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.

Personal Requirements

  • trustworthy and responsible as incorrect interpretations may have far-reaching consequences
  • extrovert character
  • patient and tactful
  • good command of languages and fluency in speech
  • good hearing and a clear voice

How to Enter

Schooling & School Subjects

National Senior Certificate.

What to Study

Degree: A BA degree with languages can be useful as a background. The Department of Justice offers training courses to all new court interpreters on a fairly regular basis. UNISA also offers a BA with specialisation in court interpreting. University courses in foreign languages may be necessary for other interpreter positions.

Training as a court interpreter involves undergoing a language test. Successful candidates are appointed temporarily and work under the supervision of a chief court interpreter. They must pass a further language test administered by the inspector of interpreters to be appointed to probation. After the probation period of 12 months they attend a theoretical and practical course. On completion of the course the interpreter is allowed to work independently.


  • 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

Further Information

The South African Translators’ Institute
PO Box 31360
Bloemfontein, 9317
Tel: (011) 522-2168

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

Programmes by Study Institutions

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