Best Careers 2011: Interpreter/Translator

As one of the 50 Best Careers of 2011, this should have strong growth over the next decade

By Alexis Grant

Posted: December 6, 2010

The rundown:

Pharmaceutical inserts, instruction manuals, and textbooks—these are just a few of the documents that translators rework in English or other languages. At courthouses around the country and conferences throughout the world, interpreters help people of different tongues communicate. While both interpreters and translators convert one language into another, interpreters work with the spoken word, and translators the written word. But choosing this occupation means learning more than a foreign language; you also must thoroughly understand the subject you’re communicating about. You’ll relay not only words, but complicated concepts and ideas, as well as the cultural subtleties that accompany them.

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Interpreters and translators specialize in a variety of fields, including medical, judiciary, literary, or sign-language. About a quarter are self-employed, and many translators work from home.

[See a list of The 50 Best Careers of 2011.]

The outlook:

Excellent, although prospects vary by language and topical specialty. Employment of interpreters and translators is projected to increase 22 percent between 2008 and 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Labor Department. Demand is driven by an increasingly global economy, as well as an increasingly large population of non-English speakers in the United States.

Interpreters and translators held more than 50,900 jobs in 2008—although the actual number is likely much higher because many people in this field work sporadically. Urban areas, especially Washington, D.C., New York, and cities in California, provide the most employment possibilities, especially for interpreters. Interpreters and translators of Spanish should have solid opportunities because of expected increases in the Hispanic population in the United States, and demand is also expected to be strong for interpreters and translators specializing in healthcare and law. Interpreters for the deaf should continue to have favorable employment prospects because of low supply, while conference interpreters and literary translators can expect competition because of the small number of jobs in these specialties.

Other languages in demand include Asian languages—Chinese, Korean, and Japanese—as well as Arabic, Farsi, and indigenous African languages. So, too, are European languages like French, Italian, and German.


Salary varies greatly depending on language and subject matter. Interpreters and translators who speak languages that are in high demand or underrepresented in the field often have higher earnings, as do those who communicate about complicated topics. In 2009, the median annual salary was $40,860, and the median hourly wage, $19.65. Interpreters and translators in the bottom 10 percent earned less than $22,810, while those in the top 10 percent earned more than $74,150.

Upward mobility:

Once you’ve gained enough experience, you can transition to a more difficult or prestigious assignment—like conference interpreter—or start a translation agency.

Activity level:

Low. Most translation work is done on a computer, so many translators work from home or at an office. Interpreters work in a wider variety of settings, such as schools, hospitals, courtrooms, and conference centers, and may travel for the job.

[See a list of the best creative and service careers.]

Stress level:

Moderate. Expect to work under pressure of deadlines and tight schedules. Since many interpreters and translators work on a freelance basis, your schedule may vary, with weeks of limited work interspersed with weeks of long hours.

Education and preparation:

You’ll need to be fluent in at least two languages (including your native tongue). Though some interpreters and translators grow up in a bilingual home, it’s not necessary. Some interpreters and translators need a bachelor’s degree to find work, while others complete job-specific training programs. Formal programs are available at colleges nationwide and through non-university training programs and conferences. Federal courts require certification for interpreters of certain languages, as do state and municipals courts.

Interpreters and translators benefit from strong research and analytical skills, as well as a reliable memory.

Real advice from real people about landing a job as an interpreter or translator:

Interpreters and translators should master three skills: communicating in a foreign language, writing in their native language, and developing expertise in a field like law, engineering or physics—whatever topic you want to translate. You’ll likely need a degree in that field to understand it well enough to talk or write about it, which means you should expect to have a dual major in college or at least a major and minor: one in the foreign language, the other in your specialty.

Spending time abroad is valuable for aspiring translators. “Master your own language. You have to be a brilliant writer in English … You translate difficult things, like pharmaceutical inserts and physics textbooks and emergency medical procedures. So that requires you develop expertise in a technical field … Consider [in-demand] languages like Chinese and Arabic and Russian, and Urdu or Pashto if [you’re] courageous. Or Korean … [But] it’s really more important to find a language you’re passionate about.” —Kevin Hendzel, spokesman for the American Translators Association