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How to become an interpreter

Published: Thursday 18th February 2021

A young woman wondering how to become an interpreter

Are you thinking of becoming an interpreter? You’re not alone! Thousands of people every year are joining this fascinating and dynamic profession. As an interpreter, you’ll be someone who loves the idea of translating languages and helping people access vital services. 

Here’s how to become an interpreter.

What is an interpreter?

Interpreters translate spoken language into another target language in real time. This process can often include sign languages. Interpreters, in translating, need to convey information and meaning as closely as possible between the people trying to communicate. Interpreters are often confused with translators, who work exclusively with written language. 

Interpreters are usually fluent in at least two languages, though they can operate in three or more. One of these languages is usually the speaker’s native tongue. 

There are three types of interpreting:

  • Simultaneous interpreters translate as the person in question is speaking or signing. This type of interpreting requires a lot of practice and concentration, and it is not uncommon for interpreters to work in teams of two or three for certain projects. In interpreting, interpreters must translate in a way the duplicates the style of what is being said while keeping intact the ideas, meaning, and information. 
  • Consecutive interpreters translate after the person in question has finished speaking. As a result, this type of interpreting requires the interpreter to take lots of notes.
  • Sight translation interpreters recite written language into a target language for the purposes of immediate understanding. 

Interpreters can work in a variety of contexts. They can specialize in community interpreting, helping people speaking certain languages access services. You could also be a conference interpreter, working with businesses and/or international organizations to allow people working in two or more languages to communicate with each other. Or you could specialize interpreting in the complex, high-stakes fields of healthcare or the law. 

What education do I need to become an interpreter?

Two interpreters listening and translating at a conference with flags in the background

Interpreters will need to be fluent in at least two languages to become an interpreter. Aside from this, there are few formal educational requirements for becoming an interpreter. Many interpreters have a bachelor’s degree, usually in their target language.

Do I need any other experience or qualifications?

There are no universally recognized certifications for interpreting. However, many organizations offer certifications that are created to widely-accepted standards. For instance, state courts will offer certifications in many languages they deem to be in demand. You can get different certifications in interpreting from organizations like the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters, Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, the US Department of State, the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters, and others.

Main duties

As an interpreter, your duties will include:

  • Converting concepts, information, meaning, and style from one language into another
  • Compiling terms into glossaries for review and later use
  • Rendering spoken messages accurately and clearly
  • Applying cultural knowledge of the language and the context to convey meaning
  • Reading body language and other cues for sources of meaning and conversational dynamics
  • Keeping abreast of cultural and linguistic changes and developments

Where are all the interpreter jobs?

As an interpreter, you will be able to work anywhere where there is a need for interpretation services. You could work in a big city or a small town, in schools, hospitals, courts, detention facilities, and conference centers. Most interpreters work freelance, so they will often need to travel to many different places, depending on where each job is. 


An interpreter translating with two people at a table

The median salary for an interpreter in the US is around $51,000, though this can vary state by state. Pay tends to be higher for interpreters who have fluency in in-demand languages, such as Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, and Urdu, and for those who work in highly technical fields like healthcare or the law. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the number of interpreter jobs in the US to grow by about 20% by 2029, so salaries may rise with demand.  

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