health care interpreting, medical interpreting, new interpreters

The New Girl: Practical Tips for Starting Out

  • a classic!  embroidered shirt from my first full-time interpreting job.
    A classic! The shirt from my first full-time interpreting job in 2004.

    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.

What kind of advice would you give to someone just starting out? Let us know in the comments!

20 thoughts on “The New Girl: Practical Tips for Starting Out”

  1. I love reading and sharing your blog with other interpreters who are just as passionate about their work. It gives me great comfort to know we are not alone in the interpreting world. Thank you

  2. Hello, I have a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish Translation and Interpreting. I graduated in December of 2013, but ever since graduating I haven’t done anything related to my field. The city that I’m from is mostly populated by Hispanics, and due to this there are almost no opportunities for me here since there really isn’t a language barrier. I’ve been interested in medical interpreting for a while. I just applied to two positions in another city up North, and I am planning to apply for more. My concern is my resume. I’ve only worked at a hotel and at a library. My city borders with Mexico so I do use my Spanish all of the time. Do you have any advice on what I could write on my resume to highlight my language skills? (I am studying medical terminology on my own. Do you think they would take a chance on someone with no previous experience?) I do have my resume done, but it’s very plain…very “recent graduate” lol. I just discovered your blog so I’ll definitely check it out.

    1. Hi Norma, Thanks for stopping by! You might focus on your coursework when considering your resume. When I first started, I included in my resume the special coursework I took for my BA, like medical terminology, Spanish for healthcare professionals, etc. Getting experience can be tough when you don’t have any. Seeking out volunteer opportunities (sometimes you have to create them) can help and sometimes lead to something else, and agency work can be a good place to start. Good luck!

  3. Thank you for this great overview. I have a follow-up question to this. It’s kind of a difficult one, but hey, interpreters and challenges always go together. I live in a very small resort town that’s about 3 hours from all the major cities like DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia and so on. For the past 2 years I’ve been working as a telephonic interpreter and in the meantime I got certified as a medical interpreter. While I enjoy my job and especially the medical calls, that I get pretty often, my ultimate dream is to be a face-to-face medical interpreter. I’ve been struggling to make this big move somewhere else as there are not many places that guarantee a full-time job for a Russian/Ukrainian interpreter, so I’m afraid to find myself in this situation where I’m in a big city alone and I have no job. Maybe someone here was in a similar situation or has any thoughts on how to make this transfer?

    1. Hey Marina, Congrats on earning your certification! I would recommend reaching out to professional organizations in the cities or regions you’ve got your eye on. They’d be able to give you more info on what the market is like for your language combo and provide support. In the meantime maybe a fellow reader can offer some advice from personal experience.

  4. I’m starting out and not sure what is the best, sole proprietor or LLC. I am simply interested in working and keeping this as simple as possible. The place that I applied for work at needs me to give them a UBI #. What would you recommend?

    1. Hey Linda! I am by no means an expert in this respect. From what I understand, you’d want to apply for LLC status if you’re planning on doing work that would involve hiring subcontractors, or if you want to open a bank account for your business. That’s about all I know. In my state, as a subcontractor (for example, when you do work for an agency) they don’t ask for a UBI number; you can simply do the work and invoice them. You might ask an accountant, or someone in your state who’s also doing freelance work. Maybe a fellow reader could offer some better advice than I can.

      1. Hello! I’m really enjoying this big and if I may I’d like to piggyback off of uncertainties when it comes to being a ‘subcontractor’. How do you do your taxes and also what about earnings towards social security? Any thoughts on that?

      2. Hi Gina! I’d recommend finding an accountant who works well with freelancers. They’ll help you pay quarterly taxes and understand how much needs to be set aside from your income. Having an accountant walk you through the initial how-to and then filing your taxes for you is worth it, and affordable!

  5. Hi Liz! Just found your blog through CCHI’s Facebook link. Great stuff & thanks for encouraging dialogue among interpreters 🙂

  6. Hello everyone. I am an interpreter for the ED at Yuma Regional Medical Center. I am doing a research paper for my Masters program about medical interpreting and the lack thereof in hospitals. I would appreciate any advice or tips that any of you could provide. Thanks.

  7. Hi! I live in a very rural community, and I work in a public school. In the past year, I’ve personally seen and heard anecdotally that the local schools, police department, courts, and hospitals don’t use interpreters even in situations that obviously require one. I’m told this is because they either don’t think the rule applies to them, or they don’t know who to call (the closest agency is an hour away).

    The more I talk to people, the bigger the need seems to be, and I would like to begin offering interpreting services (I’m a native English speaker, with professional/academic proficiency in Spanish). I haven’t got a clue how to begin, how to get experience, or how to network in an area that doesn’t think it needs interpreters. Your blog has been the most helpful source I’ve found yet! I’d appreciate any tips, from anyone.


    1. Hi Lynn, I’m happy you’ve found the blog helpful! The first thing I’d recommend is joining a professional organization. There may be one in your region, and there are a few national organizations where you could connect with those who are or have been in a similar situation. Check out the National Council on Interpeting in Healthcare and the International Medical Interpreters Association. Both websites list regional organizations and training opportunities. For the legal side, check out the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators. That is my short answer!

  8. Hi Liz! These are some great tips, definitely something I’ll keep in mind as I embark on my long journey to being a full-time freelancer!

    Just one thing, though, just because you can become an interpreter without undergrad (or grad school), that doesn’t mean you should! I’m a strong believer in in-depth training for interpreters and translators, and I really don’t think that’s something you can replicate outside of a classroom environment, and certainly not without great mentors. In particular, the ethics portion of a good training course is vital for interpreters–the consequences of ethically questionable practice can be devasting!

    1. Hi Jonathan! Thanks for commenting on the issue of education! I was hoping someone would chime in. I agree, I think that the more education and training, the better. I would love to see more college-level programs that include not only practical training for interpreters, but shadowing and practice opportunities. In fact, I’d love to just see more trainings in general that include outside-the-classroom experience! I also agree that ethics training is lacking. That was a big driver behind the two ethics workshops I developed; we need a lot more dialogue surrounding ethics and what it means to use ethical principles to guide our interpreting practice.

      Good luck on that journey to full-time freelancing! I am headed that way myself.

  9. Hi Liz, just wanted to say thanks so much for creating this blog! It’s been so practical and helpful in getting a basic understanding of this profession. I’ve been wanting to get into medical interpreting for a couple of years now and just got a call from a local hospital asking me to come in for an interview next week. They told me to plan for three hours; I’m pretty nervous and not sure what to expect. Do you have any more tips for the actual interview and how to prepare for it? I’ve done some interpreting for travel agencies before but never anything in the medical field. Do you think my lack of experience will be a big factor?

    1. Hey Rebecca! I’m glad you’ve found the blog helpful. Without knowing anything about your upcoming interview, I think it would be reasonable to expect regular interview questions in both languages, an interpreting evaluation where the interviewers read a scripted dialogue and you’re the interpreter, and a written evaluation of both languages. If you want to prepare for the interpreting evaluation, you might check out this June’s post with my tips on prepping for oral exams. In general, I would not recommend working in the hospital setting without having training (some hospitals, like mine, don’t allow untrained interpreters) and some kind of experience with medical interpreting. Of course, this is exactly how I got started, and how I know it’s not recommendable 🙂 Remember though, that interviewing is good experience, too! I would ask afterwards if they can give you any feedback about how you did. Best of luck to you!

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