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Interpreters and translators salary & career outlook

Communication takes many forms, and perhaps no one understands that better than professional interpreters and translators. The ability to not only convert information from one language to another but to preserve the intent and emotional content of each idea communicated may be a difficult skill to acquire, but professionals who succeed at the nuances of language can expect their skills to remain in high demand well into the future. While they perform similar work, interpreter and translator are two distinct titles. Interpreters tend to deal mostly with spoken or sign language, while translators handle written text. Members of both professions must exhibit excellent speaking, listening and writing skills, comprehensive cross-cultural understanding and a keen sense for various genres of communication.

How to become an interpreter or translator

It is understood that interpreters and translators must be fluent in at least two languages, but some employers may require additional skills. Language study at formal interpreter and translator colleges is not always a requirement, but it may give candidates a competitive edge in the job market. Some students, particularly those who come from multilingual backgrounds, may be able to undergo a significant portion of their interpreter and translator training online.

Interpreters and translators may also choose to pursue voluntary professional certification. Multiple professional organizations offer such credentials, and some employers may prefer to hire interpreters and translators who demonstrate their commitment to the profession by taking the initiative to become certified.

Salary trends for interpreters and translators

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), interpreters and translators earned a mean annual salary of $47,920 nationally in 2013, with the lowest-paid 10 percent of earners making $22,180 or less for the year, and the top-paid 10 percent taking home at least $77,140.

Interpreters and translators might find employment in any one of several industries, and the industry-specific demand for their skills tends to dictate individual salary expectations. Here's a list of industries in which interpreter and translator salaries were highest in 2013, according to the BLS:

  • Architectural, engineering and related services: $97,940 average annual salary
  • Federal executive branch: $73,510 average annual salary
  • Office administrative services: $63,900 average annual salary
  • Junior colleges: $59,210 average annual salary
  • Colleges, universities and professional schools: $58,320 average annual salary

Aside from a few outlying high- or low-paying states, the statewide average salaries for interpreters and translators don't show a great deal of variance. With that being the case, the local cost of living can matter a lot to an interpreter or translator's quality of life. These states ranked among the most affordable on a 2014 study by the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC), even though their 2013 mean annual salaries, according to the BLS, might seem low:

  • Kentucky: $46,300; ranked 3rd in affordability
  • Mississippi: $39,960; ranked 1st in affordability
  • Indiana: $40,260; ranked 5th in affordability
  • Nebraska: $41,000; ranked 7th in affordability

Washington, D.C., was the highest paying region for interpreters and translators in 2013, offering average annual wages of $71,450, but the cost of living there is higher than in any state but Hawaii, according to MERIC.

Career outlook for interpreters and translators

According to figures released by the BLS, interpreter and translator careers rank among the five fastest-growing in the country. Employment opportunities for interpreters and translators are projected to grow 46 percent between 2012 and 2022, significantly outpacing the average for all occupations nationally, leading to raw job gains of nearly 30,000 positions.

Interpreters and translators who specialize in Spanish and American Sign Language are expected to have particularly robust job prospects. Dense urban centers like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., should see the largest numbers of new positions emerge, according to the BLS.

Sources:

Cost of Living Data Series: First Quarter 2014, Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, Missouri Department of Economic Development, http://www.missourieconomy.org/indicators/cost_of_living/index.stm

Occupational Employment and Wages: Interpreters and Translators, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, May 2013,
http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes273091.htm

Interpreters and Translators, "Occupational Outlook Handbook 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014,
http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Media-and-Communication/Interpreters-and-translators.htm

Employment Projections: Fastest growing occupations, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2013,
http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_103.htm