The Challenge of Interpreting

The Challenge of Interpreting

A demanding profession

Interpreters face many challenges every day and their profession is full of subtleties. The situations in which they are enrolled are unpredictable and they must be very reactive to improvisation and last-minute assignments. But they also must deal with internal and external elements which affect their work. Even if interpreting is a fabulous job, all of this makes it quite stressful.

Like everyone, there are things interpreters hate and dread. We all know how hard it must be for them to stay focused for long periods of time, process information very quickly, convey translated speech whilst the speaker is still speaking, think on their feet, be quick in making decisions, and show intense memory skills. But do we know all their fears and challenges? Keep reading to discover what interpreters must face.

Interpreting in public

By choosing interpreting rather than translation, interpreters know they might have to practice public speaking. So, if you only think of interpreters working in secluded interpreting booths or on the phone, then think again. Sometimes, interpreters must appear in plain sight in front of large crowds. Conference interpreters, for example, can work in many different environments. Some of these include press briefings, depositions, and seminars. Another field of interpretation and probably one of the most important is politics: an interpreter is necessary in high-level meetings between the governments of two countries. However they also take part in entertainment events such as beauty pageants or the Oscars.

Whatever the situation, when having to speak in public, interpreters might feel very unsafe. Rendering speeches as faithfully and idiomatically as possible in front of hundreds of pairs of eyes is not a piece of cake. So they need to overcome their potential shyness and introverted character as well as acquire excellent speaking skills. The pressure of doing well is very high. They also have to effectively manage their time in stressful situations and be intensely focused to render the speech in the same order in which it was spoken. Sometimes they even have to guess what’s hiding behind the speaker’s words.

Interpreting difficult-to-understand speakers

Every interpreter has faced that challenge more than once: the inability to understand the speaker. This might be due to the speaker’s accent, ability to project, or delivery, but also to audio equipment failures such as a deficient sound system. But of course, interpreters cannot interpret what they cannot hear. In certain situations, they might ask the speaker to repeat, speak louder, or speak more slowly. However, in the case of consecutive or simultaneous interpretation, they are not allowed to interrupt the speaker to ask for clarification.

Another circumstance that creates a challenge is when a handheld microphone comes into play. Often, the speaker will point it away from the mouth or start fidgeting with it, distorting or muffling the sound. This also happens with wrongly placed lapel microphones. Also, if the audio equipment is malfunctioning or if the interpreting booth is badly located, interpreters might be helpless. They might not be able to follow the speech and miss out on important parts.

Interpreting an unknown subject

As mentioned above, interpreters have to be quick thinkers and very reactive to improvisations. This means that they don’t always have preparatory material. If the speech is full of technical and complex vocabulary, it might be very difficult for the interpreter to find the right words in the moment. And interpreters know that nothing is more terrible than looking for words during the interpretation.

This is why they usually request to meet with the speaker(s) beforehand. Certainly, they know the basic information: interpreting mode, venue, date, and languages. But on top of that, they usually want to be briefed about background information: the nature of the meeting and the subject matter, the technical conditions as well as the availability of texts and documents. If interpreters are ill-prepared and unfamiliar with the topics to be discussed, they won’t be as confident and will feel more stress. Usually, they spend one to two days preparing before the meeting. To do so, they go over the terminology and familiarize themselves with the content of the discussion.

Interpreting despite personal opinions

Imagine… How would you react if you were asked to interpret Hitler’s words? You surely know how hard it can be to speak with someone you don’t agree with. So can you imagine being at peace with yourself while interpreting someone’s words you don’t agree with? Repeating the words of the person you disagree with is not easy. However, interpreters have to be absolutely neutral and often extremely patient. They have to keep their opinions to themselves whatever the circumstance. Moreover, if the person they interpret is aggressive, confused, or scared, they also have to render those emotions into the interpreted speech, even if they don’t feel the same emotion.

Interpreting cultural differences

Having an excellent command of two languages cannot make interpreters good interpreters. Indeed, without knowing the culture behind these respective languages, they cannot deliver good work. Whatever the language combination might be, both linguistic and cultural challenges abound. If interpreters help break down language barriers, they also help bridge cultural gaps. But without a deep-rooted cultural awareness, how can they do so? Of course, interpreters don’t have time to consult dictionaries or the internet to know about a specific concept. That is why they have to be curious about everything that surrounds the languages they interpret from and into. They must be highly knowledgeable of regional slang and idioms, but also of the main cultural differences.

Sometimes, culture is not expressed by words but by attitudes. This is another challenge for interpreters. For example, in Japan, one is not supposed to express their personal desires if there is no link of proximity. It is a sign of politeness. So if you go to someone’s place, you are not supposed to say that you would like a cup of tea or a glass of water. The host has to guess that. Interpreters have to be aware of these cultural differences because they serve as a bridge for intercultural communications.

Interpreting idioms and humour

What about humour and idioms then? Humour is one of the most difficult challenges of interpreters. Some even say it is untranslatable. Translatable or not, it takes a toll even on the most experienced of interpreters.

Humour varies from one person to the other, for sure. But it is also very much culturally influenced and no jokes are completely universal. Besides, culturally acceptable jokes in one culture might not be welcome in another one. So interpreting jokes, humour, and sarcasm is extremely challenging for interpreters as they have to localize them. This way, prep material might be quite helpful: they can take the time to understand the purpose behind a joke or humorous tone. When conveying the joke, they should not sound offensive and keep the meaning and integrity of the message. As we know: “humour does not travel well”. To help humour travel better, interpreters sometimes need to provide background information. Interpreting idioms is an equally daunting task and should be done the same way as humour. This means to not translate them literally.

We are here to help!

So now you know the many challenges interpreters face to complete their job, which consists in facilitating communication and promoting understanding. Are you ready to live the challenging life of an interpreter? If not, that’s okay, here at LingoStar, we know that it is a hard but rewarding job. Therefore, we work with interpreters from all over the world who are all natives in each target language and are all completely bilingual in their language pair. They have been able to overcome the above challenges through years of training and practicing. At LingoStar, paying attention to detail is exactly what sets us apart. We constantly strive to offer you the highest quality of service, whether it is translation or interpretation. Make sure you get a free quote at Feel free to call us at 604-629-8420 or email us at for more information. We are here to help!