Imagine a job that involves frequent travel around the world, occasionally sharing the same room with some of the world’s most influential people, a job in which you can set your own hours and above all, provides you with a decent income?
Such is the potential life of a speech interpreter.
Speech interpreters are usually found at international political and business conferences. Their chief responsibility is to listen to speeches in one language and then translate the content into another language. Speech interpreters basically break down language barriers and make sure everyone in attendance can understand and participate.
Kenya-based interpreter Steve Rabuku started on this path in 2004. The former teacher says at first, speech interpretation was just a part-time side hustle to earn extra money. His ability to speak English, French and Swahili has now made him one of the most sought after interpreters in Africa and he does this full time.
Rabuku travels throughout Africa to work at the many international conferences taking place on the continent. We caught up with him during a recent assignment at the 8th Africa Population Conference in Uganda.
“Traveling is exciting but being away from your family more often than not can easily turn one into an absentee parent or spouse,” Rabuku says. “This is one of the key challenges as an interpreter who is always on the move.”
The intense, demanding nature of the work is equally stressful.
“Sometimes you are in the sound booth and the speaker on the floor is speaking at a fast pace, as an interpreter, you must keep up with their pace no matter what. Otherwise, you can easily make the participants not to get the intended meaning of the speech.”
Modes of interpreting
There are three systems of interpretation; consecutive, simultaneous, and whispered interpretation.
“When it comes to consecutive interpretation that is what they normally do like in churches and crusades when one is preaching. They make a sentence and stop to wait for the interpreter to interpret,” Rabuku explains.
“But what we do is called simultaneous interpretation where one is in the sound booth, that is interpretation in real-time, such that when the person on the floor is speaking, let’s say in French and I have to interpret into English, people who don’t understand French in that room will wear headphones and listen to me interpreting what the person on the floor is saying.”
Rabuku says people who can quickly think on their feet can thrive in his profession.
“What happens is, some interpreters are not trained but because they have that higher level of two languages they are working with; there is what we call the resource language and the target language, for example, if you’re a Kenyan and an English speaker, it is considered that English is your first language and so you are most likely to translate from let’s say French to English.”
One of the biggest challenges in this line of work is occasionally being asked and expected to factually and honestly translate speeches that may come in conflict with your personal beliefs or that may be offensive.
“I was once hired as an interpreter in a political meeting and the views of the speaker were sort of against what I believed in but I had to do it”.
“You are not supposed to distort the message and an interpreter needs to be very neutral in the sense that, sometimes you go to different conferences and you find what’s being discussed is against your religious beliefs, cultural beliefs or your principles and that kind of thing. So whether what’s being said is good or bad, you just have to say the way it is,” Rabuku explains.
One less obvious concern among those in the industry is technology and the potential for technology to replace the human element of speech.
Machine interpretation software uses speech recognition systems to process a speech in one language, Swahili for example, into English text, which is then delivered to an English listener through speech synthesis.
The software and companies that produce could potentially disrupt the speech interpretation industry and put people like Steve Rabuku out of work.
Surprisingly, Rabuku doesn’t see machine interpretation software as a problem, but more of a compliment to what he does.
“Machines are not bad because we have languages that normally interpreters might be lacking, so machines can easily help at this point.”
His statement is corroborated by the technologies experts who submit that the goal is not in replacing qualified expert interpreters, but rather providing reliable translation in languages not heavily serviced by interpreters.
According to the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), the umbrella organization with which most speech interpreters are affiliated, most interpreters work on a freelance basis.
However, some are full-time employees with multinational companies and organizations. Rabuku says the easiest way into this field is by building a multilingual background while in school.
Many universities now offer specific courses in speech interpretation.
“I would encourage those people who are still in school especially those studying languages and especially foreign languages, they can think of becoming interpreters at some point.”
Compensation levels vary from country to country and are determined by whether one is working a freelance assignment, short/long term contract or is a permanent, full-time employee.
U.S. based Salary.com lists the average hourly rate for a speech translator in the U.S. at between $20 and $26. That rate can be higher based on the years of experience, certifications and type of language that is being interpreted.
The AIIC says experienced full-time speech interpreters can earn well over $200,000 annually.