Home / Career Guides / Interpreter

Interpreter Career Guide

What is an interpreter?

An interpreter is a professional who translates spoken language from one language to another. They enable communication between people who do not speak the same language by rendering the speaker’s message in a different language in real-time. Interpreters are vital in various sectors like law, healthcare, business, and diplomacy, easing communication barriers and fostering mutual understanding.

These professionals provide a valuable service to society by bridging language gaps in diverse settings. They are key in facilitating effective communication in business meetings involving different languages, court proceedings, international conferences, medical consultations, and more. They play a pivotal role in enabling individuals and entities to navigate and thrive in a globalized world.

Duties and responsibilities

An interpreter is responsible for listening to, understanding, and translating spoken statements from one language to another. They facilitate communication between speakers of different languages in a variety of settings, such as meetings, conferences, and public services.

Their duties include interpreting messages accurately, quickly, and skillfully, ensuring the original message’s tone, intent, or context is preserved. These professionals also follow ethical codes that preserve confidentiality and professionalism. They may also have to adapt their translation based on the cultural context and sensitivity of the content, enabling effective communication.

Work environment

Interpreters work in a range of environments based on the nature of the task. They can be found in courtrooms, hospitals, schools, government agencies, corporate offices, and international conferences. Some work remotely via video or phone call to provide their services. Their work often entails interacting with diverse individuals with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

Due to the nature of their job, these professionals may need to travel locally, domestically, or internationally, depending on their work assignment. They often have to work under pressure with high concentration levels to interpret accurately and swiftly during live discussions.

Typical work hours

Work hours for interpreters can vary widely based on their work setting. They may work full-time or part-time; some are self-employed and set their own schedules. Generally, they work during regular business hours when most institutional services are provided, like legal proceedings, business meetings, or educational services.

However, certain assignments, such as conferences or urgent medical or legal situations, may require them to work long hours, over the weekend, or be on call. Similarly, those providing remote services may need to work irregular hours, considering different international time zones.

How to become an interpreter

This career guide section outlines how to become an interpreter. The key steps involve educational preparation, gaining relevant language skills, and obtaining certification or licensure as required.

Step 1: Finish high school

To start on the path of becoming an interpreter, you need to finish high school or obtain a GED. This basic education requirement will pave the way for further language study and comprehension.

Step 2: Obtain an undergraduate degree

An undergraduate degree in languages, linguistics, or a related field will provide you with a strong foundation. This stage is crucial for developing your language skills and understanding cultural contexts, which are important for interpreting work.

Step 3: Develop fluency in at least two languages

Your main task will be to facilitate communication between parties who speak different languages. Hence, being fluent in at least two languages, including English, is a requisite. You can develop this skill by enrolling in language courses, doing immersion programs, or living in a country where the target language is spoken.

Step 4: Gain practical experience

Experience in real-world translation or interpreting can be gained through internships, volunteering, or part-time jobs. This will give you a better understanding of the demands of the profession and help you develop the ability to interpret accurately and quickly.

Step 5: Get certified

While not all jobs require a certification, acquiring one can enhance your professional credibility and job prospects. Certifying bodies like the American Translators Association and the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators provide examinations for various language pairs.

Step 6: Specialize in a field

Interpreters can specialize in various fields such as legal, medical, or conference interpreting. Specializing involves acquiring knowledge and vocabulary specific to a chosen field, improving your prospects in the job market.

Step 7: Apply for the job

Once you have the education, language skills, experience, and possibly specialization and certification, you are ready to apply for jobs as an interpreter. You must create a strong resume and portfolio showcasing your skills and experience and prepare for interviews.

How much do interpreters make?

Interpreter salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Notably, proficiency in multiple languages, the rarity of the languages known, certification status, and the complexity of the work required can significantly impact their compensation.

Highest paying industries

  • Federal Govt Executive Branch – $82,100
  • Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services – $70,410
  • Hospitals – $63,940
  • Educational Services – $62,930
  • State & Local Government – $57,250

Highest paying states

  • Virginia – $75,470
  • Hawaii – $74,290
  • New Jersey – $72,700
  • California – $68,450
  • New York – $64,210

Browse interpreter salary data by market

Types of interpreters

This career guide section highlights the various career types and areas of specialization for interpreters. Below, we highlight the unique attributes and responsibilities of each job title.

Conference interpreter

Specializing in communicating spoken language at conferences, a conference interpreter typically works in real-time, interpreting a speaker’s message into the audience’s language. This role demands accuracy, quick thinking, and a strong understanding of both the source and target languages. Familiarity with the event’s topic is also key to success in this role.

Legal interpreter

A legal interpreter plays an essential role in a courtroom or other legal settings. They bridge the language barrier between parties to ensure mutual understanding. Intimate knowledge of legal terminology along with absolute accuracy when interpreting are vital in this role, as mistakes can affect someone’s legal rights or lead to misjudgments.

Medical interpreter

Operating within medical contexts, a medical interpreter assists patients who speak a foreign language to understand medical professionals and vice versa. Besides language proficiency, this role requires an understanding of complex medical terms. Their job aids in correct diagnosis and effective treatment by ensuring accurate communication.

Sign language interpreter

A sign language interpreter communicates spoken language into sign language and vice versa. Their work is central to facilitating access to services, education, and opportunities for the deaf community. Mastery of sign language and the ability to translate spoken words swiftly and accurately is vital in this role.

Literary interpreter

In a unique take on the interpreter’s job, literary interpreters specialize in translating written literature from one language to another, preserving the original text’s style, tone, and meaning. This specialty demands a deep understanding of both languages and their respective cultures, along with a profound appreciation of literature.

Top skills for interpreters

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as an interpreter. Recognized universally, these professionals exhibit various abilities and characteristics that help them perform their roles efficiently to ensure seamless communication.

Mastery of languages

An interpreter must have an impeccable grasp of the languages they are working with. This includes fluency not only in day-to-day conversation but also in vocabulary related to specialized fields such as law, medicine, and business.

Listening and cognitive processing skills

They must listen carefully to what one person is saying, process it mentally, and then translate it into another language. All of this often needs to happen in real-time, demanding high levels of concentration and cognitive processing abilities.

Cultural knowledge

A strong command of a language includes understanding its culture. Sensitivities, nuances, colloquialisms, and even non-verbal gestures are often unique to specific cultures. To translate effectively and sensitively, they need a good background knowledge of the cultures associated with the languages they work in.

Ethics and professionalism

These professionals often find themselves in situations where trust, discretion, and confidentiality are important. It’s their responsibility to maintain professionalism, uphold ethics, and respect privacy. They must know how to navigate sensitive environments and conduct themselves appropriately at all times.

Versatility and adaptability

Beyond language skills, an interpreter must be capable of adapting to ever-changing situations and environments. Every client, event, or assignment is unique; hence, the ability to adjust on-the-fly without losing precision in communication can be an asset.

Interpreter career path options

As an interpreter, you possess a key set of language skills that can be leveraged to advance your career. Your subsequent career path will depend heavily on your language proficiency, area of specialization, and desired work sector, whether corporate, non-profit, or governmental.

If you’ve built up an extensive portfolio and received positive client feedback, you might consider advancing into a senior role. This position involves more complex and demanding tasks but also brings greater autonomy, recognition, and financial rewards. As senior interpreters regularly encounter highly sensitive and intricate linguistic challenges, excellence in these roles can lead to recognition and additional promotion opportunities.

You might also elect to diversify your skills and move laterally into a different form of interpreting. For instance, if you’ve been focusing on simultaneous interpreting, you could consider shifting toward consecutive interpreting or vice-versa. Expanding your interpreting repertoire can significantly enhance your marketability and open up various new job prospects.

Should you be proficient in rare or in-demand languages, you may find opportunities to serve as a language or cultural consultant to businesses, government agencies, or educational institutions. These roles allow you to utilize your linguistic expertise while providing strategic insights based on your understanding of specific cultures and their languages.

Beyond interpreting, language skills can be applied in a multitude of career directions – business negotiation, international relations, and teaching are just a few examples. With the right mix of experience and additional education or training, you would be well-positioned to secure a role in any of these areas.

Toward the end of your career, training or mentoring new interpreters can be a rewarding way to pass on your skills and knowledge. This could be done independently, within an existing organization, or through a university program. A career in academia or professional training can bring immense satisfaction and is a fitting way to crown an illustrious career in interpreting.

In response to the demands of a multicultural and multilingual society, interpreting services have expanded from just on-site interpretation to now also encompass various remote interpretation services such as video remote interpreting (VRI) and over-the-phone interpreting (OPI).

Besides linguistic skills, remote interpreting services require competency in using technology and interpreting software, making technical proficiency an increasingly valuable trait. In fields such as healthcare and legal, where accuracy carries immense implications, more emphasis has been placed on certification and specialized training for interpreters. This demonstrates a shift in recognizing interpreting not only as an innate ability of bilingual speakers but as a professional skill on its own.

Simultaneously, the importance of cultural competency has been brought to the forefront. The job of an interpreter is not just to translate from one language to another but also to convey cultural nuances and context. Hence, knowledge of specific cultures and diversity in language variations is becoming more vital in providing quality interpretation services.

Employment projections

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of interpreters and translators is projected to grow 4 percent through 2032, as fast as the average for all occupations. The demand for interpretation services is driven largely by the broadening of international ties and the large increases in the number of non-English speakers in the United States. Thus, job prospects should be best for those with at least a bachelor’s degree, who are proficient in English and are fluent in another language.

Interpreter career tips

Gain comprehensive language knowledge

An extensive and thorough knowledge of both source and target languages is essential. This isn’t solely about vocabulary but also involves understanding the culture, idioms, slang, and formal and informal speech. Understanding the language’s political, social, and cultural nuances is pivotal. It is recommended to spend some time in the country or region of the target language to gain an immersive language experience.

Develop specialty subject fluency

Developing high expertise in specific subject matters is valuable. For example, if you interpret for medical patients, having a deep understanding of medical terminology will set you apart. Being well-versed in the area you are interpreting for will not only make you more marketable, but it will also improve the quality of your interpretation.

Practice simultaneous interpretation

Simultaneous interpretation, in which you translate the language in real-time, is a skill that needs consistent practice. Training your brain to listen, understand, and speak at the same time is challenging and requires perseverance. Techniques like shadowing, where you repeat everything you hear, can help develop this skill.

Maintain confidentiality

Interpretation often takes place in sensitive situations involving confidential information. Respecting and maintaining your client’s confidentiality will establish trust, a key ingredient for success in this profession.

Build a professional network

Connecting with others, both online and offline, can provide opportunities for collaboration, skill development, and job referrals. Look to be part of the following associations:

  • American Translators Association
  • International Medical Interpreters Association
  • National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators
  • Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination program

Commit to continuous learning

The languages you work with are constantly evolving, and so should your skills and knowledge. Continuing professional development is very important in this field. Here are some specific tips for continuous learning:

  • Enroll in language proficiency courses to enhance your proficiency level
  • Read widely in both your source and target languages to stay updated with any language changes
  • Attend workshops and seminars to perfect your interpretation techniques
  • Consider getting certified by professional interpretation organizations

Where the interpreter jobs are

Top employers

  • United Nations
  • LanguageLine Solutions
  • Cyracom
  • Ablio
  • VoiceBoxer

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Florida
  • Texas
  • Washington

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • ProZ
  • TranslatorsCafe
  • LinkedIn


What skills are needed to be an effective interpreter?

An interpreter needs a combination of hard and soft skills. Hard skills include language proficiency in two or more languages and an understanding of grammar, syntax, idioms, and culture. Listening and memory recall abilities, note-taking strategies, and the ability to interpret simultaneously or consecutively are also important. Soft skills include empathy, cultural sensitivity, problem-solving, and professional ethics.

Can an interpreter work from home?

Yes, many interpreters work from home. This is especially true for phone and video interpreting services. Some positions may require in-person attendance, such as court or medical interpreting. However, technology continues to make more remote work opportunities available for interpreters.

Do interpreters require any special equipment?

Depends on the type of interpreting. Conference interpreters may need specialized equipment such as soundproof booths, microphones, and headphones. A high-quality computer or phone, a stable internet connection, a headset, and a quiet workspace are generally required for remote interpreting work. Those working in person may need a notepad and pen for note-taking.

What is the difference between an interpreter and a translator?

The main difference between interpreters and translators is the mode of communication. Interpreters work with spoken or signed languages, translating the spoken word from one language to another in person, over the phone, or via video. Translators, on the other hand, work with written text, translating written material from one language to another.

What types of interpreting are there?

There are several types of interpreting, including conference interpreting, simultaneous interpreting, consecutive interpreting, whisper interpreting, liaison or bilateral interpreting, and telephone or remote interpreting. The right method depends on the situation, the number of people involved, and the languages required.

Who does an interpreter typically work with?

Interpreters work with a wide variety of individuals and organizations. They can work in healthcare settings, assisting non-English speaking patients to communicate with medical staff. In legal settings, they help non-English-speaking individuals understand court proceedings. They can also work at business meetings, conferences, and various cultural events. Some may work for translation and interpreting agencies, while others may work freelance.

What kind of stress does an interpreter experience?

Interpreting can be a challenging occupation. It often requires intense concentration and quick decision-making. They can face the high stress of simultaneous interpreting, dealing with difficult or complex topics, and managing cultural misunderstandings. An interpreter may sometimes have to interpret emotionally charged or disturbing information. It’s recommended that they take breaks to maintain performance and reduce the risk of burnout.

Can an interpreter specialize in a field?

Yes, interpreters can specialize in various fields, such as healthcare, law, or education. Specialization demands a deep understanding of the unique terminologies and context of the specific field, which goes beyond general language proficiency. Specializing can often lead to more opportunities and higher pay because of the additional knowledge and skill set required.

What ethics and standards should an interpreter adhere to?

Interpreters should adhere to a number of professional ethics and standards. Confidentiality is a key factor – they are expected to handle sensitive information and keep their work confidential. They should be impartial and avoid personal involvement. Accuracy is also important – they should strive to convey all information accurately without omission or embellishment. Many interpreting organizations provide detailed codes of ethics and conduct that outline these responsibilities in greater detail.