How to Become an Interpreter: A Comfortable 5-step Guide
Night after night, you keep having the same dream.
You hear voices whispering… then getting louder and louder. Frantic voices.
It’s dark. The voices around you sound confused. Agitated. Maybe even afraid.
At first, you can’t understand what they’re saying. Over time, the words become clearer and clearer. Finally, you open your mouth to speak, to explain.
Faces around you look hopeful and relaxed. As if by magic, everyone instantly grasps your meaning.
Confusion is chased away. Understanding dawns like a bright, new day.
You wake up a few hours later, the impressions from your strange dream still floating through your mind. You bridged the chasm of understanding for others—and you feel exhilarated.
What is this reverie that fills your thoughts with a sense of purpose and satisfaction? Do you need dream interpretation?
Or are you dreaming of being an interpreter?
If it’s the latter, you’re in luck. Because today we’re serving up a fundamental, 5-step guide to becoming an interpreter.
But before we crack open the guidebook, let’s set the record straight on the job title.
Translator vs. Interpreter: What’s the Difference?
“Translator” and “interpreter” are often used interchangeably, especially in movies and TV shows.
If you want to sit at a desk with dictionaries and other language books and carefully create a document that duplicates the meaning of the original—only in a different language—then being a translator might suit you.
If you’d rather be in the thick of the conversation, helping speakers of different languages understand each other in real time, you may wish to become an interpreter.
Future interpreters, read on!
How to Become an Interpreter: A Comfortable 5-step Guide
Step 1: Begin with the Basics
The first stop on your journey is self-assessment. It’ll help you decide if you have the “right stuff” to be a professional interpreter. Let’s break down the essentials here.
It’s likely that, given enough time and creative learning methods, almost anyone can learn a second language, even if it’s harder for some people than others.
That said, there’s a difference between learning Italian well enough to order pizza in Rome and having the professional competency to interpret for il Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri (the Italian Prime Minister).
Some people seem to have more of a natural aptitude for learning languages, making a career in interpretation a more realistic choice.
Like musicians, interpreters also need good ears. Grasping grammar rules or savant-like vocabulary memorization won’t help you succeed as a professional interpreter if you can’t understand native speakers when they talk at conversational speed… or if you struggle to master a native accent.
If you sincerely love the idea of becoming an interpreter but doubt your skills, don’t get discouraged! While some people may have a natural knack for learning and understanding spoken languages, others may just need to work a bit harder and get in more relevant practice.
With FluentU, you can polish up your understanding of a language through modern, useful, realistic scenarios in videos that allow you to study written language, spoken language, cultural specifics and more all at the same time.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Devotion to language learning
Unless you grew up bilingual, achieving professional-level fluency as an interpreter is not a task for the faint of heart.
Although there are many creative ways to help yourself learn a language, like playing video games or writing and translating children’s stories, it’s still a long-term commitment.
To interpret professionally, you must learn your languages to a higher standard than a hobbyist. You have to keep yourself motivated to strive, because it could take months to master just the fundamentals.
And, even when you’re officially fluent, you still won’t be done.
Dedication to ongoing study
You probably don’t think about keeping up to date in your native language. Sure, you might hear an unknown expression and think, “Wow, that’s a new one!” And, if you’re a word nerd like me, you might look it up on Urban Dictionary to make sure you caught all of its nuances.
Learning any language isn’t “one and done” or “set it and forget it.” But if you’re not living and working in a country where your second language is used most of the time, you’ll need to make an even greater effort to keep up with it.
Your career as an interpreter depends on how current you keep your vocabulary and cultural references.
Language is more than vocab and grammar; you need to understand the people who speak it.
In order to do so, you have to learn the language in its ever-evolving cultural context.
Magazines, newspapers and books are a great way to dive in, but print media isn’t as effective for honing your listening skills. Of course, audiobooks are an exception.
Movies, TV shows and videos—like the real-world content found on FluentU—are a dramatically convenient way to understand not just the language, but the people who speak it. With cutting-edge media from around the world, you can travel virtually to anywhere and learn to speak like the locals.
Successful interpreters can’t editorialize.
No matter how strong your opinions or feelings about a certain subject, you must resign yourself to only expressing what the speaker is saying.
The focus in interpretation must be on the speakers, not the interpreters.
You can learn a lot as an interpreter by being a “fly on the wall” through whom all the conversation flows. However, you need to keep your own thoughts silent, acting only as a voice for others.
Even if you strongly disagree with what’s being said, your job is to render it accurately, without commentary.
And it’s not just the words you say—you’ll need to put on your best poker face, so you don’t color the speakers’ meaning in any way.
It goes without saying that the conversations you interpret—no matter how juicy or fascinating—are confidential.
Step 2: Decide What Kind of Interpreter You Want to Be
Interpreters can work in a wide variety of fields, specializing in certain kinds of interpretation. You might be amazed at all the different career opportunities available for interpreters.
Health care interpreter
What could be scarier than needing medical attention and having to receive it from a doctor who speaks a language you don’t understand? This is the situation faced by many patients today, who are either traveling or are immigrants in a new country.
As an interpreter working in a hospital or medical practice, you could help speakers of other languages understand their diagnoses, prognoses and treatment options.
Health care interpreters are sometimes called medical interpreters. Those who work primarily in a hospital setting are known as hospital interpreters.
Working as a health care interpreter requires the background to understand specialized medical terminology. In addition, you’ll need to be up to date on all the latest privacy laws when interpreting for patients and medical professionals.
Training courses like this one specifically address these needs. Unless you already have a health care background, similar local or virtual resources would be a fundamental part of your professional education.
Like a medical interpreter, a court or legal interpreter must work with the utmost accuracy and discretion. The outcomes of courtroom events can have serious consequences in the lives of your clients.
A background in law—for example, paralegal training—can be an enormous asset to those who would like to interpret in a courtroom or for a law firm.
A business interpreter might help business owners negotiate with each other, or help management to communicate with employees who speak a different language.
Some business interpreters provide “language line” services, facilitating phone-based customer support for speakers of other languages.
You might work for a language services agency like Language Scientific or ALTA Language Services. Companies such as these cater to the business needs of many industries.
Immigration services interpreter
Immigration services interpreters work with clients and government agencies, helping new immigrants to understand their rights and legal obligations throughout the immigration process.
You might work directly for a government agency, or represent a client for an immigration advocacy group.
If you’ve ever seen the headphone-wearing linguists at the UN, sorting through the Tower of Babel to foster conversation among many nations, you’ve seen a diplomatic interpreter at work.
International meetings, such as those between heads of state, are another venue in which diplomatic interpreters are needed.
Diplomatic interpreters can also be conference interpreters, although not all multinational meetings are diplomatic in nature… some of them might be business-related or professional conferences.
Language apps and phrasebooks are great for travel, but sometimes globetrotters run into circumstances that exceed their limited linguistic repertoires.
Travel interpreters help visitors navigate linguistic and cultural barriers in a foreign land, allowing them to have more successful journeys abroad.
Simultaneous or consecutive?
Depending on your field, you might need to either interpret the speaker’s words almost immediately after hearing them (simultaneous interpretation) or you might be able to listen to the speaker for a few seconds or moments before starting to interpret (consecutive interpretation). The circumstances or setting often dictate which form of interpretation is chosen.
There are actually a few different types of consecutive interpretation; the “short” form is usually more memory-based for the interpreter, since interpretation is expected to start after the speaker completes a few sentences or paragraphs and then pauses for the interpretation.
In the “long” form of consecutive interpretation, the speaker may complete part or all of an entire speech before the interpretation must begin. Consecutive interpreters often take notes in this situation and may even work from provided source materials to help make their interpretation more accurate.
You can get training in either simultaneous or consecutive interpretation. Some institutions offer programs that prepare you to do both.
Step 3: Research Needed Certifications
Certifications aren’t always mandatory, but some can be quite beneficial to your career as an interpreter.
Types of certifications
Most certifications match the field of interpretation, testing both your general language ability and your specialized knowledge of the field.
For example, the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) administers certification for those prospective interpreters planning to work in a hospital or other medical setting. Both written and oral exams are available in the following languages:
- Chinese (Cantonese & Mandarin)
The Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) furnishes a similar certification, using third-party testing to verify language proficiency.
Court interpreters working in the United States can qualify as certified federal interpreters, or work at the state level with certification from the National Center for State Courts.
Benefits of being certified
Many types of interpretation don’t require certification. However, having official certifications can improve your job prospects and help you increase your earnings.
Of course, obtaining and maintaining your certification—which usually needs to be renewed every few years—takes time and money. The costs of staying certified must be balanced against the advantages of certification.
Step 4: Tailor Your Education
Most people know that if you want to become a doctor, you need a medical degree.
Wannabe lawyers need to get through law school.
However, the training requirements for interpreters aren’t always clear-cut.
How much education do you need?
Will a certificate program be enough? Or will you also need a bachelor’s degree or graduate school education?
The answer to this will depend partly on the type of interpreter you wish to become.
For instance, at minimum, most health care interpreters need a high school diploma. Sometimes, certification—and even higher education—is required. The standards may vary from one medical institution to another.
In many cases, a bachelor’s degree is a necessary first step to becoming an interpreter.
Customize your curriculum
If you’re earning your bachelor’s degree with plans to be a professional interpreter, there are several ways to proceed.
A concentration or even a double major could ground you in both the language and the specific field of interpretation. If you want to be an interpreter for Austrian businesses, for example, you might double major in business and German.
If your parents emigrated from Vienna and you grew up speaking both German and English, you might forgo the German major and focus on business courses.
In either case, if your college or university offers a course in interpretation as a profession, it could give you valuable insights and training for your future career.
Consider a specialized school
Some institutions are dedicated to training interpreters and translators.
Through Middlebury College’s highly-esteemed Monterey Language and Culture program, you could earn your Master of Arts degree in Translation and Interpretation or Conference Interpretation.
If you’re serving in the American military, or you work for the Department of Defense or a related federal agency, you might consider training at a facility like the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.
The American Translators Association—which, despite its name, also represents interpreters—offers an extensive list of language schools around the world.
Step 5: Practice with Real-world Language Resources
Above and beyond formal schooling and certification, aspiring interpreters will want to use supplementary language learning resources.
Lend your ears: Listening skills
We’ve all had those amusing and embarrassing moments of mishearing someone, even in our native language.
You might have native-level fluency in your second language and still mishear something every once in a while.
Of course, you’ll want to minimize the chances of this happening—especially in a professional context—by systematically improving your language listening skills, learning to avoid common listening mistakes that could undermine your confidence.
Cutting-edge content: Keeping current
Since languages are continuously growing and changing, you’ll need some way to stay just as current as native speakers who live and work with the language every day.
As we mentioned earlier, through the magic of the internet, you can directly access contemporary content in your target language, even if you live half a world away from where it’s most widely spoken.
A little more conversation: Speaking confidently
A language exchange partner who’s a native speaker can be an enormous help to an interpreter or an interpreter-in-training.
No matter what the topic, these conversations will help you:
- Stay current with the language.
- Boost your confidence as a speaker.
- Give your listening skills a workout.
Don’t fret if you can’t find a native speaker nearby. Go face-to-face virtually with a language exchange partner, using a video chat app like Skype.
Volunteer your time
Although your goal is to be paid for your interpretation services, don’t overlook the advantages of volunteer opportunities.
Sites like VolunteerMatch offer local (and even remote) opportunities for polishing your interpretation skills pro bono. Job sites such as Indeed have listings for budding interpreters who want to refine their craft through volunteering. Many of these opportunities are in the medical field, although there are some for future court or business interpreters.
Internships, both paid and unpaid, can also help you rack up experience as an interpreter.
The National Language Service Corps (NLSC) is an American organization devoted to serving civic language needs through U.S. government agencies. Membership in the NLSC is open to any U.S. citizen 18 or older who’s fluent in English and at least one other language. There are no fees to join; service through the organization is compensated with an hourly stipend.
NLSC members can network together through social media sites, where you could find a job opportunity or a mentor.
Mingle with the pros: Professional organizations
Speaking of mentorship, consider joining an association of professional interpreters. These groups are a fantastic way to keep up with the latest professional news, meet colleagues and learn from their experience.
You could find a kindred spirit with many years in the field who would be happy to mentor you and offer career advice.
In addition, these organizations often provide formal training for their members. Some will list members in a professional directory that can open up more employment opportunities.
You might join a group with a broader base—such as the aforementioned American Translators Association (ATA), which offers a discounted membership for students enrolled in a translation or interpretation program.
There are specialty organizations for certain types of translators, as well. For example, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators (NAJIT) might be a good choice for a court interpreter. Up-and-coming conference interpreters might join the International Association of Conference Interpreters, which is commonly known as l’Association internationale des interprètes de conférence (AIIC).
Future medical interpreters might take advantage of a very affordable student membership in the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC). An NCIHC membership includes training webinars that members can access from anywhere.
Whichever path you take, use these resources to guide you on your quest. With careful planning and tenacity, you can make your dreams of interpretation come true.
Michelle Baumgartner is a language nerd who has formally studied seven languages and informally dabbled in at least three others. In addition to geeking out over slender vowels, interrogative particles and phonemes, Michelle is a freelance content marketer and education blogger. Keep up with her latest adventures in language and learning on Twitter.