Translators and interpreters generally translate ‘into’; their “mother tongue” or their ‘main language’ (although there are of course exceptions, depending upon the circumstances.) This is their ‘target’ language, into which they will translate material from the ‘source’ language. So, if you have studied French, but are a native English speaker, you are likely to work from the source language of French into your “mother tongue” or “main language – English.
Some institutions such as the EU categorize languages as “A/B/C/” languages. A is your ‘main language/mother tongue’, B is the second language of which you have an excellent command. You might occasionally interpret/translate into this, but only from your main language/mother tongue. C is a passive language (you are expected to have a high level of proficiency in this language, but may not have the same levels of fluency as in your A and B languages) which you could use as your source language.
Which language skills are required?
Many translators learn additional languages after their degree through personal study, working abroad or additional language courses. It’s often said that once you’ve learnt the skill of translating, it’s more straightforward to add more languages, and it’s a way of developing your professional skill set.
For the UN
To work as a translator or interpreter for the United Nations, your main language must be one of the six official languages of the UN: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian or Spanish. You also have to know two other languages (from this list of six) well enough to translate into your main language. If you just have one additional language from this list of six, you could still work for the UN provided that you have, for translation jobs, a Masters degree or higher in a relevant field for international affairs, or, for interpreting jobs, a main language which is either Arabic or Chinese.
For the EU
To work as a translator or interpreter for the European Union, you must have perfect command of one European language and a thorough command of at least two others. One of these two other languages must be English, French or German.
To work as a lawyer-linguist for the EU, you must have perfect command of one European language and a thorough command of at least two others.
To work as a proof-reader or language editor for the EU, you must have perfect command of one European language, and thorough command of a second. One of your languages must be English, French or German. For the Court of Justice you must have at least a passive knowledge of French.
Other general skills
As well as your language knowledge, common skills cited across both interpreting and translation roles include:
- Interest in current affairs and general knowledge
- Analytical skills
- Research skills
- Picking up new ideas quickly
- Strong cultural awareness
Additional skills for Interpreting
- Tact and diplomacy
- Good public speaking
- Calmness under pressure
Additional Skills for Translation
- Networking skills
- Attention to detail
- Organisational skills
- Writing skills
- Subject knowledge (you could work in a specialist field based on your subject knowledge of law, medicine, etc…)
- IT skills
- Love of working with texts and language
Getting first-hand experience is a good way to ‘try out’ translation or interpreting activities, and to build your awareness of the skills you might want to develop further, although there aren’t as many formal internships as there are in other sectors.
Getting Experience at Oxford
- Research local charities which work, or might wish to work, with non-English speakers (e.g. Asylum Welcome, Refugee Resource, Jacari) and see if there’s a way they can use your language skills.
- Join Oxford student groups which focus on nationals from a particular country or language. See if you can use your skills to support events, committees or projects.
- If you are interested in trying out interpreting, an alumnus who is a conference interpreter suggests the following exercise to experience what it’s like:
Listen to a short piece of source language (a ‘speech’ from TV or radio delivered at a reasonable pace, of about three minutes duration) and then try to deliver a summary of it in your target language (mother tongue). Record your attempt and listen back – did you include the main points? Were you clear? Did you “um” and “ah”? Was there any clumsy English?
Getting Experience outside Oxford
- If you’re looking to build your language skills further, you might want to check out the British Council’s options to work/volunteer and improve your languages – (this includes opportunities like the Language Assistant schemes.
- Language-related internships in the UN.
- Language-related internships are also sometimes advertised on CareerConnect.
- The majority of work experience opportunities are likely to come from translation and interpreting agencies. Use the links in ‘External Resources’ to find organisations in your preferred region. Explore their websites or get in touch with them to see if you can help their work.
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.