Sign Language Translator Careers: Salary Info & Job Description

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Get the truth about a sign language translator's salary, training requirements and career prospects. Read the job duties and see the pros and cons of becoming a sign language translator.
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Pros and Cons of a Sign Language Translator Career

Since sign language is considered a form of non-written communication, the correct title for this career is sign language interpreter. If you are still unsure about entering this field, read the pros and cons to find out if this career is the best fit for you.

Pros of a Sign Language Translator Career
Very high possibility for job growth (up to 46% employment increase expected for 2012-2022)*
Minimal education requirements*
Shortage of interpreters means less competition*
Diverse work settings (schools, medical facilities, court rooms, conference centers)*

Cons of a Sign Language Translator Career
Earnings can be inconsistent if self-employed*
May be required to work long, irregular hours*
Many job opportunities require work or volunteer experience*
Simultaneous interpreting can be stressful*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Information

Job Duties

As a sign language interpreter, you will be expected to follow a strict ethical guideline while converting speech to specialized hand signs. You are required to interpret words by incorporating tone, ideas and implied concepts. To be able to work in this field, you must be fluent in English and sign language. You may also conduct oral interpretation for deaf clients by mouthing the speech with emphasis and care. For clients who are both deaf and blind, you may use hand signs on the person's hand.

You may perform simultaneous and/or consecutive sign language interpretation. The simultaneous method requires you to sign along with the speaker. This method typically results in you working with another interpreter to perform in 20-30 minute rotations. Consecutive interpretation is done right after a speaker finishes a group of words or sentences.

Career Prospects and Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job opportunities for interpreters and translators are expected to grow 46% between 2012 and 2022. High growth in sign language positions may be caused by an increased use of video services. More opportunities may be available in metropolitan areas. The healthcare and legal fields typically have more job opportunities since it's pertinent for all individuals to receive adequate interpretation of vital health and legal information, according to the BLS. As of May 2014, the BLS estimated that median salaries for workers in this field were about $43,590.

Education and Training Requirements

To qualify for positions in this field, you don't necessarily need a college degree. You may be able to find some positions that only require you to demonstrate an understanding of sign language and the English language. You can acquire knowledge of sign language through community organizations.

However, since interpretation is more than just knowing sign language and the English language, you should also learn interpretation skills. Interpretation programs are found at many postsecondary schools as well as outside the university realm. To be successful in this field, you need strong listening and concentration skills, quick and accurate hand signs, proficiency in proper grammar and a sensitivity to deaf culture.

Job Postings from Real Employers

You may find employment opportunities in various work settings, including schools and hospitals. In addition to sign language and English proficiency, employers may also seek candidates with expertise in a particular field. Advanced positions often require you to have advanced certifications and previous paid experience, while entry-level positions may accept candidates with volunteer experience. The following examples were from a national job board sampling in April 2012:

  • A community college in California advertised for a sign language interpreter with a high school diploma and 100 hours of volunteer or internship experience who could demonstrate correct English syntax, oral interpretation and finger spelling.
  • A California school district was searching for an interpreter with two years of experience and child development knowledge who could facilitate communication between deaf students and their teachers.
  • A medical center in New York City was looking for a certified sign language interpreter with at least an associate's degree and two years of medical setting experience to interpret medical information to staff, patients and patients' families.
  • A college in California was looking for a certified sign language interpreter familiar with American Sign Language, interpreting techniques and deaf cultural values and issues to interpret college-level academic material.

How to Make Your Skills Stand out

Earn a Degree

Although some positions don't require a postsecondary education, you may still want to consider enrolling in a college program. Colleges can offer relevant programs at the certificate, associate's and bachelor's level. Look for programs that teach sign language and interpretation techniques rather than just sign language. In these programs, you may learn finger spelling, interpreting principles, deaf culture and ethics. If you are interested in developing hands-on experience, you can find programs offering practicum and internship opportunities.

Get Certified

Although certification may not be required by all employers, earning certification can validate your skills and experience. Certifications for sign language interpreters are offered in conjunction with the National Association of the Deaf and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. You can earn the National Interpreter Certification (NIC); to sit for the certification exam, you need at least an associate's degree or an approved path through college coursework, professional or volunteer experience or other relevant certification. After July 1, 2012, associate's degrees will no longer be accepted - candidates must have a bachelor's degree or an approved alternative path. Continuing education is required to keep the certification valid.

Alternative Career Paths

If you would like to help children with a variety of disabilities, you may be interested in a career as a special education teacher. You may create lesson plans, monitor student progress, help with social development and ensure that schools follow the guidelines for the Individuals with Disability Education Act. To work in this field, you need at least a bachelor's degree and state teaching certification. According to May 2011 data from the BLS, special education teachers at the elementary school level earned median salaries of approximately $53,000. Data also indicated an average employment growth rate of 17% was expected during 2010-2020 for special education teachers.

As a technical writer, you are in charge of writing instruction manuals used to transform complex processes into easy-to-understand ideas. To qualify for positions in this field, you may need to have a bachelor's degree in communications, journalism or English. Between 2010 and 2020, employment for technical writers is expected to grow at an average 17%, according to the BLS. As of May 2011, the BLS estimated that workers in this field earned median salaries of about $65,000.

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