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Translator or Interpreter Job Description, Career as a Translator or Interpreter, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: College

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Very good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Translators and interpreters convert one language into another. This service allows concepts and ideas to be exchanged between languages and cultures. Translators and interpreters are employed all over the world, helping people to communicate.

Perhaps the hardest job in this field is literary translation. Literary translators work with fiction and poetry. Translators must have a thorough knowledge of a poem's or novel's "source" and "target" languages. The source is the language in which the work was originally written; the target is the language into which the work is translated. To be successful at this very delicate job, translators need literary expertise as much as multilanguage fluency. Literary translators are generally self-employed; however, many support themselves by teaching in colleges or working for organizations requiring translation.

Many translators work freelance or part time for commercial translation agencies. When they are needed, they work on special projects that are suited to their talents and areas of knowledge. Some work for import-export firms, which are usually located in port cities. The U.S. government employs a few hundred people as translators and interpreters. The United Nations and its organizations also employ translators and interpreters.

Interpreters are not writers; they are speakers. They make it possible for people who do not speak the same language to talk to one another. A simultaneous interpreter interprets what the speaker says as the speaker says it. A consecutive interpreter waits until the speaker has finished talking and then interprets. Simultaneous interpreters need speed; consecutive interpreters need a good memory. Both need accuracy.

Education and Training Requirements

Prospective translators and interpreters should begin a thorough study of at least one foreign language as early as possible. Those who speak a foreign language at home should continue to study it in school. Interested individuals also should take extra courses in writing while in high school.

A college degree is necessary for most work of this type. In college future translators and interpreters continue to study foreign languages and hone their writing skills. Some colleges offer students the opportunity to spend a year studying in another country. Depending on the type of translating they plan to do, candidates might choose to take courses in other fields as well. Technical translators need a background in engineering, science, business, or politics. Literary translators often earn doctoral degrees in the literature of foreign countries.

Literary translators usually study the languages of those countries that produce the most literature. Many work with Italian, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese writings. However, the ability to translate from a language that few others know can make the services of a prospective translator or interpreter more valuable. German and Russian are most useful to technical translators. Japanese and Arabic are becoming very important in business. To work at the United Nations, translators and interpreters must know at least three of the official languages, which are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

Getting the Job

Many translators and interpreters start as bilingual secretaries. A bilingual secretary must be able to perform all clerical tasks in at least one language besides English. Both office skills and language skills count here, and this job is a good way to begin working with languages.

Candidates should register their names with the personnel departments of as many international organizations as possible. They should also join a professional association such as the Translators and Interpreters Guild or the American Translators Association and send these organizations a resume, giving details of their education, travel abroad, language ability, and any special qualifications they might offer. Good typing, shorthand, and knowledge of science, politics, or engineering are the most useful skills. Employment agencies can help place bilingual secretaries, translators, and interpreters. Jobs are sometimes advertised in the classified section of newspapers or at job sites online.

People can begin their careers as literary translators by actually working on a previously untranslated book and sending a sample of their translation to the author or to a publisher. If a particular sample is very good, a candidate may be asked to complete the translation. Interested individuals should also apply to magazines that publish translations. They, too, will ask to see a work sample. College language instructors and college placement officers may be able to help prospective translators find work.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

It is possible to begin a language career as a bilingual secretary and advance to more demanding work as a translator or an interpreter. The need for people in this field is greatest in large urban areas such as New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Some translators and interpreters have worked their way around the world.

Translating and interpreting are small and very competitive fields. The profession is growing, though, as countries and businesses have more international dealings. Therefore, there will be faster than average growth in the field through 2014. Competition for these jobs will be keen. Multilingual rather than bilingual ability offers an individual the best chance of landing a job.

Working Conditions

There is a great difference in working conditions for translators and interpreters. Interpreters work at the very places where their translations are needed, including business meetings and other conferences. They generally work under a great deal of pressure. Translators usually work in libraries or quiet offices, often surrounded by dictionaries and other reference materials. Freelance translators and interpreters frequently work at home but also attend international conferences of all sorts, taking notes and doing secretarial jobs in several languages.

Because many translators and interpreters are freelancers, they have no job security. They may have no work for weeks or months at a time. Most take other jobs where they can use their knowledge of languages to supplement their income.

Earnings and Benefits

Salaries for translators and interpreters vary, depending on language, subject matter, skill, experience, education, certification, and type of employer. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly income for a qualified translator or interpreter was $16.28 in 2004. Experienced interpreters and translators can earn more than $27.45 per hour. Interpreters and translators with special skills, such as those working in software localization, generally command higher rates. Federal employees earn an average of $71,625 annually.

Freelance, or self-employed, translators may charge by the word or by the hour. Some freelance translators earn $20 to $30 per hour. Interpreters may also work on a freelance basis. Freelance conference interpreters earn approximately $300 per day. Interpreters who work as escorts for foreign clients earn at least $100 per day.

Where to Go for More Information

American Literary Translators Association
University of Texas at Dallas
Box 830688 Mail Station JO51
Richardson, TX 75083-0688
(972) 883-2093

American Translators Association
225 Reinekers Ln., Ste. 590
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 683-6100

National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators
603 Stewart St., Ste. 610
Seattle, WA 98101
(206) 267-2300

Translators and Interpreters Guild
962 Wayne Ave., Ste. 500
Silver Spring, MD 20910
(800) 992-0367

Translators and interpreters who work for the federal government or a private company usually receive paid vacations, sick leave, and health insurance. Freelance interpreters must provide their own benefits.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCommunication and the Arts