How To Become an Interpreter for the Government

Female federal government professional interpreter working remotely

If you have a passion for language, there are many paths your future career might take. Many people who love language decide to become writers. However, another possibility is to become a professional interpreter by earning a language degree.

Various organizations, including governmental agencies, hire interpreters and translators to increase the accessibility of their services. Are you wondering how to become an interpreter for the government? Explore this in-depth career guide and then begin planning to earn your language degree.

Where Exactly Do Government Interpreters Work?

When you hear the words “government interpreter,” you probably imagine an interpreter translating the words of a diplomat at a United Nations conference or perhaps someone facilitating a conversation between two politicians of different countries. Although there are other career possibilities, the U.S. State Department is a major employer of interpreters and translators.

Here is a look at some ways interpreters assist with the day-to-day affairs of the U.S. federal government. An interpreter can facilitate:

  • Conversations between the U.S. president and foreign leaders
  • The U.S. secretary of state’s bilateral meetings with a foreign governmental minister
  • A U.S. delegation’s trade negotiations with another country
  • Federal law enforcement agencies’ joint investigations with law enforcement in other countries

The primary employer of interpreters at the federal level is the Office of Language Services, an agency of the U.S. State Department. This agency is responsible for providing language support to the White House and the State Department, although it may lend interpreters to other federal agencies upon request. Other interpreters may work directly for other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Not all government interpreters work for the federal government, however; there are many additional opportunities available at the state and local levels. For example, some government interpreters work in state or local courthouses or for state or local law enforcement agencies. There is also some demand for medical interpreters (interpreters who specialize in interpreting medical terminology) at government-run institutions such as hospitals within the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) network.

What Is the Difference Between a Government Interpreter and a Translator?

The terms “interpreter” and “translator” are often used interchangeably, but they are not identical. An interpreter is someone who translates spoken language, whereas a translator is someone who translates written language. Governmental agencies hire both types of professionals.

When considering whether you want to become an interpreter or translator, it can be helpful to evaluate the typical work environment. A translator will usually work in an office setting, with little to no travel required. An interpreter may need to travel with government officials to provide language support. However, many interpreters can work remotely by providing language support over the phone or a web-based platform.

How To Become an Interpreter for the Government: An Overview

Becoming perfectly fluent in a second language is a process that takes time, patience and persistence — and lots of practice! It is best to start working on your career goals as soon as you know that you want to be an interpreter. Students still in middle or high school should strive to take as many classes in their second language as possible.

If you are in middle school and will not be allowed to take a foreign language class until high school, talk to your guidance counselor. Some schools are flexible and may allow academically strong students to enroll in a foreign language class with older students. As you progress through high school, try to take an Advanced Placement (AP) class in your target language.

Additionally, practice your second language as much as possible outside of class. For example, if your school offers a Spanish club, join it. Consider becoming friends with classmates who speak your second language as their native language.

As you look ahead to college, find a school that offers a thorough language degree program. An undergraduate degree is likely all you will need to begin your career, although you may decide to pursue a master’s degree to add to your career qualifications. Some interpreters might also need to acquire professional certification. In addition, you may need a few years of work experience in an entry-level job before moving on to a higher-level interpreting position with the federal government.

How To Become an Interpreter With an Undergraduate Language Degree

After high school, the first step in the process of how to become an interpreter for the government is to earn your undergraduate language degree. You should major in the language you wish to interpret. Spanish is a popular option, as there is a significant need for Spanish language interpreters in the United States and around the world.

You will need to be perfectly fluent in your second language to become a professional interpreter for a government agency, so plan to devote yourself to your studies and surpass your class requirements. For example, in your spare time, you might stream movies and listen to songs in your second language. Your university library may also have a selection of foreign language texts that you can study.

Practice speaking in your second language as much as possible. It is a good idea to form a study group with other language majors and only speak to each other in your second language during group meetings. Practicing outside of class will also help you achieve excellent grades as you work through your curriculum, which may include the following topics.

  • Vocabulary, grammar and language structure
  • Conversational skills, common expressions and cultural competencies
  • The theories and methodologies of translation and interpretation
  • Professional terminology and language in cross-cultural workplaces
  • Translation and interpretation in the medical, legal and educational fields

As an undergraduate, you will have the opportunity to choose a few elective courses during your four years in school. It is wise to select electives that support your career ambitions.

For instance, if you think you might want to go into medical interpreting for VA hospitals, take classes in human anatomy and health sciences. If you are leaning toward interpreting in a courthouse setting, consider taking some criminal justice classes. Public policy, governmental studies, international relations and world history classes are also safe bets for future government interpreters.

Study Abroad Opportunities for Undergraduate Students

Most universities offer a wealth of resources designed to help students prepare for their future careers, acquire cultural competencies and broaden their global perspective. You may have the opportunity to apply for a study abroad program at an international host university. Although a study abroad program offers benefits for all students, it is particularly helpful for language degree students.

As a study abroad student, you would gain an immersive experience in your second language and acquire firsthand cultural knowledge. Not only would this improve your language proficiency but also having a study abroad semester on your resume could bolster your career prospects. If you are thinking about participating in a study abroad program, talk to an advisor at your school about it as soon as possible, even if you are still a freshman.

Should You Pursue a Graduate-Level Language Degree?

The process of how to become an interpreter does not require a graduate degree. You may not even need a master’s degree to apply for work at some of the top governmental institutions, such as the U.S. State Department or the United Nations. However, you might consider earning a master’s degree regardless.

First, if you graduate with a bachelor’s degree in your second language, but you believe you could benefit from some additional training, then you might consider continuing to a master’s program. Second, you might consider earning a master’s degree if there is fierce competition for the particular government job you want and you need to stand apart from the other applicants.

Before you decide, be aware that it takes an average of about two years to complete a master’s degree in a language.

Acquiring a Professional Certification

For some people, the process of how to become an interpreter for the government may include obtaining certification. There is no universal certification requirement for interpreters, and not every interpreter needs a certification. These certifications are more important for interpreters in the medical and legal fields, although some governmental agencies — particularly at the federal level — may require their general interpreters to be certified.

Several certification options are available. If you intend to become a medical interpreter for a government-run VA hospital, for example, you should pursue certification from one of these organizations:

  • Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters
  • National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters

On the other hand, if you intend to provide interpreting services in institutions such as courthouses, you should pursue a legal interpretation certification. One such certification is available through the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters.

If your career ambitions do not lie in the legal or medical interpreting niches, you should obtain a general interpreting/translation certification. This is available through the American Translators Association, which offers certification exams in more than a dozen language combinations (e.g., English to Spanish). Note that, even if you intend to become an interpreter, rather than a translator, you can earn this certification to improve your career prospects.

Earning a certification generally requires proving your language skills during a proctored exam. When you are selecting an appropriate certification for your career aspirations, be sure to check the organization’s renewal requirements. You may be required to periodically earn continuing education credits to renew your certification.

Acquiring an Entry-Level Job as an Interpreter

Even if you ultimately plan to work at a prestigious institution such as the United Nations or the U.S. State Department, you will likely need to gain some experience in the field first. You might start by exploring opportunities for government interpreters at the local and state levels. For example, you might gain a few years of experience working for a state police department before applying to work as an interpreter for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) department.

How To Become an Interpreter for the U.S. State Department

Working for the U.S. State Department is a common goal of aspiring government interpreters. You should know that there are two types of roles for interpreters working for the State Department via their Office of Language Services: in-house interpreter and freelance interpreter. As of 2018, the Office of Language Services had 32 in-house linguists on its payroll, along with more than 1,500 freelancers.1

The Office of Language Services typically extends one-year contracts to their freelance interpreters. Although some work may be performed remotely via phone or web-based platforms, the majority of freelancers who are awarded contracts live in the Washington, D.C. area (including Maryland and Virginia). Freelance opportunities at the Office of Language Services can be quite lucrative and may potentially lead to in-house positions.

Are Qualified Interpreters in High Demand?

The demand for well-qualified interpreters is currently quite robust and expected to remain strong for the foreseeable future. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job growth rate for interpreters and translators is expected to be about 24% from 2020 to 2030. This rate of growth is faster than the average for all professions, and it indicates that about 19,300 jobs will be added to the U.S. economy during that time period.2*

A few potential reasons may be driving the strong demand for interpreters, including increasing globalization. Additionally, as the U.S. population grows more diverse, more people will need the services of government and nongovernmental interpreters and translators. Job opportunities are looking particularly robust for Spanish language interpreters, as well as interpreters of indigenous languages from Mexico and Central America, including Mayan and Zapotec.

You can begin your path toward pursuing a rewarding career as a government interpreter by earning your language degree at Grand Canyon University. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Arts in Spanish degree program, which enables students to build both language skills and cultural competencies. Learn more about joining our dynamic learning community by clicking on the button to Request Info at the top of the screen.

*COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on 2020, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Interpreters and Translators

Retrieved from:

1Slator, Nearly 1,000 Freelance Translators and Interpreters to Get New US State Department Contract in August 2021.

2U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Interpreters and Translators in August 2021.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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