How to Become an Interpreter or Translator
Some interpreters and translators attain a degree in a specialty area, such as finance.
Although interpreters and translators typically need a bachelor’s degree, the most important requirement is that they be fluent in English and at least one other language. Many complete job-specific training programs. It is not necessary for interpreters and translators to have been raised in two languages to succeed in these jobs, but many grew up communicating in both languages in which they work.
The educational backgrounds of interpreters and translators vary, but it is essential that they be fluent in English and at least one other language.
High school students interested in becoming an interpreter or translator should take a broad range of courses that includes English writing and comprehension, foreign languages, and computer proficiency. Other helpful pursuits for prospective foreign-language interpreters and translators include spending time abroad, engaging in direct contact with foreign cultures, and reading extensively on a variety of subjects in English and at least one other language. Through community organizations, students interested in sign language interpreting may take introductory classes in ASL and seek out volunteer opportunities to work with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Beyond high school, people interested in becoming an interpreter or translator have many educational options. Although a bachelor's degree is often required for jobs, majoring in a language is not always necessary. An educational background in a particular field of study can provide a natural area of subject-matter expertise.
However, interpreters and translators generally need specialized training on how to do the work. Formal programs in interpreting and translating are available at colleges and universities nationwide and through nonuniversity training programs, conferences, and courses.
Many people who work as conference interpreters or in more technical areas—such as localization, engineering, or finance—have a master’s degree. Those working in the community as court or medical interpreters or translators are more likely to complete job-specific training programs.
There is currently no universal certification required of interpreters and translators. However, workers can take a variety of tests that show proficiency. For example, the American Translators Association provides certification for its members in 24 language combinations involving English.
Federal courts provide certification for Spanish, Navajo, and Haitian Creole interpreters, and many state and municipal courts offer their own forms of certification. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators also offers certification for court interpreting.
The National Association of the Deaf and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) jointly offer certification for general sign language interpreters. In addition, the registry offers specialty tests in legal interpreting, speech reading, and deaf-to-deaf interpreting—which includes interpreting among deaf speakers with different native languages and from ASL to tactile signing.
The U.S. Department of State has a three-test series for prospective interpreters—one test in simple consecutive interpreting (for escort work), another in simultaneous interpreting (for court or seminary work), and a third in conference-level interpreting (for international conferences)—as well as a test for prospective translators. These tests are not considered a credential, but their completion indicates that a person has significant skill in the occupation.
The International Association of Conference Interpreters offers certification for conference interpreters.
The Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters offers two types of certifications for healthcare interpreters: the Associate Healthcare Interpreter (AHI) for interpreters of languages other than Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin, and the Certified Healthcare Interpreter (CHI) for interpreters of Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin.
The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters offers certification for medical interpreters of Spanish. Prerequisites to become a Certified Medical Interpreter (CMI) are as follows:
- Being 18 years old
- High school diploma or equivalent
- Completion of a medical interpreter educational program
- Oral proficiency in English
- Oral proficiency in the target language (Spanish)
After interpreters and translators have enough experience, they may move up to more difficult or prestigious assignments, seek certification, get editorial responsibility, or manage or start their own business.
Many self-employed interpreters and translators start a business by establishing themselves in their field. They may submit resumes and samples to many different translation and interpreting agencies and work for agencies that match their skills with a job. Many then get work based on their reputation or through referrals from existing clients.
Work experience is essential. In fact, some agencies hire only interpreters or translators who have related work experience.
A good way for translators to learn firsthand about the occupation is to start working in-house for a translation company. Doing informal or volunteer work is an excellent way for people seeking to get interpreter or translator jobs to get experience.
Volunteer opportunities for interpreters are available through community organizations, hospitals, and sporting events, such as marathons, that involve international competitors. The American Translators Association works with the Red Cross to provide volunteer interpreters during crises.
Paid or unpaid internships are other ways that interpreters and translators can get experience. Escort interpreting may offer an opportunity for inexperienced candidates to “shadow,” or work alongside, a more experienced interpreter. Interpreters also might find it easier to break into areas with particularly high demand for language services, such as court or medical interpreting.
To show experience in translation, any translation—even translation done as practice—can be used as a sample for potential clients.
Whatever path of entry they pursue, new interpreters and translators should develop relationships with mentors to build their skills, confidence, and professional network. Mentoring may be formal, such as that through a professional association, or informal, such as with a coworker or an acquaintance who has experience as an interpreter or translator. Both the American Translators Association and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf offer formal mentoring programs.
Business skills. Self-employed and freelance interpreters and translators need general business skills to manage their finances and careers successfully. They must set prices for their work, bill customers, keep records, and market their services to attract new business and build their client base.
Concentration. The ability to concentrate while others are speaking or moving around them is critical for interpreters and translators.
Cultural sensitivity. Interpreters and translators must be sensitive to cultural differences and expectations among the people whom they are helping to communicate. Successful interpreting and translating is not only a matter of knowing the words in different languages but also of understanding people's cultures.
Dexterity. Sign language interpreters must have quick and coordinated hands, fingers, and arm movements when interpreting sign language for a targeted audience.
Listening skills. Interpreters and translators must listen carefully when interpreting for audiences to ensure that they interpret or translate correctly.
Speaking skills. Interpreters and translators must speak clearly in the languages they are translating.
Writing skills. Interpreters and translators must be able to write clearly and effectively in the languages they are talking in or translating.