Become a Spanish Interpreter: Education and Career Roadmap

Find out how to become a Spanish interpreter. Explore the education and training requirements, and learn about the experience you'll need to advance your career in Spanish interpreting.

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Should I Become a Spanish Interpreter?

Spanish interpreters convert spoken Spanish to English and vice versa (unlike translators, who work with written text). Interpreting is done in one of two basic modes: simultaneous, which is immediate interpreting as someone is speaking, or consecutive, which is done at intervals after someone has finished saying several words or sentences. Many Spanish interpreters work in specialized roles, such as in healthcare or legal settings.

Some interpreters are self-employed, which can result in periods of little work and periods of a lot of work. Being self-employed also means the interpreter has the freedom to choose which assignments to take, some of which might include opportunities to travel. Simultaneous interpreting requires an interpreter to keep pace with the speaker, no matter how quickly he/she is speaking.

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Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree, plus specialized certificate or comparable training in interpreting, is typically required
Degree Field(s) Field for bachelor's may vary, but Spanish or English or majors that provide subject-area expertise for technical interpreting are especially relevant
Certification Voluntary certifications are available from a variety of government agencies and professional organizations
Experience Experience is required for many positions
Key Skills Fluency in Spanish and English; ability to concentrate and listen carefully; good writing and speaking skills; bi-cultural knowledge and sensitivity
Salary (2104) $43,590 (Median for all interpreters and translators)

Sources: Job postings from employers (August 2015); U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

While not every interpreter position requires a bachelor's degree, many do. College-level coursework helps develop the communications skills, multicultural perspectives and general knowledge that are important assets for interpreters. Majoring in Spanish or English is not necessarily required, but would be beneficial. Spanish programs offer advanced language training (writing, reading, speaking and understanding) along with courses in literature, culture and linguistics. Some may offer courses, or even minors or certificates, in interpreting and translating, which could give future interpreters a head start on acquiring the necessary training. Majoring in another field could, however, provide subject-area expertise. Biology or other pre-med courses would be helpful for future medical interpreters, for instance.

Success Tips:

  • Study abroad. Time spent immersed in the culture of a Spanish-speaking country, along with intensive daily use of Spanish, can provide invaluable experience to a future interpreter. The term-abroad programs available at four-year colleges and universities offer ready-made opportunities to spend time overseas.
  • Begin reading widely in both languages and keeping abreast of current events. Aspiring interpreters, especially those who wish to enter conference interpreting, should be broadly knowledgeable about history, culture, politics, international relations and current affairs. Reading newspapers, magazines and books and watching TV news in both English and Spanish will hone a future interpreter's language skills and expand their general knowledge.

Step 2: Get Specialized Training

Interpreting is not something a bi- or multilingual person automatically knows how to do well - it is based on distinct skills. Some kinds of interpreting also require familiarity with specialized concepts and vocabulary. Interpreters therefore generally need professional training, which is available through certificate programs. Many Spanish interpreting certificate programs provide training specifically in medical or legal interpreting (or both). Students take courses on practical and ethical considerations in interpreting, techniques for different modes of interpreting and strategies for memory building. Learning important concepts and terminology in the legal and/or medical fields and practice interpreting are also part of the typical curriculum. Requirements vary, but certificates normally take about a year to complete.

Many practitioners of high-level specializations hold graduate degrees, including conference interpreters and those who work in finance or engineering. One can pursue a master's degree in conference interpreting specifically or interpreting and translating more generally. Master's programs provide advanced coursework in interpreting theory and technique, as well as such related areas as comparative grammar and linguistics. Students develop memory, annotation and other vital skills through extensive practice in consecutive and simultaneous interpreting.

Step 3: Get Certified

A variety of certifications are available to attest to Spanish interpreters' proficiency. For legal interpreters, many states have their own certification processes. The National Center for State Courts has organized a consortium that coordinates proficiency exams for the majority of states (www.ncsc.org). The federal courts use the Spanish-English Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination (www.ncsc.org/fcice). There is also the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators' certification in Spanish, which is recognized by several states (www.najit.org). Applicants must pass both a written and oral exam.

For interpreting in healthcare settings, there are certifications in Spanish available from the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (www.healthcareinterpretercertification.org, www.certifiedmedicalinterpreters.org). For both credentials, candidates must have a minimum amount of training in medical or healthcare interpreting and succeed on written and oral exams.

Step 4: Gain Experience

A wide range of employers require interpreters, including corporations, religious organizations, schools, international aid organizations, social and community service agencies and government agencies, however, many of these jobs require experience. As interpreters gain experience, they can qualify for a broader range of employment. Jobs may involve one or both of the basic delivery modes - simultaneous and consecutive - in a variety of settings, which include business, media, community, healthcare or legal contexts, conferences and over-the-phone and in-person escort interpreting.

For inexperienced interpreters, volunteering and finding a mentor are good ways to expand one's skills, network and confidence. The American Translators Association (ATA), working with the Red Cross, sends volunteers to crisis areas to interpret. Beginning interpreters can also check with local community organizations, school, churches or hospitals for volunteer opportunities. Mentoring can be arranged informally, but professional organizations also run mentorship programs for members. The ATA and International Medical Interpreters Association are among those that have mentoring programs.

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