How many of the world's 7,000+ languages can you speak?
If you are like roughly 80 percent of Americans, the answer is only one - English. However, those who can speak multiple languages may find their skills put them in demand as interpreters or translators in fields such as business, health care, law enforcement and government.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, interpreters and translators represent the No. 15 spot on the list of occupations that will see the fastest growth from 2010 to 2020. Between those years, jobs in the field are expected to increase 42 percent, with qualified professionals not only needed to translate common languages but also to interpret American Sign Language and niche spoken languages.
While conventional wisdom may say that English will eventually become the main language of the world, it currently sits as only the third-most common language in terms of first-language speakers.
The nonprofit SIL International compiles data on language use and reports variations of Chinese are far and away the most common first-language spoken in the world. More individuals speak Chinese as their first language than Spanish and English combined, which take the No. 2 and 3 spots respectively. Translators and interpreters who know Chinese may find that they're a hot commodity in international relations and business.
In addition to making communication possible between individuals of different countries, interpreters and translators are also needed to help non-English speaking U.S. residents. While English is the principal language here in the U.S., 57 million residents spoke a different language in their homes as of 2009, according to a Census Bureau report [PDF], up nearly 150 percent from 1980. Of these, nearly 24 percent didn't speak English well or at all.
Spanish is the dominant language among those who speak something other than English at home and is expected to remain so until at least 2020, when the most recent projections end. Other languages expected to see growth include:
Becoming fluent in any of these languages could be a plus for those who want to provide professional translation or interpretation services.
Career and education options for interpreters and translators
Although similar, translators and interpreters provide different services. Jonathan Riedel, CEO of Forword Translations explains, "Interpretation is spoken, and translation is written."
Riedel notes government positions often call for interpreters while translation often involves business work. However, both skills may be used in a variety of settings, and interpreters and translators may work in the following specialties among others:
- Interpreting in health care: According to the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters, 80 percent of hospitals regularly encounter patients with limited English proficiency. The same is true for the 81 percent of internal medicine physicians and 84 percent of federally qualified health centers.
- Literary translation: Literary translators take works of literature and translate them into new languages. They may work with a literary agent or directly with a publisher.
- Interpreting for the deaf: Skilled in American Sign Language, interpreters for the deaf are expected to be particularly in high demand as the use of video relay services increases.
- Judiciary interpreters and translators: Judiciary interpreters may work in or out of the courtroom. It is essential that these professionals remain impartial, and their work can be a critical component of ensuring justice is served.
The road to becoming an interpreter or translator can take many different paths, but it is typically not enough to simply know another language. Interpreters must be able to understand cultural norms and expectations that can affect communication between languages.
Some interpreter positions may also require specialized knowledge. For example, the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care says health care interpreters are more than bilingual individuals. They must also adhere to a code of ethics, understand medical terminology and be able to translate simple instructions.
Riedel, who oversees a team of freelance translators, says native speakers may be able to use their experience to work as an interpreter, but translators generally need a college degree.
"There is a lot of book knowledge involved [in translation]," he says. "Fresh college graduates can often do better than a 30 year native speaker."
Depending on their career goals, students planning to work as an interpreter or translator might enroll in a foreign language degree program. Another option may be to enroll in a specialized education program such as those recognized by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.
As part of their education, students may also want to add a travel component.
"You really can't really be a solid translator without spending some time in the country," says Riedel.
Taking the next step
Once their education is complete, interpreters and translators may want to pursue voluntary certification. Currently, there is no universal standard for these professionals. However, credentialing programs are administered by the American Translators Association, National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters.
As for finding a job, Riedel suggests looking for volunteer or internship opportunities to gain the experience needed to excel in the field.
"Take any informal opportunities you can," he advises. "Non-profits are always looking for speakers of other languages."
With the right combination of education and skill, interpreters and translators should be able to find plenty of openings in one the fastest-growing occupations in the nation.
"FAQs for Translators and Interpreters," National Council on Interpreting in Health Care:http://www.ncihc.org/faq-for-translators-and-interpreters
Interpreters and Translators, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 26, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Media-and-Communication/Interpreters-and-translators.htm#tab-1
"Certification & Education Overview,"Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, http://www.rid.org/bachelor/education/overview/index.cfm?
"Get Certified," The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpretersmhttp://www.certifiedmedicalinterpreters.org/getcertified
"Frequently Asked Questions About Court and Legal Interpreting and Translating," National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators, http://www.najit.org/certification/faq.php#judiciary
"Fact Sheet," Certification Commission for Healthcare, Interpreters, http://www.healthcareinterpretercertification.org/news/fact-sheet.html
"How to get started as a literary translator,"American Literary Translators Association, http://www.utdallas.edu/alta/about/faqs
"Careers in Translation and Interpreting," American Translators Association,http://www.atanet.org/careers/index.php
"Career FAQs," Discover Interpreting, http://www.discoverinterpreting.com/?career_FAQ
"Summary by language," SIL International, Enthologue, http://www.ethnologue.com/statistics/size
"America's Foreign Language Deficit," Forbes, David Skorton and Glenn Altschuler, August 27, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/collegeprose/2012/08/27/americas-foreign-language-deficit/
"Language Projections: 2010 to 2020,"Hyon B. Shin and Jennifer Ortman,Presented at the 18th Federal Forecasters Conference, Washington, D.C., April 21, 2011,http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/language/data/acs/
Interview with Jonathan Riedel, CEO of Forword Translations
Fastest Growing Occupations, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012, http://bls.gov/ooh/fastest-growing.htm