Interpreters and translators convert information from one language into another language. Interpreters work in spoken or sign language; translators work in written language.
Interpreters and translators typically do the following:
- Convert concepts in the source language to equivalent concepts in the target language
- Compile information, such as technical terms used in legal settings, into glossaries and terminology databases to be used in translations
- Speak, read, and write fluently in at least two languages, including English and one or more others
- Relay the style and tone of the original language
- Manage work schedules to meet deadlines
- Render spoken messages accurately, quickly, and clearly
Interpreters and translators aid communication by converting message or text from one language into another language. Although some people do both, interpreting and translating are different professions: interpreters work with spoken communication, and translators work with written communication.
Interpreters convert information from one spoken language into another—or, in the case of sign language interpreters, between spoken language and sign language. The goal of an interpreter is to have people hear the interpretation as if it were the original. Interpreters must usually be fluent speakers or signers of both languages, because they communicate back and forth among the people who do not share a common language.
There are three common modes of interpreting: simultaneous, consecutive, and whispered.
Simultaneous. Simultaneous interpreters cannot begin interpreting until the general meaning of the sentence is understood. Simultaneous interpreting requires interpreters to listen or watch and speak or sign at the same time someone is speaking or signing. It requires a high level of concentration. For that reason, simultaneous interpreters usually work in pairs, each interpreting for about 20 to 30 minutes and then resting while the other interprets. Simultaneous interpreters are often familiar with the subject matter, so they can anticipate the end of the speaker’s sentences.
Consecutive. Consecutive interpreting begins only after the speaker has said or signed a group of words or sentences. Consecutive interpreters may take notes while listening to or watching the speakers before presenting their interpretation. Note taking is an essential part of consecutive interpreting.
Whispered. Interpreters in this mode sit very close to the listeners and provides a simultaneous interpretation in a quiet voice. At least two interpreters take turns.
Translators convert written materials from one language into another language. The goal of a translator is to have people read the translation as if it were the original. To do that, the translator must be able to write sentences that maintain or duplicate the structure and style of the original meaning while keeping the ideas and facts of the original meaning accurate. Translators must properly transmit any cultural references, including slang, and other expressions that do not translate literally.
Translators must read the original language fluently. They usually translate only into their native language.
Nearly all translation work is done on a computer, and translators receive and submit most assignments electronically. Translations often go through several revisions before becoming final.
Translation is usually done with computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools, in which a computer database of previously translated sentences or segments (Translation Memories) may be used to translate new text. CAT tools allow translators to work more efficiently and consistently.
Interpretation and translation services are needed in virtually all subject areas. Although some interpreters and translators do not to specialize in any particular field or industry, many focus on one or several areas of expertise.
The following are examples of types of interpreters and translators:
Conference interpreters work at conferences that have non-English-speaking attendees. The work is often in the field of international business or diplomacy, although conference interpreters can interpret for any organization that works with speakers of foreign languages. Employers generally prefer more experienced interpreters who have the ability to convert from at least two languages into one native language—for example, the ability to interpret from Spanish and French into English. For some positions, such as those with the United Nations, this qualification is required.
Conference interpreters often do simultaneous interpreting. Attendees at a conference who do not understand the language of the speaker wear earphones tuned to the interpreter who speaks the language they want to hear. The interpreter listens to a bit of the speaker’s talk and then translates that bit. Simultaneous interpreters must be able to listen to the next bit the speaker is saying while converting the previous bit of what the speaker said.
Guide or escort interpreters accompany either U.S. visitors abroad or foreign visitors in the United States to ensure that they are able to communicate during their stay. These specialists interpret in both formal and informal settings. Frequent travel is common for these workers.
Health or medical interpreters and translators typically work in healthcare settings and help patients communicate with doctors, nurses, technicians, and other medical staff. Interpreters and translators must have knowledge of medical terminology and the common words for medical terms in both languages.
Health or medical interpreters must be sensitive to patients’ personal circumstances, as well as maintain confidentiality and ethics.
Health or medical translators often do not have the same level of personal interaction with patients and providers that interpreters do. They primarily convert information brochures, materials that patients must read and sign, website information, and patient records from one language into another language. Interpretation may be provided remotely, by video relay, or over-the-phone.
Legal or judiciary interpreters and translators typically work in courts and other legal settings. At hearings, arraignments, depositions, and trials, they help people who have limited English proficiency. As a result, they must understand legal terminology. Many court interpreters must sometimes read documents aloud in a language other than that in which they were written, a task known as sight translation. Both interpreters and translators must have strong understanding of legal terminology in both languages.
Literary translators convert journal articles, books, poetry, and short stories from one language into another language. They work to keep the tone, style, and meaning of the author’s work. Whenever possible, literary translators work closely with authors to capture the intended meaning as well as the literary and cultural characteristics of the original.
Localizers adapt text for a product or service from one language into another, a task known as localization. Localization specialists work to make it appear as though the product originated in the country where it will be sold. They must know not only both languages, but they must also understand the technical information they are working with and the culture of the people who will be using the product or service.
Localization may include adapting websites, software, marketing materials, user documentation, and various other publications. Usually, these adaptations are related to products and services in manufacturing and other business sectors.
Localization may be helped by computer-assisted translation, in which a computer program develops an early draft of a translation for the localization translator. Also, translators may use computers to compare previous translations with specific terminology.
Sign language interpreters facilitate communication between people who are deaf or hard of hearing and people who can hear. Sign language interpreters must be fluent in English and in American Sign Language (ASL), which combines signing, finger spelling, and specific body language. ASL is a separate language from English and has its own grammar.
Some interpreters specialize in other forms of interpreting for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Some people who are deaf or hard of hearing lip-read English instead of signing in ASL. Interpreters who work with these people do “oral interpretation”, mouthing speech silently and very carefully so that their lips can be read easily. They also may use facial expressions and gestures to help the lip-reader understand.
Other modes of interpreting include cued speech, which uses hand shapes placed near the mouth to give lip-readers more information; signing exact English; and tactile signing, which is interpreting for people who are blind as well as deaf by making hand signs into the deaf–blind person’s hand.
Trilingual interpreters facilitate communication among an English speaker, a speaker of another language, and an ASL user. They must have the versatility, adaptability, and cultural understanding necessary to interpret in all three languages without changing the fundamental meaning of the message.
Interpreters and translators held about 63,600 jobs in 2012. About 1 in 5 were self-employed.
The industries that employed the most interpreters and translators in 2012 were as follows:
|Professional, scientific, and technical services||30%|
|Educational services; state, local, and private||25|
|Health care and social assistance||13|
Interpreters work in settings such as schools, hospitals, courtrooms, and conference centers. They must sometimes travel to conferences. Simultaneous interpreting can be stressful, as the interpreter must keep up with the speaker who may not know to slow down when an interpreter is present.
Translators typically work from home. They receive and submit their work electronically. They must sometimes deal with the pressure of deadlines and tight schedules.
Self-employed interpreters and translators often have variable work schedules, which may include periods of limited work and periods of long, irregular hours. Most interpreters and translators work full time during regular business hours.
Although interpreters and translators typically need at least a bachelor’s degree, the most important requirements are that they be fluent in two languages (English and at least one other language). Many complete job-specific training programs. It is not necessary for interpreters and translators to have been raised in two languages to succeed in these jobs, but many grew up communicating in the languages in which they work.
The educational backgrounds of interpreters and translators vary widely, but it is essential that they be fluent in English and at least one other language.
High school students interested in becoming an interpreter or translator should take a broad range of courses that focus on English writing and comprehension, foreign languages, and computer proficiency. Other helpful pursuits for prospects include spending time in a foreign country, engaging in direct contact with foreign cultures, and reading extensively on a variety of subjects in English and at least one other language. Through community organizations, students interested in sign language interpreting may take introductory classes in American Sign Language (ASL) and seek out volunteer opportunities to work with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Beyond high school, people interested in becoming interpreters or translators have many educational options. Although many jobs require a bachelor’s degree, majoring in a language is not always necessary. Rather, an educational background in a particular field of study can provide a natural area of subject-matter expertise.
Interpreters and translators generally need specialized training on how to do their work. Formal programs in interpreting and translating are available at colleges and universities nationwide and through nonuniversity training programs, conferences, and courses.
Many people who work as interpreters or translators in more technical areas—such as software localization, engineering, or finance—have a master’s degree. Those working in the community as court or medical interpreters or translators are more likely to complete job-specific training programs.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
There is currently no universal certification required of interpreters and translators beyond passing the required court interpreting exams offered by most states. However, workers can take a variety of tests that show proficiency. For example, the American Translators Association provides certification in 26 language combinations involving English.
Federal courts provide judiciary certification for Spanish, Navajo, and Haitian Creole interpreters, and many states offer their own certification or licensing. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators also offers certification for court interpreting.
The National Association of the Deaf and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf jointly offer certification for general sign language interpreters. In addition, the registry offers specialty tests in legal interpreting, speech reading, and deaf-to-deaf interpreting—which includes interpreting among deaf speakers with different native languages and from ASL to tactile signing.
The U.S. Department of State has a three-test series for prospective interpreters—one test in simple consecutive interpreting (for escort work), another in simultaneous interpreting (for court work), and a third in conference-level interpreting (for international conferences)—as well as a test for prospective translators. These tests are not considered a credential, but their completion indicates that a person has significant skill in the occupation.
The International Association of Conference Interpreters offers information for conference interpreters.
The Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters offers two types of certifications for healthcare interpreters: one for Associate Healthcare Interpreter (for interpreters of languages other than Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin), and the other for Certified Healthcare Interpreter (for interpreters of Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin).
The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters offers certification for medical interpreters of Spanish.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Work experience is essential. In fact, some companies hire only interpreters or translators who have related work experience.
A good way for translators to learn firsthand about the occupation is to start working in-house for a translation company. Doing informal or volunteer work is an excellent way for people seeking interpreter or translator jobs to gain experience.
Volunteer opportunities for interpreters are available through community organizations, hospitals, and sporting events, such as marathons, that involve international competitors.
Paid or unpaid internships are other ways that interpreters and translators can gain experience. Escort interpreting may offer an opportunity for inexperienced candidates to work alongside a more experienced interpreter. Interpreters may also find it easier to begin working in industries with particularly high demand for language services, such as court or medical interpreting.
Whatever path of entry new interpreters and translators pursue, they should develop relationships with experienced workers in the field to build their skills, confidence, and network. Mentoring may be formal, such as that through a professional association, or informal, such as with a coworker or an acquaintance that has experience as an interpreter or translator. Both the American Translators Association and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf offer formal mentoring programs.
After interpreters and translators have enough experience, they can move up to more difficult assignments, seek certification, and obtain editorial responsibility. They can also manage or start their own business.
Many self-employed interpreters and translators start their own business by first establishing themselves in their field. They may submit resumes and samples to different translation and interpreting companies and work for companies that match their skills with a job. Many then get work based on their reputation or through referrals from existing clients.
Business skills. Self-employed and freelance interpreters and translators need general business skills to manage their finances and careers successfully. They must set prices for their work, bill customers, keep records, and market their services to build their client base.
Concentration. Interpreters and translators must have the ability to concentrate while others are speaking or moving around them.
Cultural sensitivity. Interpreters and translators must be sensitive to cultural differences and expectations among the people whom they are helping to communicate. Successful interpreting and translating is not only a matter of knowing the words in different languages but also of understanding people’s cultures.
Dexterity. Sign language interpreters must be able to make quick and coordinated hand, finger, and arm movements when interpreting.
Interpersonal skills. Interpreters and translators, particularly those who are self-employed, must be able to get along with those who hire or use their services in order to retain clients and attract new business.
Listening skills. Interpreters and translators must listen carefully when interpreting for audiences to ensure that they hear and interpret correctly.
Speaking skills. Interpreters and translators must speak clearly in the languages they are conveying.
Writing skills. Interpreters and translators must be able to write clearly and effectively in the languages they translate.
The median annual wage for interpreters and translators was $45,430 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than the amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $23,570, and the top 10 percent earned more than $91,800.
In May 2012, the median annual wages in the top four industries in which interpreters and translators worked were as follows:
|Professional, scientific, and technical services||$54,110|
|Educational services; state, local, and private||43,260|
|Health care and social assistance||40,130|
Wages depend on the language, specialty, skill, experience, education, and certification of the interpreter or translator, as well as on the type of employer. Wages of interpreters and translators vary widely. Interpreters and translators who know languages that are in high demand or that relatively few people can translate often earn higher wages. Those who perform services requiring a high level of skill, such as conference interpreters, also receive higher pay.
Self-employed interpreters usually charge an hourly rate. Self-employed translators typically charge a rate per word or per hour.
Self-employed interpreters and translators often have variable work schedules, which may include periods of limited work and periods of long irregular hours. Most interpreters and translators work full time during regular business hours.
Employment of interpreters and translators is projected to grow 46 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Employment growth reflects increasing globalization and a more diverse U.S. population, which is expected to require more interpreters and translators.
Demand will likely remain strong for translators of frequently translated languages, such as French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Demand also should be strong for translators of Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages and for the principal Asian languages: Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, and Korean.
Demand for American Sign Language interpreters is expected to grow rapidly, driven by the increasing use of video relay services, which allow people to conduct online video calls and use a sign language interpreter.
In addition, growing international trade and broadening global ties should require more interpreters and translators. The need for military interpreters and translators should result in more jobs as well. Emerging markets in Asia and Africa are expected to increase the need for translation and interpreting in those languages.
Computers have made the work of translators and localization specialists more efficient. However, these jobs cannot be entirely automated. Computers cannot yet produce work comparable to the work that human translators do in most cases.
Job prospects should be best for those who have at least a bachelor’s degree and for those who have professional certification. Those with a master’s degree in interpreting and/or translation should also have an advantage.
In addition, urban areas—especially Washington DC, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—should continue to provide the largest numbers of jobs, especially for interpreters.
Job prospects for interpreters and translators should also vary by specialty and language. For example, interpreters and translators of Spanish should have good job prospects because of expected increases in the population of Spanish-speakers in the United States. In particular, job opportunities should be plentiful for interpreters and translators specializing in healthcare and law, because of the critical need for all parties to fully understand the information communicated in these fields.
In addition, there should be many job opportunities for specialists in localization, driven by the globalization of business and the expansion of the Internet.
Interpreters for the deaf will continue to have favorable employment prospects because there are relatively few people with the needed skills.
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