So, you want to be an interpreter?
By Melissa Fridlin Murrell
Former Interim Vice President, Interpreters and Translators Association of Alabama (ITAA)
I have been a professional interpreter for over 9 years here in Alabama, and I got into the profession without any idea of what I really needed to know before I got started. I had been a volunteer interpreter in my community for years, and so I thought I knew what I was getting into. I’ve outlined 9 steps here that I wish I had taken before I got started. If you are interested in becoming a professional interpreter, I hope these tips will help you decide if this is the right career for you.
- Evaluate your bilingualism.
An interpreter must be fully bilingual. That said, we all have strengths and weaknesses, and language is a constant learning process. In the United States, you will encounter people from different countries, with different dialects, accents, and slang. Every type of interpreting will require a new set of vocabulary in both languages. You should also be able to read and write well in both languages.
So, before you step into professional interpreting, ask yourself if you feel confident in both languages. Test yourself in informal settings. Even better, find a provider of language testing to evaluate you. It costs some money, but it is invaluable to be able to present that score to a potential employer. And if your score isn’t what you expected, you need to spend time addressing the language skills before you become a professional interpreter.
Regardless, be humble enough to invest time in learning. If you want to do medical or legal interpreting, you must study extensive vocabulary and understand the systems where you are working. But even in fields like mental health, social services, and education, which seem less complex, there is a set of terms and procedures that you must learn to do a good job. A professional interpreter is always learning!
- Research and understand the profession.
Yes, this is a profession! There are many interpreter and translator associations in the United States and around the world. Look at the websites of the American Translators’ Association (ATA), the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), or the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA). [Check out this list on the ITAA website for other national and regional organizations.]
Learn what the difference is between an interpreter and a translator. Investigate the different ways you can go as a professional – are you interested in being a medical, legal, community, or conference interpreter? Are you looking for full time work or do you want to be a freelance interpreter or translator? Find out the qualifications you need to work in this profession.
Join your local interpreter association (in Alabama, that is the Interpreters and Translators Association of Alabama – ITAA) and go to meetings, conferences, and other events to meet other local interpreters and translators. Find discussion groups on social media. Most interpreters are happy to talk to you about how they got started and point you in the direction of other resources, once they know you are serious about investigating the profession.
- Decide whether you are looking for a full-time position or work as a contractor.
Depending on your location, there may not be many full-time positions available for interpreters. This is especially true if you speak a language other than Spanish. Most full-time jobs tend to be in the medical or educational fields. (Educational interpreters often also have to serve as ESL instructors or parent liaisons). A full-time position is less flexible and will pay less per hour, but you will file taxes as an employee, have steady work, and may have access to benefits.
Contract work, or freelance interpreting, means that you are your own boss. You decide when you want to work or not, and what type of jobs you will take. You can work as an interpreter along with other part-time work or commitments such as taking care of your kids or volunteer work. The pay per hour is higher, but you must pay a higher tax rate since you are self-employed, and you never have a guarantee of a certain number of hours of work. Working as a contractor means you are running your own small business, so make sure you know what is needed before you get started. Freelance interpreting is challenging and fun because you never know what your day will look like, and you get the opportunity to experience many types of environments and fields.
[Here’s a great set of resources for newcomers to the profession from ATA.]
- Invest in your own education.
This is one of very few professions in the US where many people don’t expect us to have any training, degrees, licenses, or certifications. Would you set out to be a CNA, or a legal assistant, or a court reporter, or even a hair stylist without first learning how to do the job? Being bilingual does not necessarily mean you can be an interpreter. However, if you are motivated, like the work, and invest in learning, you can do it! [Here’s a list of reputable interpreter education providers.]
Interpreters have a code of ethics and standards of practice like most other professions. The minimum standard to qualify for medical certification exams and for community interpreters is 40 hours of training. However, as you can imagine, 40 hours only gets you through the basics! Before you get started, make sure you take at least some basic training on ethics and interpreter skills. This will help you decide if you want to keep going with the profession. After that, keep taking classes and aim to study for certification. [Find information here on the organizations that certify interpreters.]
- Be realistic about your skills and your limitations.
Many people try to jump into interpreting at a very high level, like in court or for conferences, before they have learned the basics. Court interpreting requires a very high level of skill, education, and knowledge. Conference interpreters must be highly skilled in simultaneous interpreting and technical language. If you start there, you are setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. You should have extensive experience and training before you go into these fields.
Instead, start with community interpreting in schools, businesses, or social services, or beginner level medical interpreting, like physical therapy or in-home treatment. Remember you will have to invest in training on your basic consecutive and sight translation skills, and you must study relevant vocabulary. But these settings are much more informal, and so there is room to clarify, make mistakes and correct them, and ask questions before and after the session. In addition, while the content of every setting is important and the consequences are real, in these settings you are not often in risky situations, where one mistake could be very costly. In general, it is better to say “no” to an assignment than to realize you are in over your head after you start.
[Check out this blog post about interpreting for social services.]
- Accept that you will not always be comfortable.
First of all, you have to repeat the curse words. Yes, you do! This is actually a deal breaker for some folks, and that’s okay. You must interpret the mean things people say, statements you don’t agree with, and sometimes intense and difficult stories, without changing the tone and meaning. This may sound harsh, but if you can’t do this, this is not the job for you.
You will hear people’s personal problems, find out about unjust situations, and be with people in some of the most difficult moments of their lives. But you will also experience life-changing positive moments, and you will give people a voice when they may have never felt like they have been able to communicate before. You will empower and serve the people you work with and help them connect and build relationships. And when you step out of your comfort zone, you will also grow and learn along the way.
- Set boundaries. If you don’t know how to set boundaries, learn!
As a professional interpreter, you must be a neutral party, keep everything confidential, and avoid conflicts of interest while you are working as an interpreter. When you take your training on ethics you will learn more about the different requirements for medical, legal, and community interpreters, but in general as an interpreter you must set personal and professional boundaries.
If you have been working as an advocate in your community for many years, or if people are used to calling you on your cell to get help with anything and everything, you will have to figure out how to navigate this if you want to be a professional interpreter. There are rules that we must follow, and many times this will mean saying “no” to certain requests, not giving out our cell number, or refraining from intervening in a situation.
To clarify: There are many interpreters who also work with the community in other ways. But, they have had to learn how to switch roles in an ethical way, and to say “no” when necessary. If you don’t think you can set those boundaries, this may not be the profession for you. (P.S. setting boundaries leads to a healthier you no matter what your profession is. So maybe going down this path would help you with self-care!) [This is a great article on the basics of setting personal and professional boundaries.]
- Present yourself as a professional.
Agencies and employers who hire interpreters and translators want to know that you are professional, reliable, and responsive. Make sure you have an updated resume that focuses on your experience and training in interpreting. Write professional emails introducing yourself and include statements that show that you know about the profession. Record a professional voicemail message.
When you go to interpreting jobs, you will need to dress professionally, be on time (i.e. early), report any problems, be respectful and friendly, and be clear about your role and boundaries.
As you start to work, you will see that flexibility and responsiveness are what we look for in contract interpreters. Be prepared to respond quickly to requests, complete reports and paperwork on time, check your email and texts regularly, and change schedules if necessary. The more professional you are, the more work you will get!
- Make a commitment and stick with it!
Once you have decided to pursue the profession of interpreting, know that you will have good and bad days. Even those of us who have been interpreting for years have moments where we feel like we don’t speak any language well! We make mistakes every day. The difference is, we know how to correct those mistakes and intervene when necessary. Some days, you will have to call a colleague to vent or cry, look up a word you swear you knew last week, or decide that you will need to say “no” to a certain type of assignment in the future. That’s okay! The work is dynamic, and challenging, and rewarding, and I encourage you to pursue professional interpreting. You won’t regret it!