Work is often sporadic, and many interpreters and translators
work part time.
Although training requirements can vary, most interpreters
and translators have a bachelor’s degree.
Job outlook varies by specialty and language combination.
Nature of the Work
Interpreters and translators enable the cross-cultural communication
necessary in today’s society by converting one language into another.
However, these language specialists do more than simply translate
words—they relay concepts and ideas between languages. They must
thoroughly understand the subject matter in which they work so
that they are able to convert information from one language, known
as the source language, into another, the target language. In
addition, they must remain sensitive to the cultures associated
with their languages of expertise.
Interpreters and translators are often discussed together because
they share some common traits. For example, both need a special
ability, known as language combination. This enables them to be
fluent in at least two languages—a native, or active, language
and a secondary, or passive, language; a small number of interpreters
and translators are fluent in two or more passive languages. Their
active language is the one that they know best and into which
they interpret or translate, and their passive language is one
of which they have nearly perfect knowledge.
Although some people do both, interpretation and translation
are different professions. Each requires a distinct set of skills
and aptitudes, and most people are better suited for one or the
other. While interpreters often work into and from both languages,
translators generally work only into their active language.
Interpreters convert one spoken language into another—or,
in the case of sign-language interpreters, between spoken communication
and sign language. This requires interpreters to pay attention
carefully, understand what is communicated in both languages,
and express thoughts and ideas clearly. Strong research and analytical
skills, mental dexterity, and an exceptional memory also are important.
The first part of an interpreter’s work begins before arriving
at the jobsite. The interpreter must become familiar with the
subject matter that the speakers will discuss, a task that may
involve research to create a list of common words and phrases
associated with the topic. Next, the interpreter usually travels
to the location where his or her services are needed. Physical
presence may not be required for some work, such as telephone
interpretation. But it is usually important that the interpreter
see the communicators in order to hear and observe the person
speaking and to relay the message to the other party.
There are two types of interpretation: simultaneous and consecutive.
Simultaneous interpretation requires interpreters to listen and
speak (or sign) at the same time. In simultaneous interpretation,
the interpreter begins to convey a sentence being spoken while
the speaker is still talking. Ideally, simultaneous interpreters
should be so familiar with a subject that they are able to anticipate
the end of the speaker’s sentence. Because they need a high degree
of concentration, simultaneous interpreters work in pairs, with
each interpreting for 20- to 30-minute segments. This type of
interpretation is required at international conferences and is
sometimes used in the courts.
In contrast to simultaneous interpretation’s immediacy, consecutive
interpretation begins only after the speaker has verbalized a
group of words or sentences. Consecutive interpreters often take
notes while listening to the speakers, so they must develop some
type of note-taking or shorthand system. This form of interpretation
is used most often for person-to-person communication, during
which the interpreter sits near both parties.
Translators convert written materials from one language
into another. They must have excellent writing and analytical
ability. And because the documents that they translate must be
as flawless as possible, they also need good editing skills.
Translators’ assignments may vary in length, writing style, and
subject matter. When they first receive text to convert into another
language, translators usually read it in its entirety to get an
idea of the subject. Next, they identify and look up any unfamiliar
words. Multiple additional readings are usually needed before
translators begin to actually write and finalize the translation.
Translators also might do additional research on the subject matter
if they are unclear about anything in the text. They consult with
the text’s originator or issuing agency to clarify unclear or
unfamiliar ideas, words, or acronyms.
Translating involves more than replacing a word with its equivalent
in another language; sentences and ideas must be manipulated to
flow with the same coherence as those in the source document so
that the translation reads as though it originated in the target
language. Translators also must bear in mind any cultural references
that may need to be explained to the intended audience, such as
colloquialisms, slang, and other expressions that do not translate
literally. Some subjects may be more difficult than others to
translate because words or passages may have multiple meanings
that make several translations possible. Not surprisingly, translated
work often goes through multiple revisions before final text is
The way in which translators do their jobs has changed with advancements
in technology. Today, nearly all translation work is done on a
computer, and most assignments are received and submitted electronically.
This enables translators to work from almost anywhere, and a large
percentage of them work from home. The Internet provides advanced
research capabilities and valuable language resources, such as
specialized dictionaries and glossaries. In some cases, use of
machine-assisted translation—including memory tools that provide
comparisons of previous translations with current work—helps save
time and reduce repetition.
The services of interpreters and translators are needed in a
number of subject areas. While these workers may not completely
specialize in a particular field or industry, many do focus on
one area of expertise. Some of the most common areas are described
below; however, interpreters and translators also may work in
a variety of other areas, including business, social services,
Conference interpreters work at conferences that involve
non-English-speaking attendees. This work includes international
business and diplomacy, although conference interpreters also
may interpret for any organization that works with foreign language
speakers. Employers prefer high-level interpreters who have the
ability to translate from at least two passive languages into
one active (native) language—for example, the ability to interpret
from Spanish and French into English. For some positions, such
as those with the United Nations, this qualification is mandatory.
Much of the interpreting performed at conferences is simultaneous;
however, at some meetings with a small number of attendees, consecutive
interpreting also may be used. Usually, interpreters sit in soundproof
booths, listening to the speakers through headphones and interpreting
into a microphone what is said. The interpreted speech is then
relayed to the listener through headsets. When interpreting is
needed for only one or two people, the interpreter generally sits
behind or next to the attendee and whispers a translation of the
Guide or escort interpreters accompany either U.S. visitors
abroad or foreign visitors in the United States to ensure that
they are able to communicate during their stay. These specialists
interpret on a variety of subjects, both on an informal basis
and on a professional level. Most of their interpretation is consecutive,
and work is generally shared by two interpreters when the assignment
requires more than an 8-hour day. Frequent travel, often for days
or weeks at a time, is common, an aspect of the job that some
find particularly appealing.
Judiciary interpreters and translatorshelp people
appearing in court who are unable or unwilling to communicate
in English. These workers must remain detached from the content
of their work and not alter or modify the meaning or tone of what
is said. Legal translators must be thoroughly familiar with the
language and functions of the U.S. judicial system, as well as
other countries’ legal systems. Court interpreters work in a variety
of legal settings, such as attorney-client meetings, preliminary
hearings, depositions, trials, and arraignments. Success as a
court interpreter requires an understanding of both legal terminology
and colloquial language. In addition to interpreting what is said,
court interpreters also may be required to translate written documents
and read them aloud, also known as sight translation.
Literary translators adapt written literature from one
language into another. They may translate any number of documents,
including journal articles, books, poetry, and short stories.
Literary translation is related to creative writing; literary
translators must create a new text in the target language that
reproduces the content and style of the original. Whenever possible,
literary translators work closely with authors in order to best
capture their intended meanings and literary characteristics.
This type of work often is done as a sideline by university professors;
however, opportunities exist for well-established literary translators.
As is the case with writers, finding a publisher and maintaining
a network of contacts in the publishing industry is a critical
part of the job. Most aspiring literary translators begin by submitting
a short sample of their work, in the hope that it will be printed
and give them recognition. For example, after receiving permission
from the author, they might submit to a publishing house a previously
unpublished short work, such as a poem or essay.
Localizationtranslators constitute a relatively
recent and rapidly expanding specialty. Localization involves
the complete adaptation of a product for use in a different language
and culture. At its earlier stages, this work dealt primarily
with software localization, but the specialty has expanded to
include the adaptation of Internet sites and products in manufacturing
and other business sectors.
Translators working in localization need a solid grasp of the
languages to be translated, a thorough understanding of technical
concepts and vocabulary, and a high degree of knowledge about
the intended target audience or users of the product. The goal
of these specialists is for the product to appear as if it were
originally manufactured in the country where it will be sold and
supported. Because software often is involved, it is not uncommon
for people who work in this area of translation to have a strong
background in computer science or computer-related work experience.
Providing language services to health care patients with limited
English proficiency is the realm of medical interpreters and
translators. Medical interpreters help patients to communicate
with doctors, nurses, and other medical staff. Translators working
in this specialty primarily convert patient materials and informational
brochures, issued by hospitals and medical facilities, into the
desired language. Medical interpreters need a strong grasp of
medical and colloquial terminology in both languages, along with
cultural sensitivity regarding how the patient receives the information.
They must remain detached but aware of the patient’s feelings
Sign language interpreters facilitate communication between
people who are deaf or hard of hearing and people who can hear.
Sign language interpreters must be fluent in English and in American
Sign Language (ASL), which combines signing, finger spelling,
and specific body language. ASL has its own grammatical rules,
sentence structure, idioms, historical contexts, and cultural
nuances. Sign language interpreting, like foreign language interpreting,
involves more than simply replacing a word of spoken English with
a sign representing that word.
Most sign language interpreters either interpret, aiding communication
between English and ASL, or transliterate, facilitating communication
between English and contact signing—a form of signing that uses
a more English language-based word order. Some interpreters specialize
in oral interpreting for deaf or hard of hearing persons who lip-read
instead of sign. Other specialties include tactile signing, which
is interpreting for persons who are blind as well as deaf by making
manual signs into a person’s hands; cued speech; and signing exact
Self-employed and freelance interpreters and translators need
general business skills to successfully manage their finances
and careers. They must set prices for their work, bill customers,
keep financial records, and market their services to attract new
business and build their client base.
Working environments of interpreters and translators vary. Interpreters
work in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, courtrooms,
and conference centers. They are required to travel to the site—whether
it is in a neighboring town or on the other side of the world—where
their services are needed. Interpreters who work over the telephone
generally work on call, often in call centers in urban areas,
and keep to a standard 5-day, 40-hour workweek. Interpreters for
deaf students in schools usually work in a school setting for
9 months out of the year. Translators usually work alone, and
they must frequently perform under pressure of deadlines and tight
schedules. Many translators choose to work at home; however, technology
allows translators to work from virtually anywhere.
Because many interpreters and translators freelance, their schedules
are often erratic, with extensive periods of no work interspersed
with others requiring long, irregular hours. For those who freelance,
a significant amount of time must be dedicated to looking for
jobs. In addition, freelancers must manage their own finances,
and payment for their services may not always be prompt. Freelancing,
however, offers variety and flexibility, and allows many workers
to choose which jobs to accept or decline.
The number of work-related accidents in these occupations is
relatively low. The work can be stressful and exhausting, and
translation can be lonesome or dull. However, interpreters and
translators may use their irregular schedules to pursue other
interests, such as traveling, dabbling in a hobby, or working
a second job. Many interpreters and translators enjoy what they
do and value the ability to control their schedules and workloads.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
The educational backgrounds of interpreters and translators vary.
Knowing a language in addition to a native language is essential.
Although it is not necessary to have been raised bilingual to
succeed, many interpreters and translators grew up speaking two
In high school, students can prepare for these careers by taking
a broad range of courses that include English writing and comprehension,
foreign languages, and basic computer proficiency. Other helpful
pursuits include spending time abroad, engaging in comparable
forms of direct contact with foreign cultures, and reading extensively
on a variety of subjects in English and at least one other language.
Beyond high school, there are many educational options. Although
a bachelor’s degree is often required, interpreters and translators
note that it is acceptable to major in something other than a
language. However, specialized training in how to do the work
is generally required. A number of formal programs in interpreting
and translation are available at colleges nationwide and through
nonuniversity training programs, conferences, and courses. Many
people who work as conference interpreters or in more technical
areas—such as localization, engineering, or finance—have master’s
degrees, while those working in the community as court or medical
interpreters or translators are more likely to complete job-specific
There is currently no universal form of certification required
of all interpreters and translators in the United States, but
there are a variety of different tests that workers can voluntarily
take to demonstrate proficiency. The American Translators Association
provides accreditation in more than 24 language combinations for
its members; other options include a certification program offered
by The Translators and Interpreters Guild. Many interpreters are
not certified. Federal courts have certification for Spanish,
Navaho, and Haitian Creole interpreters, and many State and municipal
courts offer their own forms of certification. The National Association
of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators also offers certification
for court interpreting.
The U.S. Department of State has a three-test series for interpreters,
including simple consecutive interpreting (for escort work), simultaneous
interpreting (for court or seminar work), and conference-level
interpreting (for international conferences). These tests are
not referred to directly as certification, but successful completion
often indicates that a person has an adequate level of skill to
work in the field.
The National Association of the Deaf and the Registry of Interpreters
for the Deaf (RID) jointly offer certification for general sign
interpreters. In addition, RID offers specialty tests in legal
interpreting, speech reading, and deaf-to-deaf interpreting—which
includes interpreting between deaf speakers with different native
languages and from ASL to tactile signing.
Experience is an essential part of a successful career in either
interpreting or translation. In fact, many agencies or companies
use only the services of people who have worked in the field for
3 to 5 years or who have a degree in translation studies or both.
A good way for translators to learn firsthand about the profession
is to start out working in-house for a company; however, such
jobs are not very numerous. Persons seeking to enter interpreter
or translator jobs should begin by getting experience whatever
way they can—even if it means doing informal or unpaid work. All
translation can be used as examples for potential clients, even
translation done as practice. Mentoring relationships and internships
are other ways to build skills and confidence. Escort interpreting
may offer an opportunity for inexperienced candidates to work
alongside a more seasoned interpreter. Interpreters might also
find it easier to break into areas with particularly high demand
for language services, such as court or medical interpretation.
Once interpreters and translators have gained sufficient experience,
they may then move up to more difficult or prestigious assignments,
may seek certification, may be given editorial responsibility,
or may eventually manage or start their own translation agency.
Interpreters and translators held about 31,000 jobs in 2004.
However, the actual number of interpreters and translators is
probably significantly higher because many work in the occupation
only sporadically. Interpreters and translators are employed in
a variety of industries, reflecting the diversity of employment
options in the field. About 9,900 worked in public and private
educational institutions, such as schools, colleges, and universities.
About 4,100 worked in health care, many of which worked for hospitals.
Another 3,400 worked in other areas of government, such as Federal,
State and local courts. Other employers of interpreters and translators
include publishing companies, telephone companies, airlines, and
interpreting and translating agencies.
About 4,600 interpreters and translators are self-employed. To
find work, these interpreters and translators may submit resumes
to many different employment agencies, and then wait to be contacted
when an agency matches their skills with a job. After establishing
a few regular clients, interpreters and translators may receive
enough work from a few clients to stay busy, and they often hear
of subsequent jobs by word of mouth or through referrals from
existing clients. Many who freelance in the occupation work only
part time, relying on other sources of income to supplement earnings
from interpreting or translation.
Employment of interpreters and translators is projected to increase
faster than the average for all occupations over the 2004-14 period,
reflecting strong growth in the industries employing interpreters
and translators. Higher demand for interpreters and translators
in recent years has resulted directly from the broadening of international
ties and the increase in the number of foreign language speakers
in the United States. Both of these trends are expected to continue,
contributing to relatively rapid growth in the number of jobs
for interpreters and translators. Demand will remain strong for
translators of the languages referred to as “PFIGS”—Portuguese,
French, Italian, German, and Spanish(and the principal Asian languages—Chinese,
Japanese, and Korean. In addition, current events and changing
political environments, often difficult to foresee, will increase
the need for persons who can work with other languages. For example,
homeland security needs are expected to drive increasing demand
for interpreters and translators of Middle Eastern and North African
languages, primarily in Federal Government agencies.
Technology has made the work of interpreters and translators
easier. However, technology is not likely to have a negative impact
on employment of interpreters and translators because such innovations
are incapable of producing work comparable with work produced
by these professionals.
Urban areas, especially those in California and New York, and
Washington, DC, provide the largest numbers of employment possibilities,
especially for interpreters; however, as the immigrant population
spreads into more rural areas, jobs in smaller communities will
become more widely available.
Job prospects for interpreters and translators vary by specialty.
In particular, there should be strong demand for specialists in
localization, driven by imports and exports, the expansion of
the Internet, and demand in other technical areas, such as medicine
or law. Rapid employment growth among interpreters and translators
in health services industries will be fueled by the implementation
of relatively recent guidelines regarding compliance with Title
VI of the Civil Rights Act, which require all health care providers
receiving Federal aid to provide language services to non-English
speakers. Similarly, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other
laws, such as the Rehabilitation Act, mandate that, in certain
situations, an interpreter must be available for people who are
deaf or hard of hearing. Given the shortage of interpreters and
translators meeting the desired skill level of employers, interpreters
for the deaf will continue to have favorable employment prospects.
On the other hand, job growth is expected to be limited for both
conference interpreters and literary translators.
Salaried interpreters and translators had median hourly earnings
of $16.28 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $12.40
and $21.09. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.67, and
the highest 10 percent earned more than $27.45.
Earnings depend on language, subject matter, skill, experience,
education, certification, and type of employer, and salaries of
interpreters and translators can vary widely. Interpreters and
translators with language skills for which there is a greater
demand, or for which there are relatively few people with the
skills, often have higher earnings. Interpreters and translators
with specialized expertise, such as those working in software
localization, also generally command higher rates. Individuals
classified as language specialists for the Federal Government
earned an average of $71,625 annually in 2005. Limited information
suggests that some highly skilled interpreters and translators—for
example, high-level conference interpreters—working full time
can earn more than $100,000 annually.
For those who are not salaried, earnings may fluctuate, depending
on the availability of work. Furthermore, freelancers do not have
any employer-paid benefits. Freelance interpreters usually earn
an hourly rate, whereas translators who freelance typically earn
a rate per word or per hour.
The work of translators is similar to that of writers and editors, in that they communicate
information and ideas through the written word and prepare texts
for publication or dissemination. Furthermore, interpreters or
translators working in a legal or health care environment are
required to have a knowledge of terms and concepts that is similar
to that of professionals working in these fields, such as court reporters or medical transcriptionists.
Sources of Additional Information
Organizations dedicated to these professions can provide valuable
advice and guidance for people interested in learning more about
interpretation and translation. The language services division
of local hospitals or courthouses also may have information about
For general career information, contact the organizations listed
American Translators Association, 225 Reinekers Ln., Suite
590, Alexandria, VA 22314. Internet: http://www.atanet.org/
The Translators and Interpreters Guild, 962 Wayne Avenue,
Suite 500, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Internet: http://www.ttig.org/
U.S. Department of State, Office of Language Services, Suite
1400 SA-1, Department of State, Washington, DC 20520.
For more detailed information by specialty, contact the association
affiliated with that subject area:
National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators,
603 Stewart St., Suite 610, Seattle, WA 98101. Internet: http://www.najit.org/
American Literary Translators Association, The University
of Texas at Dallas, Box 830688 Mail Station JO51, Richardson,
TX 75083-0688. Internet: http://www.literarytranslators.org/
Localization Industry Standards Association, 7 Route du Monastère-CH-1173,
Féchy, Switzerland. Internet: http://www.lisa.org/
Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, 333 Commerce St., Alexandria,
VA 22314. Internet: http://www.rid.org/
of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,
Occupational Outlook Handbook,