What to say

  • Translation is written and interpreting is spoken: they’re two different skills. Demonstrate the difference with a couple of basic exercises in the classroom (see ideas below).
  • Being bilingual isn’t enough to make you a translator or interpreter: you need additional training. Briefly discuss educational requirements and helpful life experiences. Emphasize the need for excellent English vocabulary, grammar and writing in addition to foreign language skills.
  • Translation is more than word-substitution. Give specific examples of bad or literal translation and challenge the students to improve on them.
  • Machine translation isn’t going to replace human translators anytime soon Provide concrete examples from Babelfish or another source of MT.

How to say it

Make it personal

Begin by introducing yourself and identifying the languages you use. As you talk about your work, use anecdotes from your own experience.


  • Describe how you became interested in languages and how you entered the profession. Use this as a springboard to mention the talents and character traits required for your work (good memory, good vocabulary, love of languages, good writing skills, etc.).
  • Sketch out your working conditions and tell the students what a typical day is like. If they’re likely to recognize any of your clients or projects, be sure to mention them. Many students are fascinated by the travel and prestige events involved in interpreting.

Make it interactive.

Get the kids involved as quickly as possible: ask questions and encourage them to do the same. Asking questions about their exposure to other languages breaks the ice and simultaneously gives you a better feel for your audience.

Questions might include:

  • Who can point out the countries where my languages are spoken on the map?
  • Who speaks another language at home?
  • What language?
  • Can you point out the country or countries where it is spoken on the map?
  • Who knows someone who speaks another language?
  • Who has learned another language in school?
  • What do you call someone who speaks two languages very well (bilingual)?
  • Where have you used another language (e.g., travel, fun, talking to grandparents)?
  • Where have you seen a translator/interpreter?

Make it concrete.

Give specific, hands-on examples and use props and audiovisuals whenever you can.

  • Display or hand out some sample translations, ideally of things the children may be familiar with. Tell them their names in a foreign language; show them bilingual labels on the packaging for international foods; or show them photographs of signs in foreign countries.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity to discuss the “gee whiz” aspects of the technology you use. Discuss Web research, on-line dictionaries, search engines, dictation software, and machine-assisted translation. If the classroom has the appropriate facilities, you can do some of this live; otherwise, use transparencies.
  • Use maps. Most classrooms have a world map, but it’s a good idea to ask the teacher whether the classroom has any maps you could use. If you’re focusing on a particular country, you may want to bring your own map. Better yet, bring photocopies of the map for the students to keep.
  • Put photographs, postcards, crafts, or other objects in an album or a protective cover and pass it around the classroom. Crafts that children can touch are an excellent idea: one sixth-grade class enjoyed seeing and touching a hand-woven poncho from Peru.
  • Reinforce the message: write key points on the board as you go. At the end, give a short, multiple-choice “pop quiz” that is easy and fun and reinforces your key points (see “What to say” above). A sample question might be “Which of the following countries is not Spanish-speaking? a) Mexico; b) Venezuela; c) Uruguay; or d) Mesopotamia.” Have the students trade papers, and then correct them and go over the questions with the class.

Make it fun.

Use audiovisuals and/or a game format to keep your presentation lively and interesting.

  • Bring age-appropriate translated material in source and target text to illustrate the importance of translation. One of the Harry Potter books in two or more languages would almost certainly be a hit. Or bring age-appropriate dubbed and/or subtitled movies that allow the students to see and hear the differences between the source and target versions.
  • Impress them with a brief interpreting demonstration. One mother does live interpreting demos with her sons in their school. Pretending that she only speaks French, she addresses the class, and one of her sons interprets what she’s said to his classmates. If the kids have questions on interpreting and translating, they can also be interpreted back to her in French.
  • Play Word Detective. Present the students with literal translations of foreign turns of phrase, similes or proverbs that have well-known English equivalents (e.g., “first come, first served,” “I’m sick as a dog,” “The early bird gets the worm”) and challenge them to come up with a better translation. If the class has some knowledge of your languages, you can use the actual foreign phrase and work from a literal translation to an idiomatic one.
  • Use funny translation bloopers. Humorous examples of machine translation are another good option. Signs and bizarre menu items also work well, but be careful to avoid any suggestion that foreigners are dumb or “can’t talk right.” Once the laughter has died down, challenge the kids to come up with an idiomatic translation into English. Stress the point that a qualified professional translator or interpreter can avoid this kind of mistake through training and excellent knowledge of his or her languages and subject area. This is a good starting point for a discussion of education requirements and the limits of machine translation.
  • Illustrate the difficulty of translating ambiguous terms by giving the students a word like “draft” and challenging them to define or translate it in all its meanings (NFL draft, bank draft, military draft, rough draft, Bud Lite, draft from window). Give (or ask the students to provide) translations for each of the meanings of this term and point out that you can’t possibly translate it accurately until you know what it means in context.
  • Try the UN Challenge: ask the students to name the six official languages of the United Nations (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish) and give a prize to the student who names the sixth one. It’s also useful to point out that UN linguists don’t simply work into and out of English; they also need people who can work from Chinese to Spanish, French to Russian, Arabic to Chinese, and so on.
  • Give prizes for correct answers. Try novelty school supplies (a notepad in the shape of a globe; a pen that lights up), stickers, buttons or bumper stickers in a foreign language, chocolates, or candy.

Make it count.

Leaving something tangible behind will magnify the effect of your visit and ultimately produce a better return on the time and energy you’ve invested in your presentation. Give the kids souvenirs or treats, and give the teacher a resource handout with pointers to more information on careers in translation and interpreting. Even a flyer about your job or a brochure on your employer that the students can keep will help them remember you and your talk.

For More Information

Bureau of Labor Statistics
Statistics on the size and growth of the translating and interpreting professions.

For extra credit

Spend some time with the teacher before or after your presentation.
This could be anything from a five-minute chat about the resource handout for this level to a cup of coffee or a lunch date. One seasoned presenter reports that teachers are very eager to learn more from her and that she finds the contact with them extremely rewarding.

Cultivate a relationship with your local school.
Make your child’s teacher (or the closest school) aware of your profession and offer to speak on foreign language-related subjects and at the school’s career-oriented events. One parent went to her daughter’s classroom twice a month for 15 minutes to teach a few words of the languages she learned as a child.

Help organize an “International Night” at your child’s school.
Begin with a “parade of nations” with the kids carrying flags of various countries. Afterwards parents and students can share artifacts, information, food, dance, etc. from their countries of origin or interest.

Sample Slideshow

ATA has assembled a sample slideshow that you can download and adapt.
Download Slideshow

More presentation materials

These sample presentations, tips, and exercises that can be adapted for your needs. If you do use any of these materials, please be sure to acknowledge the author’s contribution appropriately.

Slide Presentation
Uses McDonald’s to explain agency, direct client, and in-house; cites translation mistakes with disasterous results; includes Google Translate examples.
Please acknowledge: Molly Yurick

Slide Presentation
Good comparison between translation and interpreting; covers job descriptions, skills, and how to prepare for career. Focused on German but easily adapted to other languages.
Please acknowledge: Sarah Allen

Slide Presentation
Slides providing outline for presentation to middle school students.
Please acknowledge: Barbara Bell

Slide Presentation
Career-focused including quotes from people who are using bilingual skills in their jobs. Speaker notes. Primarily targeted to 7th graders.
Please acknowledge: Jonathan Hine

Slide Presentation
Based on Russian language; highlights mistranslations.
Please acknowledge: Jennifer Guernsey

Tips for Students
Ways students can prepare for learning a foreign language.
Please acknowledge: Dana Scruggs

Tips for Presenters
2006 School Outreach Contest Winner offers ways to engage students and tips for finding student groups for your presentation.
Please acknowledge: Rosario Welle

Colorful one-page handout illustrating the difference between translation and interpreting.
Please acknowledge: Ruby Aldana

Classroom Exercise
A basic 911 information sheet in Spanish and English that can be used as a short interpreting exercise. Presentation tips included.
Please acknowledge: John Shaklee

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