Interpreter Building Blocks with Eugene Mathey


Eugene ‘Gene’ Mathey is a lecturer at North West University and has an MA in interpreting. He is a professional interpreter with almost 20 years experience in the industry.

Here are some key takeaways from our conversation.

1) Why is language fluency so important for interpreters?

Having the required language proficiency is the main building block to becoming an interpreter. You need to have a very solid foundation in your first two languages; one of which should ideally be English and one of the South African languages or Sign Language. If you are looking to penetrate the international market, then learning an international language would be beneficial.

2) What does fluency mean?

Fluency means that you are able to sleep, eat, dream, and get angry in that language. It’s a language that you should be comfortable with in any scenario, whether it’s informal, on the streets, highly formal – you have to be able to accommodate any conversation in that language. You need at least two languages as a foundation; if you don’t have them fully developed you’re going to run into trouble

3) What skill do interpreters need?

The ability to speak properly is an important skill and having the confidence to go into an event not fully knowing what people are going to say. Immediately after you are expected to say the exact same thing in another language; making sure that the same feeling, intent, and meaning is conveyed.

Secondly, the ability to think on your feet very quickly is crucial. Interpreting is considered to be ‘serious under pressure voice acting’ because you have to follow what someone else said and act it out.

Another important skill an interpreter needs is a very good short term memory and remember what is being said; coupled with the ability to write things down and note taking.

4) What role does cultural awareness play when interpreting?

Some languages are mono-cultural while others are bi-cultural; and interpreters need to be well-versed in all of that. You need to know the behaviours, struggles, identity issues faced within the community. Interpreters are cultural brokers; it’s you responsibility to make sure that people of different cultures cross the barrier and communicate as if they are from the same culture.

By not being connected to the culture, you run the risk of not being fully culturally aware. The Deaf community needs to feel safe and comfortable with their SASL interpreter; that is less important when it comes to spoken languages because the people don’t really need to know you. This actually works in your favour because can have that sense of objectivity and neutrality: “I’m not here to help you, I’m not on your side. My job is to make sure you can with the other person as if you spoke the same language.

5) Do interpreters need mentors?

Developing your professional career comes with a lot of time and experience; whenever a new interpreters starts regardless of how well you may have trained or simulated – being in a real situation where what you say influences real people’s real lives, puts a completely different pressure on you. It’s okay to make mistakes.

My advice to interpreters in training is: Be honest with yourself and your clients. Tell them that you are still inexperienced and you are willing to do a job without getting paid or working with an experienced interpreter, who can catch up if something goes wrong and pick up the slack. You need to have someone who has been in the game for a while to help and mentor you because each situation is unique and that’s where you need the expertise of someone with experience to catch you when you fall.


One thing that I can say is that if you want to be an interpreter or any kind of language practitioner – go for it! Work is available and there are many opportunities. However, do it with commitment and responsibility because all language practice is centred around people. If not, then don’t do it. You will be doing a disservice to the people you work with and the profession.

THANK YOU Eugene for your time and valuable contribution.

Watch the full conversation here. Enjoy!

By Yellow Owl

Welcome to Interpreter Insider, so glad you could join us! As an Insider you’ll be a member of this limited group of like-minded thinkers with exclusive knowledge about the ins and outs of the interpreting industry – and other related topics. You will have access to insights, experiences, tips and Yellow Owl's personal take on what the future of SASL interpreting may look like. Thuli Zikalala is the founder of Yellow Owl. This blog is a reflection of her bold decisions made about a year ago that led her to this very moment. It is a collection of the lessons learnt along her journey. Enjoy!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

× Let's chat