Would interpreting be a good career?
Thread poster: thejanedoe

United States
Jan 31, 2015

Hi everyone!

I'm a soon-to-be freshman at a university in Texas. I've wanted to be an interpreter for a long time, so my plan is to major in Spanish, minor in a second language (possibly Arabic or Mandarin), and, if/when I can afford it, get a graduate degree in interpreting and/or translating.

I also have this really random love for biology, and I'm pretty good at it, so I've been considering minoring in biology as well (I know it sounds a little ridiculous, but with the amount of AP credits I have I should be able to complete the undergraduate degrees in four years without extra classes). I'm thinking that with a minor in biology, I would be more attractive as an interpreter to organizations like the CDC, MDAnderson, and hospitals, simply because I would have a better understanding of the topics I would be interpreting (I don't expect to have any actual biology-related responsibilities with just a minor).

I know I could get a minor in business and look just as good if not better to corporations...but I really, really do not want to get a minor in busniess. I'm just not interested in it. And I love biology.

That's not to say I would only interpret in a medical or biology related field; I think I would love to interpret for anyone. I've thought through possibilities like working for businesses, courts, and even government agencies or the UN; in fact, if I ever have the opportunity to interpret for the UN or the federal government, I will certainly take it.

I also would not be opposed to teaching a foreign language or even biology, but my first choice would be to be an interpreter (or translator, for that matter).

So. What do y'all think? Is interpreting too difficult or too obscure to be a worthy career path? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it's a growing field, and I'm thinking that Spanish interpreting will be in high demand in this area (southern Texas); but I'd like to hear from all of you. And will minoring in biology actually make a difference in finding a job as an interpreter?

Any advice will be much appreciated. Thanks for the help!


[Edited at 2015-01-31 16:55 GMT]

[Edited at 2015-01-31 16:56 GMT]


Teresa Reinhardt  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 20:49
Member (2002)
German to English
+ ...
Kudos for being proactive Jan 31, 2015

and planning you career while still a high school senior!

I have a few suggestions off the cuff; I am sure others will chime in. These are entirely subjective (I have graduate degrees in my languages, have taught them in academe and business for 25+ years, and have been a FT translator for about 20 yrs., and I mentor translators/interpreters. I work almost entirely on translations (there is very little interpreting in my languages where I live, and the travel required to do it is prohibitive - financially speaking).

1. You might want to make sure to select a second/third language that is not as common (in the US) as Spanish.
Reason: In Spanish, you will have lots of competition from people who are truly bilingual. Or who think they can do the job.
To prove my point; please go to any job that is advertised here on ProZ that includes
several languages, and look at the number of applicants per language.
Not scientific, but it will give you an idea.
You can also see the number of translators for each language pair (not sure if
you have to be a paying member to do so).

2. Interpreting for the UN etc. may sound sexy (thanks to Hollywood), but please consider the following:
They rarely hire people straight out of college; both translating & interpreting benefit
from long careers in other (hard) subjects [we translate what 'it is' - not just words, so you need substance/factual knowledge], and you need to have enough work / a career to get you there (say, the first 20 yrs.).

And again, you will have plenty of competition; I fondly remember my Romanian MBA students, most of whom knew at least 4 languages (in lots of countries, you need 2 foreign languages to even get into college). The ones of Hungarian descent often knew 6...Hungarian, Romanian, German, Russian, French, and English.

3. With reference to 1., sought-after languages change as the world turns; read up on the fate of Russian, e.g. Lots of universities nixed their Russian studies programs "because now we don't need them" (= end of the Cold War). That tune is changing…

No need to explain the recent (well, 10 yrs. or so) rush for Pashto, Farsi,…

But these things are hard to predict. So, having one rare language would seem
a good idea.

4. Follows from 3: be ready to learn more than 2 foreign languages in your life. If you look at the profiles of European translators, you will see that many of them have more than 2 language pairs. It can also help diversify your risk.

5. Oh, and studying a foreign language is a lifelong endeavor; so you are at an advantage - read, write, listen to and speak in your target languages as much as possible. And learn about the various countries' culture & history, past & present.

6. As for your minor, you may want to research translator profiles here and elsewhere.
You will find many lawyers, doctors and scientists/engineers who work as translators. The well-paying jobs are technical, business and legal. And they all require real-life work
experience and/or an academic background (as a solid knowledge & skills basis). It would be worth focusing your plans on how to get that.
As for biology, the jobs I see most of are in biochemistry / gene technology / pharmaceuticals. Healthcare and life sciences will probably not go away.

7. I'd also follow a few interpreters'/translators' blogs to see what they deal with on
a daily basis. The entire translation business also merits keeping an eye on; it is changing beyond what anyone could have guessed/anticipated, and very fast.
The Forums on ProZ can also provide some valuable insight, but your are obviously already all over iticon_wink.gif

Best of luck!


Teresa Reinhardt  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 20:49
Member (2002)
German to English
+ ...
Fail! Jan 31, 2015

In college, I would have failed myself for not answering the questionicon_wink.gif

About interpreting: the most frequent applications in the US tend to be 'medical' and 'court'. The really well-paid jobs are in simultaneous interpreting of conferences (this is what you are mentioning as "for the UN") - but you have to a) have experience/knowledge in the specific field and b) live or be willing to move where the work is.
As for the UN, check out the cost of living in New York…

So, my guess is, 99% in the US work in the first 2 fields I mentioned, and 1% at the UN (that's probably high…let's add in comparable jobs for large NGOs).

Anyway, everything else still pretty much applies; there can be long periods between gigs, and you might want to fill those by translating in your office at home.

I am sure court/medical interpreters will chime in with their experiences; they tend to be State-specific, too.



Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:49
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
Linguistic experience? Jan 31, 2015

thejanedoe wrote:
I'm a soon-to-be freshman at a university in Texas. I've wanted to be an interpreter for a long time, so my plan is to major in Spanish, minor in a second language (possibly Arabic or Mandarin), and, if/when I can afford it, get a graduate degree in interpreting and/or translating.

While I applaud your initiative, it's not clear to me whether you already have any experience in learning or speaking a second language and, if you do, to what level?

If you're already fluent in Spanish them presumably a major will put the icing on the cake, though as Teresa notes you should consider the balance between supply and demand. Spanish has a reputation for being an "easy" language so barriers to entry may be low and that may depress rates for interpreting and translation.

I hear what you're saying about biology and using that to get more specialized. Doing something along those lines makes sense. Another language as a minor...? Not sure you can learn enough of a "hard" language like Mandarin, especially taken as a minor during a "broad and shallow" US degree, to do much worthwhile. Might be fun though.



ATIL KAYHAN  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:49
Member (2007)
Turkish to English
+ ...
"and I love biology" Jan 31, 2015

thejanedoe wrote:

I know I could get a minor in business and look just as good if not better to corporations...but I really, really do not want to get a minor in busniess. I'm just not interested in it. And I love biology.


Dear Janie,

I think you are on the right track based on what you wrote about yourself. I believe the only criterion that determines our choice of a career or major should be "our love" for that career/major. In other words, if we enjoy doing/reading/studying a topic, that topic is a strong candidate to pursue in college as well as graduate school. This is theoretically true but there are people who choose majors/minors for reasons other than that. That is why I said that you are on the right track above.

Having said that, to "look just as good if not better to corporations" is not something that is worthwhile to pursue at all. Corporations (especially big ones) tend to have hundreds of objectives, some visible some not. By the way, if you really want to take a look at what goes on in corporations, here is a book I can recommend. I enjoyed reading this book several years ago. It is only 200 pages. Best of Luck!

50 Secrets Your Company Does Not Want You to Know - and What to Do About Them
Cynthia Shapiro


Michele Fauble  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 21:49
Member (2006)
Norwegian to English
+ ...
My suggestion Jan 31, 2015

Specialize in medical/biology translation. Learn a Germanic language. Less competition and the rates are better. The Spanish>English pair is saturated, and other Romance languages are not much better. Of course, you could learn a more exotic language, but be aware that it will require considerably more time and effort to reach the required proficiency.

[Edited at 2015-01-31 21:32 GMT]


Vesna Markovic
Local time: 05:49
Serbian to Chinese
+ ...
Minor in Chinese language Jan 31, 2015

I believe that interpreting would be a good career. I am doing translation, but I have strong interest in interpreting also and I am preparing for the interpreting.

I would like to give you piece of advice regarding minoring in Chinese language.
From my point of view learning Chinese as minor is not enough for interpreting. When you reach the level HSK 4 that is equivalent to B2 you should take Chinese Language Translation and/or Interpretation Course at Confucius Institute or other language school and it would cost you some money and time. For mastering the language you should spend at least one academic year in China. Even if you go to China as a scholarship student, it will cost you some money and time too. You should seriously consider if you would be ready to spend ten months in China because as I have understood learning Chinese is not your priority.
Why not to start to learn Chinese language at a language school before choosing your minor? Facing difficulties in learning Chinese can help to make the decision regarding your minor.


United States
Linguistic experience Jan 31, 2015

Thanks for the advice (and encouragement), all of you!

Mr. Lucas,

I wouldn't call myself fluent in Spanish, but I've been studying the language for four years and can read and write it well. My speaking and listening skills are not perfect, but I can usually carry a conversation with native speakers. I recently traveled to Honduras (for just a week) where I interpreted some for my fellow Americans; I attend the Spanish services at my church; and I'm pretty involved with the Spanish community there. My boyfriend's family is also from Honduras, so while I don't always speak to them in Spanish, speaking with them does provide some practice (albeit Honduran-influenced practice).

And I listen to music, watch movies, and read books in Spanish whenever I get the chance.

In response to everyone, I've considered focusing on a language other than Spanish for my major, but the only problem is that
1) I'm wary to major in a language that will connect me with limited job opportunities in this area (because like mentioned above, I'm unlikely go get a job right of the bat interpreting for, say, the United Nations. I'd be more likely to work in a hospital, etc. in this area where the most common second language is Spanish). Then again, I would like to work somewhere else with another language at some point in my career, so maybe I should look to a harder, less-commonly-spoken-by-interpreters language. and
2) The university only offers majors in Spanish, French, Russian, and German. Minors in all of those plus Italian, Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese. (And I'm pretty much committed to this university because of scholarships.) So for the majors, the "hardest, least-commonly-spoken" options are Russian and German. I would not be opposed to learning either of those, but I highly doubt I would be able to find a job any time soon interpreting them.

I suppose I could major in Russian/German and minor in Spanish (as I know more Spanish now and it would take me more time to become proficient in Russian or German).

As far as deciding between Russian and German...Russian is an official language of the United Nations. Might be a silly dream, but I think it's still worth shooting for. And I'm honestly pretty ignorant about the prominence of Germany or Russia in business, the medical world, etc. so I don't know which would be more useful in that sense.


The Misha
Local time: 23:49
Russian to English
+ ...
This is like asking if selling coffee would be a good career Jan 31, 2015

It sure would be for some - just you look at Howard Schultz of Starbucks fame - while for others... How about you ask the guy behind the counter of your local bodega. It's a business, first and foremost, seeing that precious few employers in the US hire interpreters and translators in-house these days, so you would have to go freelance and fend for yourself. At the very least, expect to have no medical in the foreseeable future (you won't be able to afford it regardless of what you know who says) and always bring work with you on vacations - that is, when and if you can afford to take them.

But there's more. If you are already fluent in Spanish, power be to you. If not, just like someone has already said it, you may want to reconsider the choice. Also, don't kid yourself about how long it will take to reach the kind of fluency needed to do commercial interpreting as a freelancer, even consecutive. Never mind simultaneous. That's a totally different kettle of fish. Oh, and yes, you WILL need to spend a considerable amount of time wherever your source language is spoken. I mean, sure, I wouldn't mind living in, say, Chile, or Argentina, or Ecuador for a while, but ask yourself if you are really - like, REALLY - prepared to spend years in communist China learning your craft.

Finally, if you think working for the UN is a prize, think again. It is the most god-awful bureaucracy imaginable and working for them is like, well, working for a god-awful bureaucracy. Personally, I don't come near them, even as a freelancer, even though I do live in NYC and incur all those exorbitant living expenses someone has already mentioned. Oh, and the money isn't all that good either, you can definitely do better in the private sector.

I know I am about to say something they will dunk me in tar and feathers for and chase me out of town, but I am going to say it anyway. In the US (I wouldn't know about Europe and other places), translating and interpreting is not a career. It's a convenient excuse for an immigrant (not every immigrant, naturally) to avoid punching the clock in some mundane office and still be able to make a living. If you are the kind of person who hates the idea of daily commute and likes a semblance of freedom from the rat race, this may be for you - but please mind that you will begin with a distinct disadvantage. This is primarily an immigrant business dominated by those who have spoken their target language from birth and in many cases speak and write better English than quite a few of the natives.

On top of that, spending money on a degree in translation (as opposed to learning your languages) is an absolute waste. The only thing I can think of that is even worse is an MFA (Master of Fine Arts, that's a graduate degree aspiring writers go for - like you can TEACH someone to become a successful writer. Yeah, right.) You said you like biology. Why don't you go for a life sciences degree and join some big pharma? That's a career all right. That's also a very tangible skill, if you become a biotech researcher. 20 years down the road, if you get tired of life in the office or the lab, you will be in a much better position to revisit this issue and go out on your own as a freelance translator or interpreter from the vantage point of someone who can offer valuable professional expertise in a hot area on top of your Spanish (or whatever other) linguistic skills.

Naturally, this is but an opinion - by one of them dang immigrants that dominate this business. As a disclaimer, at this point in my life, way into the second half of my active years, I wouldn't have it any other way. Not willingly anyway, and not for the kind of money they would be prepared to pay me in the 9 to 5 world. But if I were to start it all over again, here, in the States, I could surely do better.

[Edited at 2015-01-31 23:32 GMT]


Preston Decker  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:49
Chinese to English
Thoughts Feb 1, 2015

I double majored in biology and East Asian studies (aka Asian history and Chinese language studies) in college. If you're interested in biology, then I'd recommend you take your uni's intro Bio course your first two semesters. This way your options will be open regarding a major/minor in Bio. Just a thought--what about a major in Biology and two minors in Spanish and Chinese? My feeling is that with languages post-university employers mostly care about your language proficiency, not whether or not you majored in the language, whereas a major in Bio opens more fields for you if you decide to go that route.

Despite what others will say, you can learn Chinese, and learn it well, but IMHO it will require a minimum of 3 years of college language study and 2-3 years of work/study/living in a Chinese language environment in China (and by work I mean working in a Chinese language environment, not as an English teacher) to get your Chinese to a level where you can translate professionally. That's the bare minimum, to put things in perspective, I've been involved with the Chinese language for 15 years (4 years in high school--though I was an awful student and barely knew any Chinese at high school graduation--, 4 years in college including 6 months in China, an extra 1-2 years of self study in America, and 4.5 years living/working in China). And I STILL consult regularly with my native Chinese speaking translation partner to make sure my translations are accurate.

Now regarding what theMisha said: many of us love living in 'communist' China (well except for the air quality!), and wouldn't trade it for Peru, Columbia or most anywhere else (although I'd have to think about Bora Bora). There are also many people born in the US who make a living translating/interpreting, and greatly enjoy what they do and the freedom it brings. Will it necessarily be easy? Of course not. Is there a chance you could fail? Yes. But that's the case for ANY job in life. Whatever you choose to do, approach it with a positive attitude and enthusiasm and you'll be off to a good start.

[Edited at 2015-02-01 14:02 GMT]


Phil Hand  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:49
Chinese to English
Ha! Feb 1, 2015

The Misha wrote:

I know I am about to say something they will dunk me in tar and feathers for and chase me out of town, but I am going to say it anyway. In the US (I wouldn't know about Europe and other places), translating and interpreting is not a career.

Sacrilege! And yet true... It's not a "career". It's no easier or harder than a "career", but interpreting for many people is a way of stepping sideways out of some predetermined pathway ("I have one word for you: plastics!"). It's a nicer kind of existence for many of us.

To the OP - you have to go and try interpreting before you make any decisions. Whatever you think interpreting is like, it's not that. It's a weird, kinda-social, kinda-antisocial existence. Repressing anything that you think and allowing only the client's thoughts to flow through you is a genuinely odd thing to do, and you won't know if you enjoy it until you try it. Certainly it's too early for you to be fixing your sights on any single job - life is going to change in pretty major ways during your first degree. But if you like languages, then you might as well give it a try.


Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:49
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
A clearer picture Feb 1, 2015

thejanedoe wrote:
I suppose I could major in Russian/German and minor in Spanish (as I know more Spanish now and it would take me more time to become proficient in Russian or German).

OK, thanks for that, I understand your situation a little better now. I would stick to Spanish as that head start is important. I have 4 second languages, but I only have one that I feeel comfortable using professionally. You need to be really good, as others have commented, particularly if there are many Spanish speakers in the region in which you live, many of whom also speak English.

Most translators and interpreters do spend some considerable time living in the country of the language in which they specialise. That's because immersion is a great way to improve your linguistic skills and flesh out your understanding of the cultural background. (When I was at college I couldn't wait for a chance to live in Japan.) So as a general rule, interpreters and translators tend to have a cosmopolitan background.

However, you sound pretty comfortable where you are - local college, boyfriend and so on - and I don't get any sense that you want to live abroad. How does that idea sit with you?



LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:49
Russian to English
+ ...
It is an excellent caree if you know two languages at almost the same level Feb 1, 2015

and have the right personality for the job.: no problems with speaking in public, to large audiences, good memory, the ability not to panic. I think it is an excellent career if you like interpreting, but you can also do something else on the side—like teaching a language, writing, or anything you like.

Spanish/English is a great combination for the US, but you have to be really good because there is a lot of competition.

I think it is better to speak two languages really well, for the purpose of interpreting, than speak five so so. So, I do not think it would be necessary to learn another language for that purpose, unless you want to learn it for your own pleasure. It would be hard to learn a third or fourth language to the level so you could use it for interpreting--at least ten years of work. It might be slightly different with translation, where you can check words and phrases in a dictionary, from time to time.

There is a lot of demand for Spanish–do not waste time to learn another language for that purpose. Work on your English and Spanish, and practice interpreting at home. Try interpreting TV news, or some shows and record your interpreting. Then, play it back. You could also work with some recordings--lower the speed of the input, and as you get better make it higher--to about 175/200 words per minute.

Most work is in medical and legal interpreting. The UN too, but there is a lot of hassle with getting in and out of the building these days. They have very high requirements and do not pay that much. You also need to know a third language for them, at a slightly lower level. Living in NYC is expensive, or sometimes wildly expensive, but it is worth every penny of it. Good luck. The type of interpreting that pays the best is conference interpreting—$800-$1,500 a day, but those interpreters do not work every day of the year, and then it is more difficult, constraining and boring sometimes.

[Edited at 2015-02-01 10:57 GMT]


DS Trans  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:49
French to English
+ ...
My 2 Cents Feb 1, 2015

I'd continue with your efforts to speak Spanish as much as possible and to be involved in the Spanish-speaking community in your area. But to keep your options open, I'd recommend majoring in something else in college, and minoring in Spanish (or another language). You can still plan for a year abroad during school, hopefully spend more time abroad after school, and then undertake a grad interpreting program if you choose when you are ready. It's highly improbable that majoring in a language in college would prepare you for such a program anyway, and you can have something else to do in case a language-related career doesn't work out. From what I understand, not all STEM majors lead to great job prospects either, so I'd do lots of research in that area as well.

I honestly don't know what your chances will be of finding Spanish/English interpreting work in your area after finishing your studies. As others have said, you'll have a lot of competition from people who grew up speaking both. I'm not saying to give up your dreams, but I'd focus on improving your language skills mostly outside of university and get that piece of paper in another subject at this point.

[Edited at 2015-02-01 23:12 GMT]

[Edited at 2015-02-01 23:13 GMT]


To report site rules violations or get help, contact a site moderator:

You can also contact site staff by submitting a support request »

Would interpreting be a good career?

Advanced search

Wordfast Pro
Translation Memory Software for Any Platform

Exclusive discount for ProZ.com users! Save over 13% when purchasing Wordfast Pro through ProZ.com. Wordfast is the world's #1 provider of platform-independent Translation Memory software. Consistently ranked the most user-friendly and highest value

More info »
PerfectIt consistency checker
Faster Checking, Greater Accuracy

PerfectIt helps deliver error-free documents. It improves consistency, ensures quality and helps to enforce style guides. It’s a powerful tool for pro users, and comes with the assurance of a 30-day money back guarantee.

More info »

  • All of ProZ.com
  • Term search
  • Jobs
  • Forums
  • Multiple search