Interpreter / Translator Job Description, Salary, and Skills

Interpreter watching two people converse in ASL
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Interpreters and translators translate the spoken or written word from one language to another. Interpreters work in spoken (or sign) language, and translators work in written language. Read below for information on what interpreters and translators do, as well as more specific information about a career as an interpreter or translator.

Interpreter/Translator Job Description

Interpreters and translators must have complete mastery of at least two languages to carry out either role.

Interpreters translate information from one spoken language into another. They help people who do not know both languages communicate with each other. Translators convert information from one written language into another.

Both interpreters and translators must convey information quickly and accurately. They must capture subtleties like the tone of the message. The goal is for the translation to be as close to the original language as possible.

Interpreter/Translator Work Environment

Interpreters work in a variety of settings. Many work in legal environments, medical settings, and community settings. Some work for conference centers or for travel/tourism entities. Others work for the government.

Translators often work for publishing companies. They may be literary translators who convert books, articles, and other works from one language into another. Other translators help corporations translate documents about products and/or services.

Interpreters typically work in hospitals, schools, conference centers, and courtrooms. Many must travel for their jobs. Translators, on the other hand, often work from home. Many are self-employed, completing work for a variety of organizations. Others work for specific publishing companies or corporations.        

Interpreter/Translator Work Schedule
Most interpreters and translators work full time during regular business hours. However, some work nights and weekends, especially if they are working a particular conference or event.

Interpreters and translators who are self-employed have more flexible work schedules. They might work for long periods of time, and then have long breaks.

Interpreter/Translator Education and Training Requirements

Typically, interpreters and translators need at least a bachelor’s degree. However, the most important requirement is that you speak two languages fluently.

Often, interpreters and translators complete job-specific training programs or certificates. These programs typically offer specialized training on how to do a particular type of interpretation or translation such as medical, legal, or deaf interpretation.

Organizations like the American Translators Association, National Center for State Courts, The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters offer certification programs as do colleges like UC San Diego. It is helpful for translators and interpreters to acquire these professional certifications to prove to employers that they have achieved specific levels of competency in translating and interpreting languages.

Some interpreters and translators also have a master’s degree. This is most common when you need knowledge in a technical area, such as finance or software.

Interpreter/Translator Skill Requirements

You can find a list of skills required of interpreters and translators here. There are many skills specific to interpreters and translators, including active listening, communication skills, interpersonal skills, and reading and verbal comprehension.

Perhaps the most important and difficult skill to master is cultural sensitivity. Interpreters and translators must be able to understand the cultures of the people whom they work with, and be able to pick up the subtleties of each language.

When applying for a job as an interpreter or translator, be sure to read the job description for a list of the specific skills required for that job.

Interpreter and Translator Salaries

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median pay for an interpreter/translator in 2016 was $46,120. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $25,370, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $83,010.

The highest paid interpreters and translators typically work for professional, scientific and technical services, an average of $52,060 and the government, $50,880. The healthcare and educational services sectors paid interpreters and translators the least, $46,220 and $43,380 respectively.

Interpreter/Translator Job Outlook

Employment of interpreters and translators is expected to grow at a rate of about 18% from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is due to the rise of non-English speaking people in the United States, as well as the increasing globalization of companies and organizations. Demand is highest for interpreters and translators with expertise in Spanish as well as Middle Eastern and Asian languages.