Miss Interpretation; If You Have a Flair for Languages and a Steely Disposition, Interpreting Can Be a Lucrative and Fascinating Career, as Bonnie Estridge Discovers

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INTERPRETERS have been compared to ducks - they may appear serene, but under the surface the brain is paddling frantically. "The biggest mistake people make is thinking that just because you speak two languages, you can be an interpreter," says Joanna Curtis, 37, who interprets between Spanish and English clients.

"It's actually a difficult skill to acquire. You need to learn to listen, translate, formulate your sentence and speak, while all the time listening to the next bit. You need to maintain your concentration."

Interpreters translate "live" speech, while translators work with written text. There has been a significantly increased demand for interpreters since the mid-1990s owing to the rapid expansion of the EU, as well as a steady increase in the need for speakers of Chinese and Indian languages in Britain, says the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

It currently has 5,000 interpreters registered in Britain, though there are likely to be many more who work on an informal basis or have qualified abroad.

Curtis, who is single, interprets in a variety of different situations from business meetings to prison interviews, and stresses clients don't always express themselves clearly. Sometimes, she says, a client will say something that appears to be against their interest.

"An interpreter is always honest and says exactly what the client has said, but if you think that your client has misunderstood the question, for example, you can repeat it, just to make sure.

"Your duty is always to your client," Curtis says. "You have to represent him or her to the best of your ability, but 'helping' them is a no-no. There are times when I want to say: 'You don't want to say that.' "But honesty and humility are very important; you are merely there to facilitate communication without giving your own opinion - like a machine with a brain!

"Languages were always my thing," says Curtis. She took a BA Hons in European Studies - French and Spanish at the University of Hull, but when she graduated she still didn't have a clue about how to use her languages in a career. Interpreting came about almost by accident. "I fell into a job as a bilingual reinsurance broker at Lloyd's of London, which meant travelling to Peru on business and using my Spanish in meetings as well as translating documents."

After three years at Lloyd's she went travelling around South America for a year before briefly returning to the City.

"Boredom set in and I knew I had to refocus my career," she recalls.

She completed an MA in translation at the University of Westminster and then moved to Madrid, where she worked as a freelance translator.

"As a native English speaker in Spain I was never short of work, as there are many multinationals with a great need for translation.

"Then I became involved in interpreting and took an MA in Conference Interpreting, which was about the best idea I've ever had."

Curtis is now self-employed and works from her Islington office, combining translating and interpreting work. Interpreting comes in various forms. There are simultaneous interpreters who sit in booths with headphones on, usually at conferences and large meetings. In consecutive interpreting - frequently used at formal events and after-dinner speeches - the interpreter takes notes during a speech and gives a translation afterwards.

THE most commonly used method is liaison, or "whispering" interpreting, in which the interpreter sits next to the client and relays questions and answers.

"You can't ever get flustered if you don't catch something that's being said.

You have to be able to follow the speaker's pace and train of thought; when you have heard a whole sentence or idea, interpret it - the trick is not to wait too long or you risk getting left behind. …