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Although interpreters and translators typically need at least a bachelor’s degree, the most important requirement is that they be fluent in at least 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 use for 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 numerous 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 or certificates.
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 27 language combinations involving English.
Federal courts provide judiciary certification for Spanish, Navajo, and Haitian Creole interpreters, and many states offer their own certifications or licenses for these languages.
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 of 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: Associate Healthcare Interpreter, for interpreters of languages other than Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin; and 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.
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 also may 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 mentoring relationships with experienced workers in the field to build their skills and confidence and to establish and expand a network of contacts. Mentoring may be formal, such as that received through a professional association, or informal, such as that engaged in with a coworker or an acquaintance who 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 on the basis of 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 in order 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 a matter not only 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 must listen carefully when interpreting for audiences to ensure that they hear and interpret correctly.
Reading skills. Translators must be able to read in all of the languages in which they are working.
Speaking skills. Interpreters and translators must speak clearly in all of the languages in which they are working.
Writing skills. Translators must be able to write clearly and effectively in all of the languages in which they are working.
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