If you have a passion for language, there are many paths your future career might take. Many people who love language may 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 and where interpreters typically work? Explore this career guide and then begin planning your own career pathway toward becoming a translator.
An Overview of Translation and Interpretation Careers
It’s often thought that translators and interpreters must provide an exact translation of words from one language into another. Yet, the work is more nuanced than that, as many words and concepts do not translate literally into other languages. That’s why interpreters and translators must not only have strong language skills, but also cultural awareness.
For example, consider the following idioms:
- “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
- “He wore his heart on his sleeve.”
- “It rubbed me the wrong way.”
- “Let your hair down.”
Each of these idioms has a hidden meaning. It is the job of a translator or interpreter to translate the meaning of the words, rather than their literal interpretations.
Cultural competencies are particularly important for translation careers in healthcare. For instance, in some cultures, it is customary for people to automatically accept the treatment recommendations of a healthcare professional without asking any questions. A skillful, culturally competent interpreter will understand this and will advise the healthcare professional accordingly.
Where 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 officials from different countries. Although there are other career possibilities, the U.S. State Department is indeed a major employer of interpreters and translators.
Here is a look at some ways interpreters assist with the day-to-day affairs of the 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 government minister
- A U.S. delegation’s trade negotiations with another country
- Federal law enforcement agencies’ joint investigations with law enforcement in other countries
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 need for medical interpreters (interpreters who specialize in interpreting medical terminology) at government-run institutions or hospitals.
What Is the Difference Between a Government Interpreter and a Translator?
Are you thinking of becoming a translator or an interpreter, but you’re not quite sure what the difference is? 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 pursue translator or interpreter careers, it can be helpful to evaluate the typical work environment. A translator may 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 may be able to work remotely by providing language support over the phone or a web-based platform.
How To Become an Interpreter With an Undergraduate Language Degree
You should plan to major in the language you wish to translate or interpret, such as Spanish.
You will need to be 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 speak to each other only in your second language during group meetings. Practicing outside of class can also help you pursue 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
- 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 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 options for future government interpreters.
Study Abroad Opportunities for Language 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 may gain an immersive experience in your second language and acquire firsthand cultural knowledge. If you are thinking about participating in a study abroad program, talk to an advisor at your school about it as soon as possible.
Should You Pursue a Graduate-Level Language Degree?
The process of how to become an interpreter does not require a graduate degree. 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 strong competition for the particular government job you want and you want to stand apart from the other applicants.
Acquiring an Entry-Level Job as an Interpreter
If you 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) agency.
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 2022, the Office of Language Services had planned on hiring about 1,000 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 Needed?
The need 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 20% from 2021 to 2031, much faster than average. This rate of growth indicates that employers expect to hire about 9,200 new professionals each year through 2031.2
Careers in Translation and Interpretation: Exploring Your Options
It can be difficult to choose between a career in interpretation and a career in translation. One way to determine which option is best for you is to consider each profession’s typical work environment.
Because interpreters work with spoken language, they must often physically accompany their clients. For example, they may attend conferences, hearings, medical appointments and corporate meetings. Some interpretation work can be done remotely via teleconferencing, but most interpreters should expect to perform in-person work.
By contrast, translators work with written language. Because of this, they most often work in an office setting, which may be a home office or a corporate office. The pace of the work can be less hectic for translators than for interpreters, although translators sometimes face tight deadlines. Within the translation and interpretation professions, there are many specific career paths to consider, including the following:
United Nations Language Careers
The United Nations (UN) is a highly prestigious intergovernmental organization. It hires both interpreters and translators to facilitate international relations.
Interpreters provide real-time interpretation during meetings of world leaders and their representatives. Translators convert documents, including reports and statements, into various languages. If you aspire to work for this prestigious organization, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of world history, international relations and current affairs.
Marketing and Advertising Careers
The marketing and advertising industry drives the growth of all other industries. It is the backbone of capitalism and the fuel that fires the success of companies ranging from small start-ups to international corporations. Despite the importance of this work, many copywriters are fluent in only one language.
Businesses must appeal to a broad audience, including demographic groups that speak languages other than English. This is particularly important for companies that wish to advertise their products or services in other countries. Before a marketing campaign can be launched in a foreign language, it requires the attention of an interpreter or translator.
Interpreters can convert TV and radio commercials into another language, and translators can do the same for written copy. In this industry, cultural competencies are particularly important. Not all copywriters are keenly familiar with cultural differences, so translators and interpreters may need to adjust the language so that it is more appealing and easier for the target demographic to understand.
Healthcare Language Careers
Interpreters and translators are important in the healthcare field because it is vital that patients fully understand what their healthcare providers are telling them. Hospitals, clinics and other healthcare facilities contract with interpretation and translation firms to facilitate clear communication.
If you aspire to become an interpreter or translator within the healthcare field, it will be helpful for you to take health-related classes in addition to your language courses. Medical terminology can be tricky, which is why healthcare interpretation is a highly specialized subfield. You will need a basic knowledge of human anatomy, medical conditions, diseases, medications and treatment procedures. It’s also essential to be able to communicate this information in a way that patients without a medical background can understand.
Healthcare interpreters and translators must have a strong commitment to maintaining professional ethics. They work with highly personal, sensitive information and it is essential that they respect patients’ right to confidentiality.
Judiciary and Law Enforcement Interpretation and Translation
Judiciary interpretation and translation is another highly specialized subfield. It extends to professionals who work in the following settings:
- Federal, state and local courtrooms
- Detention facilities, including juvenile facilities
- Law enforcement agencies
- Out-of-court settings pertaining to legal cases (e.g., legal depositions)
- Law firms
Police departments often employ bilingual officers or translators or interpreters who can communicate with suspects, victims and the community. These employees can interpret during questioning and arrest procedures, as well as during press conferences.
Translators may create documents that are sent out to the community, including media briefs. Legal or judicial interpreters and translators with specialized training work in courts or for lawyers. They interpret for plaintiffs and defendants at hearings, arraignments, depositions and trials. They must understand legal terminology and be able to explain complex issues fluently in all languages.
Judiciary interpreters and translators work on all types of cases, including civil, criminal and immigration cases. Interpreters provide real-time language services for limited-English-proficient (LEP) individuals who must attend legal proceedings. Judiciary interpreters also perform a variety of tasks behind the scenes, such as by facilitating meetings between attorneys and their LEP clients or police officers and LEP victims.
Similarly, judiciary translators make legal documents accessible to LEP individuals. They translate documents including trial exhibits, court transcripts, petitions, confession letters, probate documents, property titles and many more.
Due to the specialized nature of this career path, judiciary interpreters and translators may need to be certified. Various certification options exist, such as the certification exams administered by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). Similarly, the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination is available for language professionals who aspire to work in the federal court system.
Corporate Language Careers
There is an ongoing need for skilled translators and interpreters in the corporate world. Companies that do business overseas or that wish to acquire an international presence rely on the services of language professionals.
As a corporate interpreter, for example, you might accompany a businessperson on an overseas trip to a conference or meeting. Corporate translators are needed to translate documents ranging from meeting minutes to vendor contracts.
Cultural competencies are critical in this field, as not all corporate executives and managers understand the nuanced cultural differences of the countries they travel to. A corporate language professional can provide invaluable guidance in this area, preventing executives from making serious social blunders in the host country.
Sports Translator or Interpreter
The passion for sports transcends national borders, and the sports industry is truly multicultural. On any given Major League Baseball (MLB) team, for example, you may find players from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Japan, South Korea, Cuba and many other countries. These professional athletes rely on knowledgeable interpreters and translators to facilitate their work.
Many internationally born athletes who play on sports teams in the United States learn sufficient English to communicate with their teammates and coaches. However, even if an athlete speaks good English, they may not feel confident enough to speak English directly to members of the media. This is where sports interpreters can help during press conferences and interviews.
Just like other subfields in the language services profession, sports interpretation requires specialized knowledge. Each sport has its own distinct idioms, words and phrases. Aspiring sports interpreters should have a thorough understanding of one or more sports so that they can effectively preserve the meaning of the language.
Language Careers in the Tourism Industry
Translators may work on everything from a translation app or dictionary to tourism-related websites, advertisements and guidebooks. Similarly, interpreters can work for a range of organizations.
An interpreter may work for an international hotel or resort, providing real-time interpretation services to globetrotting guests. Interpreters may even work as tour guides, helping travelers to better understand and appreciate the various attractions at their destinations and facilitating communication between travelers and locals. Some interpreters may work for travel agencies, aiding travel agents as they finalize the details of an individual’s or group’s trip.
Language Careers in the Entertainment Industry
If you love all things Hollywood, consider a language services career in the entertainment industry. There are many options to choose from. For instance, you might become an interpreter or translator for a movie-making company shooting a film in a foreign country. Language services professionals are also needed to create subtitles for films. For instance, you might watch a Spanish-language movie and create its English subtitles, dubbing scripts, lyrics, captions and episode descriptions.
Translators may also help studios work on business deals and foreign rights distributions. Translators can be major assets when it comes to cultural sensitivity. They can advise on how to best sell movies to certain countries based on their knowledge of customs and beliefs.
The video gaming industry also offers possibilities for language services professionals. Video games are often launched internationally, and these require translators to provide the written text for the game and interpreters to convert spoken language into the target country’s language.
Language Careers in the Publishing Industry
The publishing industry is all about language, and there are plenty of opportunities for language services professionals. Translators are needed to translate books, articles, related websites and even academic journal articles.
They are tasked with keeping overall tone, style and meaning the same or similar to the author’s intentions when changing the language. Literary translators are often in close contact with authors so that the intended meaning of the work stays close to the original vision.
Writers may sometimes contract with interpreters to facilitate their research. For instance, an interpreter may help a writer interview an expert in another country to acquire factual material for a book or article.
There is a need for bilingual teachers at every grade level, and teachers who can communicate with families in their home languages can help make an impact. Besides teachers, educational institutions and organizations hire translators and interpreters for parent–teacher conferences and community communications, as well as to act as parent liaisons at school and district sites.
You can begin your path toward pursuing a 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 teaches students to build both language skills and cultural competencies. Learn more about joining our learning community by completing the form on this page.
1 Albarino, S. (2021, August 12). US State Department Plans to Work With 1,000 Contract Linguists in FY 2022. Slator. Retrieved June 6, 2023.
2 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is effective September 2022, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Interpreters and Translators, retrieved on July 7, 2023.
Approved by the assistant dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Aug. 3, 2023.
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.