Interpreter/Translator  What They Do

Just the Facts

Interpreters and Translators Career Video

Insider Info

dotGood translating skills are required to be either a translator or an interpreter. Many people in this field do both jobs, although they may choose to specialize:

  • Translators translate written documents from one language into their mother tongue. These written documents can be anything from legal and government documents to literature and poetry.
  • Interpreters listen to people speaking in one language and try to repeat exactly what they say in another language. Interpreters may work for governments, international businesses and international agencies like the United Nations.

dotTranslators work on their own, using dictionaries and language guides to help them produce a document in another language. Interpreters work with people, allowing people who speak different languages to communicate right on the spot.

dotIt can be a stressful job. Interpreters have to think on their feet because they have to provide immediate translation of someone's words. This can be difficult when someone uses a word or concept that has no equivalent in another language.

"[For example,] the welfare system is something difficult to translate because it either doesn't exist in other languages or it means something completely different," says Sylvia Nagy. She is an interpreter from Washington.

"It's very stressful because there's always a chance you're going to hear a word you don't know, especially in technical translations. You can't just pick up a dictionary," says Katarzyna Gonnerman. She is a translator and interpreter of Polish from Minneapolis.

dotWhile translation is a little less stressful than interpreting, it also presents difficulties.

"Translation is a very time-consuming occupation and it can be frustrating sometimes," says Hilma Espinoza. Espinoza is a Spanish translator and interpreter from New Mexico who has done work translating banking terminology.

"Even with 20 years [of] experience, I've found myself completely helpless and have had to turn to friends in different states until I'm satisfied with my work."

dotMany translators and interpreters enjoy their work because it gives them the opportunity to meet and talk to people from all over the world.

"I've really enjoyed it because it's allowed me to meet a lot of interesting people and experience other cultures," says Nagy. She speaks Hungarian, Spanish, English, French, Italian and Portuguese.

dotTo work in these professions, you'll need more than the ability to speak two languages. That's a start, but there's a lot more involved.

"Interpreting and translation are skills that have to be learned, like anything else. It's not something you're born with," says Gonnerman.

dotIn addition to learning the technical skills of interpreting and translation, it's important to be familiar not only with a country's language, but also its culture.

"In order to do a good job, you have to be familiar with a country's culture. And the best way to do this is to spend as much time there as possible. Cultural signals must be understood," says Nagy. She has spent time living in Europe, North Africa, Venezuela and North America.

dotPhysical requirements to be a translator are minimal. But an interpreter must be mobile.

dotOnce you've learned another language, you'll need to maintain it. That's because you have to keep up with current expressions and vocabulary. You'll have to read newspapers in your second language and converse with other people who speak that language.

"Don't assume you know everything because you're fluent. I've made this mistake before," says Gonnerman.

dotMany translators and interpreters work as freelancers. They set up a business and accept contracts from various people and agencies. This gives them a lot of freedom, but freelancers rarely make as much money as translators and interpreters who are employed full time.

Ann Macfarlane is president of the American Translators Association. She says it is easier to find work independently than it is to find work with an employer.

She adds, however, that translators have to be skilled. While there's lots of opportunity out there, only the best translators will beat the competition from foreign countries with equally skilled translators.

"You have to be at a really high level," says Macfarlane. "It's harder for Americans to get to that level because we don't teach language as seriously as foreign countries do."

Just the Facts

Want a quick overview of what this career is about?Check out Just the Facts for simple lists of characteristics.

At a Glance

Write and speak foreign languages

  • The military and courts offer good opportunities
  • A large percentage of people in this field are freelancers
  • Strong language skills are a must