Become an Interpreter: Education and Career Roadmap

Find out how to become a interpreter. Research the education and training requirements and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in interpreting.

Do I Want to Be an Interpreter?

An interpreter translates spoken or signed words from one language to another, which requires fluency in at least two languages. Interpreters may translate foreign languages or American Sign Language depending on their area of specialization. Interpreters work in various industries, such as government, healthcare and academic settings. Travel might be involved, and interpreting may become stressful with communicators who continue at a fast pace even in the presence of an interpreter.

Job Requirements

While some interpreters learn languages by immersion or exposure, most jobs require at least a bachelor's degree. Optional certifications are available. The following table outlines common requirements to become an interpreter as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

Common Requirements
Degree Level A degree is not always required, but some agencies may prefer an applicant who holds a bachelor's degree with some formal coursework in interpreting.
Degree Field Interpreting, foreign language or related field.
Licensure and Certification No license is required; voluntary certifications are available.
Experience Experience working in interpreting or a related field is required by most employers.
Key Skills Strong verbal communication skills, fluency in at least two languages. Listening skills and cultural sensitivity are also required.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's degree is often necessary to become an interpreter, especially for jobs within the government. A major in a foreign language isn't required, although that is one possible route. Some interpreters major in another specific area, such as business administration, so as to gain expertise and possibly translate for this professional field. The most important thing is to be fluent in at least two languages by the end of a bachelor's degree program.

Success Tips

  • Volunteer. Prospective interpreters can benefit from volunteering to get first-hand experience in the field. Hospitals, organizations and companies sometimes have opportunities for amateur interpreters to volunteer their services. Not only will opportunities like this give aspiring interpreters the ability to hone their skills, it may also give interpreters an advantage when applying for jobs after graduation.
  • Take advantage of study abroad opportunities. Some colleges and universities offer study abroad options to students. Taking advantage of such an opportunity could benefit aspiring interpreters by giving them the chance to continue learning a language around native speakers.
  • Complete an internship. Schools typically offer internships for prospective interpreters. These internships may be paid or unpaid depending on the institution the internship is completed through. Participation in an internship can serve as work experience to help interpreters find employment after graduation.

Step 2: Attend Formal Interpreter Training

Many colleges and universities offer formal training for students who want to become interpreters. Community colleges and universities sometimes offer certificate or associate's degree programs specifically in interpreter preparation. Depending on the field, training may also be offered through employers. For example, court and medical interpreters are likely to receive on-the-job training. Additional interpreter training may also require extensive fieldwork hours and interning in the area of your interest.

Step 3: Take an Interpreter Test

Interpreters can demonstrate their proficiency with languages by taking voluntary tests. The government offers certification through federal and state courts, and the state department has a series of tests. Other associations, such as the American Translators Association or the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters, offer certifications or exams. Even if the tests don't qualify as a credential, they prove whether or not a prospective interpreter has significant skill and can be handy to have on a resume. Some forms of interpreting, such as court interpreting, may require a certification.

Step 4: Continue Education

A variety of continuing education options are available to professional interpreters. For example, the National Association for Interpretation offers continuing education training and workshops for professional interpreters. Continuing education may help interpreters advance in their career by giving them experience or even certification in specific areas like personal presentation or graphic design.

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