What Does a Translator or Interpreter Do?

Career Information

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Interpreters and translators convert information from one language to another. With 6,500 spoken languages in the world, according to infoplease.com, an online almanac (How Many Spoken Languages Are There? infoplease.com), they have their work cut out for them.

Interpreters work with spoken language, as well as sign language, while translators' purview is the written word. To convert information from one language (the source) to another (the target), these professionals must use their knowledge of the languages, cultures, and subject matter.

Quick Facts

  • Translators and interpreters earn a median annual salary of $47,190 (2017).
  • Approximately 68,200 people work in this field (2016).
  • Interpreters usually work in schools, hospitals, and courtrooms.
  • Translators often work from home.
  • 22% of people who work as translators and interpreters are self-employed.
  • Jobs are usually full time
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies this as a "Bright Outlook" occupation because employment is expected to grow much faster than the average from 2016 to 2026.
  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand will be high for people who can translate French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Korean, as well as Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages. There will also be a big call for sign language interpreters.

How to Become a Translator or Interpreter

To become a translator or interpreter in the United States, you must be fluent in English and at least one other language. A bachelor's degree isn't a strict requirement, but most employers prefer job candidates who have one. You don't have to major in a foreign language, however. Majoring in another field of study may, in fact, prove to be valuable as it will give you an area of expertise others do not have.

You will need to know how to translate or interpret before you can begin working since employers usually do not provide on-the-job training. To work in a hospital or a courtroom, you will need specialized training. The American Translating Association maintains a list of approved programs.

Licensing requirements vary by state.  See the Licensed Occupations Tool from CareerOneStop to learn what they are where you want to work. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts certifies Federal Court Interpreters. Individual states certify interpreters who work for state courts.

Several organizations offer certification for translators and interpreters, but getting it is strictly voluntary. It can prove your proficiency and, in turn, this will make you a more competitive job candidate. Some of the organizations that offer certification are The American Translators Association, AIIC (International Association of Conference Interpreters), and the National Association of the Deaf.

What Soft Skills Do You Need to Succeed in This Career?

In addition to interpreting and translation skills, particular soft skills, or personal characteristics, will allow you to succeed in this occupation.

  • Active Listening: To accurately interpret speakers' words, you must be able to understand them.
  • Verbal Communication: The ability to speak fluently is essential when you are interpreting.
  • Reading Comprehension: You must be able to understand written documents if you are to translate them accurately.
  • Writing: You need strong writing skills in the language to which you are translating.
  • Cultural Sensitivity: In addition to proficiency in the languages you are interpreting and translating, you must have a good understanding of the cultures of the people who speak them.

The Truth About Being a Translator or Interpreter

  • Interpreting in real-time can be stressful because you will have to keep up with the speaker.
  • Expect to face tight deadlines.
  • Translators and interpreters who are self-employed may face long periods without work and have other times when they are very busy.

What Will Employers Expect From You?

Here are some requirements from actual job announcements found on Indeed.com:

  • "Translator must be well-versed in logistics and products description terms in Spanish and English, and familiar with relevant idioms in both languages."
  • "Ability to work independently on multiple projects"
  • "Demonstrates competency in detail work and accuracy"
  • "Clearly articulate/communicate via email, phone calls, and video teleconference"
  • "Experience living in another country"
  • "Ability to work cooperatively and collaboratively in a team environment"

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

Find out if your interestspersonality type, and work-related values are compatible with working in this career field. Do a self assessment to find out if you have the following traits:

Take this quiz to find out if you would make a good translator.


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Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,  Occupational Outlook Handbook; Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor,  O*NET Online (visited May 10, 2018).