Interpreters and Translators

What Interpreters and Translators Do

Interpreters and translators convert information from one language into another language.

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Work Environment

Interpreters work in settings such as schools, hospitals, courtrooms, meeting rooms, and conference centers. Some work for translation and interpretation companies, individual organizations, or private clients. Many translators also work remotely. Self-employed interpreters and translators frequently have variable work schedules. Most interpreters and translators work full time during regular business hours.

How to Become an Interpreter or Translator

Although interpreters and translators typically need at least a bachelor’s degree, the most important requirement is to have native-level proficiency in English and at least one other language.

Pay

The median annual wage for interpreters and translators was $51,830 in May 2019.

Job Outlook

Employment of interpreters and translators is projected to grow 20 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. Globalization and large increases in the number of non-English-speaking people in the United States will drive employment growth. Job prospects should be best for those who have professional certification.

Interpreters and translators convert information from one language into another language. Interpreters work in spoken or sign language; translators work in written language.

Duties

Interpreters and translators typically do the following:

  • Convert concepts in the source language to equivalent concepts in the target language
  • Compile information and technical terms into glossaries and terminology databases to be used in their oral renditions and translations
  • Speak, read, and write fluently in at least two languages, one of which is usually English
  • Relay the style and tone of the original language
  • Render spoken messages accurately, quickly, and clearly
  • Apply their cultural knowledge to render an accurate and meaningful interpretation or translation of the original message

Interpreters and translators aid communication by converting messages or text from one language into another language. Although some people do both, interpreting and translating are different professions: interpreters work with spoken communication, and translators work with written communication.

Interpreters convert information from one spoken language into another—or, in the case of sign language interpreters, between spoken language and sign language. The goal of an interpreter is to have people hear the interpretation as if it were the original language. Interpreters usually must be fluent speakers or signers of both languages, because they communicate back and forth among people who do not share a common language.

There are three common modes of interpreting: simultaneous, consecutive, and sight translation:

  • Simultaneous interpreters convey a spoken or signed message into another language at the same time someone is speaking or signing. Simultaneous interpreters must be familiar with the subject matter and maintain a high level of concentration to convey the message accurately and completely. Due to the mental fatigue involved, simultaneous interpreters may work in pairs or small teams if they are interpreting for long periods of time, such as in a court or conference setting.
  • Consecutive interpreters convey the speaker’s or signer’s message in another language after they have stopped to allow for the interpretation. Note taking is generally an essential part of consecutive interpreting.
  • Sight translation interpreters provide translation of a written document directly into a spoken language, for immediate understanding, but not for the purposes of producing a written translated document.

Translators convert written materials from one language into another language. The goal of a translator is to have people read the translation as if it were the original written material. To do that, the translator must be able to write in a way that maintains or duplicates the structure and style of the original text while keeping the ideas and facts of the original material accurate. Translators must properly transmit any cultural references, including slang, and other expressions that do not translate literally.

Translators must read the original language fluently. They usually translate into their native language.

Nearly all translation work is done on a computer, and translators receive and submit most assignments electronically. Translations often go through several revisions before becoming final.

Translation usually is done with computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools, in which a computer database of previously translated sentences or segments (called a “translation memory”) may be used to translate new text. CAT tools allow translators to work more efficiently and consistently. Translators also edit materials translated by computers, or machine translation. This process is called post-editing.

Interpretation and translation services are needed in virtually all subject areas. Although most interpreters and translators specialize in a particular field or industry, many have more than one area of specialization.

The following are examples of types of interpreters and translators:

Community interpreters work in community-based environments, providing vital language interpretation one-on-one or in group settings. Community interpreters often are needed at parent–teacher conferences, community events, business and public meetings, social and government agencies, new-home purchases, and many other work and community settings.

Conference interpreters work at conferences that have non-English-speaking attendees. The work is often in the field of international business or diplomacy, although conference interpreters can interpret for any organization that works with speakers of foreign languages. Employers generally prefer more experienced interpreters who can convert two languages into one native language—for example, the ability to interpret from Spanish and French into English. For some positions, such as those with the United Nations, this qualification is required.

Conference interpreters often do simultaneous interpreting. Attendees at a conference or meeting who do not understand the language of the speaker wear earphones tuned to the interpreter who speaks the language they want to hear.

Health or medical interpreters and translators typically work in healthcare settings and help patients communicate with doctors, nurses, technicians, and other medical staff. Interpreters and translators must have knowledge of medical terminology and of common medical terms in both languages. They may translate research material, regulatory information, pharmaceutical and informational brochures, patient consent documents, website information, and patients’ records from one language into another.

Healthcare or medical interpreters must be sensitive to patients’ personal circumstances, as well as maintain confidentiality and ethical standards. Interpretation may also be provided remotely, either by video relay or over the phone.

Liaison or escort interpreters accompany either U.S. visitors abroad or foreign visitors in the United States who have limited English proficiency. Interpreting in both formal and informal settings, these specialists ensure that the visitors can communicate during their stay. Frequent travel is common for liaison or escort interpreters.

Legal or judicial interpreters and translators typically work in courts and other legal settings. At hearings, arraignments, depositions, and trials, they help people who have limited English proficiency. Accordingly, they must understand legal terminology. Many court interpreters must sometimes read documents aloud in a language other than that in which they were written, a task known as sight translation. Legal or judiciary interpreters and translators must have a strong understanding of legal terminology.

Literary translators convert journal articles, books, poetry, and short stories from one language into another language. They work to keep the tone, style, and meaning of the author’s work. Whenever possible, literary translators work closely with authors to capture the intended meaning, as well as the literary and cultural characteristics, of the original publication.

Localizers adapt text and graphics used in a product or service from one language into another language, a task known as localization. Localization specialists work to make it appear as though the product originated in the country where it will be sold. They must not only know both languages, but also understand the technical information they are working with and the culture of the people who will be using the product or service. Localizers make extensive use of computer and web-based localization tools and generally work in teams.

Localization may include adapting websites, software, marketing materials, user documentation, and various other publications. Usually, these adaptations are related to products and services in information technology, manufacturing and other business sectors.

Sign language interpreters facilitate communication between people who are deaf or hard of hearing and people who can hear. Sign language interpreters must be fluent in English and in American Sign Language (ASL), which combines signing, finger spelling, and specific body language. ASL is a separate language from English and has its own grammar.

Some interpreters specialize in other forms of interpreting for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Some people who are deaf or hard of hearing can lip-read English instead of signing in ASL. Interpreters who work with these people do “oral interpretation,” mouthing speech silently and very carefully so that their lips can be read easily. They also may use facial expressions and gestures to help the lip-reader understand.

Other modes of interpreting include cued speech, which uses hand shapes placed near the mouth to give lip-readers more information; signing exact English; and tactile signing, which is interpreting for people who are blind as well as deaf by making hand signs into the deaf and blind person’s hand.

Trilingual interpreters facilitate communication among an English speaker, a speaker of another language, and an ASL user. They must have the versatility, adaptability, and cultural understanding necessary to interpret in all three languages without changing the fundamental meaning of the message.

Interpreters and translators held about 77,400 jobs in 2019. The largest employers of interpreters and translators were as follows:

Professional, scientific, and technical services 34%
Self-employed workers 21
Educational services; state, local, and private 18
Hospitals; state, local, and private 8
Government 6

Interpreters work in settings such as schools, hospitals, courtrooms, detention facilities, meeting rooms, and conference centers. Judiciary and conference interpreters may travel frequently. Depending on the setting and type of assignment, interpreting may be stressful, as highly technical or sensitive information must be relayed accurately. In some settings, interpreters may work as part of a team. With the development of new communication technology, more interpreters are working remotely via video or telephone connections.

Translators who work remotely receive and submit their work electronically, and must sometimes deal with the pressure of deadlines and tight schedules. Some translators are employees at translation companies or individual organizations.

Work Schedules

Self-employed interpreters and translators often have variable work schedules, which may include periods of limited work and periods of long, irregular hours. Most interpreters and translators work full time.

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of interpreters and translators.

Occupation Job Duties Entry-Level Education Median Annual Pay, May 2019

Adult Literacy and High School Equivalency Diploma Teachers

Adult literacy and high school equivalency diploma teachers instruct adults in basic skills, such as reading and speaking English. They also help students earn their high school equivalent diploma.

Bachelor’s degree $54,350

Career and Technical Education Teachers

Career and technical education teachers instruct students in various technical and vocational subjects, such as auto repair, healthcare, and culinary arts.

Bachelor’s degree $58,110

Court Reporters

Court reporters create word-for-word transcriptions at trials, depositions, and other legal proceedings.

Postsecondary nondegree award $60,130

High School Teachers

High school teachers teach academic lessons and various skills that students will need to attend college and to enter the job market.

Bachelor’s degree $61,660

Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers

Kindergarten and elementary school teachers instruct young students in basic subjects in order to prepare them for future schooling.

Bachelor’s degree $59,420

Medical Transcriptionists

Medical transcriptionists listen to voice recordings that physicians and other healthcare workers make and convert them into written reports.

Postsecondary nondegree award $33,380

Middle School Teachers

Middle school teachers educate students, typically in sixth through eighth grades.

Bachelor’s degree $59,660

Postsecondary Teachers

Postsecondary teachers instruct students in a wide variety of academic and technical subjects beyond the high school level.

See How to Become One $79,540

Special education teachers

Special Education Teachers

Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities.

Bachelor’s degree $61,030

Technical Writers

Technical writers prepare instruction manuals, how-to guides, journal articles, and other supporting documents to communicate complex and technical information more easily.

Bachelor’s degree $72,850

Writers and authors

Writers and Authors

Writers and authors develop written content for various types of media.

Bachelor’s degree $63,200

For more information about interpreters, visit  

Discover Interpreting

For more information about interpreter and literary translator specialties, including professional certification, visit

American Translators Association

Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters

International Association of Conference Interpreters

National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators

National Association of the Deaf

National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters

National Council on Interpreting in Health Care

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf

For more information about testing to become a federal contract interpreter or translator, visit 

U.S. State Department

O*NET

Interpreters and Translators


Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Interpreters and Translators,
at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/interpreters-and-translators.htm (visited ).