Training, Certifications, Skills, Advancement: Interpreters and Translators

The educational backgrounds of interpreters and translators vary. Knowing a language in addition to a native language is a given. Although it is not necessary to have been raised bilingual to succeed, many interpreters and translators grew up speaking two languages.

In high school, students can begin to prepare for these careers by taking a broad range of courses that include English writing and comprehension, foreign languages, and basic computer proficiency. Other helpful pursuits include spending time abroad, or comparable forms of direct contact with foreign cultures, and extensive reading on a variety of subjects in English and at least one other language.

Beyond high school, there are many educational options. Although a bachelor’s degree is almost always required, interpreters and translators note that it is acceptable to major in something other than a language. However, specialized training in how to do the work is generally required. A number of formal programs in interpreting and translation are available at colleges nationwide and through nonuniversity training programs, conferences, and courses. Many people who work as conference interpreters or in more technical areas—such as localization, engineering, or finance—have master’s degrees, while those working in the community as court or medical interpreters or translators are more likely to complete job-specific training programs.

There is currently no universal form of certification required of all interpreters and translators in the United States, but there are a variety of different tests that workers can take to demonstrate proficiency. The American Translators Association provides accreditation in more than 24 language combinations for its members; other options include a certification program offered by The Translators and Interpreters Guild. Many interpreters are not certified. Federal courts have certification for Spanish, Navaho, and Haitian Creole interpreters, and many State and municipal courts offer their own forms of certification. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators also offers certification for court interpreting.

The U.S. Department of State has a three-test series for interpreters, including simple consecutive interpreting (escort), simultaneous interpreting (court/seminar), and conference-level interpreting (international conferences). These tests are not referred to directly as certification, but successful completion often indicates that a person has an adequate level of skill to work in the field.

Both the National Association of the Deaf and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf offer certification for sign interpreters and have recently collaborated to develop a joint exam.

Experience is an essential part of a successful career in either interpreting or translation. In fact, many agencies or companies use only the services of people who have worked in the field for 3 to 5 years or who have a degree in translation studies or both.

A good way for translators to learn firsthand about the profession is to start out working in-house for a company; however, such jobs are not very numerous. Advice for new entrants to the field is to begin getting experience whatever way they can—even if it means doing informal or unpaid work. Mentoring relationships and internships are other ways to build skills and confidence. Escort interpreting may offer an opportunity for inexperienced candidates to work alongside a more seasoned interpreter. Interpreters might also find it easier to break into areas with particularly high demand for language services, such as court or medical interpretation. Once interpreters and translators have gained sufficient experience, they may then move up to more difficult or prestigious assignments, may be given editorial responsibility, or may eventually manage or start their own translation agency.