Becoming an Interpreter: Job Description & Salary Information

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An interpreter's average salary is around $48,000. Is it worth the education and training requirements? Check out real job descriptions to get the truth about the career prospects and learn if becoming an interpreter is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming an Interpreter

Interpreters help facilitate communication between people who don't speak the same language and might also assist people who are hearing impaired and communicate through sign language. Find out about the pros and cons to becoming an interpreter by reading on.

PROS of Becoming an Interpreter
Excellent job growth predicted (46% for all interpreters and translators from 2012 to 2022)*
Full-time, part-time, and self-employment options are all available**
Work can be found in various types of settings (schools, hospitals, conferences, and courtrooms)*
A variety of training and educational programs can lead to this career*

CONS of Becoming an Interpreter
Irregular and long hours may be common for freelancers*
Periods of limited work may also arise for the self-employed*
Interpreting can be stressful at times*
Conference interpreters or interpreters covering more technical topics might need a graduate degree*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Discover Interpreting.

Career Information

Job Description

As an interpreter, you translate one language to another in speech, so you must be fluent in at least two languages. You might also serve as an interpreter between spoken and sign language. Interpreting may be simultaneous or consecutive; the former requires you to interpret what's being said or signed as a person is talking or signing, while the latter allows you to listen as a person expresses an idea or completes a series of words or statements before speaking or signing.

Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average hourly earnings for interpreters and translators was about $24.00 as of May 2014, which resulted in a mean annual income of approximately $49,000. Those in the top ten percent earned upwards of $81,000. The states that paid the highest on average to these professionals were the District of Columbia, Virginia, Maryland, Nevada and Massachusetts.

Vocational Requirements

Education and Training

The education for interpreters varies. If you're experienced and fluent in two languages, you might be able to bypass educational requirements. However, most interpreters need a bachelor's degree, according to the BLS, although the focus of studies need not necessarily be in a foreign language. According to the Discover Interpreting website, run by the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers, there are more than 130 formal programs in interpreting, including associate's degree programs, approximately 25 bachelor's degree programs, and several master's degree programs.

BLS notes that related experience is vital for individuals looking to become interpreters since some agencies require this. Volunteering or taking advantage of mentorship or internship opportunities can help you accumulate the experience necessary to find employment. Additionally, social perception and concentration skills are necessary in this line of work.

What Do Employers Look for?

First and foremost, employers are looking for interpreters who are culturally sensitive. If you're going to be an interpreter, you need to be aware of the customs and culture of a given country or region. Additionally, excellent listening skills are important, as is possessing a strong and clear voice to get your interpretations across to others. Additional skills employers seek can be found from some job postings taken in April 2012.

  • A North Carolina automotive manufacturing company calls for an interpreter who can speak Japanese and work as an administrative assistant. Applicants must be fluent in speaking and writing Japanese and English. In addition to understanding American and Japanese business customs, applicants need to be proficient in Microsoft Office, have a strong work ethic, and an ability to multi-task.
  • A school district in California is looking for an interpreter specializing in sign language. The duties of the job include interpreting for deaf students in classes, meetings, and events. Applicants need at least a high school diploma and 100 hours of signing experience.
  • A government agency in Iowa is looking for interpreters who speak Pashto and English proficiently. Interpreters will teach U.S. troops about Afghan culture and how to communicate with Afghans. The goal is to help eliminate confusion and ensure respect.

How Do You Stand Out?

The Discover Interpreting site suggests that breadth of knowledge about the world is important to this profession. You might look for an educational program that emphasizes the liberal arts, in addition to studies in language and culture. BLS notes that time spent abroad or in contact with other cultures is helpful. Other ways to stand out are discussed below.


BLS also reports that job prospects are best for those with professional certification. Various types of credentials are available through different organizations. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) offers many certifications, including the National Interpreter Certification, which requires you to meet stipulated education requirements - formerly an associate's degree but as of July 1, 2012, a bachelor's degree - complete an exam, performance test, and interview. Other organizations exist to certify conference interpreters, healthcare interpreters, and judiciary interpreters, for instance.


As an interpreter, you might specialize in a certain field. BLS states that interpreters working in healthcare and legal settings in particular should have many job options. As a healthcare interpreter, you would work in a hospital or clinic and provide linguistic support by, for instance, acting as the go-between for deaf patients or caregivers. As a legal interpreter, you would act as a conduit in courts or related social service agencies.

Many community colleges and continuing education divisions at universities offer programs providing specific training in healthcare or legal interpreting, often culminating in a certificate and intended for already bilingual students. Legal interpreting programs provide you instruction in legal system procedures, ethics, and terminology, while healthcare interpreting programs expose you to coursework in communication strategies, racial relations, and translation.

Alternative Career Choices

If you like the idea of opening communications between one language and another but you'd prefer to work with the written rather than spoken word, you could become a translator. As opposed to interpreters, translators usually work from home. BLS calculates figures for both interpreters and translators collectively, and so the average specified salary of about $51,000 and job increase of 42% from 2010-2020 applies to translators as well.

If you're interested in working with foreign-language speakers in a different capacity, you might look into becoming an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. In this occupation, you'll work with immigrants who don't speak English and want to learn for educational and career opportunities. You also teach classes that will help them practice basic vocabulary to communicate in their everyday lives. Generally, a bachelor's degree and teaching certification are required for these positions. GED and adult literacy teachers, which includes ESL teachers, earned roughly $51,000 on average as of May 2011, and an average job increase of 15% between 2010 and 2020 has been predicted for them, according to the BLS.

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