Legal Interpreter: Career and Salary Facts

Explore the career requirements for legal interpreters. Get the facts about job requirements, educational programs, certification and salary to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Applied Communications degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Legal Interpreter?

Legal interpreters use their language skills to help non-English-speaking individuals in a legal setting. They are required to have a fluent level of proficiency in their chosen language as well as well as a thorough knowledge of legal terminology and process in order to accurately help their clients. Legal interpreters work in all kinds of legal contexts, such as trials, hearings, depositions and arraignments. They may read documents aloud in court in a different language to the one that they are written in, which is known as sight translation. Gaining the skills to become a legal interpreter means being trained in both languages and legal studies.

The following chart provides an overview of a career in legal interpretation.

Education Required Language training (if not bilingual), interpretation, basic legal training; bachelor's degree is common
Key Skills Fluency in two or more languages, understanding of legal terminology, ability to translate legal jargon into more familiar terms
Certification Often required for court interpreting
Job Growth (2014-2024) 29% for all interpreters and translators*
Average Salary (May 2015) $52,630 for all government-employed interpreters and translators*, $23,810 for all interpreters and translators working in legal services*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Will I Do as a Legal Interpreter?

Your primary responsibility as an interpreter is to translate spoken words from one language into another to aid in cross-cultural communication. When you work in the legal setting, you might go by the title of legal interpreter, court interpreter or judiciary interpreter. In such a setting, you are responsible for interpreting the proceedings of court hearings, trials, arraignments and legal meetings for non-English speaking individuals.

As a legal interpreter, you need a thorough grasp of English and at least one other language, as well as an understanding of legal terminology and the United States judiciary system. You should be able to communicate complicated legal terms into colloquial language that individuals with limited English skills might understand. You might also be responsible for sight translation, or reading legal documents aloud in another language.

What Educational Programs Are Available?

Several different educational routes can prepare you to become a legal interpreter. If you were raised in a dual-language household and are fluent in the vocabulary and colloquialisms of two languages, some formal education in interpretation methods and legal procedures might be sufficient to begin a career. If you don't already speak another language aside from English, some schools combine language training within a legal interpretation program. However, most legal interpreter programs, especially those at the bachelor's level, require that you have at least a basic spoken and written knowledge of a language before applying.

You are not necessarily required to hold a bachelor's degree in order to become a legal interpreter. You could enroll in vocational programs at a community college or university. Certificate and degree programs provide you with an understanding civil litigation and the U.S. legal system and develop your interpretation skills.

What Certifications Are Available?

Organizations, such as the American Translators Association, offer general certifications for translators and interpreters. However, many state and federal courts offer their own forms of certification for legal interpreters. If you choose to work for a federal court, you can earn designations as a Navajo, Spanish or Creole interpreter through the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators also offers certification in the field for Spanish translators.

What Salary Can I Expect to Earn?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) stated that interpreters and translators held 49,650 jobs in the U.S. in 2015. Above-average growth was expected for those working in the government (including court interpreters) and those working in legal services. Those employed by the government earned an average wage of $52,630 for all interpreters and translators, while those employed in legal services earned an average of $23,810 in 2015.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you are interested in becoming a legal interpreter, you may also want to look into becoming a court reporter. While court reporters are not required to have a bachelor's degree (positions are available to those who hold a postsecondary qualification), they also need to have a good understanding of legal terminology in order to accurately and efficiently report what is being communicated during legal proceedings. This set of skills is similar to those required of medical transcriptionists, who translate oral medical records into written documents. If you are interested in the translation aspect of legal interpreting and have studied your chosen language at the undergraduate level, you may also want to become a translator for other community and social services. Schools, hospitals, government administration bodies and private companies are all entities that may require translation services.

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