How to Become a
Sign Language Interpreter

Two women speaking in sign language outdoors

If you would like an interesting communications job helping others, consider becoming a Sign Language Interpreter. Find out what this career entails, requirements to find a job, and average pay rates as well as job projections in this article.

What Does a Sign Language Interpreter Do?

A Sign Language Interpreter works with individuals who are hearing-impaired or deaf, translating spoken language into sign language, and vice versa. They can work as independent contractors in one-on-one situations, or as employees in business offices, courtrooms, schools and colleges, hospitals, or in any other setting where their services are required.

A Sign Language Interpreter needs to have excellent knowledge of both the English language as well as American Sign Language (ASL). If they work in a technical setting, such as medical or legal, they need to understand the terminology to be able to communicate it in both languages. Common responsibilities of a Sign Language Interpreter include:

  • Translating the spoken English language into ALS and vice versa

  • Becoming an expert in technical terminology, if working in a specific setting

  • Tutoring, if working in an educational setting

  • Note taking

Sign Language Interpreter Skills

Sign Language Interpreters must be active listeners in order to hear and remember everything said or signed, and be able to quickly translate it into another language (either English or ASL). These professionals need to be able to work in individual and group settings, often in environments where people speak quickly and will not repeat themselves. They must be comfortable using their hands as a means of communication for an extended amount of time, often the majority of the working day.

Other key Sign Language Interpreter skills include:

  • Knowledge of ALS and Signed Exact English (SEE Signed)

  • Listening skills

  • Communication skills

  • Good memory

How Do You Become a Sign Language Interpreter

Education and Training

To become a Sign Language Interpreter, you must have at least a high school diploma or equivalent, although most job postings required a college degree or vocational training. Associate and bachelor's degrees in American Sign Language are offered in certain colleges and universities, although many job openings also accepted degrees in communications, English or a related field, especially if courses in American Sign Language were taken as a foreign language option.

c The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) offers a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) Certification. To become certified, you need to complete 40 hours of training, meet the associates’ degree educational requirements and pass the CDI knowledge exam. Other certifications are offered by the RID and the National Association of the Deaf.

An Internship or participation in a mentorship program can increase the chances of finding a job; mentorships are available through RID as well as other organizations.

Finding a job

There is a growing demand for Interpreters and Translators, which includes Sign Language Interpreters, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), because of a shortage of qualified professionals. The BLS predicts a 29 percent change in projected job openings through 2024, with 2,720 new jobs becoming available during that time period.

When applying for a job as a Sign Language Interpreter, you need to document your education, as well as any professional experience to compete with other applicants. JobHero can help in with our samples of Sign Language Interpreter resumes.

When searching for Sign Language Interpreter  job opportunities, it is beneficial to contact professionals you have met during your internship or mentorship programs for references or job finding tips.

JobHero’s cover letter examples can help you express your interest in a Sign Language Interpreter position, and explain how your education, work experience and skills has prepared you for this role.

Insights from a Sign Language Interpreter

To provide real insight into what it takes to become a Sign Language Interpreter, we interviewed Leyel Hudson, the lead professor for American Sign Language Interpreter Training at Lone Star College-CyFair. She owns Blue Sun Interpreting, LLC, specializing in Comic-Con interpreting, with her partner Jennifer Husband.

What is the common career path for a Sign Language Interpreter?

Thankfully, the career path of a sign language interpreter is never common.  We interpret anywhere that deaf people work, learn, celebrate, or live life and have the right to an interpreter.  Sign language interpreters work for schools, hospitals, government agencies, community events, courts, video relay phone call processing centers, and much more.  There are deaf doctors, attorneys, political figures, actors, pilots, professors, etc. and many request interpreters to work directly with them in certain aspects of their jobs. The work of an interpreter is quite broad which allows for beautiful variety in the job market.

What should someone consider before becoming a Sign Language Interpreter?

First of all, a person should have a passion to work with the deaf community.  American Sign Language is quite divergent in syntax and overall grammar from English and is therefore as difficult to learn as any other world language. Every state has a different set of standards as to what is required for an interpreter to become employed.  For example, in the state of Texas, a person must be certified by the state or national certification entities in order to be a K-12 educational interpreter.  Interpreters working in Texas courtrooms must have an additional court certification. I would suggest checking with a local interpreter-training program to find out what the standards for becoming an interpreter are in your area.  In Texas, you need at least a two-year degree of any kind to sit for our state exam.  For the national exam, you would need a four-year degree of any kind or a combination of education and field experience.  Both exams are rigorous and it is highly recommended that anyone considering becoming an interpreter obtain an education from a postsecondary interpreter-training program.

What type of person excels in this job?

The type of person who excels at being an interpreter is one with integrity, soft skills, critical thinking skills, and works well both independently as well as part of a team.  An interpreter must be a lifelong learner and must be able to receive constructive feedback.  When working as a freelance interpreter, it is helpful to have a business background.  People with excellent memory recall, multitasking capability, and any specialized knowledge (medical, legal, mental health, education, etc.) have a tendency to excel as interpreters.  Lastly, a person wanting to become an interpreter must have mastery of both English and American Sign Language.

What are some of the most important skills for a Sign Language Interpreter to have?

Soft skills for an interpreter would include interpersonal communication, diplomacy, negotiation, professionalism, and integrity.  Hard skills would include mastery of English and American Sign Language, the ability to produce a message while simultaneously or consecutively receiving it, having a working understanding of our code of professional conduct, and having a working understanding of a variety of cultural norms and customs.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being a Sign Language Interpreter?

By far the most rewarding aspect of being a Sign Language Interpreter is the privilege of working with wonderful people on a daily basis. We step into people's lives on their worst and on their best days. We get to see babies being born, people getting married, and people pursuing their passions.  One of the greatest honors is bridging communication and seeing two people connect who might have otherwise never gotten to know each other.  We are tool for both Deaf people to see into the hearing world and for hearing people to see into the Deaf world.

How Much Do Sign Language Interpreters Get Paid?

Interpreters and translators are paid an average salary of $44,200. The lowest-paid Sign Language Interpreters make around $23,200, and the highest-paid make approximately $78,500 per year.

Top 10 States for Sign Language Interpreters Salary

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

    District of Columbia

    $85,100

    New Jersey

    $64,600

    Virginia

    $62,500

    Maryland

    $57,600

    Massachusetts

    $55,700

    Colorado

    $52,600

    Alaska

    $51,700

    Connecticut

    $51,300

    Puerto Rico

    $50,900

    Texas

    $49,400

    Sign Language Interpreter Resources

    To find more information about a career as a Sign Language Interpreter, check these additional resources.

    Blogs

    LC Interpretive Service Blog
    Information for Sign Language Interpreters.

    ASL Deafined Blogs
    Help with learning ASL.

    Industry Groups

    National Association of the Deaf (NAD)
    Nation's premier civil rights organization of, by and for deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States of America, as well as information about becoming a Sign Language Interpreter.

    Registry of Interpreters for Deaf Inc.(RID)
    Promotes professionalism in the field of sign language interpreter education through an accreditation process.

    Sign Language Interpreter Books

    Signed Language Interpreting: Preparation, Practice and Performance
    New insights into current aspects of preparation, practice and performance of signed language interpreting.

    Topics in Signed Language Interpreting: Theory and practice
    Topics of interest to both students of signed language interpreting and practitioners working in community, conference, and education settings.

    The information in this article comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job postings and other online sources.