How to Become an Interpreter: Schooling, Certification & Requirements

To become an interpreter, one is expected to have a bachelor's degree, fluency in a second language and interpreting skills. These can be demonstrated and strengthened by obtaining university credentials, certificates and/or professional experience. Schools offering Applied Communications degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Qualifications Do Interpreters Need?

A bachelor's degree is usually required to become an interpreter. While it's not necessary that it be in a related field, it heightens employability to study a foreign language. More than sixty schools in the U.S. also offer specialized programs in interpreting and translation - including bachelor's, master's, Ph.D. and certificate programs.

Job applicants are often required to demonstrate their capability by passing aptitude tests, obtaining professional certification and/or applying their skills as a volunteer, intern or paid interpreter in a professional setting.

Degree LevelBachelor's degree
Related Degree FieldsForeign language (potentially including study abroad), interpreting, translation
Certificate ProgramsUniversity programs, professional programs
Other RequirementsFluency in English and a second language, volunteer or professional experience
Median Annual Salary (2018)$49,930 (for interpreters and translators)*
Projected Job Growth (2016-2026)18% (for interpreters and translators)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Kinds of Degree Programs Are Offered?

In addition to foreign language programs, some colleges and universities offer bachelor's degrees in interpretation of a second language or American Sign Language (ASL). When studying a foreign language, it's worth considering whether the institution offers an opportunity to study abroad, which allows for greater immersion in the language of focus.

Graduate-level interpreting programs typically require a bachelor's degree, command of a second language and interpreting experience, with studies focusing on practical, theoretical and teaching applications. In contrast, translation programs often focus on translating written documents or manuscripts, and can include courses such as research skills and computer-assisted translation. Some graduate programs offer the option of focusing in either translation or interpreting.

Some universities offer certificate programs in interpreting, though many are limited to a few specific languages. Some allow students to focus in particular areas - such as community, legal or medical interpreting. Others include internships to obtain professional experience. These are typically offered part-time, in the evenings or on weekends, and can take around 12-18 months to complete.

What Kinds of Certifications Are Available?

Professional organizations such as the American Translators Association (ATA) offer mid-career certifications that allow experienced interpreters to prove that their skills meet industry standards. To obtain certification, candidates must pass a challenging translation exam, with a pass rate of less than 20%. Once they obtain certification, individuals can use the designation 'CT' following their names on official marketing materials. Other professional organizations provide certification in particular fields, such as the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters.

What Skills and Experience Are Required?

Fluency in English and a second language is required. In addition, interpreters working in the legal or medical arenas are expected to have an understanding of the specialized terminology relevant to their field.

Job applicants are often required to have professional experience - which can be obtained through an internship, volunteer work or part-time work. They are also often required to undergo training and/or pass an aptitude test.

What Job Opportunities Are Available?

Professional interpreters can work as staff or as freelancers. If choosing to freelance, some things to consider include rate-setting, marketing strategy, specialization of services and time management. Interpreters can be employed to translate in a variety of settings, and can find work in the following environments:

  • Conference centers
  • Hospitals
  • Courts
  • Service agencies
  • Legal & administrative offices

Interpreters and translators earned a median annual salary of $49,930 in 2018 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The projected job growth for interpreters and translators is 18% from 2016-2026 - much higher than the average for jobs across industries, the same agency reported.

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