What Are the Education Requirements for Careers in Translation and Interpretation?

With the world becoming ever more globalized, translation and interpretation are hot careers at the moment. So it pays to consider their merits, whether you are choosing a job for the first time or looking into a career change. 

Typically, you can work freelance when translating or interpreting, with a translation agency, through the government or simply by finding your clients directly. Below we’ll look at the standard educational requirements, as well as some less traditional ways to break into the field. We’ll also examine some of the soft skills that you need to work as a successful translator or interpreter.  

Typical Entry Requirements to Work in Translation

Is a translator a good career? Both translation and interpretation are certainly in-demand careers, so good choices in terms of future prospects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) rates these careers as likely to grow by 19% between 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is due to increasing globalization and a more diverse US population.  

US News ranks the unemployment rate for interpreters and translators at just 3.1%, noting that the roles have a median salary of $49,930. It also ranks translation and interpretation as being first in its choice of the Best Creative and Media Jobs. 

The BLS states that, typically, interpreters and translators need at least a bachelor’s degree. However, the most important qualification is knowing at least two languages to the point of fluency. 

In order to prepare for this career from an educational standpoint, high school students need to focus on taking a wide array of foreign language courses, in addition to English writing and composition courses. If translating or interpreting is your goal from early on, you need to become an expert in languages.

In college, people looking to become translators or interpreters usually major in a foreign language. You may not have to major in a language, however, since many translation agencies simply require a bachelor’s degree. However, majoring in a certain language will help both your employment prospects and your career overall!     

Most employers and clients expect you to be able to undertake translations or interpretation at the point that they hire you, so formal training programs are usually not provided.

Interpreting and Translation Certifications 

Certain translation and interpretation jobs may require certifications, licenses or registrations. What are the different types of interpreting? When it comes to certifications, there are various requirements:

Sign language: Certification/registration through the National Association of the Deaf and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

Healthcare interpreters: Certification is often handled through the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters or the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters.

Legal interpreters: Federal court interpreters must undergo a certification exam, as must state-level interpreters.  

If you wish to interpret for the government, you will have to take three tests through the US Department of State. These cover consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting and conference-level interpreting. 

You might also look into different professional organizations for the type of interpreting or translating you want to do. These can offer added memberships and certifications to boost your resume.

The certifications above show why it is helpful to decide early on which type of interpreting you want to do, in addition to which language you wish to become fluent in. If you want to do a very specific type of interpreting, you will often need to plan on testing and getting certified in order to reach your career goals.  

Some students even go as far as to study law, medicine or engineering if they wish to interpret or translate in those fields. If you choose a niche specialization, you will need to know the jargon used in that industry for interpretation or translation work. 

Soft Skills for Working in Translation

In addition to traditional educational and certification requirements, you should also make sure you develop the soft skills needed for a successful career in translation or interpretation.

Some of the soft skills that are needed include:

Time/task management: This soft skill is especially important for translators. You will often handle large tasks, like translating whole books, websites or marketing campaigns. These have many working parts and you will need to make sure you get them done by the deadline.  

Communication skills: Your clients will have very specific requirements that you will need to follow. Also, if you have any questions about the message you are translating, you will need to ask clearly and proactively. 

Fluid in-person communication for interpreters: If you plan to work in interpretation, you’ll be verbally communicating messages in different languages in real-time. Whereas translators have the time to reference directories and double-check their work, interpreters must convert the message into another language on the fly. Make sure to get plenty of experience working with your new language in conversational contexts if you plan to be an interpreter!   

Alternate Ways to Prepare for Work in Translation 

A bachelor’s degree is the typical route for getting started in translation or interpretation work but not every translator or interpreter has a degree. There are other ways to get the skills that you need (although these methods are usually best when supplementing higher education rather than replacing it). 

Showing you took the time to take courses and self-study can help you get a foot in at more formal opportunities. There are various ways to do this: 

Travel abroad: The best way to become highly proficient in a language is total immersion. You learn how to speak the language on the fly, which is a must for interpreters. Another benefit of travel is being immersed in the culture. You then understand the cultural background and context that goes into the language in a way that might take years of studying in a classroom.

Volunteer: Doing volunteer work can help you to learn the ins and outs of the industry. You could volunteer to translate for a hospital or clinic or for an international charity or undertake interpreting work for conferences and events held by non-profits, just as a few ideas.

Internships: Whether paid or unpaid, internships are a fantastic way to get your foot in the door and learn the basics of your industry. You could be an intern at a translation agency, for an escort interpreting service or with the courts.

Mentoring: You may also find mentoring and networking opportunities within professional organizations, which are well worth pursuing.

Whether you go the more traditional educational route or try to find a backdoor into the profession, interpretation and translation require the hard work of gaining fluency in more than one language and the willingness to track down experience that will give you the right skills for the profession.

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