Responsibilities: Translators convert written documents. Interpreters handle the spoken word. Localization specialists use computer and linguistic skills to translate websites and handle coding.
Education: At least a college degree, often in a language, plus professional credentials.
Background: Many people have bilingual backgrounds, then study languages extensively.
Pay: Most interpreters and translators work on a freelance basis. Translators can earn $60,000 a year. Interpreters average $35,000, but some earn more than $100,000.
Source: McClatchy News Service
A typical day
Here is a day’s worth of requests to a local agency for interpreters and translators:
2:30 a.m.: A Taiwanese company needs to code Chinese responses to a survey.
6 a.m.: An Irish medical-device company wants a price for translating a website into 10 languages, including Arabic, Japanese and Farsi.
8 a.m.: A South Dakota state health agency must translate a brochure into Khmer.
9:20 a.m.: A law firm needs a Korean interpreter in four hours to help a family follow a trial regarding a child’s drowning.
10 a.m.: A research company needs to translate a physicians’ survey about psoriasis into French, German, Spanish, Dutch and Italian.
10:55 a.m.: A public-relations agency needs eight American Sign Language interpreters for a one-day event in four cities.
11:15 a.m.: A video remote interpretation for Haitian Creole is needed the next day at a regional courthouse.
11:30 a.m.: A highly confidential intelligence document must be translated from Urdu into English in 12 hours. Security clearance is required.
Noon: Two Japanese interpreters are needed for market-research interviews.
1 p.m.: A market-research company has a 24-hour deadline for a review of an online survey translated into 10 languages.
1:30 p.m.: A hospital immediately needs a Zulu interpreter to help a patient and a doctor communicate in a critical behavioral-health situation.
7:45 p.m.: Interpreters in five languages are needed for a forthcoming national life-sciences conference.
11:55 p.m.: The U.S. Embassy in a French-speaking African country gives a three-day deadline to translate a 10-page document into French.
Source: Cetra Language Solutions,
Translating offers multiple challenges
Dale Eggett, who will finish a master’s degree in less than three weeks, will go to work the week after, having had no problem landing a job.
“I did have multiple, multiple job offers,” said Eggett, whose Spanish and computer skills put him in the forefront of a burgeoning field.
The global marketplace for interpreting, translating, and other language services was estimated at $26.3 billion in 2010 and is projected to reach $38.1 billion by 2013.
Most people are familiar with translators, who deal with the written word.
Interpreters handle oral communication in government agencies, courtrooms, doctors’ offices, and businesses.
But Eggett, 28, of California, who will graduate from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, will be paid $50,000 a year to work in a relatively new discipline: localization management, which provides one of the best chances for steady employment in language services.
Localization combines language expertise with computer savvy.
“I’m kind of behind the scenes making the job easier for translators,” Eggett said.
When a website needs to be translated, it’s Eggett’s job to strip out the coding and send the translator only what needs to be translated.
The work is painstaking. Imagine a complex website with multiple drop-down boxes, leading to more drop-down boxes. Each element on each box needs to be translated.
“Some people may find it boring,” Eggett said. “I find it interesting.”
Like many other sectors, language services face unique challenges, said Jiri Stejskal, president of Cetra Language Solutions, an Elkins Park, Pa., company that supplies translators, interpreters and localization experts to a range of clients.
That’s how most interpreters and translators get work.
Stejskal is in a better position to know than most.
He was recently president of the American Translators Association and is in line to become president of the International Federation of Translators, in Basel, Switzerland.
One issue is machine translation. “It’s not quite there yet,” Stejskal said.
He pulled out a screen grab of a Philadelphia government website that used the familiar journalism term “lead story” on its home page.
Somehow in Spanish it morphed into a “story about metal,” featuring a photograph of former Philadelphia Mayor Juan F. Calle (John Street).
But a more fundamental and on-going struggle is to educate employers about the difference between being simply bilingual and truly qualified.
Top interpreters need to hear what is said and speak it in another language simultaneously.
That’s the gold standard used at the United Nations and international conferences, and high proficiency can merit a six-figure income.
That level of ability isn’t the same as language skills gained by growing up in a bilingual household.
“Knowing how to cook doesn’t make you a chef,” Stejskal said.
That cook-or-chef question is exactly what the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s human-resources director, Raymond Polak, is trying to resolve.
The social-services agency has a staff of interpreters but wants to hire bilingual case managers to work with the city’s aging immigrant community.
Translators typically get paid by the word. Anne Connor, president of the Delaware Valley Translators Association, loves when she gets a job translating Spanish into English if the client pays by the Spanish word.
With all of its prepositions and articles, Spanish uses more words than English to convey the same idea.
Freelance translators can earn $60,000 a year, according to the latest available survey, taken in 2006.
Interpreters can earn considerably less, mainly because their work is paid by the hour and jobs may come infrequently.
One in five earns less than $10,000 a year, according Common Sense Advisory, the same industry research group that calculated the size of the global market.
The best chance to earn the most is to develop a specialty, perhaps in complex business arrangements or some highly technical field, or to be certified in a language in demand, such as Arabic.
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