top of page
  • Writer's pictureNikolaj Widenmann

Can Any Bilingual Person Be an Interpreter?

Language interpretation is a highly specialized profession that requires a bilingual to perform – and that only few bilinguals can master. Unlike translators, who translate written text from one language to another, interpreters work with spoken language in real time.

Possible interpreting scenarios include the following:

  • A #courtinterpreter who interprets legal proceedings into a foreign language for the defendant or who interprets witness testimony or the defendant’s statements into English.

  • A medical interpreter who enables hospital staff and patients to speak to each other.

  • A conference setting where the interpreter interprets a speech or a presentation to attendees through headsets.

Being bilingual is perhaps the most obvious requirement. However, bilingualism is just one of the many tools that a professional interpreter must possess. Few would hire any person off the street to build a home based solely on the person’s ownership of a nail gun. Likewise, simply knowing how to read does not qualify a person to write a legal opinion, a motion for a criminal case, or a sentencing memorandum. And certainly, a Boy Scout who has earned the first aid merit badge is not yet qualified to perform a heart transplant.

In 1980, a young man received the wrong diagnosis due to misinterpretation provided by a bilingual hospital staff member. The patient ended up with quadriplegia and a major settlement from the hospital.

This is just one example of why it is crucial to hire a duly-qualified professional interpreter when accuracy is imperative.

So what does it take to become an interpreter?

Needless to say, complete bilingual fluency in both languages is essential – but it is not enough. Some of the characteristics of professional interpreters include the following:

  • Knowledge of and proficiency in the different modes of interpretation (consecutive, simultaneous, sight translation)

  • Specialized, active vocabulary in a particular field (legal, medical, etc.)

  • Ability to use a variety of registers (level of language)

  • High-level vocabulary typically attained by a college graduate

  • Certification (where available)

  • Knowledge of applicable codes of ethics

  • Professional training and continuing education

Modes of Interpretation

A successful interpreter knows how and when to use the different modes of interpretation.

The Simultaneous mode requires the interpreter to interpret at the same time that someone is speaking. This means that the interpreter listens attentively and renders everything that is being said, typically staying a few seconds behind the speaker to capture the full context of what is being said. Examples of the simultaneous mode include:

  • A court interpreter interpreting for a defendant in a criminal case or a party to a civil case

  • A conference setting where interpretation takes place through microphones and headsets to conference participants

The consecutive mode involves the interpreter repeating what is said after the speaker pauses. In a court setting, this is typically used during witness testimony of when the court asks questions of the defendant.

A sight translation is when the interpreter renders an oral translation of a written document.

First Person, Not Third Person

An interpreter who renders speech as “He says that…” is a red flag. Professional interpreters interpret in the first person, as though he or she were the original speaker.


Interpreters typically specialize in certain fields. Thus, the vocabulary of a court interpreter includes legal terminology in both languages. Inevitably, this entails insight into the legal systems of at least two countries since legal terminology and concepts vary significantly, especially between common-law systems (such as in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom) and civil-law systems (such as in Latin America and most of Europe).


The term register refers to a person’s level of speech. Court interpreters have to speak at the level at which speech is rendered in order to convey the same message. This means that when lawyers and judges spew legal jargon, the interpreter spews legal jargon; the interpreter cannot explain what the concepts mean or add or remove anything from the message. If the speaker speaks the street language of a hardened drug trafficker littered with slang, the interpreter has to replicate those terms as well.


Certifications exist for court and medical interpreting. In the United States, court interpreters can achieve certification by the state courts; a separate certification process applies to the federal court system. It should be noted that in the U.S., certification is typically only offered for major languages, such as Spanish (the United States Courts offer certification in Spanish, Navajo, and Haitian-Creole).

Code of Ethics

Court interpreters are bound by codes of ethics (click here for an example), which include matters such as confidentiality and the avoidance of conflicts of interests. In a court of law, the interpreter must be completely impartial to ensure a completely unbiased interpretation of the proceedings.

Training and Education

Interpreters receive specialized training in their particular field of interpretation. Ideally, they should hold at least a college degree. Furthermore, as in the case of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, interpreters regularly undergo continuing education to maintain and enhance their knowledge and skills.

Life as an interpreter is a highly demanding, but also an extremely rewarding career. Using a professional interpreter who is properly qualified for the task at hand is essential to successful multilingual communication – especially when life, liberty, and money are at stake.

(Nikolaj Widenmann holds an MS in Translation from New York University. He has ten years of experience as a court interpreter and is certified by the United States Courts as a Spanish/English court interpreter. He regularly interprets at the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. In addition, he is certified by the American Translators Association (ATA) as a Spanish-English and Danish-English translator and specializes in #legaltranslation.)


Recent Posts

See All

COVID-19 Crisis Translation Response

At WTS Translations, LLC, we are aware of the major health and economic impact that the coronavirus outbreak is having at the local, national, and international level. We are following the recommendat


bottom of page