How to Become an
ASL Interpreter

Two women speaking in sign language

Choosing the perfect career isn’t easy. Fortunately, if you’re seeking information on how to become an ASL Interpreter, you’ve come to the right place. Easily learn everything you need to know about being an ASL Interpreter, including what they do, education requirements and salary.

What Does an ASL Interpreter Do?

An ASL Interpreter facilitates communication by changing spoken language to sign language. An ASL Interpreter differs from a translator in that a translator changes written text to another language while an Interpreter only works with the spoken word. ASL Interpreters have a goal of making sure nothing is lost in the message when they translate speech to sign language. To achieve this goal, ASL Interpreters must have knowledge of the colloquialisms and slight differences in the language of the deaf community.

Some common ASL Interpreter duties and responsibilities include:

  • Find ways to convert source language concepts to the same type of concepts in sign language

  • Add technical terminology and information to glossaries and terminology databases for use in translations

  • Have the ability to speak, read and write in two languages – one must be English – fluently

  • Duplicate the original language with style and tone intact

  • Relay oral messages with accuracy, speed and clarity

ASL Interpreter Skills

Concentration, dexterity, and cultural sensitivity are three of the most important skills an ASL Interpreter will be expected to do. Being an ASL Interpreter involves begin able to make coordinated hand, finger and arm movements quickly and accurately. Concentration is key because the Interpreter will often be in a busy environment where other people or moving around and speaking. Cultural sensitivity is also critical due to the various people from different cultural backgrounds that the Interpreter will be expected to work with in a respectful manner.  In the same way, the ASL Interpreter should have excellent interpersonal skills in order to attract and retain clients who need interpreting services.

Other key ASL Interpreter skills include:

  • Written communication

  • Reading

  • Listening

  • Business skills

 

How Do You Become an ASL Interpreter?

Education and Training

According to our analysis of online job postings, employers are looking for ASL Interpreter candidates who have at least a bachelor’s degree.  ASL Interpreters come from a variety of educational backgrounds. Therefore, while having a bachelor’s degree is important, it could potentially be in a variety of different disciplines. The specialized training needed to be an ASL Interpreter can be obtained through programs at colleges and universities across the nation or other types of training programs or courses. Volunteer opportunities to work with the deaf or hard of hearing are excellent ways to gain experience applying ASL skills. The National Association of the Deaf offers certification for sign language Interpreters, and so does the Registry for Interpreters of the Deaf.  The latter organization also offers formal mentoring programs.

Finding a job

Demand for ASL Interpreters is developing at a faster-than-average rate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 29 percent growth for the position through 2024, amounting to a total of 17,500 job openings for ASL Interpreters during that period. The projected job openings will be due to an increase in the use of video calls, which allow people to use a sign language Interpreter very easily.

Every well-planned ASL Interpreter’s job search starts with crafting a high-quality resume that highlights your skills and experience. For help creating a resume, take a look at our library of ASL Interpreter’s resume samples.

Once your resume is ready, search online for ASL Interpreter job opportunities. As you search for openings, be sure to leverage your professional network, including people you worked with in education.

When applying for ASL Interpreter positions, create a cover letter that expresses your interest in the position and highlights your qualifications and what you can bring to the role. Need some inspiration for your cover letter? Check out our collection of cover letter samples.

Insights from ASL Interpreter

In order to get an inside look at how to become an ASL Interpreter, we talked to Amy Andersen, M.S. Deaf Education, who is an American Sign Language teacher at Ocean City High School in New Jersey.  Here’s what she had to say:

What is the common career path for an ASL Interpreter?

The common career path for an ASL Interpreter is to complete a four-year Bachelor’s program in ASL/English Interpreting. There are specific and specialized classes that students will take over the course of those years. The courses will range from linguistic comparative analysis between ASL and English, to different forms of interpreting like translation and consecutive interpretation to the sociolinguistics of the Deaf Community. The Bachelor’s program will give students the skills they need to prepare to become an Interpreter. There is a national organization called the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), through which prospective Interpreters must take two different exams to earn National Interpreter Certification (NIC). There is a written knowledge test that emphasizes the importance of ethics as an Interpreter. There is also an interview and performance exam that assesses the skills of the applicant. Although there are community colleges that offer two-year associate degree programs, RID requires a Bachelor’s degree in order to become NIC certified. There are approved alternative paths to eligibility for special cases.

The best bet is to allow yourself four years to truly master ASL, learn about deaf culture, develop skills specifically in translation, and immerse yourself in the Deaf World. The best place to learn a language is with the people who use it! It is also advisable to look for programs where the majority, if not all professors of ASL, are themselves Deaf and native users of the language.  Some programs prepare you to take the written NIC test right after graduation, and many students will do this. They then have five years to take the interview/performance based test.  Many people will wait to take this rigorous and challenging assessment until they have some years of experience in the field.

Today, there are so many job options for ASL Interpreters. You can become a freelance Interpreter and manage your own business, or you can work for an interpreting agency. You will travel to various places for jobs and do something different every day! You can be an educational Interpreter where you work in a public school system that has Deaf students. You will be with the same student(s) for at least a year and your job will include guiding the younger students in learning how to advocate for themselves and properly use an Interpreter. You can specialize in medical interpreting, legal interpreting, or Deaf/Blind interpreting via tactile signing. You could also become an Interpreter for the Video Relay Service where you facilitate communication between Deaf and hearing individuals via a videophone, which works like Skype or FaceTime.  There are certainly many options and many opportunities! 

 What should someone consider before becoming an ASL Interpreter?

It is important to consider the nature and full implications of being an ASL Interpreter before choosing it as a career path. The Code of Ethics is specific and it is not the Interpreter’s place to insert their own opinions or commentary related to what they are interpreting. You have to be someone who can “hold your tongue” - or fingers - even if you feel what is being said is rude and disrespectful. You have to be able to maintain 100 percent privacy and professionalism. You also need to have a strong working memory because interpreting involves doing more than one thing at a time, and remembering what you just heard. Interpreters have to hear whatever is being spoken out loud in English, translate the grammar in their minds, and then sign it in ASL while at the same time listening and remembering the next sentence that is being spoken out loud. In essence you are signing in one language and listening in another simultaneously, which is not an easy task! The most important thing to consider as an Interpreter is you cannot do this job in isolation; it is essential to embrace that you are now becoming part of the Deaf Community in your area. Interpreters should be comfortable socializing and interacting with Deaf people on a regular basis. They should easily maintain friendships in the Deaf Community and above all have respect for the people and the culture that uses ASL. In order to maintain your signing skills and keep up to date with variations in signs and important topics affecting the Deaf Community, it is crucial that you are part of your Deaf Community. 

 What type of person excels in this job?

The type of person that excels in this job is someone who is organized, confident, and interested in the linguistic aspects of languages and how they relate to each other. You should have a passion for American Sign Language and truly enjoy being part of the Deaf Community.  It is extremely important that you understand your role not as someone who needs to help or save Deaf children and adults in the world, but instead know that you are a facilitator of communication between people who use different languages. You are bridging the gap, not saving the day. That is where respect comes in and is so important in order to succeed. 

 What are some of the most important skills for an ASL Interpreter to have?

 It is most important for an Interpreter to be educated and highly skilled in American Sign Language. Interpreters should exceed the minimum that is required to become certified. It is important to take your job seriously, because based on your skill and quality of interpreting, you could be affecting a person’s understanding of a medical condition, their representation in a court of law, or a child’s access to education. Interpreting is not something to do because you think ASL is a beautiful language. It is truly important to be committed, dedicated, and cherish the opportunity to be a lifelong learner as you navigate through not only your own hearing world, but the Deaf world as well. 

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of being an ASL Interpreter?

The most rewarding thing about being an ASL Interpreter is the gift of being able to do what you love for a living. It is truly rewarding to become a respected part of the Deaf Community and know that you are working as an ally with Deaf people in your area to make language accessible for both hearing AND Deaf people in society. Working with children is particularly gratifying as well, and having the ability to show them at a young age that they have rights and deserve equality, and that you are there to bridge the gap that exists in our world.  Entering the field with professionalism and respect allows you to be one of the people in a Deaf child’s life who empowers them and reinforces their vision of a possible future. 

How Much Do ASL Interpreters Get Paid?

ASL Interpreters earn a median hourly wage in the United States of over $21. The lowest-paid ASL Interpreters make around $11 hourly, while the highest-paid can earn more than $37 per hour.

Top 10 States for ASL Interpreter’s Salary

ASL Interpreters in the following states make the highest median hourly wage in the U.S.:

    District Of Columbia

    $40

    Virginia

    $33

    New Jersey

    $30

    Maryland

    $30

    Massachusetts

    $28

    Texas

    $24

    New York

    $24

    Arizona

    $24

    California

    $22

    Minnesota

    $22

    ASL Interpreter Resources

    Need more information? We put together this list of extra resources to assist you as you continue exploring a career as an ASL Interpreter.

    On the Web

    Lifeprint
    American Sign Language resource for teachers and students

    LC Interpreting Services
    Informative article about what it’s like to be a real-life ASL Interpreter

    Books

    American Sign Language the Easy Way
    includes signing information, grammar of ASL, facial expression importance and conversation dialogues to give the reader real-life scenarios.

    Signing for Dummies
    comprehensive resource that is perfect for beginners to ASL. Includes a fun-and-games section and an informative video CD.

    Industry Groups

    NAD
    The National Association of the Deaf is the nation’s premier civil rights organization by the deaf and for the deaf and hard of hearing.

    American Sign Language Interpreter Network
    Network of nationally certified Interpreters. Mentoring of pre-certified Interpreters is also available.