How To Become an Interpreter (With Examples and Tips)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated February 22, 2021 | Published February 4, 2020

Updated February 22, 2021

Published February 4, 2020

If you specialize in a foreign language or American Sign Language (ASL), a career as an interpreter may be a great path for you. People gravitate to the career of interpreter for its fast-paced environment and the opportunity to travel and work in various industries.

Learning about the educational and skill requirements as well as the primary responsibilities is a great first step in determining whether this career is for you. In this article, we discuss what an interpreter does and the steps you can take to become one.

What does an interpreter do?

Interpreters are responsible for facilitating communication by converting messages from one language into another. They are responsible for transferring messages from one language to another as accurately as possible and in a non-judgemental or unbiased manner. Unlike translators, who work with written communication, interpreters work with spoken communication. Some of their primary responsibilities include:

  • Acting as an interpreter between people with diverse voices, accents, speaking tempos and personalities

  • Interpreting with no omissions or additions

  • Providing interpretations of questions, answers, statements and explanations

  • Using technology, as needed, to provide interpretation from a distant location

How to become an interpreter

Here are the basic steps you should follow to become an interpreter:

1. Obtain an education

Most employers require interpreters to have a bachelor's degree, especially for positions with the government. There is no preferred bachelor's degree, although it's essential that by the end of their bachelor's degree program, the graduate be fluent in at least two languages.

Many students make a language their primary field of study while others major in another area, such as business administration, to gain experience that will apply to the professional field they want to work in. Students interested in sign language interpreting may be able to take introductory classes in ASL.

2. Acquire experience

While pursuing education, it's important to also simultaneously get firsthand experience in the field as an amateur interpreter. Aspiring interpreters can volunteer at hospitals, organizations and companies to hone their skills.

If you're interested in a career in sign language interpretation, look for volunteer opportunities to work with people who are hard of hearing or deaf. These volunteer opportunities can also create future opportunities for employment after graduation.

An internship is also an option for obtaining hands-on experience. Students may be able to find either paid or unpaid internships that can allow them to start building a resume after graduation.

Related: Listing Professional Experience on Your Resume

3. Pursue formal interpreter training

Many postsecondary schools offer formal training for aspiring interpreters. These programs often offer a certificate or even an associate degree specifically designed to prepare interpreters with the skills they will need on the job.

Depending on the industry you are entering, you may be able to obtain formal training on the job. Research open positions in your area and determine whether a certification is required or preferred for the openings.

4. Get certified

While not necessarily required, certification can demonstrate your proficiency with languages and interpreting. Both the government and state departments offer a series of tests that can verify your competency. The American Translator's Association or Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters offers examinations or certifications. While the tests may not always result in a certification, they still verify to employers that you have significant skills.

5. Apply for jobs

Look for entry-level or associate-level openings for interpreters in your area. Evaluate the required levels of experience and education for each and apply using an updated resume and cover letter.

Related: The Essential Job Search Guide

Frequently asked questions

What skills do you need to be an interpreter?

An interpreter should have superior grammatical knowledge and the ability to interpret idioms, metaphors and nuances. They also must be a good and compassionate listener and have the ability to connect with a wide range of people. Interpreters should also have a cultural understanding of the languages they interpret in order to detect customers or nonverbal cues.

Is an interpreter considered an in-demand career?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for interpreters and translators is projected to grow 19% from 2018 to 2028, far faster than the five percent average for all occupations. This surge in career growth reflects increasing globalization and a more diverse U.S. population.

Where can an interpreter work?

Interpreters can work in schools, hospitals, conference rooms and courtrooms. Many work for interpretation companies, individual organizations or private clients. A small percentage of interpreters also work for the government.

Are there different types of interpreters?

The following are examples of different types of interpreters:

  • Community interpreters: Community interpreters are often needed at community events, public or business meetings, social and government agencies, new-home purchases, parent-teacher conferences and other community settings. They interpret in one-on-one or group settings.

  • Conference interpreters: This type of interpreter works specifically at conferences with non-speaking attendees. They often work for organizations that work with speakers of foreign languages. This type of interpreter often works in international business or diplomacy and may be required to convert two languages into one native language.

  • Health or medical interpreters: These interpreters work in healthcare settings to help patients communicate with doctors, nurses and other medical staff. They must have in-depth knowledge of medical terminology and know common medical terms in both languages they're speaking.

  • Liaison or escort interpreters: These interpreters accompany foreign visitors to the United States or U.S. visitors abroad. They must be able to interpret for both formal and informal settings.

  • Sign language interpreters: These interpreters facilitate communication between people who are hard of hearing and deaf and those who can hear. These interpreters must be fluent in both English and ASL.

How long does it take to become an interpreter?

If you are only pursuing an associate's degree, it will take two years. If you pursue a bachelor's degree, as most employers prefer, it will take four years.

Browse more articles