At the most basic level, a German interpreter conveys the oral utterances of one individual into the target language of another. For example, a German interpreter would translate words spoken in German to another language, such as English. Alternatively, the same interpreter could translate spoken English into German. An intimate, extensive knowledge of both cultures and languages is required, as interpreters must translate in real time, with no reference materials.
In terms of professional skills, a German interpreter must be fluent in at least one language besides German. Simply having the ability to speak two or more languages, however, is not enough. The interpreter must understand both cultures, including common slang, idioms, and the meaning of subtle cues such as voice inflection or body language. As with any translation profession, the ability to accurately and concisely convey a message is imperative, more so than translating for technical accuracy.
Although translators and interpreters are often thought to have similar skills, the two professions are indeed very different. Professional translators, who work only with written text as opposed to spoken language, have the benefit of dictionaries and other resources to help with any deficiencies in a second language. Comparatively, a German interpreter does not have such luxuries, as time is a crucial component of the interpreter's job. Instead, the interpreter must translate live speech as it happens, drawing from her extensive knowledge of both German and the source or target language, depending on the situation.
During live conversations, a German interpreter has two options for translating; consecutive or simultaneous. Consecutive interpretation involves listening to a series of sentences in the source language, usually a paragraph in length. Speakers typically pause after the paragraph to give the interpreter the opportunity to translate and repeat the message into the target language. To illustrate, consider a political conference with a German-speaking host. After the host completes a paragraph of his speech, the German interpreter would translate the words into a target language, such as Spanish, Arabic, or Mandarin Chinese, before the speaker continues.
With simultaneous interpretation, the speaker would not pause at the end of each paragraph. It is the responsibility of the German interpreter to convey the speaker's message as it is spoken, keeping up with each sentence in real time. By definition, simultaneous interpretation requires ongoing translation, speaking, and listening to the next sentence all at the one time. Considerable skill is required for this type of bilingual multitasking. Sound booths are typically utilized, with the interpreter wearing headphones to hear and a microphone to transmit to the listener, although other types of real time interpretation are not uncommon.