Becoming an Interpreter

  • March 7, 2013

I’m asked on a regular basis how I got into interpreting or how someone can get started themselves. As long as I’m not interpreting when asked, I’m more than happy to give a quick answer and point people in the right direction. Here, I can get into more detail.

To Do List 1. Become sign language interpreter 2. Pick up milk 3. Call moversMy interest in interpreting began when I was a kid. A friend of the family fostered deaf children and was in an interpreter training program (ITP). I’d always been good with languages, and I have a very strong drive to serve. This made interpreting a good fit. It’s important to note that I’m of a fairly new breed of interpreters. I have no family relation to the Deaf community or Deaf culture. In the past, many interpreters were directly related to someone in the community or culture. Many of my peers now will tell you that they saw an interpreter working in a class they took, or at their church and were hooked.

So you want to be an interpreter? What does that look like in your head? Take a moment to consider your motivation to work in this area. Are you picturing yourself as Lydia Callis at the podium with Mayor Bloomberg? As a savior to a weak and disadvantaged population? Most of us wouldn’t mind a little fame or gratitude, but this is not the field to find those things. This is the field in which you will use considerable talent and years of training to facilitate the ordering of pizzas, the learning of fractions, the minutia of a mortgage closing and all of the lyrics to Bon Jovi, “Slippery When Wet.” It’s not all podiums and cameras. This is the business of small moments.

If you’re still on board, here’s a general plan:

College ITP

You need to go to college. Period. In order to become certified by RID, you need a bachelor’s degree at least although this doesn’t have to be a degree in interpretation. For someone who is not fluent in ASL and has no experience in interpreting, an ITP or IPP is where you can work on these skills. While some only offer associate’s degrees, there are numerous programs all over the country and they’re easy to Google. As you begin taking the prerequisite ASL classes, it’s my opinion that these courses should be taught by NATIVE SIGNERS. If a deaf instructor is not available in your area, look for an instructor who is a CODA (child of deaf adults) or someone who has a similar linguistic influence.


If you don’t have one already, develop a connection with the community you plan on serving. You can do this through your local deaf chats (easy to Google), social media, religious institutions (deaf ministries), etc. If the idea of showing up at a social event without knowing anyone is daunting, imagine showing up at an interpreting assignment and having a Deaf consumer ask you about your local deaf friends. Imagine explaining that you have no connection to deafness beyond this appointment… which you’re being paid for. Awkward, yes? If you’re still wary of venturing out, bear in mind that your receptive and expressive signing skills will skyrocket in social settings.

Finding Work

Let’s say you’ve made it out of your ITP alive and you’re ready to get out there and start interpreting. Great! The first thing to do is find a job that is not interpreting. While you’re preparing your brand new interpreting resume, find a part time job. Find a part time job that will allow you to pay your bills (your student loan repayment is looming), and not do something you’ll regret. Regret? When rent is due, accepting or declining a job has a lot less to do with skill and background knowledge and lot more to do with billable hours. Don’t put yourself in a position that forces you to rationalize unethical decisions. If it makes you feel better, picture me as a bright eyed new graduate scooping dog poop, painting apartments, ringing up Pabst Blue Ribbon and also interpreting. I managed my apartment building and cashiered at a Capitol Hill liquor store as I began my interpreting career. This is what allowed me to turn down assignments when needed. It’s not forever and you certainly don’t have to do what I did (that was a lot of dog poop), but you need a cushion.


As this field matures, we lean more and more to measuring and standardizing our work. Depending on your location, you may or may not be able to work without national certification. Certification levels for educational interpreters, working in K-12 settings, vary from state to state. It’s imperative that you know where you’re allowed to work in your state. Even when our consumers don’t know the requirements for certification, we have to. They may even try to convince you that an appointment isn’t that complex, but that won’t help you when something goes wrong and you’re being held accountable. An ITP will give you a good working knowledge in this area, but you’ll have to stay abreast of new developments throughout your career.

Record Keeping

As an interpreter, you need to be prepared to keep track of yourself. Your degrees, your certifications, your various authorizations, your shots (I’m not kidding), proof of continuing education and more. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but you’ll need a system to maintain all of this information. A simple system that makes sense to you and that you’re comfortable using is best. Almost any interpreting position will require you to track your time on the job, whether you’re working in an elementary classroom or full time freelancing. Again, keep this system as simple as possible. A basic spreadsheet should suffice for most interpreters.

Think about why you want to do this. Make a plan. Find a school. Maintain your ethics. Work towards certification. Keep good records.

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