Interpreters and Translators

Interpreters and translators facilitate communication between different languages. In other words, they convert content from one language into another language. It is possible to be both a translator and an interpreter, but the two are actually different occupations. Translators deal with written words whereas interpreters work with spoken words or sign language.

Interpreters help people who speak different languages talk to each other. Typically, interpreters know both languages extremely well, and can communicate clearly and accurately in either one.

Interpreting can be divided into two categories: consecutive and simultaneous.

In consecutive interpreting, the interpreter waits until the speaker has finished a sentence or a group of sentences, and then begins to interpret. Consecutive interpreters may need to jot down notes while the speaker is speaking, so it important for them to develop an efficient note-taking system.

In simultaneous interpreting, however, the interpreter must convert the speaker's words while he or she is speaking them (or signing them). There is no pause; the interpreter is interpreting at the same time that the speaker is speaking. This takes a great deal of concentration. In fact, simultaneous interpreters typically work with a partner, and take turns interpreting and resting every twenty or thirty minutes. Simultaneous interpreters can often anticipate how a speaker is going to finish a thought, and are usually well-versed in the subject matter being discussed.

Translators convert written words into different languages. Translators strive to create translations that read like the original. Translators must preserve not only the facts and ideas of the original text, but the flow and feel of it as well. It is their job to find linguistic equivalents of any culture-specific references, slang, or idiomatic expressions (phrases that do not make sense if translated literally).

Translators do not necessarily need to speak a language fluently. They only need to read it fluently. Most of the time, they only translate into their primary, or native, language.

The vast majority of translators do their work on computers, and receive and send their translations electronically. Translators usually write several drafts before completely finishing a translation.

Interpreters and translators are in high demand in many different subject areas. Many of these workers have a particular area of expertise, even though they do not typically specialize in one industry or field.

There are many different occupational specialties for interpreters and translators:

Health or medical interpreters and translators usually work in hospitals, physician's offices, or other healthcare settings. They facilitate communication between patients and their healthcare providers. These interpreters and translators must be fluent in both clinical terminology as well as common terminology in both languages.

Health or medical interpreters must be very sensitive to patients' health situations, as well as their relationship with healthcare professionals.

Health or medical translators aren't as personally involved with patients or staff as interpreters are. They mostly translate forms, website information, and medical brochures.

Legal or judiciary interpreters and translators deal primarily with the legal system. They help individuals with limited English skills to communicate at trials, depositions, arraignments, or hearings. It is necessary for them to have a strong grasp of legal terminology. Court interpreters often need to read text out loud in a different language than the one it is written in. This is called sight translation.

Literary translators convert books, short stories, poetry, and journal articles into different languages. Their goal is to keep not only the meaning of the original intact, but the style and tone of it as well.

Literary translators may even work with the original author, if possible, in order to preserve the meaning and style of the text.

Localization translators translate text relating to products, services, and marketing. Specifically, their goal is to make a product as relatable and appealing as possible to the people of a different language or culture. They try to make it seem like the product came from the country in which it will be marketed. They must have a strong grasp both of the culture of the people being marketed to, and of the technical specifics of the product or service being marketed.

Localization translators adapt marketing materials, Internet sites, instruction manuals, and other documents. Most of the time, these documents deal with products and services in business and marketing sectors.

Sometimes, a computer program can write a first draft for the localization translator. Translators can also compare current translations to previous ones using computer programs. This is called computer-assisted translation, and can make the localization process much more efficient.

Sign language interpreters facilitate communication between people who are hard of hearing or deaf and people who can hear. These interpreters use American Sign Language (ASL), which is an entirely separate and distinct language from English. ASL is a combination of signing, gestures, and finger spelling, and has its own grammatical structure. It is necessary that sign language interpreters be fluent in both English and ASL.

However, ASL is not the only way that interpreters can help people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Many people who are deaf or hard of hearing can read lips. In these cases, an interpreter would use what's known as "oral interpretation." This is a process in which the interpreter mouths words silently and deliberately, so it's very easy to read their lips. Gestures and facial expressions are also very useful for the interpreter to ensure clear communication.

Another strategy for interpretation is cued speech, in which the interpreter makes hand shapes near his or her mouth in order to communicate more information to the lip-reader. An interpreter may also sign exact English. For people who are blind and deaf, interpreters use tactile signing, which is the process of literally signing into the hand of the deaf-blind person.

Guide or escort interpreters work with travelers who are visiting other countries and need help communicating. These interpreters may interpret important business negotiations or simple informal socializing. They typically travel quite often.

Conference interpreters specialize in conferences where there are speakers of many different languages present. These interpreters may work at international business meetings, diplomatic conferences, or any situation that requires an organization to communicate with speakers of another language. High-level interpreters can translate from two or more languages into their own native language--for instance, interpreting from both Portuguese and Spanish into English. Interpreters with this ability are very attractive to employers. This ability is required in some cases, such as diplomatic interpreting for the United Nations.

Conference interpreters frequently need to do simultaneous interpreting. If a conference attendee doesn't speak the language that the speaker is using, they can wear earphones, in which they can hear an interpreter in their own language. This kind of interpretation takes a lot of concentration, because the interpreter must simultaneously listen to one sentence while translating another.

Work Environment

Most of the time, interpreters and translators work in comfortable offices and buildings.

Interpreters and translators hold over 58,000 jobs. Over 13,000 of those interpreters and translators are self-employed.

The following table shows the industries that employ the most translators and interpreters, and the distribution of the translators and interpreters in those industries:

  • Professional, scientific, and technical services – 26%
  • Educational services; state, local, and private – 25%
  • Health care and social assistance – 13%
  • Government – 7%

Interpreters may work at hospitals, conference centers, courtrooms, or schools. Frequent travel is often required of them. Interpreting can be quite stressful (especially simultaneous interpreting, or interpreting for a very quick speaker).

Most of the time, translators work from home. In general, they receive their assignments and submit their translations electronically. Tight deadlines are a typical challenge for a translator.

How to Become an Interpreter or Translator

A bachelor's degree is usually required for interpreters and translators, but what really matters is their level of fluency in English and in other languages. Many jobs have their own specific training course. A high percentage of interpreters and translators were raised speaking and writing multiple languages, but it is not a requirement of the job.


Interpreters and translators come from a wide range of educational backgrounds, but they are all fluent in English as well as one or more other languages.

Students who want to become an interpreter or translator should study foreign languages, English comprehension and writing, and computer proficiency. Traveling is very helpful for students interested in this field, as it completely immerses them in the foreign language and culture. Students are also encouraged to read a wide range of subjects in English as well as the other languages they are studying. For students who want to become a sign language interpreter, there are many introductory courses in ASL available through many institutions, and there are many opportunities to do volunteer work with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

In terms of education, there are many ways a person can become an interpreter or translator. Even though many employers require a bachelor's degree, it doesn't necessarily need to be a foreign-language degree. Interpreters and translators work in a wide range of subject-matters; having a degree in one of these subject-matters would make an interpreter or translator much more valuable in that field.

However, becoming an interpreter or translator does require special training. Many universities and colleges offer programs in interpretation and translation. Prospective interpreters and translators may also take nonuniversity training courses, conferences, and programs.

Conference interpreters and interpreters who work in highly specialized fields (such as engineering, finance, or localization) typically hold master's degrees. Interpreters and translators who work in the community (such as medical or legal interpreters and translators) are typically trained through courses specific to their position.


The median salary of interpreters and translators is more than $43,000. The median salary is the salary at which 50% of the workers earned more and 50% earned less. The lowest 10% of interpreters and translators earn less than $23,000, and the highest 10% earn more than $86,000.

The following table shows the industries which employ the most interpreters and translators, as well as the median salary of interpreters and translators in those industries:

  • Other professional, scientific, and technical services – $51,650
  • Junior colleges – $43,980
  • General medical and surgical hospitals – $41,720
  • Local government – $41,040
  • Elementary and secondary schools – $37,300

The amount that an interpreter or a translator is paid varies widely, and depends on many factors: the language spoken, the subject matter, education, experience, skill, certification, and the kind of employer. Conference interpreters, whose services require a large amount of concentration and skill, typically earn higher wages, as do interpreters and translators who are fluent in a language that is in high demand or that few others are able to translate.

Earnings for these workers tend to vary depending on how much work is available. Interpreters who are self-employed typically charge by the hour. Translators who are self-employed are usually paid per hour worked or per word translated.

These self-employed interpreters and translators often work irregular schedules. Sometimes, if work is abundant, they work long hours, possibly during nights or weekends. However, if work is limited, the opposite may be true. Regardless, most interpreters and translators work 40 hours a week, typically during normal business hours.

Job Outlook

It's estimated that job prospects for interpreters and translators will grow by 42% in the next decade. This growth is much faster than usual, when compared to the average occupation. The population of the United States is becoming more diversified, with more people from more cultures speaking different languages. This diversification will create more demand for the services of interpreters and translators.

There is already high demand for interpreters and translators of commonly translated languages, like Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, and Italian. This demand is not expected to lessen. The same is true for languages like Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

The evolution of technology is also driving the growth of these fields. People who are deaf or hard of hearing are now able to make video calls online with the assistance of sign language interpreters. This trend is increasing the demand for American Sign Language interpreters.

Also, commerce and trade is becoming more globalized, and more business is being conducted internationally, which in turn will increase the demand for interpreters and translators. There is also a high demand for these workers in the military.

Although translators employ the use of computer software, it is not yet possible to fully automate translation. Computers are not yet able to produce translations with the same degree of fluency, tone, and coherence as human translators.

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