Education and Training Requirements

High School

If you are interested in becoming an interpreter, you should take a variety of English courses, because most interpreting work is from a foreign language into English. The study of one or more foreign languages is vital. If you are interested in becoming proficient in one or more of the Romance languages, such as Italian, French, or Spanish, basic courses in Latin will be valuable.

While you should devote as much time as possible to the study of at least one foreign language, other helpful courses include speech, business, cultural studies, humanities, world history, geography, and political science. In fact, any course that emphasizes the written and/or spoken word will be valuable to aspiring interpreters. In addition, knowledge of a particular subject matter in which you may have interest, such as health, law, or science, will give you a professional edge if you want to specialize. 

Postsecondary Training

Because interpreters need to be proficient in grammar, have an excellent vocabulary in the chosen language, and have sound knowledge in a wide variety of subjects, employers generally require that applicants have at least a bachelor's degree. Scientific and professional interpreters are best qualified if they have graduate degrees. Many government or high-level positions require a master's degree.

In addition to language and field-specialty skills, you should take college courses that will allow you to develop effective techniques in public speaking. Courses such as speech and debate will improve your diction and confidence as a public speaker.

Hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States offer degrees in languages. In addition, educational institutions now provide programs and degrees specialized for interpreting. Georgetown University (https://linguistics.georgetown.edu) offers both undergraduate and graduate programs in linguistics. Graduate degrees in interpretation and translation may be earned at the University of California at Santa Barbara (https://www.ucsb.edu), University of Puerto Rico (https://www.upr.edu), and Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (https://www.middlebury.edu/institute/). Many of these programs include both general and specialized courses, such as medical interpretation.

Academic programs for the training of interpreters can be found in Europe as well. The University of Geneva’s Faculty of Translation and Interpreting (https://www.unige.ch/fti/en/) is highly regarded among professionals in the field. 

Other Education or Training

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators offers continuing education opportunities at its annual conference. Topics include how to use social media, marketing and branding, and advanced language skills. Other organizations that provide webinars, workshops, conference seminars and other learning opportunities include the International Medical Interpreters Association, National Council on Interpreting in Health Care, and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Contact these organizations for more information.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

Many employers prefer to hire certified applicants. The U.S. Federal Court system has its own certification examinations for Spanish, Navajo, and Haitian Creole. This certification is provided by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. 

State and local courts often have their own specific certification requirements. The National Center for State Courts offers oral certification exams for the following foreign languages: Arabic, Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian, Cantonese, French, Haitian Creole, Hmong, Ilocano, Khmer, Korean, Laotian, Mandarin, Marshallese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Turkish, and Vietnamese.

Interpreters for the deaf who pass an examination may qualify for either comprehensive or legal certification by the National Association of the Deaf and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

The U.S. Department of State has a three-test requirement for interpreters. These include conference-level interpreting (candidates may be tested in simultaneous and/or consecutive interpretation), seminar interpreting (candidates must be able to perform simultaneous interpretation at a basic skill level which requires a less formal vocabulary than that of the conference interpreter), and liaison interpreting (candidates must be able to interpret short passages or phrases at a time in a consecutive sequence). Applicants must have several years of foreign language practice, advanced education in the language (preferably abroad), and be fluent in vocabulary for a very broad range of subjects.

The International Association of Conference Interpreters provides certifications for its members, and the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters offers the certified healthcare interpreter certification to applicants who have at least 40 hours of healthcare interpreter training (academic or non-academic program) and linguistic proficiency in English and the primary language for which they are seeking a credential. The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters also provides certification. 

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

Most employers, especially government branches or those with highly visible interpreter needs, look for workers with at least one to two years of experience, some many more. The employer may also be looking for more than just interpreting experience. For example, companies that hire interpreters in their customer service departments will also want to hire workers who have office/customer service experience. Interpreters in the health care setting will need to have experience working in the health care field. In general, the more responsibility associated with a particular job, the more experience that will be required.

Interpreters should be able to speak at least two languages fluently, without strong accents. 

Interpreters must have good hearing, a sharp mind, and a strong, clear, and pleasant voice. They must be able to be precise and quick in their translation. In addition to being flexible and versatile in their work, both interpreters and translators should have self-discipline and patience. Above all, they should have an interest in and love of language.

Interpreters must be honest and trustworthy, observing any existing codes of confidentiality at all times. The ethical code of interpreters is a rigid one. They must hold private proceedings in strict confidence. Ethics also demands that interpreters not distort the meaning of the sentences that are spoken or written. No matter how much they may agree or disagree with the speaker or writer, interpreters must be objective in their work. In addition, information they obtain in the process of interpretation must never be passed along to unauthorized people or groups.

The U.S. Department of Labor lists several other skills and traits that are either required or beneficial to people that have an interest in working in this field. These include concentration (interpreters sometimes have to be able to focus on one person speaking when there may be several others speaking at the same time), cultural sensitivity, dexterity, and excellent writing, listening, and speaking skills. Freelance or self-employed interpreters must also have very good business and marketing skills.