Interpreters help people from different cultures to communicate effectively, in spite of language differences by translating orally what one person has said into a language that others can understand. Sign language interpreters translate the spoken word into sign language for the deaf and hearing impaired.

There are three main types of interpretation: simultaneous, consecutive and liaison.

Simultaneous interpreters translate a speaker’s words into a second language while the words are still being spoken, where simultaneous equipment is not available at conferences. Simultaneous interpreters usually work at international conferences in comfortable glass booths that are placed so that the interpreter will have a good view of everything that goes on in the conference hall. Delegates are then able to receive the translation by means of earphones. 

Consecutive interpretation occurs after the speaker has paused, usually sentence by sentence, and is more suitable for business settings, national and international conferences, and smaller meetings. Consecutive interpreters usually work in courtrooms, hospitals, embassies and in consulates. 

Liaison is usually used for public service, such as in a hospital or legal setting, and the interpreter will check that the listener understands after each sentence.

Typical responsibilities include attending meetings or conferences, listening carefully, comprehending languages, accurate and clear reproduction in the specified language and using technology where appropriate, such as microphones, headphones, telephones, video and the internet.

The work involves a considerable amount of travel and your hours will be organised to suit your client.

All interpreters must study the cultural, historical and political backgrounds of the people whose languages they interpret in order to best understand the meaning of their words. Working conditions are generally excellent.

Key skills are complete fluency in their working languages and the ability to instantly comprehend and convert one language into another.  Interpreters also need a good understanding of spoken and colloquial language. In liaison and consecutive translation, a good memory is particularly helpful. Equally, excellent concentration and the ability to think quickly are essential. Those working in international conferences should have good political and current affairs awareness.  IT skills are also beneficial.

Interpreters differ from translators in that interpreters concentrate on the spoken language, or signed language if interpreting from or into South African Sign Language (SASL), and on the emotions and attitude of the speaker, while the translator deals with written language.

Sign language interpreters interpret the spoken language into sign language by making use of signs and gestures that deaf and hearing-impaired people can understand.  They are simultaneous interpreters.  Some are so skilled that they finish their interpretation almost exactly at the same time the speaker finishes speaking.  They interpret the speaker's facial expressions and gestures as well. Sign language interpreters usually mouth the phrases visibly without making sounds and combine this with their hand-finger gestures to help deaf people understand. they need to be placed in a position where they can hear and see the speaker clearly, and be seen clearly.  They usually wear plain clothing with no distracting buttons or jewellery.  Another way of interpreting for people who cannot hear or speak is to use finger-spelling.


  • international political organisations, the United Nations in particular

  • embassies and consulates

  • government, particularly in law courts

  • tourism industry

  • national and international conferences

  • self-employment, as a freelance interpreter

Getting Started

  • hone your language skills and practise interpreting by listening to radio programmes in other languages

  • arrange to speak to an interpreter about this career and attend court sessions or conferences to watch interpretation in process


Durban University of Technology , Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, North-West University, University of Limpopo, University of Pretoria, University of South Africa, University of Stellenbosch, University of the Free State, University of the Western Cape

Related Occupations

© 2017 Pace Careers