How to become a sign language interpreter

So you saw Lydia Callis interpreting for Mayor Bloomberg or you saw Marlee Matlin’s interpreter, Jack Jason, on Dancing with the Stars and you thought to yourself, “I wanna do that!” What’s next? Here’s what it takes to become an interpreter.

  1. Develop fluency in your local sign language and Deaf culture: That’s right – sign language is not universal. You will have to learn your country’s or region’s sign language. If you’re in the United States, much of Canada, and some parts of Latin America and Africa, that will some dialect of American Sign Language. If you’re in the U.K. that will be BSL, QLS in Quebec, and so on. Developing fluency will require a mix of college-level course work and community interaction.
  2. Develop explicit knowledge of your dominant language and dominant culture: Yes, you may have spoken English since birth, but that doesn’t mean you are knowledgeable about its morphology, syntax, and pragmatics. Since you are using your dominant language at least half the time, you need to be as knowledgeable about it as you are about sign language.
  3. Develop interpreting skills and knowledge: Being bilingual isn’t enough. Interpreting is a whole other skill set. You need to be able to recognize how language works in theory and in practice, and be able to think quickly in two languages. This, too, will involve college coursework, skill development, and on-the-job training.
  4. Attend and Graduate from an Interpreter Training Program: In the U.S. and many parts of Europe, steps #1, #2, and #3 are combined in what we call an ITP – interpreter training program. This is the most direct path to becoming an interpreter, but I mention it separately to let you know what you should be getting out of your ITP. It’s not enough to get a piece of paper – you should take charge of your education and make sure you get what you need.
  5. Get Qualified: Just because you have an interpreting degree in your back pocket, doesn’t mean your actually good at what you do. Interpreting is largely skill-based, which means if you can’t do it, you can’t do it. Qualified means a lot of things to lots of people, but let me put it like this: being qualified means being able to do the job someone hires you to do. You might be a great medical interpreter because you used to work in a hospital, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to interpret a three-day workshop on government accounting procedures. Getting qualified means attending advanced workshops, developing industry-specific knowledge (accounting terminology, for instance), and teaming with more experienced interpreters.
  6. Get Certified: Certification is important, as well. Many countries have an interpreting organization or government agency that has developed a standardized test for certifying interpreters. Think of it like the ASE certification for mechanics: it tests your basic, general knowledge and skills of your field and is nationally recognized. In the U.S., the test is administered by RID (the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf) and involves a written portion and performance portion, both of which you must pass before getting certified. Do this sooner rather than later. There are also a few states with state-led certification, and there is an education-specific certification.
  7. Get Work: I strongly advise against going it 100% alone. Find an agency to work with, get a full-time position (rare, I know), or work in a school system. This will keep you connected to the profession and give you a network of colleagues for support. Of course, always keep your options open. Learn how to drum up work on your own without undercutting other interpreters, and learn how to manage taxes and contracts as a freelance interpreter.
  8. Grow. Grow. Grow: Let’s be honest, no one respects a colleague who tries to do the bare minimum. This is especially true in the language services field where language, the economy, and the social groups we work with are changing all the time. Workshops are a great way to stay on top of the game. But I actually believe that peer study groups, college coursework in closely-related fields, and volunteering are better ways to develop as a professional. — Following blogs like this one is a good way to keep abreast of new ideas, too. 🙂

So that’s what it takes to become an interpreter. This isn’t much different than a lot of professions. We could be talking about becoming a lawyer, a welder, a teacher – lots of things – and it would easily map onto this list. I love interpreting and I’m sure if you go down this path, you will, too.


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