How to Become an Interpreter

In Blog by Rafael Morel

The constantly developing mass globalization and the increasing cultural diversity within the American society cause language barriers to arise. There’s a growing demand for a more effective communication system between the communities in various social settings.

In given circumstances, language interpreters are the ones who can solve the problematic situation. For that reason, the demand for professional interpreting services is considerably increasing. As labor statistics indicate, interpreters will see almost 30% employment growth by 2024.

Interpreters are not only expected to speak languages fluently. Every professional interpreter should have a range of skills, qualities, and experience to succeed.

If you are considering becoming an interpreter, check out our article to learn more about this valuable profession and how to get started.

What Does an Interpreter Do?

An interpreter is a person who interprets verbal communication from one language to another in an unbiased and non-judgmental manner. Their role is to transfer messages from the source language into the target language in the most accurate way, with no omissions or additions. An interpreter provides interpretations of such verbal communication forms as questions, answers, arguments, or statements that are exchanged between people with various voices and accents as well as diverse personalities. The primary goal of an interpreter’s job is to help overcome the language barriers between both parties to ensure their mutual understanding.

Essential Skills of an Interpreter

Besides strong mother tongue skills and excellent understanding of at least one or two other languages, a language interpreter should possess other qualities that will ensure they fulfill their tasks well.

If you would like to become a successful interpreter, there are some critical basic interpreter skills that you need to possess:

  • Excellent listening skills
  • Ability to concentrate
  • Ability to quickly analyze the message and communicate it well
  • Ability to sense and interpret emotions
  • Ability to cope with pressure and stress
  • Efficient, intuitive skills
  • Excellent memory
  • Natural, intellectual curiosity
  • Cultural understanding
  • Empathy
  • Honesty
  • Patience

Types of Interpreters

Depending on the services and industries, language interpreters often specialize in different areas of communication within their language.

The specific characteristics and conditions of their interpreting roles determine the settings they work in, the people they work with, and the unique skills they should have, both professional and personal.

Community Interpreters

Community interpreters are responsible for translating messages between groups of people that speak different languages. Not only do they have essential target language proficiency, but they also specialize in public services.

The groups of people that community interpreters represent often include immigrants or refugees with their families who need social support in the new country. As they don’t speak the same language as the community around them, the access to public services, like family services, social security, or health care, is limited or even impossible.

Community interpreters help overcome the language obstacles to provide the people in need with the necessary support from society. They work in various community settings, like educational, medical, legal, or business. The unique circumstances of the role require the community interpreters to have comprehensive cultural knowledge, empathy, and cultural sensitivity.

Conference Interpreters

Conference interpreters generally work in formal settings, such as international conferences, legal proceedings, trade negotiations, and political meetings.

They are highly-skilled professionals who work mainly in real-time and are often required to operate multiple languages while maintaining strong nerves and providing quick reactions.

Conference interpreters usually work in two interpreting modes:

  • Simultaneous interpreting – the translation process occurs simultaneously with what is being said; therefore, it’s also called “live interpreting.” We can observe this mode, for example, on live news feeds or at political conferences. During a simultaneous interpretation, an interpreter sits in a soundproof booth and listens to a speaker via headphones. At the same time, they translate the speaker’s verbal statements into a microphone which is then sent out via radio waves to the audience wearing headsets. Nearly all interpretation work is now conducted using simultaneous mode.
  • Consecutive interpreting – the translation process occurs during pauses in speech. An interpreter listens to the speaker’s verbal statements, memorizes them, and translates them at an agreed or convenient point in the conversation. The consecutive interpreting mode is generally used within smaller groups of people, where there are circumstances of face-to-face conversations. It can be used during interviews, court cases, and small meetings.

Medical Interpreters

Certified medical interpreters work in healthcare settings. Their role is to help patients communicate with medical staff, like doctors or nurses. Medical interpreters possess comprehensive knowledge of medical terminology in both source language and target language.

As the physical presence of an interpreter may not always be possible in a hospital setting, an interpreter can use a phone interpreting method, which occurs when the translation process must be conducted remotely. An interpreter is then dialed into the conversation and speaks between both parties in a consecutive manner.

Liaison or Escort Interpreters

Liaison or escort interpreters accompany either foreign visitors coming to the United States or US visitors abroad. They facilitate communication over the whole period of the client’s visit, which can run for days, weeks, or months.

Escort interpreters are responsible for interpreting in both formal and informal settings. They often work in international business-related meetings, like investor meetings or negotiation proceedings. Such work settings require the interpreters to have an in-depth knowledge of business and financial terminology to convey the messages correctly.

The nature of an escort interpreter’s job is often related to frequent traveling both within and outside the country.

sign language

Sign Language Interpreters

Sign language interpreters facilitate communication between people who have impaired hearing or speech and people who can hear and speak.

This type of interpreter is responsible for converting audible verbal speech spoken by one person into sign language to be understood by the hard-of-hearing person/people. Interpreters are fluent in English and American Sign Language (ASL).

Sign language interpreting is common in various fields, such as education, health care, media, community, business, and legal.

How to Become an Interpreter?

Although language proficiency is the apparent key factor that allows you to provide interpreting services, there is a range of formal criteria you must meet if you’re planning to become a professional interpreter.


Obtain a Degree

There’s no formal requirement to have an academic degree if you want to become an interpreter. Very often, a high school diploma or GED is a sufficient document. However, when looking for interpreting jobs, you will find that most employers will require evidence of an academic background, which is at least a bachelor’s degree. This is the case, especially working within high-rank institutions like the government.

Although there’s usually no preference indicated when it comes to the choice of the bachelor’s degree, it’s crucial that by the end of the program, the graduate is proficient in at least two languages and is able to use them fluently.

Many universities offer interpreting degree programs that directly prepare students for an interpreting career, but they aren’t the only ones to help you gain the required skills. Many students choose language as their primary area of study to focus solely on general language skills – they often pick linguistics or foreign languages. Others decide to pursue another major, for example, business, so they can acquire essential experience and knowledge, for instance, specific terminology, that will apply to the particular area of specialization they want to work in.

Apart from the bachelor’s degree program, universities offer additional language courses that you can take along with your major field of study. If you want to hone your second (or third) language skills to progress towards your interpreting career, such language courses are a great way to do so.

Gain Experience

Although education is an inseparable part of becoming a professional interpreter, it’s the practice that makes you a master. Getting hands-on experience in the desired field is vital, preferably simultaneously pursuing a degree.

There are a few practical options that may help you gain valuable experience as an aspiring interpreter:



Volunteering is an excellent opportunity to get first-hand experience in your field. It will also look convincing on your resume, which may therefore help you stand out among others when applying for jobs after graduating.

Some institutions like hospitals, organizations, and companies offer volunteering opportunities for aspiring interpreters, so it may be worth looking around if you want to master your interpreting skills.

Apply for an Internship

Completing an internship, also known as work experience, is another excellent chance to familiarize yourself with the interpreting industry from the practical side.

Schools and universities frequently offer internships that can be paid or unpaid, depending on the institution. Participating in an internship can be a great start to building your professional resume and a key to finding employment after graduating from the university.

people laughing at the office

Study Abroad

Studying in a foreign country may be an exciting adventure and an excellent opportunity to improve your language skills around native speakers.

Conversating with native speakers will give you a chance to learn about different accents and speaking tempos of the particular language you want to improve. It will provide you with a better understanding of the language and

Attend Formal Training

Schools and universities offer formal interpreting training for students who want to build their interpreter careers.

The training programs offer a certificate or associate’s degree designed for aspiring interpreters so they can gain essential skills that they will need for their jobs.

Formal training is not always an obligatory criterion. Depending on the industry, you may be offered the training through the employer. Specific interpreting branches, like court or medical interpreting, are more likely to offer formal training on the job.

Get a Certificate

Although a certificate isn’t commonly regarded as a credential, it can be a vital indicator of your language proficiency and interpreting expertise.

The government and state departments offer prospective interpreters a series of tests, including a written exam and an oral examination. The American Translator’s Association or Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters provide examinations or national certification. An interpreter certification is more likely to be required in specific interpreting fields, like court interpreting. Still, the document verifies your skills which can be advantageous in your job applications.

If you’re planning to become a certified interpreter, you will study additional skills required for your profession, which include:

  • Basic interpreting skills, such as register, tone, note-taking, memory skills
  • Different types and modes of interpreting
  • National ethics and standards of practice
  • Interpreter’s legal obligations
  • Cultural mediation
  • Ethical decision-making
  • Information on community systems

Continue Education

Continuing education is what many professional interpreters do to gain additional skills and experience to advance their careers.

Taking post-graduate interpreting courses or participating in workshops and additional training programs offered by, for example, the National Association for Interpretation can have a valuable impact on your professional and personal growth.

How Long Does it Take to Become an Interpreter?

If you’re pursuing a bachelor’s degree (as most employers prefer), it will take you around five years to become a professional interpreter, including three years of academic education and two years of training.

However, if your job allows you only to have an associate’s degree, it will take you two years to obtain it.

The Bottom Line

In today’s highly globalized and culturally diverse world, professional interpreting services are crucial in facilitating communication between individuals or groups of people who don’t share a common language.

Language interpreters also act as essential community workers whose services often help those in need, which provides the occupation with a gratifying and rewarding career.

Professional interpreters do not just translate words from one language to another – they also convey meaningful messages, intention, and tone. And they do so in a minimal amount of time.

If you would like to become an interpreter, there’s a range of required skills and desired experience you should gain. Earning a degree, completing training, getting a certificate, and continuing education are vital factors in becoming a successful and proficient interpreter. Thanks to them, you will become an expert in your field.