As more non-English-speakers enter the United States, demand for interpreters — who convert oral conversations from one language to another — is growing fast. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of interpreter jobs in 2018 topped out at more than 76,000. Job growth over the next eight years is projected at 19%, which is much faster than average (7-13%). How much money do interpreters make? That depends on the field in which they work, the languages they speak, and the qualifications they hold.
PayScale reports that interpreters make between $25,000 and $83,000 in annual wages. Early career and entry level interpreters make an average of 9-19% less than more experienced interpreters, and interpreters who speak in-demand languages are likely to make 11-29% more than others in the field. Higher-end salaries are found in interpreters who are fluent in American Sign Language, with interpreters who speak Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and Arabic coming in at slightly lower wages, but still toward the higher end of the spectrum PayScale reports.
Medical interpreters are expected to meet certain national standards for patient safety and to comply with federal guidelines and requirements. Thus, training and certification are often necessary to get hired as a medical or healthcare interpreter. Certification for medical interpreters is available through The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters, which certifies for Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Spanish, as well as the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters, which certifies for Arabic, Mandarin, and Spanish. According to BLS, medical interpreters in high-demand areas, such as Washington, D.C., can make as much as $92,000 in annual wages.
Likewise, legal interpreters — whether at the state or federal level — need to meet certain requirements. The National Center for State Courts reports annual wages for salaried interpreters starting at $25,000 and ranging all the way up to $108,000 in high-demand areas, like Washington, D.C. Daily rates for freelance interpreters can range from $125 to $400 for a half or full day, depending on the state and required services. In some states, freelance ASL interpreters make more money than others; reporting ranges from state to state, so it’s a good idea to research rates.
Federal interpreters are classified into three types by the Administrative Office: Certified interpreters, professionally qualified interpreters, and language skilled interpreters. Legal interpreters working in federal courts who are classified as certified or professionally qualified earn $418 for a full day of work, $226 for a half day of work, and $59 per hour or part thereof for overtime. Language skilled (non-certified) interpreters make $202 for a full day of work, $111 for a half day of work, and $35 per hour or part thereof for overtime. As of January 2020, Federal Court Interpreter Certification is offered for Spanish/English testing only. For other languages, individuals need to contact the court to determine if they have need of an interpreter with that proficiency; classifying the interpreters for languages other than Spanish is up the court.
Overall, certified interpreters who live in areas where there are large populations of non-English speakers make more money than their cohorts, in both medical and legal settings. Interpreter jobs are projected to grow exponentially in coming years, making it a lucrative and impactful career for multi-language speakers, especially if they speak ASL. If you’re interested in training to become a medical interpreter, ALTA offers online courses to train and qualify medical interpreters.
Samantha Puc is a culture critic and essayist whose work focuses on LGBTQ and fat representation in pop culture. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Fatventure Mag.