Becoming a Sign Language Interpreter: Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a sign language interpreter career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a sign language interpreter is right for you.
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A Career as a Sign Language Interpreter: Pros and Cons

Working as a sign language interpreter can be highly rewarding; after all, you'll be providing clients with essential information through your interpretation work. Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of becoming a sign language interpreter and decide if it's a good career choice for you.

Pros of Becoming a Sign Language Interpreter
Strong job growth of 46% predicted from 2012-2022 (for combined field of translators and interpreters)*
Good job opportunities exist due to a shortage of interpreters for the deaf*
Certifications available to increase marketability*
Rewarding because you are providing clients with essential information*

Cons of Becoming a Sign Language Interpreter
Work can be stressful and mentally demanding, especially with simultaneous interpretation*
Many are self-employed, so pay and work availability can vary*
Responsible for the accuracy and clarity of information interpreted directly to others**
Requires quick decision-making abilities and a high degree of independence**

Sources: *The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*NET Online.

Essential Career Info

Job Description

Interpreters are responsible for converting spoken information from one language to another. In the case of sign language interpreters, oral language is converted into sign language. Sign language interpreters should be able to work with accuracy and speed, and they might interpret simultaneously (while the original speaker is still talking) or consecutively (interpreting piece by piece while the original speaker pauses). In any kind of interpretation or translation work, it's possible to specialize in health, legal or other types of vocabulary. Sign language itself has many variants and ways to communicate. You will likely use American Sign Language (ASL) when working with English-speakers, but variants of ASL are commonly used and there are also systems for finger spelling, lip reading and other types of body language.

While it's possible to work for a specific company, school district or organization, many interpreters and translators are self-employed. You will usually work in an indoor office setting and you may work over a video chat system when interpreting for others online.

Salary Info and Career Outlook

The average yearly salary of interpreters and translators is about $49,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as of May 2014. The highest levels of employment are found in professional, scientific and technical services, as well as schools and hospitals. The top-paying industry is architectural, engineering and related services. The top-paying state is Virginia, with a mean annual wage of about $71,000.

According to the BLS, employment of all interpreters and translators is expected to grow 46% from 2012-2022. Growth in American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter demand will be fast, especially with use of video conferencing services that allow for a sign language interpreter.

Education and Training Requirements

A bachelor's degree may be required, and a formal training program on how to interpret is often beneficial. Many community colleges offer certificate and associate's degree programs in American Sign Language (ASL), and bachelor's degree programs are also available in ASL and Interpreting. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) maintains a list of Interpreter Education Programs in the U.S. and Canada, some of which are available online. Educational interpreters might be required to meet particular state regulations before they can work in a classroom, such as earning a minimum score on an interpreter performance test.

Those who specialize in medical or legal interpreting or another particular field might have a master's degree or might complete more specific job training. In general, all sign language interpreters should possess the following skills:

  • Business skills
  • Ability to concentrate for long periods of time
  • Dexterity and physical coordination

Job Postings from Real Employers

Job postings for sign language interpreters might specify proficiency in certain variations of sign language used within the United States, such as Manually-Coded English (MCE), Signing Exact English (SEE) and fingerspelling. Below is a sampling of available jobs for sign language interpreters found on CareerBuilder.com and USAjobs.gov in April 2012:

  • A California school system is looking for an instructional aide/interpreter for the deaf. The posting calls for 2 years of experience and at least a high school education, with additional training in sign language communication and instruction for the deaf. Base pay is listed at about $17-$21 per hour. Applicants must pass the educational Signing Skills Evaluation for Interpreter test (ESSE-I) at level four or above, or another equivalent test approved by the state. They should know how to use Signing Exact English (SEE).
  • A military department seeks sign language interpreters for duty at a base in California, for both temporary and permanent positions. The salary is listed at around $35,000 to $83,000 per year. The job requires translating into ASL, Pidgin Signed English (PSE) and Manually-Coded English (MCE), as well as serving as a workplace advisor on deaf culture. The posting specifies 3 years of relevant experience.
  • A county board of education in Nashville advertises for an educational sign language interpreter. The interpreter will work in an educational setting in conjunction with a subject area teacher. No required experience or base salary was listed, but the posting notes that the position is full time with benefits.
  • A community college district in California advertises for a sign language interpreter with a high school diploma and entry-level abilities in sign language and interpretation/transliteration. Applicants should have at least 100 hours of interpreting experience and should either be enrolled in or have graduated from a designated Interpreter Training Program. Candidates should be familiar with English grammar and syntax, in addition to ASL, Signed English, Signing Exact English (SEE), finger spelling and oral interpretation. They should also be familiar with the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) code of ethics.

How to Get Ahead

Specialize and Get Certified

Job opportunities are especially good for those who have a formal certification. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf offers a variety of certifications in general areas such as oral transliteration and K-12 education. They also have certification tests in specialized areas, such as for legal settings and interpretation pertaining to the performing arts. To become certified, you'll need to meet certain professional requirements and complete a test.

Certification to become a classroom interpreter might involve a separate set of tests, and requirements can vary by state and school district. Examples of tests used for educational interpreters include the Educational Signed Skills Evaluation and the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment.

Alternate Careers

Court Reporter

If becoming a sign language interpreter doesn't sound like the right career for you, there are many other related options, such as becoming a court reporter. As a court reporter, you would attend legal hearings and other related events requiring a transcription and record proceedings word for word. Your work might serve as part of a legal record, and you might also be providing closed captioning for television or live transcription of events for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. The BLS notes that employment growth is about the same as for all professions, at 14% from 2010-2020, and that court reporters make an average salary of about $54,000, as of May 2011.

Medical Transcriptionist

Similar to court reporters, medical transcriptionists create a written document for distribution. They listen to recordings of doctors and other health professionals and transcribe what they hear, including medical terminology and abbreviations. Employment growth is slower than average for all jobs, at 6% from 2010-2020, according to the BLS. Medical transcriptionists earn an average salary of about $34,000 per year as of May 2011.

Special Education Teacher

If you would like to work one-on-one with students who may be deaf or have other special needs, you could become a special education teacher. You'll usually need to have a bachelor's degree and a state license to teach in a public school, and you'll be responsible for ensuring that classroom lessons are adapted to meet the needs of students with disabilities. According to the BLS, employment growth is expected to be average, at 17% from 2010-2020. As of May 2011, K-12 special education teachers earn between $56,500 and $59,000 on average, with secondary school teachers earning the most, says the BLS.

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