Translating & Interpreting

Main Information

Linguists keen to use their language skills often consider interpreting and translating as possible careers.An interpreter conveys into another language the spoken word of politicians, business people or sports players, for example. Conference interpreting generally involves simultaneous transmission through headphones to delegates of others’ speeches, which would otherwise not be understood. Consecutive interpreting is more likely in a social or business setting, when the original speaker pauses to allow the interpreter to relay the message into the language of the listener. Non-conference interpreting is generally known as ‘liaison’ interpreting – this area of work also includes public service interpreting.

A translator deals with written words, and may have access to reference works, such as dictionaries, glossaries or even databases of specialist vocabularies. Machine translation almost always requires a reviser to amend the text and to retranslate parts, especially the more idiomatic phrases.

There are opportunities to work in a role that combines both of these areas of work, particularly for freelances, although some larger organisations, such as the UN and EU, keep the two career paths quite separate.

What types of jobs are there?

The vast majority of interpreters work on a freelance basis, and all interpreters will have received specific training for the role. International assemblies, such as the UN, can be very selective and will only take graduates who have completed postgraduate courses or interpreters with prior experience.

There are far more full-time posts for translators than for interpreters. As well as the international organisations, translators can work in a range of companies, including specialised translation agencies, and many also work on a freelance basis.

Freelance translators are likely to specialise in a particular area, e.g. law or finance. Those specialising in literary translation seek to convey the purpose/effects of the original text into the chosen language – it is quite difficult to break into this area of work. Some translators work in audio visual translating, and subtitling, in particular, is a growing field. See the useful web sites section at the end of this briefing for specialist professional groups active in each area of work.

What skills do I need?

Language dictionaries
The main skills that interpreters and translators need to have are an exceptionally good command of their mother tongue and excellent knowledge of one or more other languages. For work as an interpreter, instant reactions, a good memory and stamina are just as important as expertise in languages, and you would also need good public speaking skills. Wide general knowledge, command of political terminology and self-confidence are vital. The National Network for Interpreting has produced an online skills map, which is useful for identifying if you have the skills for this area of work.
In addition to languages, translators must display attention to detail; the ability to recall terminology and a willingness to learn new vocabulary are also required.

For work as a freelance translator or interpreter you will also require a range of skills associated with being self-employed, such as the ability to make contacts and sell your services. Freelance translators may combine this role with teaching or other part-time work, particularly early in their careers.

What are the entry points?


It is practically essential to study for a postgraduate qualification in interpreting to become a professional interpreter. A languages degree alone does not prepare you for the highly specialised nature of this work.

The European institutions recruit interpreters for all 24 official languages, and there is a growing demand for native English-speaking interpreters with two passive languages, preferably including French or German.

Most interpreters work in their mother tongue. Recruitment into the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Interpretation (formerly known as SCIC) is via open competitions, details of which can be found on their website. They also have a Facebook Group – Interpreting for Europe – where updates are added regularly and a promotional YouTube video with the same name. Candidates may have studied on one of the recognised interpreting courses, for which there are annual deadlines. Some bursaries may be available. Freelance interpreters with experience or a postgraduate degree can apply to take a test to accredit them at any time.

The United Nations has only six official languages: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese. They, too, recruit for a range of language positions via exams.

To begin working as a freelancer, recent graduates of interpreting schools often work in a ‘mute’ booth, and rely on recommendation by former teachers and other graduates in order to gain experience and become part of a network of freelancers. These networks are often informal, but sometimes also built around an agency (ask experienced colleagues for advice in choosing a reputable agency).


For translation careers it is also advisable to consider a postgraduate course, as the number of direct graduate vacancies is low, and a degree in modern languages does not give you all the skills you need to work as a professional translator. Both the UN and the European Commission’s translation services do not have a regular intake, but run a competition when more staff are needed – the latest one for European Commission English mother tongue translators took place in the Summer of 2013. Follow “EU Careers” on Facebook or other social media to ensure you don’t miss a competition. The Commission’s competitions for translators are normally held every three years for each language, although the interval is sometimes longer. Those recruited in a competition are put on a reserve list, and may wait some time before they take up a post. There is a current shortage of English language translators, and the Commission anticipate that they will need to replace 30% of their linguists by 2015.

The Directorate-General for Translation (DGT) offers five-month traineeships for those wishing to gain work experience in the Commission. You need to be able to translate from two EU languages into your main language. Apply by 31st August (to start in March) or 31st January (to start in October).

If you want to work as a freelance translator it is useful to apply to translation agencies. These will probably ask you for sample translations to assess the quality of your work. Professional agencies will never ask you to translate into any language other than your mother tongue. Alternatively you can become a member of internet portals like or


There are a reasonable number of institutions offering courses in translation and interpreting for native English speakers, and some for students whose mother tongue is not English. Some courses focus purely on translation, some on interpreting, and some prepare graduates for careers in either area. Your potential is likely to be tested at interview, particularly for entry to an interpreting course.

Translation courses may have specialist elements, such as economics, law, international relations and technology. Each institution will offer a range of languages, and there are courses available in the major European languages – French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Polish and others. Other courses offer Arabic, Chinese and Japanese. The European Masters in Translation is a partnership project between the European Commission and higher education institutions offering master’s level translation programmes – there are currently 54 Universities mainly in Europe, who are part of this network. The full list is available on the EMT website. Some courses are joint translation and interpreting courses, including those offered at the Universities of Bath, Leeds, Heriot-Watt, Salford and Westminster.

There are also postgraduate courses in the UK which concentrate on interpreting – for example the University of Westminster offers an MA in Interpreting, and there are other courses at the Universities of Leeds, Newcastle and Manchester. It is also possible to undertake a course in a country where one of your foreign languages is spoken. The European Masters in Conference Interpreting website provides information on conference interpreting training at advanced (postgraduate) level provided by a consortium of European universities in collaboration with the European Commission and the European Parliament. For other international options and a wide range of language combinations see the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) website.

Imperial College runs an MSc course in Scientific, Technical and Medical Translation and a list of institutions offering a Diploma in Public Service Interpreting can be found on the Chartered Institute of Linguists’ website. The University of East Anglia runs an MA in Literary Translation in close co-operation with the British Centre for Literary Translation which is based at the University. A number of institutions run courses in Audiovisual Translation including the University of Leeds, University of Surrey, and the University of Roehampton.

The Prospects web site has a useful directory of postgraduate courses. It is essential to check with each institution’s website and prospectus in order to establish which courses and languages will be available in the year you wish to study, as this will vary from year to year. Do also check the emphasis of the course – is it practically-based or more academic? – and find out about any links with employers that the institution has. It may also be possible to study a new language.

The Chartered Institute of Linguists examines for a Diploma in Translation. The Institute does not itself prepare candidates for the tests, but publishes a list of courses available, including some overseas. It wisely insists that those with a language degree but little professional translating experience generally require extra training or work in the field before being realistic candidates – details from a preparation seminar are available on their website.

How do I get a job?

It is possible for graduates to go straight into translation jobs and CareerConnect occasionally has opportunities from RWS, Aktuel Translations and other employers (search “Information & Language Services”) as well as government departments, international organisations (e.g. UN, IAEA) and European employers.

Specialist recruitment agencies might be worth contacting, such as Appointments Bi-Language, Top Language Jobs, Language Matters and Euro London Appointments. There are a number of directories of translators and translating agencies on the internet, and it would be worth looking at the websites for the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, the Association of Translation Companies, and the International Association of Conference Interpreters.

In a related field, the UK Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham recruits linguists for its intelligence work. Its strongest demand is for Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Eastern European languages, although they recruit for other languages from time to time, including other European ones. They are sometimes prepared to retrain graduates willing to learn languages in demand. MI5 and MI6 are also interested in linguists, particularly those with Arabic or Persian, but also Chinese and some European languages.

Apart from the international organisations, there may be opportunities for interpreters to work in the public sector in the UK. The Home Office sometimes recruits freelance interpreters to work at airports and major ports through its Central Interpreters Unit, although they are not currently recruiting (under review at the time of publication). If you are interested in Public Service Interpreting, look at the National Register of Public Service Interpreters web site to find out more, especially the news section.


There is often confusion about whether you should be paid to do an internship or work experience. It will depend on your arrangement with the employer and also the status of the employer. To find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship, visit the government’s webpages on the National Minimum Wage.

The UK law protects you from discrimination due to your age, gender, race, religion or beliefs, disability or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

Your personal circumstances regarding career choices, and whether you should or need to tell a potential employer about your circumstances (e.g. time out from studies owing to depression or health needs) is very personal. Although there is legislation which informs you of your rights and responsibilities, you may find it helpful to see a Careers Adviser. They can help you talk through your particular circumstances, to decide whether you wish to tell someone about your situation and issues, and – if you do decide to inform a recruiter – at what stage in the application process you might do so. Careers Advisers can also help you decide how to present your situation and potential needs effectively (often termed as disclosure). We have Careers Advisers who specialise in matters relating to disability and diversity. To arrange a discussion about your personal circumstances with a Careers Adviser, please contact our Reception Team on or telephone 01865 274646.

A number of major graduate recruiters have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting graduates from diverse backgrounds. To find out the policies and attitudes of employers that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they offer ‘Guaranteed Interview Schemes’ (for disabled applicants) or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a ‘Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.

International students

Frequent changes to visa rules affect international students and recent graduates wishing to work in the UK.  Now, non-EEA graduates are most likely to gain permission to work by being sponsored by an employer under Tier 2 of the Point Based System.  DPhil students nearing completion could apply for the Tier 4 Doctorate Extension Scheme - allowing 12 months to remain in the UK to look for and start work or self-employment.  For those with entrepreneurial skills and a credible business idea endorsed by Oxford, Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) allows you an initial one-year’s permission to get your business up and running, with the possibility of extending for a further year.  There are more limited opportunities in other visa categories. For the most complete and up-to-date information, check Oxford University’s webpages or the UK Council for International Student Affairs’ website. You can also email the Oxford’s Student Information and Advisory Service on for specialist visa help.


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  • The 5-Minute Linguist, Ed. E.M Rickerson and Barry Hilton


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