The ultimate guide to becoming a successful interpreter

30 Jan 2018

Becoming an interpreter can be an exciting, varied and rewarding career path. It offers the opportunity to meet new people, travel to many different places and use your skills to help people overcome linguistic barriers.

But becoming a successful interpreter is about much more than simply being fluent in two or more languages. Interpreting is one of the most demanding professions there is, requiring high levels of concentration as well as the ability to follow certain ethics and codes of conduct. There are several different skills and characteristics, as well as qualifications, that you will need to possess in order to make interpreting a career.

This guide will look at what you need in order to become a successful interpreter as well as how to go about making this a fulfilling career choice.

Getting Started as an Interpreter

You may have your heart set on becoming a successful international interpreter, but as with anything in life, you have to overcome that tricky first hurdle… getting started. How do you go about embarking on a career as an interpreter? What are the first steps? What skills and qualifications do you need?

Starting out on a career path can often feel a bit overwhelming. Luckily, this guide will talk you through all the steps you need to go through to set yourself up as a successful interpreter. It will look at:

  • Making sure it’s what you want – before you try to turn your goal into reality, you need to consider a few of the basics to determine whether it’s the right career path for you, such as characteristics needed for the profession.
  • Getting the right qualifications – to work as a professional, you will need certain credentials. This section will explain what you need.
  • Choosing your niche – there are many different forms of interpreting and areas to work in. You will need to weigh up your options and choose what’s best for you.
  • Getting work – how to go about promoting yourself as an interpreter when you’re starting out, and how to find work or attract clients.  
  • Building your profile – moving onwards towards continued success and improvement!

Step 1: Making sure it’s what you want

Before you make any moves towards becoming a professional interpreter, you need to make sure that it’s the right career path for you. So the first step is to do a more research on the profession so you better understand what it is about, what is required and what you are likely to get out of it.

You’ll need to look into things such as salary and working hours to make sure these suit your requirements. Interpreter salaries vary according to factors such as where you are working and who you are carrying out work for. Likewise, working hours can also vary. Interpreters often work more flexible hours than people with regular office jobs. Is this something you’re prepared to do?

You’ll also need to consider what skills and characteristics make a good interpreter. As already stated, it’s about much more than just being able to speak two languages. There are many people fluent in multiple languages who might be able to informally interpret in various situations, but who wouldn’t have what it takes to do the job professionally.

Skills and characteristics needed for interpreting include:

Communication skills – this includes the ability to speak clearly and accurately, very good listening skills and the ability to understand and interpret non-verbal language and expressions.

Cultural sensitivity – you will need a good understanding of cultural norms and practices regarding both languages you are dealing with, to avoid any misunderstandings and smooth the communication between both parties.

Confidence – interpreters need to be able to speak with confidence, sometimes to a small audience or in a formal setting such as a courtroom. You will need good composure and avoid getting flustered if things get stressful.

Speed of thought – the ability to interpret quickly and make on-the-spot decisions.

Good concentration – the ability to concentrate for lengthy periods.

Knowledge of specialist field – depending on where you are working, e.g. legal, academic.

Ability to follow ethics and codes – this includes impartiality and maintaining professional boundaries. You can see a sample code of ethics here.

Research skills – you may need to carry out research in advance of appointments.

To get a better idea of what’s required, look at a sample job description for an interpreter.

Many professional interpreters are self-employed and work freelance so it’s also a good idea to brush up on what’s needed to become a freelancer or start a business. This will vary from country to country, but here are a couple of basic guides:

Guide to becoming a freelancer

Guide to starting a business

Step 2: Getting the right qualifications

Academic qualifications or accreditations are not mandatory to become a professional interpreter, but they are very beneficial and will boost both your employment opportunities and your earnings potential. You can look into the following study routes for interpreting:

Bachelor’s Degree

Many employers will look favourably on interpreters with academic degrees. If you are willing and able to enrol in an academic degree, you have two choices. You could complete a course specific to interpreting or translation, which can be done at many universities or at specialized language schools. The second option is to take a degree in a specialized subject, for example law or healthcare studies. This could enhance your career opportunities if you’ve already chosen your niche (see Step 3 below).

Master’s Degree

Master’s courses can be expensive, but a master’s degree related to interpreting will enable you to build on your skills, learn new interpreting practices and will help to prepare you for a career as a freelance interpreter. It can also open up new avenues such as conference interpreting or certain international governmental roles.

Professional qualifications and accreditations

This includes specific formal training offered by colleges and professional institutes, such as diplomas, associate programs or accredited programs. This can be a good option if you want to find a specific tailored program in a particular field. Options will vary from country to country but courses are often offered by professional bodies (for example, in the UK by the Chartered Institute of Linguists).


Some employers will be more interested in what relevant experience you have rather than qualifications. You can gain valuable interpreting experience through either:

  • Working in interpreting or a related field. This can include voluntary work.
  • Doing an internship at an interpretation agency. This is a good way of finding out whether this is the career path for you.
  • Studying or work experience abroad, such as working as a language teacher. Living in a foreign country is a great way not only of improving your language skills but also of learning about the culture and becoming familiar with colloquialisms.

You can check out Interpreter Education Online for a range of courses and tools available in various languages to interpreters.

Step 3: Choosing your niche

This is something that you might not have given too much thought about up to now. You may have only got as far as ‘I want to be an interpreter’, which is fine, but specializing in one particular area and narrowing down your focus will help increase your chances of becoming successful. If you specialize and focus on a particular niche, you will:

  • face less competition for work
  • be able to market yourself more precisely and effectively
  • open yourself up to opportunities for better paid work
  • be able to concentrate on developing particular skills

Plus, if there are many other interpreters in the industry working with the same languages as yours, you may need to specialize in order to find regular work.

To find your niche, you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions. What gaps in the market are there (e.g. is there a particular shortage of qualified interpreters working with the police)? What are your interests? What kind of environment do you want to work in? Which industry? Would you prefer a corporate setting or working with marginalised groups, e.g. refugees or prisoners?

Your decisions will probably be based on a combination or personal preferences and market demand. But it’s advisable to market yourself as narrowly as possible (to one single ideal client, if you can) in order to be seen as an expert in your field rather than just a generic interpreter.

Interpreters can work in a wide variety of fields, including:

  • Scientific and technical professions
  • Government or public services
  • Educational services
  • Healthcare and medical services
  • Legal services
  • Retail
  • Media
  • Charities and NGO’s

There are four main types of interpretation which are practised in different settings. You can specialize in one or more of these.

Simultaneous Interpretation – quite a demanding type of interpretation as you need to interpret simultaneously (as the speaker is speaking). Usually done by very experienced interpreters in settings such as international conferences.

Consecutive Interpretation – slightly less intense than simultaneous, where sentences are interpreted one at a time with the speaker pausing in between. More commonly used in smaller meetings.

Liaison Interpretation – a more time-consuming method where the listener repeats back what they have understood. Commonly used in public service interpreting.

Whispered Interpretation – where the interpreter whispers what is being said to a client that doesn’t speak the language. Useful in business meetings.

For more information on choosing your niche, see here for a general guide on choosing the right niche

Or check this guide out for more industry-specific information: How to Choose Your Specialization Within the Translation Field (translation rather than interpreting, but still has some interesting insights)

Step 4: Getting work

You have two choices when it comes to looking for work as an interpreter – finding a permanent full-time (or part-time) job or becoming self-employed and working freelance on a contractual basis.

Most interpreters choose to set themselves up as freelancers. However, there are plenty of full-time and part-time interpreting jobs out there if this doesn’t appeal to you. Either way, you’ll need to put together a good CV or resume to show off your skills and experience to potential employers or clients.

A useful thing to do when you start out as an interpreter is to sign up with a local agency. This will help you get your foot in the door and build up valuable experience and knowledge. There are also a number of websites for interpreters that you can use to help you:

  • ProZ – which is an online community for language professionals where you can find work, advertise your services and sign up for training.
  • Aquarius – which is another online marketplace for interpreters and translators.
  • Translators Cafe – a directory of interpreters, translators and agencies
  • Interpreters Portal – helping freelance interpreters find good jobs
  • EU career site – where you can look for career opportunities for interpreters with European Institutions.
  • Oyraa – our very own platform connecting professional interpreters with clients all over the world

If you’re self-employed, you can increase your chances of finding suitable work by marketing yourself effectively. If you’ve followed Step 3 above, you’ll have already chosen your specific interpreting niche. But no matter how skilled you are, you won’t be successful if people don’t know about you. You will need to think about how you advertise yourself. You can promote yourself by:

  • Contacting people and places directly, e.g. law firms, police stations, government agencies, businesses, professional associations.
  • Creating a website or blog to advertise yourself and inform people about what you offer.
  • Having a social media presence – LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook.
  • Networking – attending conferences, meetings and events (both interpreting and industry-specific). The online interpreter communities and professional bodies are good places to find out about what’s happening.
  • Developing a powerful brand. Think about how you want to present yourself and what image you want to give, paying attention to what works regarding your particular niche.

As a freelancer, you’ll also need to settle on what rate you will charge. Interpreter fees vary depending on experience, nature of work and location. You’re free to determine your own rate but you’ll need to be competitive. But you’ll need to settle on an amount and stick to it, as you’ll look unprofessional if you’re vague or uncertain about it when asked.

You can use Websites For Translators to get ideas for good website designs.

There’s a good blog here about creating a strong freelance brand.

Here’s a guide to help you work out what rates you should charge.

Step 5: Building your profile and continuing to develop

Once you’re up and running and getting regular work, the final step to cement your position as a successful interpreter is to simply keep on developing and adding to your profile.

Remember that as a freelancer it’s important to stay at the top of your game. If you get complacent, you risk losing clients to fresher, keener competitors. You can keep sharp by continuing with education to add to you skills portfolio. This could be learning further interpreting skills, deepening your knowledge in your specialist area or perhaps developing skills in new useful areas – for example, presentation skills to enable you to speak at conferences and events, or graphic design skills so that you can create your own marketing materials.

Becoming a member of a professional body will also enhance both your career and reputation. There are a couple of reputable international interpreting bodies, as well as numerous country-specific ones:

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