Most people have a basic understanding of what interpreters and translators do for a living. They are bilingual people who enable communication between parties who do not speak each other’s language. Many people, however, do not appreciate the many different fields in which interpreters and translators work. For instance, the United States military employs thousands of translators and interpreters to help soldiers deal with foreign populations. Private organizations employ these professionals to enable overseas business. Also, many government departments and businesses need translators and interpreters to deal with citizens who do not speak English.
There is one key difference between an interpreter and a translator: an interpreter works with spoken language, while a translator works with written language. Interpretation can be simultaneous (that is, it can require the interpreter to listen and speak at the same time) or it can be consecutive (the interpreter can wait until the conclusion of the utterance to begin speaking). Translation, meanwhile, is performed with a bit less immediacy. Indeed, translators need not work alongside or in close proximity to any of those who speak the foreign language.
Obviously, the most important qualification for an interpreter or translator is fluency in at least two languages. This can be acquired in a number of ways. Some people have bilingual parents and acquire their skills naturally. Others earn a post-secondary degree in a foreign language. Still others travel abroad extensively and acquire linguistic mastery over a number of years. Of course, work as a translator or interpreter often requires the acquisition of a specialized vocabulary. Aspiring professionals in this field may need to take courses in non-linguistic subjects in order to land a job. There are special university degrees in translation studies, although only a minority of professional interpreters and translators hold one of these.
For most employers, experience is the most important qualification for translators and interpreters. Many men and women begin their careers by working for a specialized translation company, performing rote work and gaining experience. A number of nonprofit organizations need volunteer translators and interpreters, and these organizations are usually less stringent in their requirements. Finally, many interpreters and translators acquire experience by taking unpaid internships and apprenticeships while they are in school. For instance, universities often ask bilingual students to assist in hosting foreign exchange students or visiting academics from other countries. This type of task is a great way to build experience and a resume.
There is no universally recognized certification for interpreters and translators, although the federal government does issue certification for speakers of Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Navajo. The State Department issues a test for government interpreters. This test requires proficiency in consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting, and conference-level interpreting. Similarly, the International Association of Conference Interpreters issues a certification in this field. Finally, the American Translators Association issues special certifications in 24 languages.
The average annual salary for an interpreter or translator is $38,850. The top 10 percent in this field take home more than $69,000 annually. This is a particularly lucrative field for those who work for the federal government, which pays an average of close to $80,000 a year. The rate of pay is dependent on a number of factors, including experience, certification, and language. The more obscure the language, the greater the pay. Many translators and interpreters are not employed full time by a single organization and patch together several different freelance jobs. In a freelance arrangement, translators are usually paid by the word or the hour, while interpreters are paid by the hour.
There is expected to be greater-than-average demand for interpreters and translators in the future, in particular for those who are fluent in less common languages. Men and women who are fluent in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean will have an easier time finding work, though there will still be great demand for those who are fluent in more common languages like French, German, and Spanish. There will be a large growth in the demand for interpreters of American Sign Language. Most of this growth will occur in large population centers, particularly New York and Washington, D.C. There will be greater geographic distribution in the future, however, as increasing numbers of immigrants create jobs for people who speak their languages. Maybe the best way to improve one’s job prospects as an interpreter or translator is to acquire training in a specialty, like health care or law.