Communication an Essential Soft Skill for Interpreters and Translators

Unsplash photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko
This week's issue of Connecting Cultures' Interpreter Development Newsletter included a short piece on a very important reality in our or any service profession: the importance of the experience we provide our clients. We often focus on the hard (or technical) skills required to provide quality service, such as linguistic, interpreting, and translation skills, however, as Winnie Heh always teaches the graduate students she advises at MIIS, our customers' experiences are more often shaped by our soft skills. For better or for worse, the reality of our profession is that we often provide services to monolingual, bilingual or even multilingual individuals who do not fully understand the value we bring or the technical skills required to do what we do. The value of well-developed soft skills is that they help us demonstrate our quality in a language they understand. In my experience, communication is the most essential collection of interrelated soft skills in our profession.


Although often considered a given for interpreters during the interpreting encounter, we often neglect to recognize the important role communication skills play for translators and for interpreters outside of the booth or the interpreting encounter. Our communication skills could shape the overall experience for all parties involved. Communication is not one, but a collection of soft skills working harmoniously to achieve desired results. What is often perceived as "good" communication is usually a group of several soft skills such as listening, negotiating, body language, persuasion, presentation, public speaking, writing, story telling, tone, and so on. Each interaction with a client or stakeholder may require a combination of one or several well developed soft skills under the communication umbrella to leave a good impression. 

Have you ever had a client who clearly does not realize the time required to complete a quality translation or does not understand why two interpreters are needed for a particular assignment? 

I am sure anyone who has been working as a professional interpreter or translator for a few weeks has come across a similar challenge. Achieving a positive outcome to this all-too-common situation however, does not require excellent linguistic, interpreting, or translation skills, it requires strong communication (i.e. listening, negotiation, persuasion and maybe even writing) skills. 

If we listen to why the client requires such a quick turnaround time or why they insist on a single interpreter where two would be the best practice, we will better understand what is most important to them. This will then put us in a better position to negotiate. Good negotiation skills require compromise, what is the client able to compromise and what are we able to compromise to achieve both of our goals. Finally, our persuasion skills will not only help us achieve the most acceptable outcome for that one particular project or assignment, but also set the stage for future collaboration. If the communication was through email, strong writing skills that allow you to concisely relay your message clearly and professionally will be key to achieving the desired results. 

How to develop your communication skills? 

Since communication is comprised of several soft skills, the key is to focus on and develop each skill independently. To do so, you must first identify which of the skills is in most need of improvement. After identifying the particular skill you want to develop, the next step is to engage in what has been coined as deliberate practice, where you simulate situations in which you can isolate and improve that particular skill. 

For example, if you need to practice your negotiation skills, you could ask a friend or colleague to role play a situation with you. Additionally, you could prepare lists of key items that are essential to negotiation. For example, if the three most relevant factors for translation are time, quality, and cost, what are the areas of compromise for each of these elements? What are you unable or unwilling to compromise under any circumstance? Is technology an avenue for compromise? Having thought through some of these questions ahead of time will put you in a better position to intelligently and amicably negotiate and maybe even persuade your client. 

Finally, you re-evaluate the skill until developing it to the desired level of competence and move on to the next skill. The idea is to make a continuous effort to build and develop your communication skills, just as you do for your linguistic and translation or interpreting skills, because developing these soft skills is as important as developing your hard skills. 

How do you work to improve your soft skills? Is there one particular soft skill you consider to be the most important for interpreters and/or translators? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


  1. Being adaptable can help buffer your organisation from any unexpected challenges or uncertainties. This is why when you embrace change and get on with the plan, you’ll be able to earn more trust from your bosses as they know that you’re doing right by the company. Read : top 5 soft skills employers want candidates to have.


Post a Comment