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Careers Centre

Interpreting and translating

Sector Overview

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. 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. Translators will normally translate sources or speech into their mother/native, tongue. Because interpreters will need to interpret both ways, being bilingual is very important.

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, 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 freelancers, although some larger organisations such as the UN and EU keep the two career paths quite separate.

The majority of interpreters work on a freelance basis, and all interpreters will have received specific training for the role. International assemblies, such as the United Nations, can be very selective in their competitions and will 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, specialised translation agencies, and many work on a freelance basis. An adept command of multiple languages is a skill valued in many areas of employment, notably banking and finance, politics, NGOs, publishing, libraries, arts venues, management consultancy, law, and jobs in engineering and manufacturing, due to their international client base. Interpreters and translators are also required in a wide range of other activities and lines of work, including aiding police investigations and other security services, helping immigrants, conference proceedings, sports events and governmental communications.

Freelance translators are likely to specialise in a particular area (e.g. law, finance). Those specialising in literary translation seek to convey the purpose/effects of the original text into the chosen language – there are far fewer opportunities in this area of work. Read the Translate Media Guide to Freelance Translation for information and tips to help you start and improve your freelance career.

As can be seen above, different institutions and organisations have different demands and expectations with regards to the knowledge of their candidates. For instance, to become a translator or interpreter for the European Union, you will be expected to be fluent in one European language and have an almost perfect understanding of at least two other European languages (one of which must be English, French or German). However, to work for the United Nations your ‘main’ language must be Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, or Spanish (the six official languages of the UN), and you should have such a thorough command of at least two others from this list that you could translate them into your main language. It is still possible to work for the UN if you only have one additional language from the list of six, provided that you have a Masters degree or higher in a relevant field for a job in translation, or a main language of either Arabic or Chinese for a job in interpreting. Because of this variety of requirements, interested students should research career paths and employers well in advance so that you can accumulate the necessary language expertise for the particular fields that interest you.

Currently, there are around 4,300 translators in the EU and approximately 1,000 interpreters working in institutions such as the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the Consilium Council and the Court of Justice. The largest proportion of translators, by far, work in the European Commission.

Prospects’ Studying Abroad page

Iolante – gives practical information for anyone interested in becoming a translator


Interpreting attributes/skills profile


Key attributes/skills needed for the role Where you could develop these skills or attributes

CAPOD offers courses on these kinds of skills regularly within its Professional Skills Curriculum.

Taking on positions of responsibility in student-run societies will give you the chance to put these into practice.

Consider positions which demand use of your language skills such as TEFL jobs or working in tourism eg guided tours, holiday care rental.
Excellent communication and interpersonal skills
Persuasiveness and motivating skills
Picking up new ideas quickly
An understanding of (British or Western) cultural issues and current affairs
A thorough interest in and understanding of current affairs and international politics Keep up-to-date with world news and current affairs, and develop this attribute through extra-curricular activity in student-run societies such as Amnesty International and the Debating Society.
Empathy, curiosity, tact and diplomacy, initiative, good public speaking
Clear verbal expression and the ability to explain linguistic concepts

This is most likely to be developed and evidenced through your academic studies and work experience.

The National Network for Interpreting has more information.
A thorough understanding of the ‘native’ language and a degree in the second language, particularly grammatical conventions

Other key attributes/skills demanded for the role: do you possess them?

  • Flexibility/adaptability: the work can be inconsistent and constantly changing.
  • Analytical and research skills
  • Stamina: the hours can be long.
  • Note-taking: required to keep track of conversations, shorthand is very useful.


Translating attributes/skills profile


Key attributes/skills needed for the role  Where you could develop these skills or attributes
The capability to assimilate large amounts of information quickly;  accuracy and attention to detail

These are most likely to be developed and evidenced through your academic studies.

A student representative role is also likely to offer opportunities to develop these characteristics

CAPOD offers courses on these kinds of skills regularly within its Professional Skills Curriculum
Love of working with texts and language
Organisation and writing skills
Attention to detail Presentations within your course, and debating experience. A student representative role is also likely to offer opportunities to develop these characteristics
The confidence to communicate complex information to others
Sound analysis and application of problem solving skills

As well as being developed and evidenced through your academic studies, taking on positions of responsibility in student-run societies will give you the chance to put these into further practice

The National Network for Translation has more information.
Subject knowledge (you could work in a specialist field based on your subject knowledge of law, medicine, etc…)

Other key attributes/skills demanded for the role: do you possess them?

  • Flexibility/adaptability: the work can be inconsistent and constantly changing.
  • Analytical and research skills
  • IT skills: especially for those translating sources on a computer


Nature of Sector or Roles

Students interested in working in this sector should be aware that, though many translators only know one language additional to their native tongue, the majority will learn additional languages through personal study after graduating from university. Not only does this add to your skillset, it also demonstrates a personal commitment to and interest in the sector.

Some necessary skills expected of both translators and interpreters include:

Also, see the National Network for Interpreting for the desired skillset of someone working in Interpreting, and the National Network for Translation for the skillset of someone working in Translating.

Language skills would be seen as an asset by most employers, particularly those with overseas clients and contacts – due to the increasing prevalence of world markets and general globalisation means that increasing numbers of organisations look for translators and interpreters. For instance, Teaching English as a Foreign Language and diplomatic roles are other careers those with multiple languages can consider. However, it is important to try to secure professional accreditation – this will make you more employable, as many agencies and recruiters won’t even consider taking on someone without accreditation.

The rate of pay for interpreters and translators is hinged on a number of variables, including number of words, sentences, or paragraphs, time spent actually changing between languages, the time in which the job must be completed, etc.

See the Prospects website for interpreting and translating job profiles.

Some roles include:

Proof-Readers and Editors: These interpreters will check documents for errors, consistency and accuracy. Larger organisations can often have a dedicated editing team.

Other potential roles include lawyer linguist, literary translator, subtitler and language analyst.

Networks - why and how to use them

Networking is particularly important and can help you succeed with your applications. If you have been in contact with someone working for the organisation then you have extra information to back up your case for why they should employ you.

Use social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook (many organisations have their own page) to connect with organisations, and people in the line of work that interests you, especially alumni. You can try searching for alums from the University who studied modern languages and, if they have contacts overseas, use them to find out about opportunities abroad. Recent St Andrews graduates have gone on to work for Cambridge Editing and LCI. Alumni can make extremely useful contacts, giving you an "edge" with your applications and interviews. There are several ways to make contact with alumni.

Have a look at the Network with Alumni section of our website for more advice and information.

How to gain experience/internships

The following websites include listings of internship opportunities:

How to get a (graduate) job

Be creative during your job search – it is not just international organisations that need people with languages. Hospitals and schools, for instance, often require those who speak multiple languages, as do police and local security services, particularly in areas with high rates of immigration or that are popular with tourists.

It is advisable to be part of the ITI (Institute of Translation and Interpreting) in order to keep up-to-date with all the issues that impact interpreters and translators, such as rates of pay, procedures.

Translation companies and agencies offer the opportunity to work as a freelance translator, a position which does not require further study or experience. Most translators and interpreters are, as a result, freelance. Typically, the work would involve being sent documents to translate for the company’s clients, which you would then sent back upon completion – unsurprisingly, freelance positions of this sort can be fairly ad hoc with little guarantee in the way of work, while those in the employment of an organisation or business will have steady rate of work. However, it is possible to work as a freelance interpreter with the European Institutions - see Interpreting for Europe for more details. For many agencies and employers, a professional qualification, in addition to between 2 and 5 years’ working experience, will be required before they will take you on. It is also possible to work as a self-employed freelancer, but before making this career move it is important that you have developed skills in networking and in negotiating contracts, and you should be able to successfully market yourself to prospective clients.

The UN’s Language Careers website (see link in list below) has valuable information on the different positions they offer, including editors, interpreters, terminologists and translators and the competencies and qualifications required for these roles. It also has useful details on the examinations that will need to be taken for these positions.

European Commission

The Directorate General for Interpretation (DG Interpretation) – also known as SCIC, is the European Commission’s interpreting service and conference organiser. Recruitment is via open competitions. Over the next 5 – 10 years the EC is facing an acute shortage of English language conference interpreters, with approximately 50% of its current English interpreters heading towards retirement in that time. This means finding 200 English conference interpreters by 2020. Graduates/students should have an excellent command of English as their first language, a thorough knowledge of two other EU languages, and a postgraduate qualification in conference interpreting. You can learn more about working as a linguist in the EU by reading Translating for a Multilingual European Union

The Directorate-General for Translation (DG Translation) is the in-house translation service of the European Commission. To work for DG Interpretation, you must be an EU citizen and you must hold a full university degree in languages or another field. Translators and conference interpreters are encouraged to apply to DG Interpretation in the summer.

Other EU institutions and bodies (Council, Parliament, Court of Justice, Economic and Social Committee, Court of Auditors etc) have their own translation departments, whereas the various agencies, spread around the EU, have a translation centre in Luxembourg to handle their translation work.

Details of future EU translating and interpreting competitions can be found on the following websites:

The EU has produced a booklet on where to look for translator or interpreter jobs in EU institutions (pdf).

View YouTube videos on EU Careers in interpreting and translating.

United Nations

The United Nations is one of the world’s largest employers of language professionals, together with the European Institutions. It employs hundreds of language professionals working in the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM) through its offices in New York, Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi. Visit the Language Outreach Portal of the United Nations for job details and how to apply.

Like the European Commission, the UN hires via competitions. See the following links for more information: UN competitions; EU competitions. Competitions occur sporadically every few years for each official language of the institutions – they are an opportunity for candidates to put themselves forward to be assessed, with successful candidates having the chance to be selected by different departments for an interview for a specific position. However, invitations to interviews rarely occur immediately after successful assessments and can in fact arrive months after the initial assessment.

Civil Service

In the UK, a significant proportion of public sector translation and interpreting work is outsourced to Capita. All translators and interpreters must have at least two references from previous employers or project managers, be professionally qualified and, for translators, have previous experience in the type of material they will work on. Some freelance roles include work on Visa and Immigration, and many permanent roles are along the lines of the security services. Also see the Careers Centre Civil Service webpage for more information.

Other Tips

If you apply for a job abroad when your main intention is to improve your language skills, you must still present yourself the same way as you would for any other job to any prospective employers – they are still looking for staff with the necessary skills, experience and attributes. This will usually mean emphasising other goals, rather than your desire to improve your command of another language. In the case that you are job searching in a foreign country with the predominant intention being to improve your languages, it might be best to look for a job below graduate entry level in order to give you the time to immerse yourself in the language and the culture and to do so in a comfortable environment. Local-level approaches can often be of more use, especially when looking for a fairly low level role.

Try to narrow your job search down to a specific town, if possible, and thoroughly research the employment situation in that area. European Nationals have the right to work in any other EU state, but the economic and political climate of a particular country can impact on your job prospects. Some, like Spain, have higher levels of unemployment than the UK and so it is more likely that they will select nationals over foreign applicants, depending on the job in question. It is also important to check the immigration visa and work permit situation of the country before you apply for jobs, as most will only grant a visa or permit after the offer of a job. Employers like to see that you have researched the specifics in your application, so it is worth mentioning that you don’t anticipate any problems with regards to your visa or permit (if this is the case!). See the Prospects page for country specifics.

Looking for jobs is usually much easier when in the designated country itself. If already in the country in which you wish to work, make use of local papers and the local version of the yellow pages and use your local contacts.


Interpreting & Translating Job and Vacancy Websites

Specialist recruitment agencies and jobs boards

Languages Work has a list of relevant recruitment agencies, but examples include:


Job websites


Vacancy websites


Relevant Postgraduate Study

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. 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. That being said, as mentioned above, most freelance translating work does not require further study or qualifications, and language analysts in the intelligence services and EU translators are frequently employed without postgraduate translation courses or extensive translating experience. However, postgraduate qualifications are a prerequisite for most translating and interpreting professions, particularly for permanent roles in larger institutions, such as the European Commission.

There are a reasonable number of institutions offering courses in Translation and Interpreting for both 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. Particularly for entry to an interpreting course, your potential is likely to be tested at interview. The EU has established a ‘quality label’ for university translation programmes that meet agreed professional standards and market demands. For more information, visit the ‘European Master’s in Translation (EMT)’ website.

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, and the less commonly found Dutch, Greek, Norwegian and Swedish. Other courses offer Arabic, Chinese and Japanese. 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.

When considering postgraduate study, be sure to thoroughly research the institutions you are applying to in order to discern the destinations of their graduates - some courses offer specialist language training in different career sectors, including sciences, engineering, law, etc. Vacancies for specialised positions can be found in the industry publications for the particular sector. The alumni tool on LinkedIn can be useful for finding destinations. If trying to decide whether or not to start a postgraduate course, it might also be beneficial to contact alums on LinkedIn and Saint Connect who have taken postgraduate courses in interpreting and translating and ask them if it helped them secure a job. Be aware that a masters in translating does not qualify you for any sort of career that involves interpreting (e.g. a public service interpreter), and vice versa. Interpreting and translating are two different skills. Most students will specialise in one or the other, but there are a number of Interpreting & Translating masters programmes.

For a comprehensive list of postgraduate courses, visit the Prospects website.

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.

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.

For further information on researching and planning for a postgraduate qualification, please visit the postgraduate study page.


Earning a diploma is another way to prove your professional competence. The Institute of Linguists offers a number of examinations which, after successful completion, will award you with a specialised diploma; some of these include the Diploma in Police Interpreting (DPI) and the Diploma in Translating (DipTrans). For anyone interested in pursuing a diploma after gaining relevant work experience or a postgraduate degree, the Chartered Institute of Linguists provides information on preparatory services for the examinations.

Key Links and Resources


Use CareerConnect, your central careers hub, to:



General interpreting/translating careers information

Professional Bodies, Trade Organisations & Journals/Magazines