Across the United States, interpreters work in various areas of interpreting, between many languages, and under different conditions. They work in spoken and signed languages and anywhere from a school to a courtroom or an international conference. They can work on-site (with or without specialized equipment) or remotely (by phone or video). Despite the diversity of the interpreting profession, there are some elements that all types of interpreters share. This page provides an overview of the commonalities and provides some information and resources specific to particular areas of interpreting, languages, and conditions.
- General aspects
- Fields of interpreting
General aspects of the interpreting profession
At the most basic level, the interpreter’s defining function is the rendition of a message from one spoken or signed language into another. More precisely, however, interpreters render their interpretations in one of three modes:
- Simultaneous, at the same time the speaker or signer is speaking or signing.
- Consecutive, at intervals, whenever the speaker or signer pauses.
- Sight translation, from a written document into a spoken or signed language.
Effective interpreters must possess many linguistic, cognitive, and interpersonal skills. First and foremost, interpreters must be highly proficient in their working languages and have broad world knowledge. They must also be adept at the modes described above, which require expert use of concentration, analysis, and memory, to name just a few skills. Furthermore, interpreters must have a foundational knowledge of the areas of interpreting in which they interpret, in addition to research skills. Finally, interpreters must possess cultural competence and understand the dynamics of interpreting between persons who do not share the same culture.
Codes of ethical and professional conduct can differ according to the specific setting, but some common principles are common to most interpreters. In general, interpreters are required to be accurate and impartial. “Accurate and impartial” means that interpreters will not add or omit information or interject personal opinions in the interpretation. Interpreters must also only accept requests for which they possess the required competencies, and not misrepresent their credentials. In general, interpreters must keep information related to the situations they interpret confidential. Finally, interpreters must continuously engage in professional development and act professionally on assignments and with colleagues.
You may wish to review the American Translators Association Code of Ethics and Professional Practice and its related commentary. The ATA Code of Ethics and Professional Practice covers ATA members who are translators, interpreters, or both. See below for other codes of ethics and professional practice that apply to specific areas of interpreting or other professional organizations.
People who are highly proficient in at least two languages and wish to become interpreters can find training and education in various forms. There are associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in interpreting, in addition to certificate programs. Some programs focus on a specific type of interpreting, such as legal, medical, or conference, while others are broad and may touch upon various areas of interpreting. Moreover, various private organizations offer training, which can be as short as an hour or as long as a few months. There are, of course, virtual options available, which may be found by conducting searches on the internet.
In 2018, the ATA partnered with the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) to create an international directory of training programs for translation and interpreting. To find an interpreting program in the Academic Member Directory, select your country and select “interpreting” as your program focus. As of early 2021, the directory lists 5 programs, but the list is expected to grow as more programs register. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) also maintains a list of about 44 college programs on its Resources page, organized by state. While the focus is on legal translation and interpreting, many of the programs are general in nature or offer other specializations.
For those who wish to work with ASL, you may search the registry of education programs maintained by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) for a program in your area. Nationwide, there are approximately 80 associate’s programs, 55 bachelor’s programs, 6 graduate programs, and 50 certificate programs. Nine of these programs offer a distance-learning option. Approximately one quarter of ASL interpreter education programs are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education, which you can view here.
When searching for a training or education program in your area or online, have a clear idea of the goals you wish to accomplish through your training. Be sure to review the provider’s literature or have a discussion with a representative to ensure that the training or program will meet your needs.
One of the hallmarks of a professional is the attainment of a credential. Credentials help the public identify interpreters who possess the core competencies for assignments. There is no national “generalist” certification for spoken language interpreters; however, ATA members with a specialist credential (see the areas of interpreting below) can request to add the “credentialed interpreter” designation to their profile in the ATA directory. You can review the ATA ID’s page on Credentialing opportunities for interpreters for a comprehensive list of state and national credentials available.
For ASL interpreters, the Center for Assessment of Sign Language Interpretation (CASLI) offers a generalist certification exam, which must first be obtained before being able to obtain a specialist certification (e.g., legal). CASLI also offers certification to interpreters who are deaf (i.e., native users of ASL), known as the Certified Deaf Interpreter credential. Some states, such as the Texas Board for Evaluation of Interpreters (BEI), also offer their own generalist and specialist certifications. For those who work with ASL, Spanish, and English, the Texas BEI offers two certification exams (Trilingual Advanced and Trilingual Master). Furthermore, some states may require sign language interpreters to obtain a government-issued license to practice.
Most generalist and specialist certification exams are made up of two parts: a knowledge (or “written”) exam and a performance (or “oral”) exam, which are usually taken separately. The credential is conferred after passing the performance exam. Note that ASL interpreters must possess a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent) to take the performance portion of a CASLI certification exam.
When considering taking a certification exam, be sure to review the eligibility requirements for the exam, such as whether the exam requires a degree or training beforehand. Check to see if the exam has two parts, such as knowledge and performance components. Finally, you may want to take a practice exam if available to gauge your readiness or to identify areas for improvement.
Another hallmark of a professional is affiliation with a professional organization. Organizations help keep interpreters informed of changes in the industry and offer a place for interpreters to network with colleagues. In interpreting, organizations can be found at local, state, national, and international levels. There are organizations for specific areas of interpreting (see below), languages, and other aspects the members may have in common.
At the national level, the ATA Interpreters Division offers a place for interpreters working in all areas of interpreting in languages from and into English. The areas of interpreting below mention other national and international organizations for the respective specialization. The ATA Divisions page also offers divisions for specific working languages and other aspects that members may have in common, such as for educators.
The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) is a national organization for sign language interpreters. Mano a Mano is open to sign language interpreters who work with Spanish. The National Alliance of Black Interpreters (NAOBI) has chapters in various locations (Detroit, DC) for professional Black/African American sign language interpreters. The World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI) is open to both individuals and organizations of sign language interpreters around the globe.
Beginning in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, interpreters have had to pay special attention to the modality in which they deliver their services. The few who continue to provide services in person must adhere to safety protocols, such as wearing a mask. The rest have had to adapt to new remote-interpreting environments, in addition to the remote-interpreting options that existed prior to the pandemic.
In an interpreted situation, there are at least three parties: the English speaker, the person with limited English proficiency (LEP), and the interpreter. In theory, any one, two, or all of the parties could be located remotely (not in the same physical location) and have to participate via phone or video. Interpreters have the option of using a remote simultaneous interpretation (RSI) platform, which is designed with consideration for spoken language interpreting. Participants are able to listen to an interpretation by selecting the appropriate language channel on the platform. Similar features have been built into other, more familiar platforms, such as Zoom.
One of the advantages of remote interpreting is that the participants can be located anywhere, provided they have the requisite equipment and internet access. In some cases, this has enabled an increased use of on-demand interpretation, in which an interpreter can connect to provide their services at a moment’s notice. In other cases, the interpreting services are pre-arranged.
While remote interpreting has expanded the use and availability of interpretation services, there are some drawbacks. In a short amount of time, interpreters have had to acquire the technical know-how to provide their services in digital environments. Another challenge is the ability to work with a co-interpreter. When working in-person, interpreters are able to assist each other with terminology, for example, using various means: writing, whispering, signing, etc. In remote situations, however, co-interpreters have had to be inventive in the ways they support each other. Some use the chat box, some text each other, and others may open a second video-conferencing platform just for the co-interpreters.
Conference interpreters work in large meetings, from town halls and board rooms to international assemblies. Conference interpreters must be willing to work under pressure for high-stakes situations and, at the same time, take into consideration the relationships of not only people, but also nations. In this section, you will find information on the organization for conference interpreters, as well as standards of practice, credentials, and training opportunities.
One of the main organizations for conference interpreters is the Association internationale des interprètes de conférence (AIIC). AIIC members follow a Code of professional ethics and adhere to Professional standards established by the organization. Another organization is the American Association of Language Specialists (TAALS), which also has a document on Standards of Professional Practice for Conference Interpreters and Translators.
There is no independent certification for conference interpreting. Instead, conference interpreters exhibit their competence by virtue of completing the requirements to become a member of AIIC or a member of TAALS, graduating from recognized conference interpreting programs, or passing a government-sponsored test. Some government exams are the Interpreting Aptitude Test of the U.S. Department of State, the language competitive examination of the United Nations, and the accreditation test of the European Union.
For training and educational opportunities for spoken language interpreters, AIIC maintains an international directory of interpreting schools and programs, most of which are at the graduate level. Private organizations and individuals also offer training for conference interpreters. For ASL interpreters, academic programs do not typically prepare students for conference interpreting. Rather, ASL interpreters typically gain experience in community settings until they gradually enter conference settings.
Educational interpreters work in a variety of school settings, mostly K-12. Public education is one of the bedrocks of society, and educational interpreters ensure families are able to navigate the school systems, and school personnel are able to communicate with families. For deaf and hard of hearing students, educational interpreters also act as related service providers, which has legal implications for implementing students’ individualized education plans (IEPs). In this section, you will find information on national organizations for professional educational interpreters, codes of conduct, credentials, and training opportunities.
There are two organizations for educational interpreters in the United States. One is the National Accreditation of Educational Translators and Interpreters of Spoken Languages (NAETISL), and the other is the National Association of Interpreters in Education (NAIE), which focuses on interpreters for deaf and hard of hearing students. Both organizations have issued codes of ethics and standards of practice or guidelines for the profession: NAETISL (code of ethics and standards of practice); NAIE (code of ethics, guidelines). There is also the Interpreting and Translation in Education Workgroup (ITE Workgroup), which is working on developing a code of ethics and standards of practice for educational interpreters as of the close of 2020.
There is no national certification exam for educational interpreting for either spoken or signed languages. However, through a federal grant program, the Boys Town National Research Hospital offers a widely recognized diagnostic exam for sign language interpreting known as the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment (EIPA). There is also a Written Test one can take, though it is not a required part of the performance assessment. For a time, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) would grant an “Ed:K-12” designation to ASL interpreters who obtained a score of 4.0 or above on the EIPA, but this credential is now in moratorium. There is also an EIPA Guidelines of Professional Conduct for Educational Interpreters.
One state deserves special mention for its role in launching the professionalization of educational interpreters who work with spoken languages. Through the support of a federal grant, the Minnesota Department of Education has published a Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for Educational Interpreters of Spoken Languages and also offers training through webinars.
Academic programs for spoken language interpreting do not usually include coursework for educational settings. However, there are some private companies that have begun to offer training. For ASL interpreters, on the other hand, almost all academic programs provide training in educational interpreting.
Healthcare interpreters work in various medical settings, such as hospitals and clinics. Beliefs and practices regarding medicine can vary widely among different cultures, and interpreters must be careful to ensure misunderstandings do not occur due to linguistic or cultural differences. In this section, you will find the major national organizations for professional healthcare interpreters, links to ethics and standards of practice, information on certification as a healthcare interpreter, and information on educational opportunities.
The two major national organizations for healthcare interpreters are the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA) and the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC). Both organizations have issued codes of ethics and standards of practice for the profession: IMIA (code of ethics, standards of practice); NCIHC (code of ethics, standards of practice). The ATA also has a Medical Division for members.
There are two nationally recognized certifications available for healthcare interpreting. One is offered by the National Board of Certification of Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) and the other by the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI).
One state deserves special mention for having developed its own healthcare certification program. The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) in Washington State has been certifying spoken language interpreters in eight languages since 1995. Credentialed interpreters are listed on a public searchable database and must comply with periodic continuing education credits in order to maintain their credential.
Many academic programs for spoken language interpreting include coursework or certificates in medical interpreting. The NCIHC has issued standards for training programs, in addition to a self-assessment for training needs. The IMIA and the CCHI maintain a list of accredited training programs and a portal for educational opportunities, respectively. For ASL interpreters, the Rochester Institute of Technology offers an online Master of Science degree in Health Care Interpretation.
Legal interpreters work in judicial settings, such as courtrooms, and quasi-judicial settings, such as for police interrogations. Legal interpreters play a significant role in ensuring non-English speakers are treated fairly under the law. Legal interpreters must observe strict procedural rules when interpreting in legal settings, where every word counts. In this section, you will find information on the major national organization for legal interpreters, links to the code of professional conduct followed by legal interpreters, information on state and federal court certification, and information on educational opportunities.
The major organization for legal interpreters is the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), whose members must adhere to the NAJIT Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibilities. In addition, many state and federal courts impose their own codes of ethics and professional conduct. Many of the state codes of professional conduct are based on the Model Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Judiciary, which was produced by the National Consortium of State Courts (NCSC). The ATA also has a Law Division for members.
One of the benefits of the NCSC is that it provides a common format for state certification exams for court interpreters, although each state may modify the exam to suit its needs and administrative requirements. Information for individual states’ language access programs can be found using this interactive map. Court certification exams are available for about 13 spoken languages, but the languages available can vary depending on the state.
At the federal level, certification was available for Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Navajo, but is now only available for Spanish/English. The exam is known as the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination (FCICE) and is maintained by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. There was also a national exam available for ASL/English interpreters for legal interpreting, known as the Specialist Certificate: Legal (SC:L) offered by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, but there is now a moratorium on the exam.
The NAJIT Academy maintains a page of webinars and educational opportunities for legal interpreters. On its Resources page, NAJIT also maintains a list of college programs, with a focus on legal interpreting and translation programs. For sign language interpreters, academic programs do not typically provide extensive training in legal interpreting.
Authors: Rafael Treviño, Pamela Pizurro.
Image: Interpreters Division.
Published: March 31, 2021.