How do I become an interpreter?


It’s always a pleasure to hear from people wanting information about how to become an interpreter. Why? This means that there are people interested in entering the field (We need more interpreters!), and these people recognize that something must be required of a person before they put on an interpreter ID badge (Encouraging insight!). 

Unlike other professions or careers (How do I become a teacher? How do I become a pharmacist? How do I become an architect?), “How do I become an interpreter?” is a bit trickier to answer.

Sadly, in far too many places and for far too many people, the way to becoming an “interpreter” (If this were a video presentation, you’d have seen me use my fingers to create air quotes with exaggerated emphasis.) is to simply show up, have a pulse, and convince people that you know how to speak two languages. This is a reality that many people are working hard to change in a variety of ways, including: implementing strict hiring standards, passing laws, establishing internationally recognized standards, educating anyone and everyone who will listen, etc. But the present-day reality is the framework that guides the answer to the seemingly simple question.

I suspect the inquirers are hoping for, and probably even expecting, a quick 3- to 5-step guide on where to go and what to do to become an interpreter. Tell me what program I need to take. Tell me what program is available in my area. Tell me what program will work for my schedule. Tell me what program is the best. Tell me what program is the fastest.  After all, how complicated can it be to become an interpreter?

My advice tends to be more directional (Here are some options and places to investigate further) than instructional (Here are the exact steps you need to follow). But it always includes information in two indispensible categories: professional formation and professional association.

Professional Formation

You need to complete a comprehensive formative training program. A comprehensive program will give you the foundation you need to interpret confidently and competently in your area of specialty. There are many different program options – everything from weekend programs (which is better than nothing, but it’s pretty hard to pack a comprehensive program into 16 hours) to advanced degrees (a PhD, for example). To a certain extent, finding a program that is right for you and your professional goals is a “shopper beware” endeavor, but fear not! The NCIHC has an Interpreter Training Self-Assessment tool that you can use to assess the program you are considering. The point is to complete a comprehensive formative training program. Period. This is equally true for anyone who has already been interpreting without any formal training. It’s not too late. Your time and money will not be wasted.

Professional Association

I also enthusiastically recommend getting connected with your local translating and interpreting association (Yes! Such things do exist!) to learn of specific requirements to interpret in your area (Yes! Things vary from place to place!) and to inquire about training opportunities in your local area. While you’re at it, consider becoming a member. If you’re serious about the field of interpreting, you’ll need to be involved with a professional association. I know not everyone will agree with me on that; some tenured T&I pros would argue that their membership with professional organizations has not been fruitful, a waste of dues and such. That position can be explored at another time, but for the sake of the newbie in the field, having professional contacts and a way to connect with colleagues outside their immediate circle of connections is important to professional growth and development.

So, where can you find training opportunities and interpreting associations? Here are a few links to get you started:

Perhaps most important thing to remember is that once you have completed the “foot in the door” requirements, you have to keep going. There is no way your program taught you everything you’ll ever need to know or need to be able to do. Heck, even physicians are required to continue their professional studies, even after they are qualified to practice medicine without supervision. And let’s face it, their “foot in the door” requirements are much more rigorous than they are for interpreters.

Incidentally, you do need a pulse, the ability to show up, and fluency1 in two or more languages in order to interpret. (To the best of my knowledge, the first two things are required for any field of work.) So, if you have these things and you want to become an interpreter, that’s wonderful! Get started on the journey by seeking the professional formation and associations that will lead you to a long and fulfilling career. Goodness knows the world needs more awesome interpreters.

Have you been in the field for a while? What was instrumental in your journey to becoming a professional interpreter? Please share your insights and experiences in the comments box!

Related post: 3 Ways to Enhance Your Medical Interpreter Training Experience

*See page 24 of the National Standards for Healthcare Interpreter Training Programs for details on language proficiency for interpreters.

Posted on February 25, 2015 and filed under Newbie.