For February, I thought about doing some cheesy “Why I Heart Interpreting” post (and I really do heart interpreting, and I do love writing cheesiness), but I thought a post about getting started as an interpreter would be more useful. Friends, I’ve been there, on both sides of the coin. As a job seeker, I’ve worked (and still work) for agencies. I’ve applied for, interviewed for, and have been hired for full-time interpreting jobs. I’ve also been on the other side, reviewing applications and interviewing candidates. Here are a few points to get you started, from the voice of experience. (If you’re already working, but still new, you might want to check out my post on what to expect in an interpreting assignment, and must-know terminology for medical interpreters.)
- Resume: If you don’t already have a great resume, you’ve got to do something about it. Hire a professional to help you. It’s some of the best money you’ll ever spend. I personally recommend Resume by Nico, who took my insane 5-page Word doc resume that probably gave the reader a headache, and turned it into something that makes me look really good.
- Training: A lot of places like to see that you’ve had Bridging the Gap. In my department, we look for any training that meets the NCIHC’s national training standards (this is written into our hospital policy). Already have that kind of training? It’s time to get more. I love seeing an applicant that has gone to workshops and conferences. That kind of person is probably going to enjoy interpreting, be good at it, and be motivated to learn and grow and get even better at it.
- Experience: A great way to start out is through agency work, which personally I found better than freelance work when I was starting out. The agency already has relationships and contracts with places that need interpreters, and then they hire you to do the work. You get to try out a lot of different kinds of interpreting jobs, get tons of experience, and figure out what you like the most. On the other hand, maybe you live in a smaller community where it’s easier to do freelance work. Whatever the case, get out there and jump in.
- Volunteer experience: These opportunities are everywhere, and sometimes you have to create them. There’s got to be a free medical clinic in your community that isn’t sure how to treat patients who don’t speak English, right? This could be the experience you get that leads to agency work. Not only do you get the volunteer experience, your community benefits from your service. Win-win, you guys.
- Professional affiliations: If you’re in the US, you’ve got lots of professional organizations to choose from. It might not seem like much, but when I see an applicant who’s a member of at least one professional organization, I think that this person is going to be really interested in what we’re doing, and will constantly be seeking out chances to learn and grow as an interpreter. There can be some overlap between volunteering and professional affiliations. The experience I had volunteering for one of our professional organizations, the National Council on Interpreting in Healthcare was one of the highlights of my professional and personal life.
- The interview: Be prepared for a language evaluation of some kind. If a language evaluation is not part of your interview, think twice. The people hiring you, who will be the boss of you, don’t care about your language skills. How much do they know about interpreters and what they do? Will it be a supportive work environment for you? On the other hand, some might look at this as a chance to build up a language access program and awareness of the work interpreters do where it’s most needed.
- Professional dress: It may seem obvious, but believe me, not everyone got the memo, so I’ll say it here: How you dress is important. In an interview, or on an interpreting assignment, I think you can’t go wrong with full-length pants, and a button-up shirt. Iron them. Put on closed-toed shoes. No glittery makeup, nothing garish, no heavy perfumes or colognes. No leggings, and no cleavage. Don’t get me wrong. I will rock out in some leggings and leg warmers with some glittery lip gloss, but nobody in my office wants to see that; I save it for social time. Think business casual (and it’s okay if you need to Google “business casual”). And don’t forget to smile.
Just a word on education: I’m not sure what to say about it. I know some great interpreters who didn’t finish college, or never went. But I don’t want to encourage anyone to NOT go to college. I did, and I’m glad I did. It gives me a level of understanding of language that helps me in my work. Then again, there are some people whose language skills crush mine, who didn’t finish college. But, there are some jobs at a supervisory or managerial level that aren’t available to you without a Bachelor’s degree. And, if you’ve got your eye on grad school (which is where I am right now in my academic career), you’ve gotta do undergrad first. But again, you can work as an interpreter without going to college. You don’t need a degree to apply for national certification for spoken languages. While I think that over, feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments.