What did you say interpreters do? – It is not magic, it is a gift!

Interpreters talk. A lot.

Basically, we listen to what someone is saying and repeat it in another language – in real time and on the spot. It may sound simple, but the truth is that it is quite a complex process that takes years of training to master.

Think of it as re-gifting.

One of my grandmas (not saying which) has the habit of re-gifting the presents she does not like or has no use for. She changes the wrapping paper and passes the present on.

In a very simplified way, that is exactly what we, interpreters, do:

  • We receive a present – let’s say, a little box with three marzipan balls in it
  • Unwrap it to see what it is
  • Wrap it again in a different wrapping paper and pass it on to somebody else

A competent interpreter will make sure that the newly wrapped box contains the three marzipan balls, without adding a fourth or sneakily eating one and leaving two in the box.

A good, professional, qualified interpreter will:

  • Receive the present and carefully study how it is wrapped (style, tone, register, context, cultural references, etc.)
  • Make sure that the newly wrapped box indeed contains the three marzipan balls (content or pieces of information to be transferred)
  • Make sure to choose a new wrapping paper that is fitting (style, tone, register, context, cultural adequacy, etc.) and wrap it using an appropriate technique

See, good interpreting (and good translating, for that matter) does not consist of simply transferring words into another language. The key to good interpreting is to capture the message and transfer that message with all its semantic components.

A present is a lot more than the object being gifted. You do not use the same colour wrapping paper for Valentine’s Day than for Christmas, nor for the birth of a baby boy than of a baby girl or twins! Wedding presents are wrapped in a particular way so are graduation or landmark birthday ones.

Likewise, some presents are only wrapped, others are wrapped and tied with a bow. Some are wrapped and put in a box, while others are put, unwrapped, in a box, which may or may not contain layers of tissue paper, which, in turn, can be plain or coloured or, even, patterned.

Not to mention that presents can be given by hand, posted, sent by currier or… worse… be given late or unwelcomed!

As you can see, there are lots of tiny, little details to decode in a simple box of good, old marzipan balls.

Imagine, then, how complex the unwrapping and wrapping gets when the little box of marzipan is indeed a medical conference, a trial or a business negotiation.

Qualified interpreters are expert wrappers and un-wrappers. In professional terms, what we do is:

  • Comprehend (receive a present)
  • Deverbalize (unwrap it)
  • Reformulate (re-gift it)

The better we are at this whole wrapping thing, the better is the quality of our work.

I have said time and again that languages do not exist is a vacuum, nor do messages. They come wrapped in a myriad of contextual and situational elements. They also carry the fingerprints left on the Sellotape by the speaker who wrapped them in the first place.

It is our job to observe, comprehend, and deverbalize all of these details so we can pass on the equivalent of the original present to the other language. Transferring a simple box of marzipan will not do.

As you can see, interpreting is not magic, it is a gift!

And a wonderful one, if you ask me.

“Interpreting has little to do with transferring words to another language. It is about accurately capturing messages.” ~ Harry Obst, The White House Interpreter

Useful Resources

 Footnote

Interpreters and translators are not the same but two different professions altogether within the same field. While translators work solely with written documents, interpreters only “translate” oral speech. Some people do both. Some do not. It all depends on the professional path each person has chosen to walk down on.


Photo taken by me. I have to confess to having found Leadenhall Market by chance while going somewhere else in The City and was completely smitten by it. Did you know that this is where Harry Potter goes to buy his magic wand in book one?

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2 Comments on What did you say interpreters do? – It is not magic, it is a gift!

  1. Vorya Dastyar

    I am a translator and interpreter from Iran and wanted to say I enjoyed reading your piece. Really! The gift-wrapping metaphor in your peice is so apt. I am interested to receive more of the feed