*New! Check out this post, which has training exercises and audios for immigration court interpreters*

How to become a professional interpreter

I often meet people who are proficient in more than one language, and many of them are interested in interpreting professionally. They often have questions such as: How can I get started? Who would I work for? What kind of training and qualifications do I need? What should I charge? How good do I have to be at my languages?

Fortunately, there are clear and authoritative answers to all of these questions. To begin, here is a list of the basic qualifications accepted by the profession to be a community interpreter (scroll to the bottom of the page for the definition of  community interpreting and a list of other fields of interpretation), and how to fulfill them.

Please note that these are just the minimum qualifications for entry into the profession, and not the requirements to perform at a high level. There are other qualifications as well as skills that interpreters should pursue, such as higher education, interpretation-specific continuing education opportunities, relevant certifications, and specialized vocabulary acquisition, in order to enhance their ability to provide quality, ethics-driven interpretation services. That said, here are the basics. My source is The Community Interpreter, by Bancroft & Rubio-Fitzpatrick.
  • Be 18 years of age or older
  • Hold a high school diploma
  • Be fully literate in your working languages (the languages you interpret)
  • Pass an oral proficiency test
    • The minimum recommended proficiency level on the ACTFL for community interpreting is Advanced Mid, though I personally think Advanced High should really be the standard for doing the job comfortably. Note that for high stakes or complex interpreting, an interpreter should actually aim to have Superior in both working languages.
    • It is possible to schedule and take an online oral proficiency interview - computer (OPIc) from Profluent for $95.00. 
    • This is for BOTH an interpreter's working languages, where available. Many are surprised to hear they should be able to demonstrate proficiency through testing in their native language; however, the reality is that even natives may not have the breadth and depth of vocabulary necessary to practice as an interpreter. Industry best practice is to test in both.
  • Hold a certificate for at least a 40-hour interpreter training. This is not the same as a certification. Being trained does not mean you are certified. In the United States, certification is offered through programs administered by state governments, the federal government (for Spanish) and selected private professional organizations. That said, I am able to recommend the following training programs, though certainly there are others.
It is a significant commitment to get started as a professional interpreter. I often recommend that prospective interpreters explore the profession with online training and by reading up on ethics for interpreters to decide if the profession is right for them. Below is the list of resources that I recommend reviewing. It is possible to get through these in an afternoon, and together they provide a good overview of what it takes to interpret. 

Ethics self-study:
National Council for Interpreters in Healthcare (NCIHC) Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics (Healthcare and social services interpreters in the United States)
Healthcare Interpreting Network (HIN; Canada) ethics & standards (Community interpreting generally; appropriate for interpreters working in out-of-court legal services)

Skills self-study:
Youtube videos about interpreting protocols and practices:

For those working through interpreters to provide services:

Five tips for working with interpreters:

Self-study modules:
Community Interpreting

Finally, what is a community interpreter, as opposed to other types of interpreting you may have heard of?

Community interpreting is first and foremost about access to services. If a limited English proficient individual (LEP, in the parlance) requires an interpreter to access any public service, such as education, medical services, or government agency services, the interpreter that assists him or her is working as a community interpreter. Because the norms and standards for community interpreters differ in a some ways from those for interpreters providing services other fields (such as in diplomatic, business, tourism, or military environments, to name a few), it is worthwhile for prospective community interpreters to look into resources and guides specific to this field before they start work.

Other fields of interpreting to explore

Here is a non-exhaustive list of other recognized specialized fields of interpreting, each with their own set of expectations, qualifications, and skillsets. The standards for different fields of often overlap, and most interpreters at some point end up working in more than one sector during their careers. However, it is important to check what the standards and expectations are for a given field of interpreting before accepting work in that field.

  • Court
  • Legal (broadly defined as all types of legal work outside of court)
  • Medical (part of community interpreting, but as the most highly professionalized sector of community interpreting, it deserves special mention and attention)
  • Conference
  • Diplomatic
  • Law enforcement
  • Military
  • Entertainment/liaison
  • Business