Interpreter / Translator Job Description, Salary, and Skills

Interpreter watching two people converse in ASL
••• Loretta Hostettler / E+ / Getty Images

Interpreters and translators convert the spoken or written word from one language to another. Interpreters work with verbal communication (including sign language), as well as written communication. 

Interpreters and translators must have complete mastery of at least two languages to carry out either role. Fluency in additional languages is beneficial for someone seeking a career utilizing language skills. 

 Interpreter/Translator Duties & Responsibilities

Interpreters translate information from one spoken language into another. They help people who do not know both languages communicate with each other. The duties of an interpreter include the following:

  • TTranslate communication, to include meaning and tone
  • Master at least two languages
  • Maintain confidentiality for all parties involved
  • Follow industry-specific terms and guidelines
  • Listen carefully to the speaker’s or original content’s explanation across a variety of communication channels

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.

Salary

The highest-paid interpreters and translators typically work for professional, scientific, and technical services (with an average salary of $52,060 per year) and the government (with an average salary of $50,880 per year). The healthcare and educational services sectors pay interpreters/translators the least at $46,220 and $43,380 per year, respectively. Here are the latest numbers according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Median Annual Salary: $49,930 
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $90,610
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $27,230

Education, Training, and Certification

Generally speaking, interpreters/translators need to be relatively well-read and aware of cultural differences. Here is a list of education requirements: 

  • Education: Typically, interpreters and translators need at least a bachelor’s degree. However, the most important requirement is that they speak two languages fluently. Some even have a master’s degree. This is most common when the interpreter/translator needs to possess industry-specific knowledge, such as finance or software.
  • Certification: Often, interpreters and translators complete job-specific training or certification programs. These programs typically offer specialized training in mastering specific kinds of interpretation/translation such as medical, legal, or deaf interpretation.
  • Training: Organizations like the American Translators AssociationNational Center for State Courts, and The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters offer certification programs, as do colleges like the University of California 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 required in translating and interpreting languages.

Interpreter/Translator Skills and Competencies

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

There are many skills specific to interpreters and translators including, but not limited to:

  • Cultural Sensitivity: The differences in language also match differences in cultures. What is acceptable for one group may not be appropriate for another. An interpreter’ s/translator’s use of language must carefully take culture into consideration.
  • Active Listening: Interpreters must not only listen to the words spoken; they must note the tone of what was said or written. Because not all languages work the same, interpreters must match each party’s vernacular (style of communication) so that nothing is lost in translation.
  • Communication: After listening carefully, any translation must be clear and concise for the other party. Conveying incorrect ideas or overwhelming the other party with too many words distorts communication efforts.
  • Interpersonal Skills: Good interpreters read body language and listen to the speaker’s words. They must also be sensitive to the other parties that will be receiving the message that needs to be conveyed.
  • Oral and Written Comprehension: Interpreters and translators must digest a large volume of words before translating. It is impolite and disruptive to ask the speaker to repeat him/herself. 

Job Outlook

According to BLS data, the employment of interpreters and translators is expected to grow at a rate of about 19% from 2018 to 2028, 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.

Work Environment

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

Translators may also work for publishing companies. For example, literary translators convert books, articles, and other works from one language into another. Additionally, translators help corporations translate documents about products and/or services.

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

Work Schedule

Most interpreters and translators work full-time during regular business hours. However, some work nights and weekends, especially if they are working during 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, followed by long breaks.

How to Get the Job

FIND JOB LISTINGS: Most interpreter/translator jobs can be found on job boards. Additionally, this occupation lends itself well to part-time or full-time freelancing. As such, many of the top freelancing websites are great places to look.

INCLUDE INTERPRETER/TRANSLATOR SKILLS IN YOUR RESUME: Use the skills above to help you build your resume and find the ideal job. It is a good idea to have several different resumes targeting specific kinds of interpreter/translator jobs.

INCLUDE RELEVANT SKILLS IN YOUR COVER LETTER: If the job requests a cover letter, use two to three short paragraphs to describe past projects where you successfully performed interpreting/translating duties.

Comparing Similar Jobs

If you are interested in communication and writing but would prefer to do so in a different role, consider these similar vocations and their median salaries:

Article Sources

  1. O*Net Online. "Summary Report for Interpreters and Translators," Accessed Dec. 5, 2019.

  2. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Interpreters and Translators," Accessed Dec. 5, 2019.

  3. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Interpreters and Translators, Job Outlook," Accessed Dec. 5, 2019.

  4. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Interpreters and Translators, Similar Occupations," Accessed Dec. 5, 2019.