How to Get Started with Freelance Interpreting
If you have ever traveled to a foreign country or met someone from a different cultural background, you may have experienced the struggles of dealing with a language barrier. Within informal encounters, linguistic and cultural barriers can normally be brushed off as minor inconveniences. But what happens when you are faced with these barriers during an urgent situation?
Accessing medical services a prime example of a situation in which the inability for two parties to communicate could potentially lead to serious consequences. Especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are hearing more and more about the negative effects of communication barriers within healthcare.
Since technology has not advanced yet to the point where people of all nations can accurately speak and understand each other’s native tongues, the next best solution is getting more professionally trained interpreters to help facilitate important conversations between parties that cannot understand each other.
Who Can Become a Freelance Interpreter?
If you speak two or more languages fluently and have a desire to help others in your community, you are already on the right track for a career in freelance interpreting. To be an interpreter in the US, you must speak both English and your target language(s) with very high or native fluency. This is to help ensure that your vocabulary, comprehension, and speech flow are at the right level for professional interpreting.
However, mastery over languages is not the only thing required to become a professional interpreter. Developing foundational interpreting skills (listening, note-taking, etc.) and obtaining the proper training/certification for your particular field (medical, legal, business, etc.) are equally important in preparing oneself to effectively facilitate communication between non-English speakers and their service providers.
Let's say you are interested in helping limited English proficient (LEP) patients communicate with their medical providers. On top of mastering your two languages, you would need to complete a minimum 40-hour medical interpreter training course to become a qualified medical interpreter. Nowadays, a 40-hour medical interpreter training certificate is becoming the industry standard for bilinguals to prove that they can handle the ethical, legal, and procedural duties of medical interpreting. Examples of these courses include CCHCP’s Bridging the Gap and The Professional Medical Interpreter, a self-paced online course developed by Liberty. Additionally, professional interpreters aiming to become nationally certified in medical interpreting can go on to apply to be a CMI or CHI.
Some common trainings/certifications for other interpreting fields include:
Public Schools/Education Interpreter - 24 Hour Education Interpreter Training (coming soon from Liberty)
Legal Interpreter - 24 Hour Legal Interpreter Training (like Language of Justice)
State Court Interpreter - State Court Interpreter Certification Exam (administered by each state individually)
Federal Court Interpreter - Federal Court Interpreter Certificate Exam
American Sign Language Interpreter - RID Certification
Anyone who wants to become a freelance interpreter should do their research carefully to make sure they can obtain the proper credentials to interpret in their field of choice. Like finishing a college degree or certificate to seek higher level jobs, bilinguals should finish their formal interpreter training BEFORE officially working as an interpreter in the field.
Staff Interpreters vs Freelance Interpreters
An important thing to realize before pursuing a career as a freelance interpreter is how it differs from being a staff interpreter. The chart below gives a good overview of the main differences between the two.
The main things to note for freelance interpreters are that:
Freelance interpreters are self-employed (they are not W2 employees)
Staff interpreters can get benefits (401k, health insurance) from their employer, while freelance interpreters usually are not eligible for benefits
Freelance interpreters are allowed to pick and choose their assignments so it is more flexible than traditional jobs
Workload will depend on the number of assignments you can book as a freelance interpreter, whether through your agency or with your own business
Since some languages are more prevalent in the U.S. than others, you will find that most staff interpreter positions are only available for languages such as Spanish or Chinese Mandarin. However, this should not deter other bilinguals from aspiring to become an interpreter if they speak a less common language. Freelance interpreters are needed for ALL LANGUAGES to help ensure that every LEP person in the United States can have access to a professional interpreter when they need one.
Finding Work through Interpreter Agencies
Once you have proved yourself proficient in your target languages and obtained the proper training for your interpreting field, the next step is finding freelance interpreter work. While trained interpreters have the option to start their own interpreting business, it is usually more common to find work as a freelance interpreter through language service providers (LSPs).
Language service providers (or agencies) recruit for interpreters and translators to work for them as independent contractors. Essentially, the agency is the “middleman” that coordinates between the clients (who request the interpreter) and the freelance interpreters (who cover the interpreting assignment). Freelance interpreters typically work with one or more language service providers to increase their chances of getting more assignments.
The typical scheduling process for selecting interpreters for assignments is outlined below. Most agencies operate on a first-come, first-served basis so freelance interpreters need to make sure they regularly check when new assignments become available. Having a flexible work/personal schedule also increases a freelance interpreter’s chances of getting assignments.
However, it's important to note that not all language service providers are the same. Some agencies do not require interpreters to have any formal training before starting to work. This is a problem as it increases the risk of interpreter quality issues or breaches in the code of ethics. This is why it is highly encouraged that every bilingual complete formal training/certification before applying to work as a professional interpreter to ensure they are fully knowledgeable about the standards of practice and terminology in their particular field.
Here are some other things to keep in mind when working with LSPs:
During the application process, make sure you fully understand and can comply with the agency's interpreter credentialing process (e.g. you might undergo background checks and drug tests, or if doing on-site medical interpretation, you will need to submit your immunization records)
Always check with your agency about pay outside of your hourly rate (e.g. travel/mileage pay)
Read the interpreter handbook and contract information very carefully as every LSP will have varying requirements, protocols, and policies (e.g. how to keep track of your hours)
Being a freelance interpreter gives you an opportunity to do meaningful work while also gaining another source of income. To become one, you must begin by mastering your spoken languages and completing the training/certification you need to interpret professionally in your chosen field. Once you are trained and qualified, you are free to start your own interpreting business or contract with various language service providers to get work from their clients. As a freelance interpreter, you are the voice for someone in their time of need. So, if you speak English and another language fluently, consider using your talents as professional freelance interpreter and start making a difference in your community today!
We're Hiring! Looking to start your freelance interpreter career in the Washington DC Metro Area? Apply to be a contractor at Liberty Language Services! To see our available positions, check out our Careers Page.