How to Become an Interpreter

Want a rewarding career? This might be right up your alley.

Illustration of a woman wearing a headset and working on a laptop with a speech bubble containing various country flags

Interpreters, much like translators, are responsible for helping people overcome linguistic barriers and communicate effectively. They do that by using their advanced knowledge of both languages to transfer speech orally. However, to pursue this career path, you’ll need a lot more than just fluency in two languages. In fact, interpreting is one of the most demanding professions out there as it requires deep concentration levels as well as one’s ability to remain impartial and unbiased throughout the process.

Becoming an interpreter can be a very exciting career path. Read our guide below to find out more about what this profession entails and what you need to do to become one.

1. Research the Profession

To better understand this career path, you need to learn more about it. Sure, fluency in two languages is the main prerequisite for becoming an interpreter, but that’s not all it takes. In fact, in order to be a good interpreter, you not only need to be fluent in two languages at a near native level but you also have experienced both cultures as speech is loaded with sociocultural context and, unless you know both cultures, you won’t be able to interpret and retain meaning.

Job Description

In a nutshell, interpreters are responsible for converting speech from one language to another. This task comes with its fair share of challenges as language is a complicated thing, and trying to transfer it across languages and cultures often means losing some of the meaning conveyed by the source party. Interpreters are there to ensure that that loss is retained to a minimum and that the two parties trying to communicate can do so effectively.

As we’ve discussed earlier, language fluency is the bare minimum of the requirements. In order for an interpreter to become successful, they also need to be able to remain unbiased and to ensure that their priority is to transfer exactly what the source party intends to convey. Being able to understand the culture norms of each party is also necessary as it allows interpreters to reduce misunderstandings and convey speech exactly as it was intended in the source language.

Apart from all of these, interpreting is also a very demanding profession as in order to interpret, one needs to be fully concentrated. This is especially true in simultaneous interpreting when the interpreter basically needs to transfer what is being said in real time.

Simultaneous interpretation is one of the four paths you’ll need to choose from if you plan on pursuing this career. More analytically, the four types of interpretation are:

  • Simultaneous Interpretation: SI is common in international conferences where attendees come from various linguistic backgrounds. Interpreters are responsible for transferring what the speaker is saying at, essentially, the same time it’s being said. This type of interpretation is very demanding as it requires extreme levels of concentration, and interpreters usually work in teams replacing one another every 30 minutes.
  • Consecutive Interpretation: CI is when the speaker pauses after each sentence or point for the interpreter to convey what s/he has said. This type of interpretation is more common in smaller meetings and it generally occurs when listeners speak the same language.
  • Liaison Interpretation: This is more common in PSI (public service interpreting) where interpreters need to ensure that foreign language speakers can communicate with public servants. This usually requires having the person repeat back what they have understood and, as such, is generally very time-consuming.
  • Sing Language Interpretation: Sign language interpretation can coexist with any of the three types of interpretation listed above. Interpreters may be required to either interpret source language to sign language and they may be also required to interpret from source sign language to target sign language. As such, it’s important to ensure that you are trained in more than just one sign language.

Skills Required

Interpreters require extremely high-levels of concentration and they also need to be excellent communicators. Being able to think on your feet and make decisions in a split second, meanwhile, is another necessary prerequisite for people in this profession.

Aspiring interpreters need to hone in their research skills, as conducting research in advance to each conference/meeting is essential. Speeches are usually very technical and include acronyms and jargon that the interpreter needs to know in advance in order to be able to effectively transfer what is being said.

Interpreters need to also be excellent listeners as meaning can only be conveyed through paying careful attention to what is being said. Furthermore, they need to be able to use logic and reason to make decisions and reach conclusions.


Interpretation as a field is very competitive and you are more likely to get a high paying job outside the UK.

Salaries vary depending on your experience, your language pair and, of course, the field you specialise in.

Medical interpreters, for example, tend to be very well paid as they need a high level of expertise to be able to interpret the high-level technical vocabulary that is usually used in medical conferences.

Most interpreters work on a freelance basis, charging hourly rates based on where they are located, their level of experience, the type of interpreting they do and the demand for their languages. On average, their rates range between £30 and £60 per hour. Bear in mind that most interpreters usually charge a minimum fee of a couple of hours’ work and expect their travel times and costs to also be taken care of by the client.

Staff interpreters for the European Commission start with a salary of €4,384 (£3,924) and after gaining some experience earn an average of €5,612 (£5,023).

The truth is that, unless you work in PSI interpretation, you are likely to be unable to have a stable income and, as such, many interpreters also do translation and copywriting work.

Working Hours

Interpretation is a career with very odd hours. Freelancers tend to be flexible, but as many conferences take place over weekends or in the evenings, interpreters are usually required to sacrifice a lot of their holiday time.

Interpreters who work for the police or hospitals may also be called in for emergencies.

2. Gain the Qualifications

Although not required, gaining an academic degree can significantly increase your employment opportunities and your earning potential, so I’d advise anyone interested in pursuing this career path to enrol to a university degree.

Bachelor’s Degrees

Essentially, there are two paths you can take.

One is to enrol to a course relevant to interpreting. Many universities offer degrees in translation and interpreting, for example, while a degree in languages can also benefit your career.

The other path you can pursue is to take up a degree in your field of specialisation. So, if court interpretation is something you’re interested in, for example, a Bachelor’s degree in law could help you become more specialised.

Master’s Degrees

Many young interpreters choose to pursue master’s degrees because they can offer vigorous training and can help hone in your skills. Most MA programmes are designed to equip students with the skills needed for a freelance career and you will also learn lots of interpreting practices (like how to keep an accessible vocabulary bank or take notes for SI) that will help you down the line.


According to official legislation by the UN and the European Commission, interpreters should only translate into their native language. That’s to ensure that tone of voice is transmitted effectively, as well as to avoid any errors. However, there’s a good chance that you’ll be required to translate into your second language as well, especially if your second language is rare.

3. Land Your First Job

The key to building a successful career as an interpreter is to gain experience. The more experienced and skilled you become, the easier it will be for you to get a job and increase your earning potential.

Getting started as a freelancer without any experience can be tricky, so look for internships or part-time jobs while at university. Starting out with an agency is always a good idea because it can help you gain the knowledge and experience needed to jumpstart your career.

It’s also important to start building your own network as this is, essentially, how you’ll find more jobs. Start talking with other interpreters and translators, and you’ll see that they won’t only have lots of inside information to share with you but will also think of you when they hear about jobs in your language pair.

The two most popular directories for jobs in interpreting are:

  • Aquarius, which is a platform that seeks to connect employers and translators/interpreters. It offers opportunities on lots of localisation projects.
  • ProZ which has extended from being the largest directory of professional translation services to being an online community. It also offers online courses which range from Trados training tutorials to Wordfast training.

Interpreters can also work for the police and the NHS, as well as a number of private businesses that require language services, so it’s always a good idea to also use popular job boards for your job search. Indeed, Monster and Reed, for example, always have dedicated sections for interpreters.

The European Union is also a great employer for interpreters as there are positions in all of its institutions for interpreters. Look for jobs in the European Commission, for example, the Court of Justice and the Parliament.

4. Develop Your Career

There is a lot of room for development in this field as the more experienced you become, you can take on bigger challenges.

Gaining membership to a professional body is not required, but it can be extremely beneficial to one’s career, so you should consider pursuing a path towards membership with any of these professional bodies:

  • International Association of Conference Interpreters (IIC) – an international non-profit organisation representing professional conference interpreters.
  • Institute of Translation & Interpreting (ITI) – the UK’s only dedicated association for translators and interpreters.
  • Chartered Institute of Linguistics (CIOL) – the leading UK-based body for language professionals.

Becoming an interpreter could mean an opportunity to participate in important events around the world and be privy to high-level conversations.

Do you think you’d be successful as an interpreter? Let me know in the comments section below.