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I am 23, have a BA in Modern Languages (grade: First) and will have an MPhil (Master's degree) in Linguistics in July (both from Cambridge University). I am considering various career opportunities, one of which is interpreting. Having taken university translation courses and done work experience in a translation agency, I have some idea of my aptitude for translation (good at formulating in my native language, English, but hampered by lack of knowledge of various domains - of course if working professionally, I would need to specialise and/or gain more wider experience), but am not sure how to know whether or not I would make a good interpreter without at least applying for a course. I've read the general descriptions of skills required, think I meet them and particular enjoy oral communication about intellectually demanding topics, but don't know how to test my aptitude and interest further.

I'm also not sure which languages I should focus on if I do want to pursue interpreting.

My languages: English (native),

German (CEFR: high C2 - one of main languages in BA, maximum mark in final year oral, have been learning for 13 years, have spent a total of approx. 20 months living, studying and working in the country, often mistaken for a native in conversation, potential to develop into a B language),

Italian (CEFR: low C2 - the other main language studied in BA, total of approx. 9 months living and studying in Italy), French (CEFR: low C1 - 7 (maximum mark) in IB Higher language B (school leaving exam) - have continued to use the language intermittently, but have never spent an extended period of time in a Francophone country),

Spanish (CEFR: B2.2), Polish (CEFR: B2), Dutch (CEFR: B2.1), Portuguese (CEFR: B2.1), Romanian (CEFR: B2.1), Russian (CEFR: A2.2/B1.1).

During my year abroad, I studied mainly politics and international relations for one semester at FU Berlin and history, geography and philology for one semester at La Sapienza Università di Roma. I've also done three months' work experience in transport planning, have been involved in politics and would be interested in learning about economics. I'm aware that there isn't much interpreting work with Italian, that French is generally important, that work with Spanish generally isn't well paid and that Polish may be useful in the EU.

I'm interested in learning Mandarin but it would take a long time for me to reach a high level and I understand there isn't high demand for native English speakers working from Mandarin, so I probably wouldn't use it professionally.

I could apply for an interpreting course in a German-speaking country in one or two years' time and focus on German as a B language, in which case I imagine I'd be interpreting at bilingual meetings or conferences in Germany and competing with German native speakers for work.

Alternatively, I could develop two, three or four C languages such as German, French and Italian, and perhaps apply for one of the interpreting schools in Geneva or Paris, as they seem to be considered the best.

Or are there others I should definitely consider, such as ZHAW or Belgian or British ones?

Since a specialist qualification is only desirable, not essential for translation, whereas it is essential for interpreting, and since interpreters often also translate but translators don't also interpret, I presume that an interpreting qualification would be of more value than a translating qualification if I don't know what I want to do - is that right?

Some British universities teach both together, but only in one year, and it seems that that is not long enough to learn either of them properly.

asked 13 Feb '18, 16:06

OscarHughes1's gravatar image


edited 13 Feb '18, 16:11

Gaspar's gravatar image

Gaspar ♦♦

Hi Oscar,

Since you are asking about ZHAW and I am a ZHAW graduate -or more precisely speaking a graduate of the former DOZ: Zurich Interpreters School (which merged with another school into ZHAW)- I'll be happy to give you some general piece of information. These bits of information may be outdated. I haven't been in touch much lately and things change. So you'd better ask the school for current information regarding the program.

First of all, ZHAW is not focused exclusively on the CH market. Of course, teachers and trainers are mostly Swiss interpreters, they have guest teachers from abroad on a regular basis though. Practically all teachers are AIIC members. The school was small and I think that it stays small, with very few students per language and thus a very personalized teacher/student relation and ratio. Last time I was at ZHAW in 2011 and I was really impressed: The interpreting practice room was state-of -the-art and one of the best and more impressive practice rooms I've ever seen (not in a windowless and badly lit cellar for once). The best of the school is that they tailor the program according to your language combination and needs. You can learn with your respective A language (provided it is DE, EN, ES, FR or IT) + the language/s in your combination. The only condition is to have DE in your language combination either as a B or as a C language. Another admission regulation: The minimum language requirement is A + B + C or A + C+C+ C. Admission with a specific A language be subject to a minimum number of participants. I do not know if they still do it but they used to go by the approach: you need, you got it! That means that at least in the past they organized one-on-one interpreting courses for students with language combinations not officially offered by the school: RU into EN, IT into ES, PT into DE, SWE into DE, etc. You have the teacher for yourself but this means less class time and more hard and lonely work for you in between classes. Check this out:

As for your language combination: You have an impressive list of known languages. I wouldn't try to bite too much. Deffo a B language German will come in handy if you are planning on moving to CH or DE, AUS. Most interpreters working A<>B with DE and EN on the private market in these countries end up not using their C languages (= loosing them). It's the private market situation. However I'd advise you to diversify in order to boost your work chances at the beginning of your career and later on. A couple of C languages may open new avenues for you in terms of jobs (UN sector, EU). I'd go with French and Spanish, provided your Spanish is up to speed. French will help you on the Swiss German market I guess. Italian may be somehow interesting with limitations: if you plan to move to Italy, it'll be a must, also somehow interesting on the Swiss private market and maybe also interesting with French for EU institutions (I am sure Gáspár knows better than me if this is the case). French + Spanish for EU and UN sector despite being a run-of-the-mill combination. If your Italian at the moment of admission is better than your Spanish, go for Italian and leave Spanish for later ...if at all: You'll have enough on your platter with the studies, you'd better enter the school with copper-tight languages so no need for half-baked languages. No lived-in experience with French will be a problem for a French C.

I hope this helps. Good luck,


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answered 13 Feb '18, 19:04

Conrado's gravatar image


edited 13 Feb '18, 20:18

Thanks - really helpful. Yes, I'd need to spend at least a few months working in a French-speaking country before offering a French C and presumably a longer period of time working on it intensively. For Spanish C, I'd need to do even more work. I may be ready to offer Italian C without any or much more work. So getting French up to scratch would be the priority. I'd want to be at CEFR C2 before entering the school since, as you say, remedying half-baked languages is not something I'd want to be doing during the course. Do you know anything about schools in DE/AT? Do they focus on DE <> EN? Would they be suitable for English A? Is the DE/AT/CH market for DE <> EN still large or is it shrinking and oversaturated as more German speakers use English at conferences?

(14 Feb '18, 03:23) OscarHughes1

German schools focus on German A students. Students with A-languages other than German are only admitted with German B + a C language but they don't get class hours C into A (i.e. French into EN). They must work C into B (FR into DE), which is fundamentally wrong for many different reasons. German EN<>DE private market is increasingly saturated because there are more and more interpreters and recent graduates with this combination. However, there is still more work for this combo than for other languages (ES, FR, IT...). This happens because most German speakers in Germany have shortsightedly decided to give up German and a very high number of conferences take place in English only or EN<>DE only. An English A would be an asset here considering most colleagues are German As with an English B. This is changing too: more EN As on the market. This is my very personal opinion/feeling.

(14 Feb '18, 05:14) Conrado

EN A, FR C & DE C is a combination colleagues in Brussels were able to work with for a lifetime until retirement. Throw in Italian and you have an USP as a beginner. The EN booth isn't getting any younger, and they'll enthusiastically welcome fresh blood. With 3 C languages, you'll be able to spend your first years on the job improving your technique, before (if at all) having to consider adding a fourth C.

(14 Feb '18, 06:32) Gaspar ♦♦

You seem to have understood your options fairly well (A/B EN/DE or A/CCC EN/DE IT FR). I would drop all the other languages for the time being and spend some time in France. As for schools anything in the AIIC Schools Directory would be OK so long as 1) they have trainers (plural) who are EN A and 2) it's in or near the market you want to work on. (ZHAW has EN As for example.) The second point is less relevant for A/CCC because you'll be aiming at Brussels with that combination, however the school should have visiting examiners from the EU and/or visiting trainers from the EU (that ensures that they will keep an eye on promising interpreters as they progress thru the school). Trainers who work for the EU would obviously also be a plus.

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answered 14 Feb '18, 13:11

Andy's gravatar image


edited 14 Feb '18, 14:12

UK schools only seem to offer CC, not CCC, so I don't think they would be an option. BC(C) would be an option but would probably be too ambitious (the B would have to be German, and I'd have to spend a lot of time on it, and the C would have to be French I guess because of the market, which would also require a lot of work, with Italian C a further possibility). How much spare time do students in interpreting schools have? Would it be reasonable/sensible to work during an interpreting course to cover living costs? I have significant savings and a very undemanding low-cost lifestyle, so wouldn't have to do this, but it would help since Paris and Switzerland (where I would most likely to the training) are expensive places.

(14 Feb '18, 14:26) OscarHughes1

Another question: which non-linguistic areas of expertise are particularly valuable in interpreting (particularly regarding the EU, as that's where my combination is likely to be valued)?

(14 Feb '18, 14:45) OscarHughes1

"Would it be reasonable/sensible to work during an interpreting course". Not sensible. If you can avoid it you absolutely should. NB ISIT has moved out of town to Arceuil where rent is considerably cheaper than in the centre. That means saving money and time travelling to and from the school.

(14 Feb '18, 14:55) Andy

You won't be expected to have anything more than good general knowledge to start with. But later an idea of how economics (micro and macro) works is going to be useful. If you don't already know the for and against of big political issues you should start finding out (incl. but not only... welfare, higher income tax, Brexit, wind farms, fracking, legalisation of drugs, immigration, to name but a few). Knowing how governments and parliaments work is useful and surprisingly few people do. Likewise how the EU works.

Later, when you get accredited you will come across all sorts of subject matter (and have the chance to research and prep it in advance) but what will be common to all the meetings will be the procedure. Who is in the room, who do they represent, what are their political views, why are they here, who's suggesting who's deciding and the like. Knowing how the EU institutions work will be essential. (This for example is dry as hell but absolutely essential reading (later)... The European Parliament 9th edition by Richard Corbett, Francis Jacobs, Darren Neville). I'd also recommend parts of by Caroline de Cock because she explains just that - how institutions and legislation work - to would be lobbyists.

(14 Feb '18, 15:07) Andy

I've had a look at the ISIT general knowledge questions and could answer 20/20 of the English questions with certainty and 15/20 of the French questions (three of the ones I couldn't answer related specifically to Francophone culture/politics, so I would improve if I spend time in France). I've taken courses on the EU and have a fairly good general knowledge of governments, parliaments and the issues you outlined. I'm interested in economics and read a couple of books a few years ago, but have never studied it.

(14 Feb '18, 15:24) OscarHughes1

That sounds like a good start. (Being interested is the best place to start from!) And yes... do spend some time in France, especially if you want to get through the Parisian admission tests! (I think the 9 months you spent in Italy is the minimum one needs in a C language country before starting an interpreting course and more is better if you can).

(15 Feb '18, 04:10) Andy

Ps you could kill a few birds with one stone by reading Piketty in French!

(15 Feb '18, 04:50) Andy

I've read half of his most famous book (in French), I stopped because I didn't have time to finish. I will go back to it.

(15 Feb '18, 07:36) OscarHughes1
showing 5 of 8 show 3 more comments

Or are there others I should definitely consider, such as ZHAW or Belgian or British ones?

  • ZHAW, not sure. Most likely only in combination with DE B, and provided you're aiming at the CH market.
  • Belgian courses: no. The main reason being that they aren't tailored for EN A.
  • UK: One year courses, a vast majority of their graduates end up everywhere but in the booth.

Since a specialist qualification is only desirable, not essential for translation, whereas it is essential for interpreting, and since interpreters often also translate but translators don't also interpret, I presume that an interpreting qualification would be of more value than a translating qualification if I don't know what I want to do - is that right?

Two different jobs. Both need training. Because your competition will have had proper training. Unless you're working with the unqualified, earning peanuts.

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answered 13 Feb '18, 16:19

Gaspar's gravatar image

Gaspar ♦♦

Really useful advice - thank you. Why is ZHAW only good for the Swiss market?

(13 Feb '18, 16:31) OscarHughes1

My assumption is that it's easier to get a foot in the door on the same market as where the school is based in. Adding to that, whether you speak CH-DE or AT-DE might make your life more difficult in Germany. I've seen AT students being given a hard time, with their 'mistakes' being constantly corrected by DE trainers. Which weren't mistakes per se, but mere localisms. As a foreign speaker, it'll be even more difficult to tell two variants apart. It's like me trying to get UK and US English separate and stick to just one, to no avail.

(14 Feb '18, 06:40) Gaspar ♦♦

Gáspár has a point here. It'll be easier to start working on the market where your school is based. Your teachers/trainers are your future colleagues and they'll be willing to hire you. However, your trainers have contacts in other countries and can give a heads-up and recommend you to organizers and colleagues based on the country or market you want to work in. This happened to me when I moved from Zurich to Germany and it opened many doors. BUT: Be aware that people in CH speak Swiss German on the street. The full immersion in your B-language country that you would expect will be a bit lacking. I didn't intentionally learn Swiss German in order to keep my 'Hochdeutsch' at it best (my B-language back then) but this ended up me being and feeling isolated from the locals when interacting with them. Imagine being at a party where you don't understand what people say and people will only speak Hochdeutsch when talking directly to you but Swiss German among themselves.

By the way, have you considered SDI in Munich? If I am not wrong they do have a similar tailor-made approach as they have in Zurich.

(15 Feb '18, 06:03) Conrado

I understand and speak conversational Zürich German already, though thought I'd leave Swiss German, Latin and Esperanto off my list of languages since I'm not going to use them for work. I've spent three 2-4 week holidays with native speakers in the Schaffhausen area, though some were from Zürich, and I insisted on using the dialect most of the time. However, a Swiss German dialect environment wouldn't be ideal for German B, I fully agree.

(15 Feb '18, 07:29) OscarHughes1

No, I hadn't though of SDI specifically. Thanks. I'll have to look into their provision of English A trainers.

(15 Feb '18, 07:35) OscarHughes1

Thank you for all the advice two years ago. I'm now posting to let you know where it's led me. Since 2018 I have completed internships at the European Comission and Swiss government and spent a few months living and studying in French-speaking Belgium to improve my French. I am currently working as a translator in Geneva. I followed a summer course in interpreting at Germersheim last year and have done voluntary intepreting on a few occasions since then. This spring, I applied to ESIT (Paris) and FTI (Geneva) and been accepted by both with the combination: English A, German B, French C, Italian C. I'm intending to accept the Geneva offer. And hopefully in a couple of years' time I will be a qualified conference interpreter.

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answered 18 Jun, 12:03

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question asked: 13 Feb '18, 16:06

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last updated: 18 Jun, 12:03

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