You may not be aware of it, but chances are your life has been touched by a translator or an interpreter. If you watched Beauty and the Beast or went to Sunday school, the stories you heard and read were translated by someone (La belle et la bête from French; the Bible from Amharic and Greek). Your favorite app or mobile device may have been developed outside the U.S., and a localizer (a specialized software translator) helped it “speak” your language and culture. Interpreters facilitate everything from a dentist appointment for a recent refugee to high-level international negotiations dealing with global issues. But while these professionals seem invisible, they are crucial in our globalized world—and represent a great career opportunity for people with language skills.
A Growing Skills Gap
Job growth for translators and interpreters is outpacing other occupations1 and the effects of too few skilled workers are readily apparent: 14% of U.S. and Global Fortune 2000 companies—companies like Google, Cisco, eBay, Twitter, Microsoft, and Marriott—report a loss of business opportunities2 due to lack of world language skills; Newspapers report miscarriages of justice because courts and law enforcement can’t find qualified interpreters3; And hospitals see poor outcomes when they rely on family members to provide the language assistance required by law.4
What’s more, when people are spending their own money, they want to use their own language. International companies already know this—that’s why so many commercial websites around the world are professionally translated and updated in multiple languages. It’s just good business sense.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections predict that the number of translator and interpreter jobs will grow 29% (to 78,500) by 2024; Census data shows that the number of T&I employees nearly doubled between 2008 and 2015.5 The global talent gap is real and represents a stellar opportunity for today’s world language students.
Technology Increases Demand
While many people may think that computers are going to replace human translators and interpreters, the truth is just the opposite: Machine translation is one of the drivers of growth in the industry. Since computers cannot interpret the meaning of a text—they can only read the words and translate them based on dictionaries or other algorithms—professional translators are still very much in demand.
Machine translation is a growing industry, but its primary users are professional translators, government agencies, and large businesses that have invested in sophisticated systems (not free online tools) that have been trained on their data and configured to their precise specifications. Even with that upfront investment, machine output still must be edited by (human) professionals to eliminate errors—which represents another opportunity for linguists.
Interestingly enough, free online translation services have actually increased the market for professional translation and interpreting. This isn’t surprising: As Google and Bing open the door to global markets, users often discover just how important translation is—and realize that they have sophisticated language needs that only human professionals can meet.
Variety and Interesting Careers
So what is a career as a professional translator or interpreter like? First, there is one important distinction: Translators write; Interpreters speak. But both convert meaning from one language (and culture) into another. Most people do one or the other, and many do both.
Good translators are excellent writers in their first language. Only a detail-oriented translator will be able to produce quality translation. Good interpreters have native language skills in two languages. They must be quick thinkers and highly adaptable. Both need to work well under stress.
There are other careers in the T&I industry as well:
- Project Managers: In larger companies and in translation agencies (also called Language Service Companies), project managers guide multiple projects in many languages through the translation process (translation, editing, proofreading), ensure interpreting assignments meet requirements (certifications, equipment), and track complex typesetting and software localization projects.
- Localizers: Software publishers and web designers know that their commercial success is tied to international sales, so they actively seek people who have skills in both language and translation, and software engineering and web programming. A professional localizer uses their linguistic, cultural, and technical knowledge to adapt programs and Internet content for different markets.
- Computational Linguists: At the nexus of computer programming and linguistics, computational linguists use their knowledge set to develop sophisticated tools for professional translators, and their artificial intelligence (AI) research is constantly improving machine translation (MT) output. The government invests heavily in AI and MT, which provides an opportunity to work on cutting-edge linguistic research.
Make a Living, Make a Lifestyle
The translation market is large: In 2015, in the U.S. it was estimated at $18 billion, while globally it’s estimated to reach $37 billion by 2018.6 In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported translator and interpreter salaries ranging from $25,000 to $83,0007, though it is not unusual for certified and highly-specialized translators to earn more.8
Continuing education is a way of life for certified translators and interpreters. Maintaining language and cultural skills means frequently returning to the country where the learned language is spoken. Many language professionals spend weeks or months abroad each year.
How Do I Get Started?
Hone Your Language Skills
Working as a translator or interpreter demands very high language levels (ACTFL Superior/ILR Level 3 or 3+), and translators and interpreters are generally highly dedicated language learners. This learning goes beyond studying grammar—activities like reading newspapers and watching movies help immerse you in the culture that is needed to truly understand language.
If you have a heritage language, you already have an advantage—study it so that you not only speak but write well. Some high schools even offer credit toward graduation for language proficiency gained outside of classes, such as using another language at home, attending language programs in the community, learning language skills online, or spending time living abroad. If your state has a Seal of Biliteracy, work towards receiving one when you graduate from high school.
Study or Work Abroad!
Almost all successful translators and interpreters have one experience in common: They have all lived for extended periods (more than 6 months) in countries where their second language is spoken. Since only 2% of U.S. students study abroad (and of those, 10% go to English-speaking countries)9, the longer you spend overseas the more you set yourself apart from the herd, and the sharper your language and cultural skills will be.
Master Another Subject
If you’ve ever tried to wade through a legal document or a research paper on a scientific topic, you know that there are other “languages” even in English. Since translators and interpreters help experts communicate, subject knowledge and terminology (“knowing the language”) are vital to a successful career.
A court interpreter must be familiar with legal terminology and the justice system; A chemical translator needs to have a solid understanding of chemistry; A software localizer must be familiar with programming principles and languages.
Build Up Other Skills
In addition to language, cultural, and subject knowledge, translators and interpreters need other skills:
- Business: The majority of translators in the United States are freelancers. Successful translators have found ways to effectively market themselves so that they stand out. They know how to negotiate fair and competitive fees for their work. They have learned how to manage their time in such a way that they can find balance in their lives and still meet deadlines.
- Interpersonal: At their foundation, translating and interpreting are all about communication. To be successful, a translator must interact with colleagues, clients, and project managers by email, telephone, and networking in person at professional conferences. Translators regularly consult about terminology conundrums, software problems, business practices, and ethics.
- Technical: Facing ever-changing technological advancements, T&I professionals need to be flexible and master the technology they use creatively and wisely. Some resources they employ include:
- Translation Environment Tools
- Machine Translation
- Video Remote Interpreting
Translator or interpreter certification is a strong signal to the outside world that you meet the qualifications for professional interpreting and translating—and they’re often required for some jobs. What’s more, compensation surveys consistently show that certified practitioners earn more than their non-certified colleagues. Translators in the U.S. are certified by the American Translators Association in 29 language pairs, while interpreters are certified or credentialed by courts and other entities for specific practice areas, such as law and medicine.
Resources and Schools
Your university or high school is a great place to inquire about access to both the language classes and study abroad programs indispensable to preparing for a career as a translator or interpreter. Professional associations and career counselors also have information on certificate, undergraduate, and graduate programs. These programs often have ties with the private and public sector that can help with scholarships, grants, and internships, and most university programs report healthy employment rates for their graduates. The links below should get you started in the right direction.
Education and Training Directory
The American Translators Association (ATA) and the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) have collaborated to publish a searchable online directory of programs that provide training, study, and degrees in translation, interpretation, and related careers.
Helpful Links to T&I-Specific Associations
For information specific to medical interpreting careers, see our Health Care sector profile for links to several interpreting associations.