Understanding another person's meaning isn't always easy. It's even harder when you don't speak the same language. Translators and interpreters eliminate that barrier to communication by reading or listening to what's said in one language and then converting those words to another language. Translators work with written text, speaking or writing a translation. Interpreters deal in spoken words, helping people of different languages hold conversations or negotiations.
You can earn a general-purpose certification through the American Translators Association, an organization of translators and interpreters. There are several paths to eligibility. If you already hold a similar certification from an international body, you're eligible to take the ATA's exam. You're also eligible to take the exam if you have a bachelor's degree and two years' work experience, or if you don't have a bachelor's degree but do have five years' experience. The exams test your fluency in both English and one other language. Once you've earned your first certification, you're automatically eligible to test for and be certified in any other language. You have to be an ATA member to earn certification.
If you have a bachelor's degree and are skilled in sign language, you can test for certification as an interpreter. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf accepts candidates with a bachelor's degree or higher, or you can apply using work experience and continuing education courses as your qualifications. You'll be evaluated by both an interview and a written exam. In addition to general certification, RID offers specialized certifications for legal and educational interpreters.
Working as a court interpreter is challenging because in the legal world, words have very precise meanings. Aside from fluency in each language, you must have a strong understanding of the legal process and legal terminology. Federal courts recognize their own certifications in Spanish, Navajo and Haitian Creole, though Spanish is the only one given regularly. You must pass written and oral exams, which are offered in alternating years. States have the option of operating their own certification programs or of recognizing certifications from other organizations such as the ATA or the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.
Doctors and other caregivers rely on patients to provide their "informed consent" to proposed treatments and procedures. A doctor who can't communicate with a patient but goes ahead with treatment anyway is on shaky legal and ethical ground. The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters offers certification for candidates who have completed an approved medical interpreter's course of at least 40 hours, can demonstrate fluency in both languages and have at least one year of work experience. Candidates also must pass both a written and an oral examination.
Translators work with documents as simple as a single-page instruction sheet or as complex as a piece of legislation or a work of literature. Interpreting can be more difficult than translation because it takes place in real time. Sometimes you'll be able to provide an interpretation while the original speaker pauses, but in other situations you might have to listen and speak simultaneously. Demand for interpreters and translators is high, and if you're fluent in Spanish or another in-demand language, you will have little difficulty finding work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 42 percent job growth for interpreters by 2020, three times the average for other occupations.
- American Translators Association: ATA Certification Program
- American Translators Association: ATA Certification Program Eligibility Requirements
- Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf: RID Certification Programs
- Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf: NIC (National Interpreter Certification)
- U.S. Courts: Federal Courts - Three Categories of Interpreters
- National Center for State Courts: Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination for Spanish/English Examinee Handbook
- National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators: National Judiciary Interpreter and Translator Certification
- The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters: Certification Exams Prerequisites
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Interpreters and Translators
- Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images