How to Become an Interpreter

I get a lot of emails from people interested in translator or interpreter career paths, and they often ask me how to best go about entering into one of these career fields or how to become an interpreter.

Believe it or not, this is a tough question to answer, really for a variety of reasons.

But one of the things that makes it difficult to answer is that there is no single career path for translators or interpreters. Professional interpreters and translators get to where they’re at through a myriad of different paths and no two are exactly the same.

However, while there are a multitude of ways to become a professional interpreter, what you really need to understand in how to become an interpreter is figuring out what kind of interpreter you want to be.

Once you figure that out, it’s a lot easier to map our your interpretation and training career path.

Become an In-House Interpreter

When someone who isn’t familiar with the interpretation profession thinks of an interpreter, they often think of someone who works at a big organization like the United Nations in New York and spends their whole day interpreting for diplomats and other political figures at meetings, forums, conferences, dialogues, etc.

While this was sensationalized a bit in the movie The Interpreter, this is a somewhat correct view of those who work in these organizations. For example, below is an outline of the responsibilities for an English and French (and Russian or Spanish) interpreter taken directly from the job description posted at the United Nations website:

Under the broad supervision of the Chief of the English Interpretation Section, the incumbent provides interpretation into English of speeches and statements given in French and Spanish or Russian. S/he is routinely assigned to sensitive meetings; routinely function as team leader of all interpreters assigned to the same meeting.

You can see that the interpreter for this position advertised would be at a conference all day every day interpreting speeches. Instead, he or she would be responsible for interpreting at sensitive meetings and other functions, as well as supervising other interpreters.

While large organizations like the United Nations have their own corps of interpreters that they use to provide language interpreting, this isn’t necessarily the norm in the business world. Most large companies don’t retain on their payrolls full-time interpreters. Instead, they usually rely on freelance interpreters.

Become a Freelance Interpreter

So let’s talk about having a freelance interpreter career. I would say that the majority of professional interpreters work on a freelance basis, meaning that they aren’t employed by someone on a full-time basis, but rather contract out their services to clients.

A freelance interpreter career is similar to any other type of freelance career, whether a freelance writer, freelance computer programmer, freelance web designer, etc., in that the freelancer usually has to be actively looking for opportunities to use his or her skill in exchange for payment.

Freelance interpreters need a steady stream of clients for whom they interpret in order to make enough money to make it worth it. Whether that’s working on a contract basis for the court system as a federal court interpreter or working in business or the medical field as part of a team of medical interpreters.

One thing to remember if considering a career as a freelance interpreter is that you might have to go through times of “feast or famine” similar to freelance translators. What this means is that there might be times when you have tons of work and are struggling to find time to fit it all in, which might be followed by times where you can’t find a freelance interpreter job to save your life.

Also remember that as a freelance interpreter, you most likely will not be receiving any type of benefits, whether it be medical coverage, or retirement savings. So any money that you make as part of your interpreter careers needs to be set aside for those expenses that would (at least partially) be covered by some companies if you worked for them full-time.

However, depending on the type of freelance interpreter job you’re doing at the moment, you might get paid for more than just interpreting. Some clients will reimburse interpreters for added expenses such as traveling costs, food purchases, etc. Be sure and ask if you think that the job you are doing might require some of these added expenses.

Become a Contract Interpreter

The last type of interpreter career that I want to highlight here is that of contract interpreters. Contract interpreters are a kind of hybrid between in-house interpreters and freelance interpreters.

Contract interpreters will work for a single company usually, but won’t get paid any type of benefits, and will usually get an hourly wage instead of a salaried wage that in-house interpreters might get. The court system will sometimes employ contract interpreters, and will have a pool of interpreters that they can use for various languages and locations, and then call on that interpreter when needed.

Keep in mind, though, that sometimes people interchange the term “contract interpreter” with “freelance interpreter” so there can be some confusion.


P.S. For more tips and techniques on how to succeed as a language professional, be sure to read my book.

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