Journalist interviewing


The interpreter and the journalist: two related worlds?

“What did you study?” “I am a master translator and master interpreter.” That one sentence already causes a lot of confusion. Most people know by now that this licentiate is equivalent to a master’s degree. But why do I need two diplomas for what is the same profession?

A translator is not an interpreter. So what is an interpreter? Simply put, someone who conveys a spoken idea as precisely as possible from one language to another. Translation is done in writing by people like Nepali translators. It can get more complicated than this, but let’s stick to this for now.

Interpreter types

Do I intend to work in the European Union? Not exactly, because I don’t have the right competencies for that. One interpreter is not the other either; there are different types. If we look at the simple layout of Ivars (2002), we already come to five: conference interpreter, media interpreter, company interpreter, social interpreter, and court interpreter. The fact that we leave out the sign language interpreters, among other things, is not the essence now (see thesis). It is important to note that there are different types and the universities traditionally only offered the training to become conference interpreters, you know, the interpreters you see working in European institutions. A number of universities of applied sciences, already see the possibility of combining four of the five types mentioned during the program, except for media interpreters. Yet we see him at work more than we realize because how many television programs or radio shows do not have foreign-speaking guests? Often the task of journalist and interpreter is combined, but then the question arises whether there are no good arguments to keep those roles separate.


By comparing the deontological codes, a kind of code of conduct that should provide an answer to possible ethical problems, we quickly find an answer to this.

First, it must be said that there is no code that applies to all interpreters because it is only since the Nuremberg Trials (1945 – ’46) that there is a professionalization of the profession, a process that needs time (Pöckhacker, 2004). There are, however, a number of leading codes such as those of the AIIC (Association Internationale d’Interprètes de Conférence) and the COC (Central Support Cell for Social Translators and Interpreters). Important points from these codes are the professional secrecy to which the interpreter is bound and the emphasis placed on the importance of the integrity of the interpreter.

The code of ethics for journalists is much better known and also applies to all journalists. Even if they are not affiliated with an official organization, a journalist can be prosecuted if the international code of ethics is broken (Deltour, 2003). In Belgium, two codes are important: The declaration of duties and rights of the journalist (Munich, 1971) and the Code of Journalistic Principles (Belgium, 1982). The first is internationally accepted, and the second is Belgian but also endorsed by the publishers. There are a lot of discussions nowadays about how up-to-date these codes are, but they still agree on a number of points.

For example, a journalist has a duty to provide information, he should take a neutral position, must therefore never interfere with the task of the security forces, and always knows how to identify himself. Sources of information should always be available except for privacy reasons. Because official information is not always truthful or complete, a journalist may always work with information sources and keep them secret. However, paying for information or getting paid for bringing it is out of the question. Illegal ways of obtaining information are also not permitted… The list goes a little further, but the most important points to be able to compare with the interpreter have already been mentioned.

The differences are clear: the interpreter code only applies to interpreters who are affiliated with the organization that drew up this code, while the journalistic code is enforceable for all journalists; a journalist is entitled to his own opinion and his own input, and an interpreter is not exactly. Finally, the journalist has a duty to provide information while the interpreter has a duty of silence. It, therefore, seems a contradiction that a journalist could practice the profession of an interpreter.


It is also not only a question of ethics but also a question of competencies. Interpreting simply requires the knowledge of a number of techniques and methods that a journalist is usually not capable of since he has not received any interpreting training. But why are there so many translators and interpreters who become journalists? Would they have something in common?

In my thesis, I first compare the competencies of a media interpreter with those of a conference interpreter because it soon turns out that a media interpreter must be much more skilled in what he does. And so the different competencies quickly emerge that can also be compared with the competencies that a journalist needs.

First and foremost, language skills and background knowledge are two things that you expect in both professions. An interpreter may still have so many competencies, but if he does not know his language, he will not get far. And then his mother tongue, Dutch, is the most important thing because how else can he convey the many nuances from the foreign language in a smooth, pleasant and correct way?

A journalist who does not speak correct Dutch will also have difficulty convincing or engaging. He may have such interesting information if he does not bring it in the right way, no one listens or, worse, no one believes him. Moreover, the journalist needs a lot of background information to be able to place and interpret a story correctly. For the interpreter, it is actually exactly the same: if he does not know what it is about, it may happen that he does not understand the message in the foreign language and therefore cannot interpret it correctly. Understanding words is one thing; being able to convey the story with all the nuances and details, is something completely different.


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Interpreters and journalists are also communication specialists. If they know how the communication process works, it offers them numerous advantages. Learning to read body language, recognizing the subtle difference in intonation, and learning to play the importance of eye contact. For example, a journalist can obtain information by insinuating something through his body language without saying it. If his source responds to this, he has succeeded in his intention and the person in question wonders afterward how he allowed himself to be seduced into such statements. An interpreter, on the other hand, must be aware of the limitation he has to deal with, namely that he is often hidden from view and cannot speak with his body language, making his intonation and speaking rhythm all the more important.

Closely linked to this are social skills because they ensure an optimal communication process. Empathy is needed to correctly interpret and reformulate what someone has said in another language (for an interpreter) or in a quality reportage (for a journalist).

Technological knowledge is also a must. Both journalists and interpreters must be able to work with different computer programs, with the Internet, with databases,… An interpreter must know how to create a terminology list and consult it quickly. A journalist needs to know how to easily edit and use interviews. He must be able to work with recording equipment of all kinds, depending on the industry in which he ends up. An interpreter must know how best to work with microphones, what can go wrong in the (common) case that no technician is present, which equipment is most convenient to work with and what he can (and sometimes must) enforce with his client in order to deliver the requested performance.

Other competencies that are indispensable for both professions are note-taking technique, presentation technique, and a good knowledge of ethics and deontological codes, which speaks for themselves.

It is therefore striking that the competencies for both professions are very similar. The accents are of course different. For example, an interpreter must not only have a thorough knowledge of Dutch but also of the language from which he interprets. A journalist must learn specific collection techniques, such as the interview, in order to obtain information. He also needs to know how to offer his information and what the characteristics are of the different journalistic genres. In addition, the ethics of both professions can clash.

Nevertheless, there are sufficient arguments for the programs to coincide. I think one of the most important arguments is that the rapidly changing society is making more and more demands and it is therefore becoming increasingly important to be at home in all markets. Basic training to become both an interpreter and a journalist would therefore certainly be an asset.

In practice

Now that we have established this, it is logical to take a look at how things are going in reality. What about the academic bachelor’s that leads to a master’s degree in journalism or a master’s degree in interpreting? Do they already run together and are all competencies included? From the comparison I made in my thesis, I can conclude that the existing basic training courses in Flanders for journalists or interpreters largely correspond to the competencies that emerged from my literature study. In my opinion, the challenge is now to link the existing programs together.

Any institution that offers the academic bachelor’s degree in ‘Applied Linguistics’ (which leads to the master’s degree in interpreting and, at some institutions, also to the master’s degree in journalism), is already affiliated with a university which in turn offers the academic bachelor’s degree in ‘Communication Sciences’ (which leads to a master’s degree in journalism).

With the current need for rationalization of higher education in mind, the step is actually obvious, but of course, this cannot happen until more research has been done into the possibilities. Moreover, I limited myself to the competencies of a journalist and an interpreter. Research should also be carried out into the extent to which the competencies of the other subsequent masters are the same.d. But as far as journalists and interpreters are concerned, pooling the expertise of the colleges and universities would lead to the ideal education.

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