Interpreters and translators held about 63,600 jobs in 2012. About 1 in 5 were self-employed.
The industries that employed the most interpreters and translators in 2012 were as follows:
|Professional, scientific, and technical services||30%|
|Educational services; state, local, and private||25|
|Health care and social assistance||13|
Interpreters work in settings such as schools, hospitals, courtrooms, and conference centers. They must sometimes travel to conferences. Simultaneous interpreting can be stressful, as the interpreter must keep up with the speaker who may not know to slow down when an interpreter is present.
Translators typically work from home. They receive and submit their work electronically. They must sometimes deal with the pressure of deadlines and tight schedules.
Self-employed interpreters and translators often have variable work schedules, which may include periods of limited work and periods of long, irregular hours. Most interpreters and translators work full time during regular business hours.
Although interpreters and translators typically need at least a bachelor’s degree, the most important requirements are that they be fluent in two languages (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 the languages in which they work.
The educational backgrounds of interpreters and translators vary widely, 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 focus on English writing and comprehension, foreign languages, and computer proficiency. Other helpful pursuits for prospects include spending time in a foreign country, 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 American Sign Language (ASL) and seek out volunteer opportunities to work with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Beyond high school, people interested in becoming interpreters or translators have many educational options. Although many jobs require a bachelor’s degree, majoring in a language is not always necessary. Rather, an educational background in a particular field of study can provide a natural area of subject-matter expertise.
Interpreters and translators generally need specialized training on how to do their 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 interpreters or translators in more technical areas—such as software 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.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
There is currently no universal certification required of interpreters and translators beyond passing the required court interpreting exams offered by most states. However, workers can take a variety of tests that show proficiency. For example, the American Translators Association provides certification in 26 language combinations involving English.
Federal courts provide judiciary certification for Spanish, Navajo, and Haitian Creole interpreters, and many states offer their own certification or licensing. 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 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 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 information for conference interpreters.
The Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters offers two types of certifications for healthcare interpreters: one for Associate Healthcare Interpreter (for interpreters of languages other than Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin), and the other for Certified Healthcare Interpreter (for interpreters of Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin).
The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters offers certification for medical interpreters of Spanish.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Work experience is essential. In fact, some companies 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 interpreter or translator jobs to gain experience.
Volunteer opportunities for interpreters are available through community organizations, hospitals, and sporting events, such as marathons, that involve international competitors.
Paid or unpaid internships are other ways that interpreters and translators can gain experience. Escort interpreting may offer an opportunity for inexperienced candidates to work alongside a more experienced interpreter. Interpreters may also find it easier to begin working in industries with particularly high demand for language services, such as court or medical interpreting.
Whatever path of entry new interpreters and translators pursue, they should develop relationships with experienced workers in the field to build their skills, confidence, and network. Mentoring may be formal, such as that through a professional association, or informal, such as with a coworker or an acquaintance that has experience as an interpreter or translator. Both the American Translators Association and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf offer formal mentoring programs.
After interpreters and translators have enough experience, they can move up to more difficult assignments, seek certification, and obtain editorial responsibility. They can also manage or start their own business.
Many self-employed interpreters and translators start their own business by first establishing themselves in their field. They may submit resumes and samples to different translation and interpreting companies and work for companies that match their skills with a job. Many then get work based on their reputation or through referrals from existing clients.
Interpreters and translators typically have an interest in the Creating and Helping interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Creating interest area indicates a focus on being original and imaginative, and working with artistic media. The Helping interest area indicates a focus on assisting, serving, counseling, or teaching other people.
If you are not sure whether you have a Creating or Helping interest which might fit with a career as an interpreter and translator, you can take a career test to measure your interests.
Interpreters and translators should also possess the following specific qualities:
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 build their client base.
Concentration. Interpreters and translators must have the ability to concentrate while others are speaking or moving around them.
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 be able to make quick and coordinated hand, finger, and arm movements when interpreting.
Interpersonal skills. Interpreters and translators, particularly those who are self-employed, must be able to get along with those who hire or use their services in order to retain clients and attract new business.
Listening skills. Interpreters and translators must listen carefully when interpreting for audiences to ensure that they hear and interpret correctly.
Speaking skills. Interpreters and translators must speak clearly in the languages they are conveying.
Writing skills. Interpreters and translators must be able to write clearly and effectively in the languages they translate.
The median annual wage for interpreters and translators was $45,430 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than the amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $23,570, and the top 10 percent earned more than $91,800.
In May 2012, the median annual wages in the top four industries in which interpreters and translators worked were as follows:
|Professional, scientific, and technical services||$54,110|
|Educational services; state, local, and private||43,260|
|Health care and social assistance||40,130|
Wages depend on the language, specialty, skill, experience, education, and certification of the interpreter or translator, as well as on the type of employer. Wages of interpreters and translators vary widely. Interpreters and translators who know languages that are in high demand or that relatively few people can translate often earn higher wages. Those who perform services requiring a high level of skill, such as conference interpreters, also receive higher pay.
Self-employed interpreters usually charge an hourly rate. Self-employed translators typically charge a rate per word or per hour.
Self-employed interpreters and translators often have variable work schedules, which may include periods of limited work and periods of long irregular hours. Most interpreters and translators work full time during regular business hours.
Employment of interpreters and translators is projected to grow 46 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Employment growth reflects increasing globalization and a more diverse U.S. population, which is expected to require more interpreters and translators.
Demand will likely remain strong for translators of frequently translated languages, such as French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Demand also should be strong for translators of Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages and for the principal Asian languages: Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, and Korean.
Demand for American Sign Language interpreters is expected to grow rapidly, driven by the increasing use of video relay services, which allow people to conduct online video calls and use a sign language interpreter.
In addition, growing international trade and broadening global ties should require more interpreters and translators. The need for military interpreters and translators should result in more jobs as well. Emerging markets in Asia and Africa are expected to increase the need for translation and interpreting in those languages.
Computers have made the work of translators and localization specialists more efficient. However, these jobs cannot be entirely automated. Computers cannot yet produce work comparable to the work that human translators do in most cases.
Job prospects should be best for those who have at least a bachelor’s degree and for those who have professional certification. Those with a master’s degree in interpreting and/or translation should also have an advantage.
In addition, urban areas—especially Washington DC, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—should continue to provide the largest numbers of jobs, especially for interpreters.
Job prospects for interpreters and translators should also vary by specialty and language. For example, interpreters and translators of Spanish should have good job prospects because of expected increases in the population of Spanish-speakers in the United States. In particular, job opportunities should be plentiful for interpreters and translators specializing in healthcare and law, because of the critical need for all parties to fully understand the information communicated in these fields.
In addition, there should be many job opportunities for specialists in localization, driven by the globalization of business and the expansion of the Internet.
Interpreters for the deaf will continue to have favorable employment prospects because there are relatively few people with the needed skills.
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