Keeping Up with Your Language Skills–For Translators and Interpreters

In a conversation I had, a medical interpreter mentioned that he entered the profession without any medical background whatsoever and realized through his career that most of the appointments he goes to, don’t require the medical terminology he would have expected. His comment about the conversational component of medical interviews is not surprising, especially if you think about your own appointments with doctors–doctors tend to use everyday terms when speaking to patients, so difficult medical terminology does not always come up during an appointment.

However, regardless of whether technical medical terminology is used during medical interviews, it’s important for an interpreter to be prepared. Preparation includes not only arriving to appointments on time, it also involves understanding and knowing the role of the interpreter, the code of ethics for medical interpreting, the different modes of interpreting that may be used during different types of appointments and situations, the ethical and cultural issues that may come up, and of course, familiarity with the terminology.

Languages are living and breathing beings. Because they evolve and change over time, it’s important for a linguist, whether a translator or interpreter, to keep up with the languages he works with. The more a linguist knows, the better he will be able to serve his clients and fulfill his obligation as a conduit, one who transfers the meaning and idea of one language into another without adding or omitting content from the source language. It would be irresponsible for a translator/interpreter to expect less of himself.

There are many ways to keep up with your language skills. Below are just some that I use on a daily basis.

1. Read News Articles in the Target Language. As a Mandarin Chinese translator and interpreter, I make time each day to read the news in Chinese, even if I can only find time to read one article. I also read commentaries and novels in Chinese just to keep myself familiar with the current usage and sounds of the language. I make sure to highlight and look up any unfamiliar words or words I can’t translate/interpret immediately off the top of my head.

2. Look Up Unfamiliar Words. It’s easy to read material in the language you work in and skim pass words that may be new, but to get the most out of your studies and to expand your vocabulary, it’s important not to be lazy and to look up the words and enter them into your own language database.

3. Incorporate Translation/Interpreting into Your Day-to-Day Activities. I like to mentally translate articles I read into Chinese or English as I read or as I listen to radio shows or the news. This helps keep my skills fresh, and also gives me an idea where my strengths and weaknesses are. From listening to different types radio shows, you might notice that you’re more fluent in certain subject areas than others or that you’re more interested in one are over another. The fun part about interpreting radio shows is that you have to use simultaneous interpreting. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t get everything all at once, it takes practice.

At my medical interpreting training with Heartland Alliance, our trainer recommended that we practice our skills by recording our interpreting of radio podcasts. I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s a great idea, particularly because you can also listen to your own interpretating of the show and track your improvement.

4. Read Up on Literature in Your “Expertise” Area. This will not only help you further build your vocabulary, you’ll also be updated on the different trends and changes going on in the field.

5. Participate in Conferences, Professional Organizations, and Talks. I’m trying to become more active in these areas, as these events would help me network with like-minded professionals and will also help bring me quickly up-to-date with current developments in the field of translation and interpreting.

A professional knows what his works involves and takes the responsibility and time to fulfill his obligation to the best of his abilities. It would be irresponsible to take your skills for granted and believe that there’s no room for improvement. These are just some methods I use on a daily basis. Of course, if you’re even more ambitious, you can always take courses or trainings to help further develop your skills.


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