American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters provide a critical service to people who are deaf by translating spoken words into ASL and ASL into other languages. To be an ASL interpreter, you must be fluent in two languages: ASL and the language you'll be translating from. In the U.S., ASL interpreters are needed primarily to translate English to ASL but also to other languages, such as Spanish, to a limited degree.
The median annual sign language interpreter salary in May 2017 was $47,190.
After you have experience as a sign language interpreter, you can work for K-12 school districts, colleges and universities, judicial systems in court cases, medical environments, for organizations hosting events, and other places in the community.
ASL interpreters usually work in real time, translating as someone is speaking so that the deaf person can be informed at the same time as hearing individuals. You could be hired to translate a speech, for example, or you could translate a back-and-forth conversation between hearing and deaf persons.
Increasingly, people are using video services to interpret ASL. Video Relay Service (VRS) translators allow deaf persons to have more normal phone conversations. Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) uses ASL translators at a call center to interpret on the spot for a doctor's office, police station or workplace that suddenly needs a translator's help.
ASL is only used in the U.S. and parts of Canada. Other countries have their own sign languages. So, as an ASL translator, you'll be working mostly with U.S. residents.
Unlike other jobs that require you to have a particular degree, being an ASL interpreter requires that you can sign fluently so as to be accurate and readily understood. Your skills are more important than how you learned them.
However, the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) suggests that ASL interpreters with at least a bachelor's degree in a subject are better at the job. Their higher level of general knowledge enables them to better understand complex material and then translate it to others.
ASL is not an easy language to learn. You may be able to learn the individual signs fairly quickly and know enough to carry on a basic conversation with a deaf person after studying ASL for a year or so. However, ASL relies heavily on facial expressions and body language in addition to the signs. Learning all the nuances of the language takes a lot of practice.
Some colleges and universities offer associate or bachelor's degrees in ASL, and these can be a good framework for learning the language. In practice, though, ASL has many regional differences in signing, equivalent to dialects you'd experience in other foreign languages. In another state, ASL signers might learn a different expression or a slightly different body movement than what you learned for the same word or phrase. That's why practicing as much as you can, wherever you can, with deaf people and other signers is so important.
The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) keeps a list of educational programs, but it may not include all programs. You can find ASL classes at community colleges and universities and also through community organizations, churches and individual teachers. You may even find some free ASL courses offered as a community service. NAD recommends you research all courses before enrolling in them to find out:
- Whether the course is accredited by NAD or another organization
- The experience level of the person teaching the course
- Whether others who have taken the course or workshop or who learned from this instructor went on to be successful interpreters
You can also ask people who work with those who are deaf if they can recommend good programs. The difference between learning ASL to be able to communicate with deaf people and learning it well enough to be a paid translator is like the difference between learning to play the piano well enough to entertain friends and being paid to perform with an orchestra.
It's important, too, to understand that becoming proficient enough to translate requires ongoing learning. Don't expect to take one course or program and be hired to translate. Expect to take workshops and learn from different instructors. Practice with people who are deaf and ask them if they can understand your signing and if they have recommendations for you to improve.
The American Translators Association offers a three-hour test that leads to the designation of Certified Translator (CT). This is a seal of approval indicating to prospective employers that you are proficient as an ASL interpreter. Certification is not required to be hired, but it may help you get some jobs.
The median annual sign language interpreter salary in May 2017 was $47,190. A median salary means that half of sign language interpreters earn more than this, while the other half earn less.
ASL translators may work full time or part time in a variety of settings. Some work for school districts, community colleges and universities. Others work in business, health or legal services. Many work independently and are hired on a per project basis as needed.
Years of Experience
The longer you work as an ASL interpreter, the more skilled you become, and your salary or the amount you charge will increase. For example, actual ASL translators reported their average earnings based on years in the field:
- Fewer than five years – $42,000
- Five to 20 years – $53,000
- More than 20 years – $56,000
Job Growth Trend
The need for ASL interpreters and translators is expected to grow 18 percent between 2016 and 2026. This is much faster than the anticipated growth for jobs overall. The increasing use of video services will create a need for more ASL translators who are adept at using the necessary equipment and are comfortable working through a remote setup.