Interpreters convert one spoken language into another spoken language, or sign language into spoken language. Before they arrive at the job site, they usually spend time researching and familiarizing themselves with the subject matter to be covered, sometimes creating a list of common words and phrases. Some work, such as telephone interpretation, may not require their physical presence, but most do require them to travel to a job site so they can observe the person speaking. The work of interpreters is divided into two categories: simultaneous and consecutive. In simultaneous interpretation, interpreters listen and speak (or sign) at the same time. In consecutive interpretation, interpreters begin talking only after the speaker (or signer) has completed conveying their thought.
There are a number of specialties within the field of interpretation. Conference interpreters work in international and diplomatic conferences, as well as other international events. They are usually highly skilled in multiple languages and simultaneous interpretation. Escort interpreters assist foreign visitors to the U.S. or U.S. travelers abroad, ensuring that they can communicate during their travels. Judiciary interpreters facilitate communication in the courtroom between English-speaking and non-English-speaking witnesses.
Interpreters need to pay extra attention to the details of communication. They must be able to understand both languages completely, and have the ability to express thoughts and ideas clearly and concisely. A strong memory, excellent research and analytical skills, and good mental dexterity are also crucial skills for the job.
In 2002, interpreters earned a median hourly wage of $15.67. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $9.37, and the highest 10%, who earned more than $25.99.
Training and Education
Interpreters come from a wide range of educational backgrounds. Many interpreters grow up speaking more than one language, although this is not necessarily a requirement. High school can offer some preparation in the form of courses in English writing and comprehension, foreign languages, and basic computer proficiency. Spending time in foreign countries or other forms of contact with foreign language speakers can be very helpful. Interpreters usually need to hold at least a bachelor's degree, although they do not necessarily have to major in a language. Formal programs in interpretation are available at many colleges, as well as non-university training programs.
Interpreters can become certified through the Federal courts in Spanish, Navaho, and Haitian Creole. Court interpreters can also become certified by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators. The U.S. Department of State offers has a three-test series for interpreters, including simple consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting, and conference-level interpreting. Sign language interpreters can become certified through either the National Association of the Deaf or the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Experience is essential, as many agencies and companies hire candidates who have 3 to 5 years of experience or who have a degree in translation studies.
In 2002, interpreters and translators held about 24,000 jobs. More than 20% were self-employed, working only part time and relying on other sources of income.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of interpreters is expected to increase faster than the average due to the broadening of international ties and the increase in foreign language speakers in the United States. This has created high demand for interpreters, especially in urban areas in California, New York, and Washington, D.C.
For more information on a career as an interpreter, please see our directory of schools offering Media Training