How to Become an Interpreter

If you’re a dedicated language learner, you know how frustrating it can be when you can’t fully express yourself to the person you’re talking to.

As an interpreter, you could help others with that very problem, in a job that gives you a sense of purpose and satisfaction.

Read on for a 5-step guide to beginning your career in interpretation.


Interpreter vs. Translator: What’s the Difference?

An interpreter works with oral languages and must have exceptional listening and speaking skills, while a translator works with written languages and must excel at reading and writing. Both professions typically require a bachelor’s degree. Helpful programs are foreign languages, communications or linguistics, while specialized studies such as business, law, engineering or medicine are also beneficial.

How to Become an Interpreter

Step 1: Begin with the Basics

The first stop on your journey is a self-assessment to help you decide if you have “the right stuff” to be a professional interpreter. Let’s break down the essentials.

Work with your language aptitude.

With enough time, dedication and learning methods, almost anyone can learn a second language.

Of course, there’s a difference between learning Italian well enough to order a pizza in Rome and having the professional competency to interpret for il Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri (the Italian Prime Minister).

If you love the idea of becoming an interpreter but doubt your skills, don’t get discouraged! Some people may have a knack for learning and understanding languages, but others just need to work a bit harder and get more relevant practice.

Figure out your language strengths and weaknesses to help you become more comfortable with grammar rules, memorizing vocabulary, understanding native speakers and mastering the native accent.

Devote yourself to language learning.

Unless you grew up bilingual, achieving professional-level fluency to become an interpreter is not a task for the faint of heart.

There are many ways to learn and improve your target language, but reaching the level needed for professional interpretation is unquestionably a long-term commitment.

To interpret professionally, you must learn your languages to a much higher standard than a hobbyist. You’ll have to push through those seemingly impossible hurdles and those days when you just want to give up.

And, even when you’re officially fluent, you can’t stop learning.

Stay up to date in both (or all) of your languages.

You probably don’t think about keeping up to date in your native language, but to be a good interpreter, it’s a necessity.

Languages are continuously growing and changing, so your career as an interpreter depends on how current you keep your vocabulary and cultural references.

For the language you don’t use every day (likely your non-native language), you’ll need additional ways to stay up to speed.

Through the magic of the internet, you can directly access contemporary content in just about any language, even if you live half a world away from where it’s most widely spoken.

Understand the cultural contexts of language.

Language is more than vocabulary and grammar. A language’s various structures and functions reflect the values, motivations, opinions and history of the language and its speakers.

You have to understand the people who speak your target language, which means you need to learn the language in its ever-evolving cultural context.

Magazines, newspapers and books are a great way to dive in and stay current, but keep in mind that print media isn’t the most effective resource for interpreters, whose focus is listening and speaking.

Movies, TV shows and videos are a convenient way to understand not just the language, but also the people who speak it. With cutting-edge media from around the world, you can learn to listen, speak and think like the locals.

Learn to be objective and confidential.

Successful interpreters can’t editorialize.

The focus in interpretation must be on the speakers, not the interpreters. No matter how strong your feelings about a certain subject might be, you must simply express what the speaker is saying without adding or subtracting information.

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.

You can learn a lot as an interpreter by being a “fly on the wall” through whom all conversation flows. But it should also go without saying that the conversations you interpret—no matter how juicy or fascinating—are confidential.

Choose simultaneous or consecutive interpretation.

There are two types of interpretation. They are:

  • Simultaneous interpretation, where you interpret the words as the speaker talks.
  • Consecutive interpretation, where you listen for a period of time and interpret once the speaker pauses.

Consecutive interpretation may take a “short” form in which interpretation begins after the speaker completes a few sentences or paragraphs. In the “long” form, the speaker may complete part or all of an entire speech (during which the interpreter takes notes) before interpretation begins.

The circumstances and setting of your chosen field will often dictate which form of interpretation is necessary. You can find training in either simultaneous or consecutive interpretation, and some institutions offer programs that prepare you to do both.

Step 2: Decide Your Type of Interpretation

Interpreters can work in a wide variety of fields, specializing in certain kinds of interpretation. Here are different career opportunities available for interpreters.

Health care interpretation

Health care interpreters are sometimes called medical interpreters. Those who work primarily in a hospital setting are known as hospital interpreters.

how-to-become-an-interpreter-ohcia As an interpreter working in a hospital or medical practice, you could help speakers of other languages understand their diagnoses, prognoses and treatment options.

This role requires understanding of specialized medical terminology as well as the latest privacy laws. Training courses like this one specifically address these needs.

Court/legal interpretation

Like their medical counterparts, 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.

Business interpretation

A business interpreter might help business owners negotiate with each other, or help management communicate with employees who speak a different language.

how-to-become-an-interpreter-ls Some business interpreters provide “language line” services, facilitating phone-based customer support for speakers of other languages. Companies such as Language Scientific and ALTA Language Services, for example, cater to the business needs of many industries.

No matter your specialty, you’ll need to know business terminology and customs in both of your languages.

Immigration interpretation

Immigration interpreters work with clients and government agencies to help new immigrants 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.

You can read a bit more about the job of an immigration interpreter via Language Connections, a company that also offers interpretation courses.

Diplomatic interpretation

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.

Other 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 are business-related, or professional conferences.

Tourism interpretation

Language apps and phrase books are great for travel, especially for those who like to be independent. But sometimes, globetrotters run into circumstances that exceed their limited linguistic repertoires.

Tourism interpreters help visitors navigate linguistic and cultural barriers in a foreign land, allowing them to have more successful journeys abroad.

Step 3: Research Certifications for Your Field

Certifications aren’t always mandatory, but some can be quite beneficial to your career as an interpreter.

Check which certifications you will need.

Most certifications match the field of interpretation and test both your general language ability and your specialized knowledge of the field.

how-to-become-an-interpreter-health-cert For example, the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters and the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters offer certification for prospective interpreters planning to work in a hospital or other medical setting.

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.

Understand the benefits of being certified.

Some interpretation roles 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. It may be helpful to weigh the advantages of certification against the cost of staying certified.

Step 4: Tailor Your Education

While doctors and lawyers have clear paths to their professions, prospective interpreters have less clear training requirements. This information will help you figure it out.

Determine how much education you will need.

Will a certificate program be enough? Or will you also need a bachelor’s degree or graduate school education?

At minimum, most professional interpreters will need a high school diploma. In many cases, a bachelor’s degree is a necessary step to becoming an interpreter.

Of course, education requirements also depend partly on the type of interpreter you wish to become.

For instance, most health care interpreters need a highschool diploma. Sometimes, certification and/or higher education is required, and standards often vary from one medical institution to another.

Customize your curriculum for interpretation work.

If you’re earning your bachelor’s degree with plans to be a professional interpreter, there are several ways to proceed.

First, check if your college or university offers a course or degree program in interpretation. This could give you valuable insights and training for your future career.

If not, a concentration or 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.

But 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.

Consider attending a specialized school.

Some institutions are dedicated to training interpreters and translators.

how-to-become-an-interpreter-school 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 if 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.

This list is a good starting place for finding specialized interpretation programs around the world.

Step 5: Practice with Real-world Language Resources

Beyond formal schooling and certification, aspiring interpreters will want to use supplementary language learning resources.

Hone your listening skills.

We’ve all had amusing and embarrassing moments of mishearing someone in our target language—and likely in our native language as well.

Of course, you’ll want to minimize the chances of this happening, especially in a professional context. A variety of listening materials will help you systematically improve your listening skills and learn to avoid common listening mistakes.

You might listen to podcasts, watch movies or check out some audiobooks in your target language.

You can also use language learning programs like FluentU to help you practice your listening skills while staying up to date on current language usage.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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With such resources, you can polish your listening comprehension through modern, useful and realistic scenarios while also brushing up on the written language, cultural specifics and more.

Refine your speaking skills.

As an interpreter, you’ll need to be able to speak on a wide number of topics with many different people, while possessing professional-level vocabulary and a strong grasp of grammar in both languages.

A language exchange partner who’s a native speaker of your target language can be an enormous help to an interpreter or an interpreter-in-training.

No matter the topic, your conversations will help you stay current with the language, boost your confidence as a speaker and give your listening skills a workout.

Figure out a schedule that lets you practice speaking consistently. 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 (or remote) opportunities for polishing your interpretation skills pro bono. Many of these are in the medical field, although there are some for court or business interpreters.

how-to-become-an-interpreter-volunteering Internships, both paid and unpaid, can also help you rack up experience as an interpreter.

The National Language Service Corps is an organization devoted to serving civic language needs through US government agencies. There are no fees to join, and service through the organization is compensated with an hourly stipend.

You might also network via social media sites, where you could find places to gain experience interpreting, meet a mentor or even discover job opportunities.

Join 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 experiences.

how-to-become-an-interpreter-membership These organizations often provide formal training for their members, and some list members in a professional directory that can open up more employment opportunities.

You might join a broad group such as the American Translators Association, which offers a discounted membership for students enrolled in a translation or interpretation program.

Or, you may want to join specialty organizations for certain types of translators and interpreters. For example:

Whichever path you take, these resources can help guide you on how to become an interpreter.

And One More Thing...

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