How to be a language interpreter or translator

A person who is a language interpreter or translator is very important to newcomer communities in the USA. If you have good language skills, you can help immigrants and refugees succeed while you earn a living. Find out what you need to know about how to become an interpreter, translator, or both.

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What is a language interpreter? What is a translator?

A language interpreter changes spoken words from one language into another language. A translator changes written information from one language to another language. There is a great need for interpreters and translators in newcomer communities. They help immigrants and refugees to communicate and succeed in the United States.

About the job

What can you expect in the job of interpreter or translator?

Duties of a language interpreter and translator

The duties of a translator are to change a document from one language to another and to make sure their translation is accurate. It is also the job of the translator to make sure they use clear and precise words in the language they are translating to. This is especially important with difficult documents such as legal papers.

The duties of a language interpreter are to take the meaning of someone’s else words, listen, and get the meaning across in another language. 

In both jobs, an important duty is to make sure that the meaning of the original speaker or writer is clear. This means it is your duty NOT to add or take away meanings. You can read more about what translators and interpreters do.

Watch a video about the duties of interpreters and translators


Interpreters may work anywhere from a school to a refugee camp to a business boardroom.They may need to travel a lot.  Translators can usually work at home or in their own office.

Salary for interpreters and translators

Full-time interpreters and translators can earn from $25,000 to more than $83,010. But many work as volunteers.

About the person

What kind of person makes a good translator or interpreter? This is an excellent job for someone who wants to help people from their own background.  A language interpreter may find himself or herself in a difficult or sensitive situation. For example, you may interpret in a legal hearing or doctor’s office. So the right person for the job will be calm and keep a professional manner in all situations. If you like writing and are a clear and grammatical writer, then translation would be a good fit for you.

Qualities you should have

  • respect for others
  • truthfulness
  • good concentration
  • good at listening
  • cultural awareness (understanding different perspectives)
  • trustworthiness (keeping things private)
  • adaptability (ability to work in difficult situations)
  • precision (ability to convey small details and difficult points correctly)

Skills you will need

  • fluency in at least two languages
  • excellent grammar and writing skills (for translation)
  • some knowledge of medical and legal terminology (if you are translating or interpreting for legal clients and medical patients)
  • computer skills, especially document formatting (for translators)

Get qualified

Bilingual skills are the most important qualification for an interpreter or translator. You probably already have those. There are other credentials you will need for certain jobs.


A degree in English or your other language will help you get translating and interpreting jobs for large organizations. Also, you can take some courses specifically about translating and interpretation. See the American Translators Association list of approved translation and interpretation schools. These courses do not certify you, but they do train in skills you will need to be good at your job.


You will need certification to work as an interpreter or translator in government, in law, or in healthcare.

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Experience is the best training for translators and interpreters. If you live in a neighborhood with many newcomers, you will find many ways to get experience translating and interpreting. You can volunteer wherever you are needed.

  • Ask your local school if they need help interpreting for parents or translating schoolwork for students.
  • Your local healthcare center and hospital may need volunteers to help patients understand instructions and documents.
  • You can help at newcomer centers and other community organizations.
  • Offer your services to Tarjimly – an on-demand translation service for refugees.