freelance, so there is no single path to employment.  Those starting out as interpreters are particularly vulnerable to uncertainty and instability, because it takes time to establish a client base and be able to count on a steady income.  Interpreters need to be able to navigate the complex interpreting market.  They need to master skills such as specializing, targeting specific markets, creating a strong résumé, applying with agencies, and negotiating rates.  In the interpreting classes at CTS, these skills are repeatedly discussed, with examples from real-world interpreters’ experiences.  It is very important for student interpreters to be well equipped for the job market.

Awareness-raising and advocacy

The interpreting profession suffers from a great lack of awareness and a great deal of misconceptions.  Many people—even those who need interpreters—are not aware of what it takes to do a good job as an interpreter, and clients and employers often ask interpreters to do things that fall outside their roles as interpreters.  Interpreters need to be aware of the professional boundaries they need to set, and they should know where awareness-raising and advocacy are necessary.  The more interpreters educate those they work with and advocate for acceptable working conditions, the more professionalized the field will be.  Many interpreters are underpaid, and this is a situation that could be mitigated through awareness-raising and advocacy.  Many of the readings in the interpreting classes at CTS cover issues related to misconceptions, lack of awareness, and poor working conditions, so students go away with a strong sense of what they can be doing to advocate for their chosen profession.

What do you think?

If you are an interpreter trainer yourself, what approach do you use?  Would you like to modify the content of your interpreting classes in any way?  If you are a current or former interpreting student, what have you found most beneficial?  What, if anything, would you want (or would you have wanted) to change?  Even if you don’t have any experience as a trainer or student of interpreting, let us know what you think!

Interpreting Explained
What is conference interpreting?
Working languages in interpreting
National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers 



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