Bilingualism-And What To Do With Yours...Translator or Interpreter or Bilingual Specialist?

M. Eta Trabing


Copyright 2008 Berkana Language Center. All Rights Reserved.  No part of this work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transcribed in any form or by any means, including, but not limited to electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or other means, without prior written permission.

What is Bilingualism?

According to Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary: having or using two languages especially as spoken with the fluency characteristic of a native speaker

According to Merriam-Webster OnLine Search: using or being able to use two languages, especially with equal fluency

According to Christopher Thiery, an AIIC interpreter and author living in France: A true bilingual is someone who is taken to be one of them by the members of two different linguistic communities, at roughly the same social and cultural level. This degree of bilingualism is usually obtainable only by people raised in a bilingual household in which both languages and cultures are active (this author’s bolding).

According to Frank E. Johnson, a translator living in Oklahoma: A bilingual person is able to carry on (to understand and be understood) “adult” conversations (about matters of daily living using language normally used by adult speakers) in a second language with a monolingual adult speaker of the second language.

So you see, these various definitions of bilingualism all have in common fluency of a language and at an adult level.



Some terminology is common when talking about languages and when working in more than one language, and you need to know it. So here we define the most common:

Source language: language you interpret or translate from

Target language: language you interpret or translate into

Dominant language: language you speak, read and write the best

Native language: language that you speak/spoke at home with relatives, but didn’t necessarily go to school in. So many children of immigrants or first generation Americans fall into this category, as their schooling is now in the U.S. and in English only. Not many of these children take their native language in school as they already “know” it.

Second language: language that you also speak, read and write, at more or less the same level as your dominant language. Obviously, it may be your native language if you study it at school or at home.

Monolingual: a person who speaks only one language

Translator: works with the written word only from one language to another

Interpreter: works with the spoken word only from one language to another

Bilingual specialist: a bilingual person who can do his/her job equally well in either language, without ever being asked or having to interpret or translate (i.e., psychiatrist, accountant, clerk, secretary, car mechanic, landscaper, etc., etc., etc.)

T/Is: translators and interpreters


Being bilingual ...


Is just the first step to becoming a bilingual adult in the working world.


Does not mean that you must know every single word in English or in a foreign language (about half a million words in each of the world’s major languages)


Does mean that you can communicate in two languages – but at different levels of language proficiency.


Think of it this way – you may have two hands, but that does not mean that you are automatically an accomplished pianist.


It takes years of training and experience to become a good professional interpreter or translator or pianist.


For most kinds of work, you will need to know both your languages at the college graduate level.


Probably one language will always be stronger/better than the other.


There are few truly bilingual people – depends on your home life and education growing up (if you lived in a bilingual household and went to a bilingual school from kindergarten through high school or college – you are truly bilingual). For instance, I went to a school where English (British English) was taught all morning – history, math, geography, language arts, etc. And Spanish (the Argentine government system) – history, math, geography, language arts, etc., was taught all afternoon. From the principal down, every teacher changed at noon. We were not allowed to talk Spanish in the morning or English in the afternoon. We learned a lot, and homework was unending! But each system taught things that were important to its country and culture, so we picked up a lot without even being aware of how much we were learning! An ideal schooling for a potential translator or interpreter.


How does one know a language?


You may know a language as well as ...


A tourist (“Dos cervezas, por favor.”)


A 2nd grade school child – who knows about 2,000 words and is learning grammar, reading and writing.


A migrant field laborer – who knows about 5,000 words in his language and is trying to learn English so as to fit in better wherever he is living. He probably went to work at 8 or 9 years of age to help his family survive, he barely learned to write, he has no problem with giving change in two currencies, and at 20, has little non-working time to learn words for abstract concepts in either language.


A high-school graduate - will know about 80,000 words, if she studied well and came from a home where education is valued – possibly half of that if schooling was sporadic or not emphasized in the home. We all know that businesses in the U.S. are and have been having trouble hiring employees straight from high school, because a high percentage of them can not read or spell properly – so much wasted human talent!


A college graduate – will have not just four years more living experience, but words for a particular chosen career – around 150,000 words in one language. Although he/she may know another language quite well also. Some colleges are giving up the foreign language requirement – it is seen as unnecessary – but I think it’s a great shame that Americans don’t know more languages and cultures than just their own – we are behind the world in that respect. In Europe, just about everyone speaks 2 or 3 languages; of course, the countries are smaller and people travel more. Here we have two huge oceans on either side and a country bigger than most others.


A college professor – has much experience in his particular field, but not necessarily in fields other than his own, but many more years of living experience – over 200,000 words in one language; unless teaching another language – then probably equal in both.


A writer – about the same as a college professor or lawyer or doctor, again in special fields and in one language, although a number of writers can and do write in more than one language.


At each level, the vocabulary and the knowledge grows, and it doesn’t matter how or where you obtain that knowledge, as long as you get it.

But at whatever level you are at (except the tourist example), you still know the language. You just might not know it well enough to be able to work in it. Working in a language requires adult language proficiency.


Professional interpreters need and are expected to know two languages at the university postgraduate level, and must learn many subjects superficially, and 3 or 4 in great depth – their specialties.


Berkana Language Center has language proficiency tests in English and Spanish that you can take to see how you rate.


Just for your amusement!




Now, let’s look at what each specifically does, so you can decide which would suit you best.


Translator or Interpreter?


As we said:

Translators work with the written language, but usually translate only into their dominant language. This means: books, documents, brochures, letters, instruction books, and anything else written that someone needs in another language.


Interpreters work with the spoken language so must be able to speak well in both languages at the level of an educated monolingual speaker. This means: in court, in depositions and hearings, in hospitals and clinics, for Child Protective Services, for state/federal/local agencies and in any situation in which two people cannot communicate and need help.


Interpreters and translators must also know local dialects and regionalisms, and the latest terminology in all their chosen fields. People who only speak a local dialect may also need an interpreter occasionally. People who speak the local version of “Spanglish” may also need help reading a book or speaking to someone who does not speak that version of Spanglish.


Few people are both translators and interpreters – most prefer one or the other, and it depends on their skills and their personalities. Interpreters prefer to speak fast and think fast and move fast and be where the action is, and interpret ing by it’s very nature is never absolutely perfect; translators prefer to think more in depth, have the time to do more research, and prefer to be perfectionists; and they don’t mind sitting in front of a computer all day!


Or a Bilingual Specialist?


Do you already have a career, but also know two languages? Maybe you didn’t know that a second language might be a great asset to you. Maybe you spoke it as a child but never kept it up into adulthood.


With some extra study, you could do your job or career or profession in both your languages equally well – which would give you a tremendous advantage over monolinguals in your same job or career or profession, and open many new doors! Not to mention a higher salary commensurate with your additional knowledge. And additional profit for your employer!


You could update your second language and learn the terminology of the job, career or profession you already have so as to make yourself twice as good and twice as needed!



Requirements for Both Translators and Interpreters


There are some requirements for T/Is that overlap


Be bilingual at a college graduate level. If you’re going to work, you need a good, adult, educated, level of language, beyond high school. If at all possible, go live in another country for a year or so, your language skills will improve enormously!


Be prepared to use other people’s idiolects. It is a very different matter to speak a language well enough to duplicate other people’s words, meanings, grammar and syntax, and not just those you know. Idiolect means the language or speech pattern of a person at a particular moment in time.


Be prepared to do a lot of research (libraries, internet, etc.). There are so many new things appearing every day, in technology and the sciences and in every day speech, that you need to keep up with. Before the internet, T/Is lived in libraries or phoning other T/Is to ask for help. Nowadays, things are very much easier, just about everything you could want to know is available on the internet. Sometimes not in your languages, but maybe in another language that is close to one or the other of yours, which you could use to triangulate with. For instance, knowing Spanish and English, you could triangulate with French or Portuguese and maybe see a word that reminds you of just the right word you needed in Spanish. You need to know how to use the internet properly, know what is believable, and not get caught with some of the garbage on the internet.


Possibly specialize in 2 or 3 subjects and know them in depth. There are so many hundreds of subjects, that it would be very hard for you to know them all in depth, so pick a few and become an expert in those. Make sure your specialties are marketable, you do need to earn a living, I assume! If you study more in depth some of the subjects that you already know a lot about, it’ll be quicker and easier for you. Do you have a particular affinity for or interest in a subject, something you liked before but never pursued? Now’s the time! The more you like something, the more effort you will put into it.


Know business and computer terminology. Everything in this day and age has to do with computers and their software and terminology, so you must know these well enough to use them properly and quickly – time is money! And if you are self-employed, you’ll have to know how to run a business also. Those two subjects are included in just about every and any subject – sooner or later, there is business and computers, and taxes and accounting and banking. And if you think you can’t learn how to use a computer – think again. You’ll be left out of all sorts of business and personal situations if you don’t have e-mail. You’ll be left out of all types of business, period, if you don’t know how to use a computer. If elders at 70 can learn, so can anyone!


Read a lot in both your languages and in your specialties. Keeping up with reading in both your languages will help you develop a better vocabulary and will let you see how new words are used in sentences. There are foreign newspapers available on the internet, pick at least one a day and read the news in both your languages. If you have specialties, read documents and papers written by the top experts in that field, so you can both learn and keep up.


Be prepared to study new subjects and words for ever! As long as you work, you’ll need to keep up with new subjects and words – they will never stop and neither should you! It’s exciting to challenge your mind every day with something new! It stops you from being bored and being boring, so keep on learning.


Know the cultures that go along with your languages – they are important! “Culture is the total pattern of human behavior and its products embodied in thought, speech, action, and artifacts and dependent upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations through the use of tools, language, and systems of abstract thought.” (Merriam Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary – CD-ROM version). This will help you not make mistakes such as, “travel on leather” (an airline slogan) that got translated as “viaje en cuero” (travel naked!) If you are aware of words or gestures that might be bad words or obscene gestures in another country, you won’t use them. If you know both the cultures you work in (which is a whole separate course!) you won’t offend people or get them upset. And remember never to use the American OK sign in almost every country in Latin America. It’s obscene there!


Be more than just computer literate. You need to know how to work a computer well, not just the bare basics. Take some classes in the various programs of MicroSoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc., etc. So much of what we do is in that software you want to know it well.


Have appropriate dictionaries (monolingual, bilingual, in all your specialties) Although good dictionaries are not cheap, you need good ones. The Oxford Spanish and the Pequeño Larousse, both English-Spanish, Spanish-English, are two of the best, and come in pocket size ($15) and full size ($60). These are general dictionaries. You will also need good English-English dictionaries (Webster’s, Oxford, Cambridge, etc.), with lots of definitions and good Spanish-Spanish dictionaries (Diccionario de uso del español and the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española) with lots of definitions. And you need good dictionaries in your specialties; these may have to be updated every 10 years or so. In the meantime, there is the internet, but be careful, there is garbage on it, too. So if you have the same definition from 3 reputable sources, you can accept it. If it only shows up in one dubious source, keep looking! There are also millions of typos on the internet, so be aware of those, too.



Requirements for Translators


You must (in no particular order):


know how to write the target language almost perfectly and know how to write well. If you don’t like writing, you won’t write well. If necessary, take some writing courses, both literary (essay writing) and technical; many if not all community/junior colleges offer them.


be very detail-oriented and precise. Remember, every comma and apostrophe must be in the right place, not to mention correct spelling and grammar. Translations ARE written in stone, all mistakes will come back to haunt you for a long time! Make sure you never leave out a sentence, or part of one, or a key word in a sentence; a “not” will make a huge difference. And you are liable, if the client loses money and sues you!


know your way around a research library and the internet. We’ve commented on this already, the more you know, the better you’ll be.


pick some subjects that you know in depth or are willing to study in depth What were your favorite subjects in school? What hobbies do you have? What subject strikes your fancy because you think it’s interesting? All these are indications of some of the things you might like to specialize in.

Gardening, horticulture, trees, forestry

Pottery, clay sculptures, porcelain

Knitting, quilting, sewing, patterns

Music and musical instruments

Arts and crafts

Clothing, fashion, fabrics

Furniture designs, woods and upholstery fabrics

There are so very many things to chose from.


know what subjects you already know and love and can use. See if what you love is also marketable (music, art, mechanical engineering, animal science, agriculture, medical, landscaping, etc., etc.)


comprehend the source language completely; it helps if you can also speak it fluently, your clients might have more confidence in you, but it is not absolutely necessary What is necessary is that your translation into your dominant language be perfect.


be prepared to study grammar again (as an adult writer and editor, not as a school child). The grammar you took in elementary and secondary school may be a fond memory somewhere in your past, or not! Learning grammar again from a translator’s point of view requires an adult’s perspective, a college graduate’s perspective. There are so many new rules since many of us were in school, so we need to keep up, not just with English (difference between British and American English), but Spanish is changing rapidly also. Many words that we used to accent, we no longer do. We now put accents on all capital letters also, which we didn’t before, except for the ñ. Before you start translating, be sure you know the latest grammar!


be a good proofreader of your own work. All work must be proofed more than once. It is best to have someone else proof it for you, new eyes see things we missed. But even before you give it to a proofreader, let your translation sit for a day or some hours (depending on your deadline) and then proof it on paper, rather than on the screen. Run the spell check, but that won’t pick up all mistakes, it can’t tell the difference between their (adjective “su”), there (adverb and pronoun, “ahí, allí”) and they’re (contraction for they are) in a sentence.


know your audience for every job. The register you write in is the level of language you use to transmit the information. It is important that you know who will be reading what you are translating – children, farmers, housewives, professors, engineers. Obviously, you must stick to the original writer’s way of saying things, but knowing your audience will help you decide whether to use this or that syntactical form or this or that word instead of another. What country is it going to? Mexico, Spain or Argentina? The Spanish will be very different.


not fall into “translatorese” – your work must stand on its own. Remember that the people who will read the translation are NOT bilingual, so your version must be totally understandable to those who are monolingual.


ensure that your work makes total sense in the target language. The last proofreading you do, should look at this aspect of your work – does it make sense all by itself? If not, rewrite the portions that are confusing.


always deal first with meanings, then with words. If you understand the meaning, the right words will fall into place.


ask, if you do not understand something in the original, or there will be errors in the translation Don’t be afraid to ask the client what something means if you don’t know or if it sounds wrong. Many times, the translator is the last person that can catch a possibly very expensive mistake, so speak up (after you’ve done your homework and knowing that something is definitely wrong!) If you know your subject, you won’t have to ask very much.



Requirements for Interpreters


You must (in no particular order):


know both the source and target languages equally well. You need to speak clearly and well, with as little accent as you can manage; monolingual people must be able to understand you easily. Interpreting is public speaking, if you’re shy and speak in a very low voice, you may need to go to an acting coach or to a Toastmaster’s Club, there is a group in almost every city. They will teach you to overcome shyness and speak out!


use the tone, register and words of the original speaker. If the speaker is angry, your interpretation should sound angry or at least a little angry, and not be a monotone. If a speaker uses slang or idioms, you must use slang or idioms in the other language; if a speaker is erudite you must sound the same; if a speaker is a child, you must sound like one, too, with the words and syntax you intend to use. If you are a woman interpreting for a man, you must use the words that a man would use in your target language, not your words. The same applies to a man interpreting for a woman, of course.


convey the speakers’ exact messages. Do NOT summarize; repeat the message exactly in another language, don’t leave out anything, don’t add anything, don’t change anything. That is the most important thing that interpreters do. Do not give additional explanations, either. The interpreter’s sole purpose is to bring the non-English speaker to the same level as an English speaker with the same intellectual level, nothing more, nothing less.


a speaker can be very erudite or have little formal education, you must be able to reflect both faithfully.


have a great store of knowledge in your short- and long-term memory (time and experience will add to it!). You must know as much or more than the people you will be interpreting for, so that no matter what they say, you will be able to interpret it. If you interpret from a relaxed state, words will sprout from you long-term memory and come to your aid when you need them. If you are up-tight or nervous, everyone will know it very soon. Under those circumstances someone may begin to doubt your interpretation.


be a people person. You are with people all the time, it helps if you like people! You will interpret often for people who are sick, frightened, angry, mentally challenged, almost always in crisis situations, you must keep your cool while some of your clients cannot. You will act differently in a business situation, in a court or in a hospital. You should be adaptable and flexible.


keep up with all the modern language changes. Languages change daily. Slang changes quickly, certainly from one generation to another. Ask your children and grandchildren what the latest words are. Learn them! Whatever subject you work in there is slang that you must keep up with. Many people don’t speak well or properly or grammatically, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to.


learn consecutive and simultaneous interpretation techniques. Take classes or read books to learn what can and cannot be done in interpretation. Consecutive requires a good memory and note-taking skills and speakers will give you time to interpret; simultaneous requires great concentration and greater language skills at great speed, no one waits for you to interpret, you have to keep up with the speaker, about one sentence behind for reasons of comprehension and syntax between English and Spanish.


learn sight-translation techniques. Translating verbally from a written document is not easy and needs practice to make it sound smooth and understandable


Once you learn the techniques, keep practicing, everywhere and every day – you will get better and better with time! In none of these methods do you have time to look up words or meanings, they must already be in your short-term memory. Sometimes, in consecutive, you may have to stop and ask the meaning of a word, but use this as seldom as possible. And in simultaneous, it is impossible.


learn as many dialects and regional jargon as possible within your languages. Spanish has so many versions, that you’ll spend a lifetime learning half of them! Just do the best you can. Unless you work conferences, you won’t have to worry about any English, but the American variety.


learn the local “Spanglish” -- but as a separate language, NOT to replace English or Spanish Whether you think Spanglish is an appropriate language or not, it is a reality we live with, so learn the local version, south Texas, south California, New York Puerto Rican or Dominican or Miami Cuban. Half your clients will probably speak these versions of Spanglish. If you don’t know what a “chirroquero” is or a “güeldeador de paipas” in South Texas, you will be lost.


learn to accept pressure and tension and still keep your cool. Interpreting is a high tension job, if you don’t operate well under pressure, then you should probably not be an interpreter. Don’t get into arguments with clients, they ALL prefer to work with friendly, helpful and quick interpreters.


establish trust with those you work for. Interpreting has almost everything to do with trust. No matter how good you may be, if people think you are untrustworthy, you won’t be hired. Project trustworthiness! Imagine yourself in a foreign country and suddenly you have a medical emergency or get arrested and you understand nothing. You are now at the mercy of an interpreter in that country – good or bad, you have to trust them and deal with them. How does that make you feel? Scared? That is how our clients feel – don’t ever forget that!



Requirements for Bilingual Specialists


That you have a job, career or profession that you like and wish to continue in. Whatever you like to do you will be good at.


That you speak, read and write English and one other language at an adult level.


That you dedicate some time and effort to studying your job, career or profession in your second language. You can study on your own, or take classes, how you get your knowledge is immaterial, just get it!


Keep your two languages as separate as possible, so you don’t fall into Spanglish. This dialect works only in specific places, where, if you use it, you will fit in better; but it won’t help you at all if foreigners come from South or Central America or Spain. Try to get a feel for the demographics of your region and adapt to them in your work.


If you are not as up to par as you would like or need to be, make the effort to learn your second language properly. Again community or junior colleges are great places to take continuing education courses in speaking, reading and writing a foreign language.


Be able to talk about and do your job, career or profession in both languages equally well. Whatever work you do can be learned in both languages. It’s a question of learning new terminology – the job you already know.


Be prepared to travel, if necessary This is a big perk, and loads of fun. You get to do what you do best, explaining to others in two languages, and your travel is paid for.



A Few More Things ...


Now that you know the basics of what to expect from each bilingual opportunity, think of which one you would be most comfortable with, which one you might enjoy the most, which one your temperament and personality are best suited for.


Are you a perfectionist? Like to work alone? Translating is good.


Do your prefer to be with people? Or be where the action is? Interpreting is good.


You should enjoy what you do, every day!


Decide what you like and what you do best and make that into a marketable skill in two languages. Now that you know how to go about it – have fun doing it!


Learn the geography and history of your area. So many foreigners mispronounce names in a language new to them And you will need to understand where they live or want to get to. You need to know that Brownsville, a major point of entry between Mexico and the U.S., is actually referred to as “Bronbil” by Spanish speakers.


What regionalisms or unique words are used in your area? Why? Find out and learn. All local versions of Spanglish, have a fascinating history.


What other peculiarities are there in your region or in your second language? Ask people from other countries that speak your language. Start your own glossary of things you didn’t know, but now do.


Get to know this country. It’s quite amazing and fascinating! That way you can tell foreigners and tourists where to go and what to see in your geographic area! Foreigners want to know about us, too! And they need to learn our customs and cultures if they intent to live here.


Knowing history and geography makes your area, and others, so much more interesting! If you get to travel, learn a bit about the geography and history of where you are going, it will explain why the people and their culture is different from yours, and why their way of doing things may be just as good as ours, this will broaden your horizons!


Keep your two languages as separate and distinct as possible. Sometimes, your clients will speak only one or the other, so you can’t mix them up.


Do not fall into the use of false cognates or the local version of “Spanglish” – unless it makes you better at your job, career or profession. We’ll talk about false cognates further along in this booklet.


You need to know both languages at a good, educated, adult level. You don’t want people laughing at your mistakes when you told your boss you were fluent!





For translators:


ATA certification – English to Spanish, or Spanish to English – there are also other language pairs and directions available

Check website:


For interpreters:


Court certification -- both federal and state

Check National Center for State Courts (NCSC) website: for both federal and state exams. Check to see if your state is a member of the NCSC Consortium and requires certification. Forty states are members and require certification.


NO community or medical interpreter certification at this time, but there will be soon – see the National Council on Interpretation in Health Care,


Certification for bilingual specialists

None required for the second language part of your job, career or profession.


There may be a certification or license required for your job, career or profession. But you would already know that.


There may be some way to get certificates for your second language in your job, career or profession in another country or by taking special courses that will give you certificates of participation. Or by taking a language proficiency test in English and/or Spanish.



Necessary Investments


Like any other career or job, there will be necessary investments that you must make to carry out your career or job. If you work for yourself, you must:


have a computer, modem, internet access, e-mail address, software for both your languages;

know how to use them efficiently;

know how to use them specifically for your chosen career;

have office space or a home office;

have a telephone, fax/copier/printer;

have business cards, résumé or brochure;

buy office supplies;

learn to use Terminology Management software (Trados, SDLX, Déjà Vu, etc.) – translators only

learn to use PowerPoint and Excel, as well as Word in Microsoft Office or whatever other software your work requires – if you do desk-top publishing, you need to have the software for that and know how to use if well;

learn how to scan graphs and pictures;

invest in specialized and general monolingual and bilingual dictionaries;

learn to find trustworthy dictionaries on the internet;

learn to research subjects on the internet or elsewhere;

have your own simultaneous interpreting equipment – interpreters only – I had my own for 20 years and it was so very useful for almost all small conferences and court situations;

become a member of one or more professional organizations. How can you be a professional, if you don’t know what’s going on in your chosen profession?

stay up-to-date with what goes on in your profession, your career, your job, your community, your specialty, your world - new subjects, new technologies, new terminology, new everything and anything for EVER! At some point, you will have to know something new!



Ethics Code and Practices


For translators:

See the latest version of the American Translators Association’s Code of Ethics and Practices at


For judiciary/court interpreters, see:

The National Center for State Courts

The Administrative Office of the Courts in Washington, DC (federal)

NAJIT – National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators –

State judiciary interpreter associations


For medical interpreters, see:

National Council on Interpretation in Health Care – NCIHC


For bilingual specialists:

Whatever codes of ethics apply to your job, career or profession.



Professionalism Means ...


Being totally accountable for your work. You are solely responsible for doing your job well and carefully. And you are totally and solely liable for its quality.


Doing the absolute, best job each and every time. Sometimes, we get a little careless and sloppy because we’re in a hurry, but we can’t afford to do that, millions of dollars or a person’s life and livelihood may be at stake!


Making sense and asking the right questions and providing cultural comments, when appropriate. You are the only bridge between two languages and two cultures, so you must be a strong and reliable bridge.


Going beyond the bare essentials. Go out of your way to be helpful, when the situation allows, but generally provide more of a service than someone else – that’ll endear you to people who will call you again! And repeat customers is what you want.


Understanding your clients’ needs and meeting them honestly. If you cannot do a job, pass it on to someone else who will then owe you a favor and who will look after your client well. If you cannot meet a client’s needs, say so, don’t lie! The client will be grateful and know that you will do a good job when you say you can.


Don’t say “it’s good enough” about a job done. If that’s all you can say about it, then it’s already probably NOT good enough. If you think “it’ll pass, they won’t notice this or that,” you are making a grievous mistake! People notice a lot more than you think and it will count against you.


Proudly signing your name to each job (if only figuratively!). Imagine if you had to sign your work and then the client posts it on the internet, would you be proud of what you did or not so much?


Having earned your money. It’s a good feeling to know you have done a good job and ethically earned your money.



Some Rewards Are...


We get to transmit vital or important information Sometimes, it’s really dumb stuff, but so it goes – not everything is life is vital or important, some things are useless and inane, but get said anyway;


We act as cultural and language bridges;


We help people;


We learn new things all the time;


We make friends all over the world;


Our minds are constantly stimulated and forced to expand And as you get older, it’ll keep you from having dementia!!





Some Interpretation Specialties


Community / Health Care – out in the community and in public health situations, Child Protective Services, many state/federal/local agencies, etc. Look in the blue pages of your telephone directory for all government offices and see what is in your area, or look them up on the internet.


Court / Judiciary – obviously in criminal, civil, family and juvenile courts, at depositions, at judicial hearings, Workers’ Compensation hearings, unemployment hearings, etc. In 40 states, requires certification.


Medical – hospitals, clinics, insurance companies, doctor office visits, etc.


Conference – small or large -- many subjects, international or national


Telephone or video interpreting – connected to a client by telephone or video in their place of business or institution, and you interpret when your language and subject are needed, without having to travel to that place of business; there are about six companies providing this service now;


Escort or seminar (US Department of State) – escort interpreting is traveling with the foreign visitor and interpreting at small meetings, mostly consecutive, seminar interpretation is both consecutive and simultaneous; you must pass the US DOS exam given only in Washington, D.C.


Diplomatic/Consular (US Department of State) – you may actually live in foreign countries or travel to them, interpretation is simultaneous; you must pass the US DOS exam given only in Washington, D.C



Some Translation Specialties


Literary – novels, books, magazine articles, fiction, non-fiction;


Journalistic – journalism, newspaper articles, so much foreign news needs to be translated into English before it can be republished, and it is always rush!


Health and Human Services – public health information, dietary information, basic health and hygiene


Technical – innumerable fields, i.e., automotive, aero space, all types of engineering, electrical, air conditioning, telecommunications, etc.


Legal – mostly business contracts, all legal documents that people need, need to know legal terminology and style of writing;


Scientific – innumerable fields, i.e., cancer research, animal science, medical, and all sciences


General business – correspondence, contracts, manuals for employees, benefits, human resources, insurance, etc.


Computers / localization – all software has to be localized (or made to fit a local market) in another country and language – quite difficult with very specific terminology;


As many specialties as there are human endeavors!



Other Language-Related Specialties


Précis writers for the United Nations – summaries of committee meetings prior to the verbatim record being translated; must know how to pull out what’s important, like abstract writing.


Interpreter, translators for the United Nations, must use British English and British spelling (not the American version)


Terminologists – conduct research to itemize terms connected with a certain field, define them and find equivalents in another language; they prepare glossaries for use by T/Is


Typesetters / Desk-top publishing – DTP – typists who specialize in various languages and who set up and prepare brochures and advertising materials in other languages, inserting graphics, maps, tables, etc. They need to know how to write the foreign language, without spelling mistakes and how to hyphenate correctly. Although a lot of cut and paste is used by English only speakers.


Proof-readers / Editors – proofreaders ensure that no translator has missed parts of an original in the translation, that there are no typos or other mistakes. Editors tend to rewrite a translation to where it still reflects the original, but has a little more leeway in how the translation can be made to sound sooner.



Bilingual Jobs


Each and every job can become bilingual, and make it better;


There are as many jobs and specialties as there are human endeavors, so your scope is endless;


A bilingual job does not mean you should be required to translate or interpret, but simply to do your job in two languages equally well; you now know that being bilingual doesn’t automatically make you a translator or interpreter, so no one should be demanding that you be one or the other!


Different bilingual jobs will require different levels of language proficiency If you are a psychiatrist, you will really have to know the right terminology in your second language; if you are an office clerk or store clerk, you’re language level need not be as high; if you are an electrical engineer, you would need a higher level; if you are a bilingual receptionist, you don’t need as high a level, but you need people smarts and a pleasant personality, and so on and so on;


Every one of us has a niche or can make one somewhere! You’ll never know until you start looking, sometimes a little something falls in your lap and that suddenly gives you an idea to branch out into something. The world is full of surprises! Be open to them!


Not everyone who is bilingual must or should aspire to be an interpreter or translator. Your life would mean a lot if you were a superb bilingual nanny for children whose life you will have impacted for generations to come! Or anything else that strikes your fancy.


Each and every job can be made better by adding a language, increasing your boss’ profits and providing you with a higher income!



A Student’s Comment ...


“Being bilingual, I had just always assumed that I had all the skills necessary to translate. However, as I began receiving feedback on my translations, I realized that I had never truly appreciated what it takes to produce an accurate translation.”

Nicole Behrendt



Traps and Pitfalls


Neophyte translators (beginners) approach their task from a word-for-word perspective Don’t get hung up on words, the context may tell you what the meaning is. If not, ask!


Experienced translators concentrate first on the meaning, then on the words. Meaning is much more important, once you have that, the right words will fall into place, and you will know what syntax to use.


The expert has a variety of strategies to solve complex problems, which the inexperienced do not have yet. If you want to interpret or translate, take classes, read T/I books, prepare yourself!


False cognates. Words that sound the same in two languages, but that have totally different meanings – Spanglish tends to use a lot of false cognates, and then the true meaning becomes obscure because of the erroneous use of a word. We will give you some examples further below.



Decimal Separators


Comma (6,7%)

Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Paraguay, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela


Period (6.7%)

Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Puerto Rico, United States of America


Be very careful with this when working with countries that use the decimal comma – major misunderstandings occur if the numbers are misread! If you are translating into Spanish for the U.S. market, you need to use the decimal period.



Other Numerical Differences


Conversions to and from the metric system. As a translator and bilingual specialist, you must be prepared to do that for all written work – not necessary for interpreting, although it certainly helps to catch errors if you know both systems. If someone says, take 500 grams of this medicine, a red flag should go up in your mind as that is roughly equivalent to one pound of that medicine – something wrong here!! You should be able to spot something that sounds very wrong. Another example: in one English brochure, a bull (cattle) weighed 7,000 kilos (!), someone had converted wrong from the English, a bull elephant can weigh up to 12,000 kg, but a bull (cattle) will weigh about 1,000 kg (2,000 lbs), if truly large. Luckily, the translator caught the error!


Billion in English (1,000,000,000) – nine zeros

= un mil millones o un millardo


Billón in Spanish ( – doce ceros

= a trillion or a million millions


This is really important and hardly anyone seems to realize the difference; three zeros make an enormous difference!! Think if your salary had 3 more zeros in it! Wouldn’t that be great!



Know Your Subject


Here are just a few examples taken from different subjects. If you didn’t know the subject, you would have a hard time understanding the meaning.


… all of my rights and duties with respect to the minor will be extinguished and all aspects of the legal relationship between the minor child and the parent will be terminated.


Wheat, corn and pork bellies are traded on the commodities exchange.


Echo cancellation is a technique that allows isolation and filtering of unwanted signals caused by echoes from the main transmitted signal.


Blow-fly infestation of the breech can be effectively controlled for 6-8 weeks by tagging or crutching.


The echocardiogram showed left ventricular dilatation with normal left atrium, shortening fraction of 23% and ejection fraction of 30% with moderate mitral failure, normal pulmonary artery pressure and global diffused hypokinesis, with paradoxical septum.


As you can see, each subject has its own special terminology and jargon; however, anyone who works in those fields will know that terminology and what it means, and therefore, so must you!


Conozca su tema


En Paraguay, un 45% de la población es monolingüe en guaraní, y un 7% es monolingüe en español. El 48% restante es bilingüe en español y guaraní.


El empeoramiento de las condiciones eco-nómicas y monetarias provoca oscilaciones cada vez más violentas de las cotizaciones en los mercados monetarios y de capitales.


Una mujer alta y escuálida con un pañuelo enrollado en la cabeza le saca brillo a un pomo redondo de bronce de la puerta de hierro y madera del portal.


Los enterovirus se encuentran en todas las poblaciones porcinas del mundo; muchas de las cepas no son patógenas y existen 11 serogrupos enterovirales porcinos.


Al administrar ecoestrés-dobutamina hay mejoría de la contractilidad ventricular, sin claro incremento del sinergismo ventricular.


Durante su internación se efectúa cintigrama miocárdico de esfuerzo que no documenta evidencia de isquemia.


Other English-Spanish Traps and Pitfalls


The many meanings of “su” – his, her, your, their, its; without sufficient information it’s hard to know what the “su” is referring to.


The passive voice used more often in English versus the active voice used more often in Spanish.


Prepositions - 65 in English versus 20 in Spanish.


English present participles cannot be translated by using the Spanish gerunds, particularly in starting a sentence or in headings. All these verbs have to be put into the Spanish infinitive or nouns can be made with the infinitive and an article or nouns should be used.


Multiple uses of “for” -- para, por, de


False cognates


Check the exact meanings of all words in monolingual dictionaries (whatever your target language is), to ensure that the meaning there is actually the same as the meaning in the source language.


Look up Hamel’s Comprehensive Bilingual Dictionary of Spanish False Cognates, 1998. ISBN 1-886835-06-3, there are literally hundreds!


Some Common English-Spanish False Cognates

Actual vs. actual

Actually vs. actualmente

Consistent vs. consistente

Sensitive vs. sensitivo

Ignore vs. ignorar

Assume vs. asumir

Elaborate vs. elaborar

Figure vs. figura

Regular vs. regular

Relevant vs. relevante

Suppose vs. suponer

Editor vs. editor

Eventual vs. eventual

Etc., etc.



Professional Organizations


For translators and interpreters:

American Translators Association (ATA)

Local chapters or associate groups of ATA around the country – find them on the ATA web site


For interpreters in the judiciary or courts

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators – NAJIT

State judiciary/court interpreter associations – look per state to see if there is one where you live

For medical interpreters

National Council on Interpretation in Health Care (

Local/state medical interpreter associations – look per state to see if there is one where you live


For bilingual specialists

Join organizations for your specific job or career or profession; in this country and in foreign countries that use your languages or that you may travel to

You need to keep up-to-date with changes as they occur – not years later.

Go to trade conferences in all your specialties, learn new things.


Subscribe to:

Publications of the ATA Divisions of interest to you (medical, interpreters, literary, scientific, etc.)

Intercambios - Quarterly newsletter of Spanish Language Division of the ATA


For Classes:

Berkana Language Center – (self-study books, bilingual dictionaries, CD-ROMs, and short courses, translation on-line courses in 2009, other new products being added frequently)


See all the publications and other possibilities on the ATA website:


See what’s available on the internet – new things come along every day!


Other possibilities for T/Is and bilingual specialists ...


You could also volunteer at your church or some other local venue – but PLEASE, do NOT volunteer in medical or judicial situations where someone’s life and livelihood may well depend on your interpretation or translation until you have the requisite skills. You would hate to be responsible for someone’s being sent to jail or someone having a major health problem because of your mistakes!! I cannot emphasize this enough!!


Everything we talked about is doable and learnable, with sufficient dedication, commitment and effort. Nothing that is worth doing well and that provides a good income is easy; you must be prepared to study and keep up the effort until you get the necessary experience. Then you need to pass your experience on to others, so they can take your place and let you retire!! Like me!

Whichever career, job or profession you chose, do it well and proudly in two languages!!


Welcome to the world of bilinguals! It truly spans the world, and is an exciting place to be and to work!


M. Eta Trabing has been translating and interpreting since the late 1950s. These became a career when she moved to the U.S. in 1963, and have been her vocation and hobby ever since. She is a federal and state certified court interpreter. She has a degree from Cambridge University in Fine Arts and Languages. She learned Portuguese living in Brazil for too short a time. Her specialties are (in no particular order): judiciary and conference interpreting, and translating and interpreting in animal science, agriculture and veterinary, waste management, legal, general business, health and human services, medical, environmental sciences. Her working languages are English, Spanish and Portuguese; French and German were learned so long ago and were not used much, that they’re negligible!


Eta started teaching the odd classes in 1979 and then full-time since 1995, she teaches interpretation and translation in the fields she is familiar with. She has written and published many books – see Berkana Language Center – Products. She has traveled extensively throughout the Americas and parts of Europe as a conference interpreter and visitor. She is now retired from interpreting, but continues to teach and translate and write. She has many affiliations in the T/I world and has been a speaker on the subject for many years.