Integrity Languages


Soft Skills and the Successful Interpreter

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 6, 2016


I have a fascinating conference interpreting assignment at the end of this week and I will be blogging regularly in the run-up, to show a little bit of the work that goes into preparing for an assignment. In almost all cases, preparation has to be woven round other business work, although a rough guide is that a day of work requires a day of preparation. Obviously, this does depend on the assignment.


Before we get that far, however, it is useful to start with some of the skills that interpreters need to have. Sure, we all have to be on point with our simultaneous interpreting techniques, our notetaking, our terminology management and the like but the ability to use all those skills intelligently hangs on our “soft” skills.


For me, soft skills are those personal skills and character traits that give meaning, power and direction to our “hard” or technical skills. So soft skills would including negotiation, sales, determination, self-control, creativity, ability to work in a team, marketing, situation management, ability to read context, change management, calmness and so much more.


There has been a bit of a needless ruckus in parts of the translation community as to whether you actually need soft skills or whether having excellent technical skills is enough. Five minutes thought will suffice to settle that. Unless you are truly irreplaceable, there are only so many personality faults you can have before your clients have enough to leave. How many of us have left utility companies, mobile phone companies or banks due to poor customer service?


For interpreters, soft skills make up the majority of the skills we need. Those who have heard me speak will have heard my catchphrase: “I used to think interpreting was a language skill with people attached; now I know it is a people skill with language attached.” Our entire job consists of keeping people talking long enough for them to agree, or learn, or gather evidence, or fulfil whatever the purpose of the meeting was. If we can’t get on with people and don’t want to understand people, we aren’t interpreters at all!


Now, I am a conference interpreter (I also do some business interpreting work), so my perspective may be a little skewed on this but here is how I see it. When clients see interpreters, their impression of all of us is determined by their impression of each of us. Simple things like shrugging off last minute agenda changes, accepting it when texts of speeches arrive three minutes before they are due to be delivered and laughing at the organiser’s attempts at humour go a long way towards creating a good impression and, on some jobs, that impression will be a large factor in the client’s view of our performance.


Yes, we all perform better when we receive good, accurate, and comprehensive information early, the event is predictable and the speakers are cooperative but as a speaker myself, I can tell you that last minute changes can happen for a variety of reasons, not all of them to do with poor preparation.


Great people skills and the ability to present yourself as a solid, dependable and creative professional give clients that feeling of being in good hands. Without good marketing and sales skills, we won’t get any clients in the first place. Without the technical competence, we won’t keep them. Without people skills, we can’t tune into what they want.


The only problem with soft skills is that they can be hard to teach. How do you teach the skill of reading a room? How do you help someone learn to defuse unnecessary tension and survive necessary tension? How can we help new interpreters acquire the ability to look calm, even when their nice prep has been thrown out the window by some unforeseen glitch?


I don’t know the answers to those questions but I am absolutely certain that the soft skills I have picked up from other interpreters, and good old real-life, will be vital on my next job.

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