Me, You and the Next Generation of Interpreters

A few weeks back, I traveled to a distant town for a court interpreting assignment. It had been well worth the trip from a financial point of view, but I was really beat when I got home. As I was drifting off to sleep for a well-deserved late-afternoon nap, I found myself thinking, “Maybe I’m getting just a little too old for this.” Yes, I am starting to look forward to a time when I won’t have to juggle madly to keep up with a sometimes too-full schedule on the one hand, or suffer anxiety attacks about not getting enough assignments on the other; when I can work when I feel like it and relax when I don’t.

In short, I am contemplating retirement. Not tomorrow, nor even soon, but the end is in sight. What, you may ask, does my pending retirement have to do with my purported topic—a new generation of interpreters?

Well, just about everything, I guess. When I look around, I see that there are an awful lot of colleagues who, like myself, are starting to consider the possibility of being put out to pasture. Not that we can’t still do the job; with all of our experience and well-honed skills, we are still fine interpreters.

Like a lot of interpreters I know, I kind of fell into the profession. Some of us had been working informally as interpreters for many years, some had come from totally different careers, some were translators. Some were born in other countries and came here as children or young adults. Some were born in this country and either learned another language abroad or in school. Some lucky ones actually trained in institutions of higher learning dedicated to the interpreting field, but not all of us grew up with the ambition to become interpreters. For most of us, one day the opportunity presented itself, one day a path was opened.

There will still be interpreters who happen upon the profession fortuitously. What I would like to see is more awareness among young people of the existence of the interpreting profession to make sure that there will be enough trained interpreters to meet a demand that shows no signs of decreasing.

In this country, there is an entire group of young people who have the potential skills to become excellent professional interpreters. These are the kids who came with parents seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Some were born here of parents born elsewhere. They grew up speaking Korean, Mandarin, Farsi, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, French Creole, at home, and English in school and with friends. Many have always served as the family interpreter, helping parents and relatives to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of social, legal and healthcare services. They are bilingual and bicultural. They have such potential, but many of them have never even heard of the interpreting profession nor of any of its various specialties, i.e. conference interpreting, judicial interpreting, medical interpreting, escort interpreting, community interpreting, the last of which they are pretty darn good at.

I have met many young people in court or at doctor’s offices, accompanying mom or dad. Most of them have never seen a professional interpreter at work.  I’ve got to smile when they come in and say to me worriedly, “Look, I’ll interpret for my dad with the attorney, okay? He won’t understand you, ’cause he’s from Guatemala.” Being careful not to step on any toes, I say: “Let me give it a try, okay?” I love the incredulous grins from dad and kid.

 These days, I have been meeting even more young folks. These new kids are directed to me by various local agencies that know I am a translator as well as an interpreter. They are young people who are taking advantage of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Process initiated by President Obama. They need their birth certificates translated as part of the process, and I quote them my very best price—free. So many of them ask me wistfully: “What do I have to do to become an interpreter or translator?”  If we have the time, I sit them down and tell them all about it. The difference between translating and interpreting, the types of interpreting, the different modes, the skills required. I tell them what to study and I write down instructions on where to get materials cheap. I tell them how important it is to improve vocabulary, grammar and usage in both of their languages. If they are interested in court interpreting, I tell them whom to call or email to get information about the next interpreter orientation in my state. If we don’t have time just then, I give them the court contact and my own card so we can talk later. Some follow up; most don’t, not because of lack of interest, but because they just don’t have the time. So many are already working in restaurants, hotels, fields and factories to help the family, others are taking courses in community colleges designed to help them get a steady job as soon as possible. I wish I could wave a magic wand and get them all into an accredited interpreter program.

In spite of these efforts on my part, or perhaps because of them, I realize that what I am doing is far too haphazard, my approach too scattershot to really have an effect. If I really want to find some young folks to take over when my weary bones just can’t deal with another 200-mile drive, I will have to bite the bullet. After more years than I care to count I am going to set foot in a high school, the kind of place which I thought I would never have to enter again for the rest of my life. I have made contact with someone I know in my local school system who is interested in interpreting. I am going to give a TALK, the first of many, I imagine, to inform kids about careers in interpreting and how to prepare for them. I am nervous about this, but I know that once I get started talking about something I feel this strongly about, it will be a breeze.

Wouldn’t it be great if more of us could reach out and do something simple like this to encourage the next generation of interpreters? If I, who tremble like a leaf at the thought of facing a bunch of supercilious ninth graders, can go give a little talk, answer a few questions and show kids a new opportunity, so can you!

Wish me luck.


The Interpreter Diaries, Michelle Hof. Excellent blog about conference with many posts dealing with outreach to young people

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Process

AskEdu World Course Catalog

State of Maryland Interpreter Program list of colleges and universities with interpreter programs (needs some updating—includes College of Charleston program, which is now defunct)

0 thoughts on “Me, You and the Next Generation of Interpreters”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    Kathleen, for over eight years I dutifully went to my daughter’s schools on Career Day and spent the whole school day giving presentations on both translation and interpreting. It was a most rewarding experience. The kids ears perked up when I mentioned where interpreters work (FBI, DEA, Homeland Security, United Nations), that we travel a lot and to other countries – and are paid for that too.

    My most fulfilling experience was during a presentation to a 7th grade class and a girl stated she studied French because her parents wanted her too, but she did not like languages. At the end of the presentation she stayed behind to get more information on how she could become an interpreter.

    That made my day!

  2. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    Hi, Kathleen!
    Even when we can’t get out to the schools (because we work during the day, for example) we can find opportunities to share our profession! I’ve commented about interpreting to young people working at Starbucks, or whatever store, when I hear them speak impeccable, confident Spanish… There was one interpreter at a back to school night that I nearly knocked over with enthusiasm to tell her about the profession: her consecutive was AMAZING!
    Every little bit counts, if we all make it count a little bit. Those who can give more, whether it’s now or later, have to start somewhere!
    Loved your experiences!

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