What Does a Personal Interpreter Do?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 31 March 2020
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A personal interpreter translates from one language to another to facilitate communication in interpersonal interactions. These can occur in clinical, legal, business, and social contexts, requiring different interpretation skills. Depending on where someone works and the kind of services offered, it may be necessary to have a certification. In other cases, a working knowledge of two or more languages is all that is required, with no particular credential necessary to work in the field.

Some interpreters have a regular group of clients, and in some cases may work exclusively with one client. A deaf businessperson, for example, might retain a sign language interpreter to facilitate at meetings and other events. Others are freelancers who make themselves available for travelers or in other situations where interpreting is needed in the short term. Fees can vary, depending on the terms of the contract. People with special training in fields like legal interpretation generally charge more as a reflection of their skills.

Clients meet with their interpreters to discuss the need and make sure they are a good fit. For medical and legal interpreting, for example, it’s important that the interpreter clearly understand and be able to explain information. In business, knowledge of regional culture might be important, and the interpreter can act as a filter to smooth out rough edges in communication to facilitate a deal. A client might ask a question that could be considered culturally offensive, for example, and the personal interpreter could rephrase it when translating.


In situations where interpretation is necessary, the personal interpreter can listen, translate, and relay responses. Interpretation is less literal in nature, as the goal is to clearly communicate. For this reason, the interpreter may add personal asides to clarify or explain the situation, or make recommendations. This differs from activities like formal document translation, where very precise and faithful translation is required for legal reasons.

Remote personal interpretation services are available. Judges and doctors may take advantage of a personal interpreter who works over the phone to get translation quickly, without having to call someone in. This can be a particular issue in regions where the population is small and someone who speaks the language might need to travel for several hours to get on site. Over the phone, the personal interpreter can be available immediately, although some nuances may be missed because it’s impossible to see body language and it can be hard to interpret tone over the phone.


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