The World of a Community Interpreter

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Spanish language interpreter


In what profession can you assist at a birth, sign a family up for Medicaid, achieve justice for a victim of fraud, teach a patient to calculate his insulin dosage, get welfare benefits for a single mom, rescue a woman being beaten up by her boyfriend, and help parents negotiate an Individualized Education Program for their son—all in one day?


Only one. And that’s community interpreting.

In March we talked about the broad field of interpreting: diplomatic interpreting, conference interpreting, escort interpreting, business interpreting. But by far, the most common sub-field of interpreting in the U.S. is community interpreting. Across the country, thousands of community interpreters are working every day to assure that those who serve the public can communicate with their clients and patients, while those who are seeking services can access them. What does the work of a community interpreter look like?

Community interpreters help facilitate communication in venues in which people are seeking services which are publicaly supported. These include:

  • Hospitals and clinics (Healthcare Interpreting)
  • Schools (Educational Interpreting)
  • Social Services, such as welfare or support enforcement (Social Service Interpreting)
  • Courts (Legal or Judicial Interpreting)
  • Police services (Police Interpreting)

Of course, the interpreter doesn’t actually provide the services mentioned above. Thank goodness! That’s what doctors, lawyers, educators, police, and social workers are for! But as the voice of that service provider and the voice of the patient or client, interpreters bridge the communication gap, allowing these providers and these patients/clients to hear and understand each other.

Many interpreters concentrate in one area or another. Healthcare interpreters have specialized training and national certification, and often these interpreters will branch out and do social service and educational interpreting as well. Judicial and police interpreters have separate training programs and their own certification at the state and national levels as well.

Some interpreters work full- or part-time as staff, either as dedicated interpreters (doing nothing but interpret) or as dual-role interpreters (interpreting as a sideline to being a Nursing Assistant or a Medical Assistant, for example). Staff interpreters are most common in healthcare settings and courts. These jobs are the most stable and carry benefits, although they are fewer and harder to get.

Other interpreters work as freelancers for language agencies, which dispatch them to a wide variety of different sites during the day. Freelancers earn more per hour than staff positions (with no benefits though), and the work is easier to get. It can also be fascinating to interpret in so many different venues over the course of a day. That means, however, that the interpreter must dominate the technical vocabulary in all these fields. That’s a challenge!

Finally, some interpreters work remotely, over the phone or over a video conference connection, either from a centralized call center or from their homes. Some OPI (over-the-phone interpreting) and VRI (video remote interpreting) companies also have contracts with banks, insurance agencies, emergency services (such as 9-1-1), government offices, hotels and other business sectors, so an interpreter can serve an incredible variety of customers.

Sound interesting? It sure is! And the first step toward any of these careers—after being bilingual, that is—is to get trained as an interpreter. Then step into the world of the community interpreter, breaking down language barriers and supporting equal access to public services for everybody every day.

Be the Bridge!
Learn more about getting trained as an interpreter