How can you fight COVID-19?  If you’re a biochemical researcher, you can look for a vaccine. If you are a nurse or doctor, you can save lives directly in a hospital. If you happen to be bilingual, there’s something else you can do from the comfort of home: become a medical interpreter. It’s easier than molecular science, it’s safer than being in an Emergency Room. It takes more time than handwashing, but if you speak two languages fluently, it’s well within your reach. We’ll help you get started, not just to help others but to help yourself and perhaps gain a new professional along the way.

What are Interpretation Services and How Do They Differ from Translation?


Translation is a broad term used often for any conversion from one language to another. But, strictly speaking, translation refers to the adaptation of a document from one language to another. Interpretation services, by contrast, refer to the spoken word, converting speech into another language. Interpretation can be simultaneous, performed at the same time as something is being spoken in the original language. Or it can be sequential, taking turns with the speaker, interpreting after every few sentences.


Either way, interpreting is much different in practice from translating. The skills required are in the moment, typically tied to a speaking event, conference, or meeting. Translation, by contrast, is done with documents, not speakers. If you’re a fluently bilingual person who can handle pressure, and you enjoy thinking on your feet, then interpreting may be a profession worth pursuing.


Is There a Demand for Interpretation in the Marketplace?


There has always been a need for medical interpreters in multilingual societies. In the United States, there are 34 languages spoken as a mother-tongue by 160,000 people or more. Topping the list of “minority languages” is Spanish, of course, with more than 41 million people in the US hailing from Hispanic homes. That’s over 12% of the US population, and the proportion is increasing.


According to 2013 data from the National Institutes of Health, some 8.5% of the US population has “Limited English Proficiency” (LEP) –difficulty speaking and understanding the language. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prevents discrimination based on national origin, and the Supreme Court has ruled that this means that each American is entitled to receive health information in an understandable language. States and healthcare providers must comply with this federal requirement or face sanctions and funding cutoffs.


As a result, there is a constant need for translators and interpreters, especially in medical and healthcare contexts. The need becomes urgent when imparting medical information to people with LEP, especially in an emergency care context. Typically, larger hospitals and clinics would hire in-house interpreters to be on call for face-to-face interpretation when the need arose. Economic pressures and technology trends have caused this practice to change in recent decades, with face-to-face interpreting yielding to interpretation over the phone and, more recently, via videoconference.


The COVID-19 pandemic — with its quarantines, social distancing, and “shelter in place” requirements – has pushed interpretation almost completely online. Happily, interpreting can be done successfully from anywhere, including from home. All you need technically is a smartphone and earbuds or, if you want to splurge, a dedicated microphone.  But to perform medical interpretation successfully, you’ll also need some experience and at least basic knowledge of medical nomenclature and terminology. But you can learn that.


Where Can You Learn and Get Certified for Medical Interpretation?


Translation and interpretation are not strictly regulated. In many jurisdictions, you don’t need a diploma or certificate to practice them. That said, certification from a recognized institute can help you in competitive situations and qualify for government and academic jobs.  Some states and provinces require a high school diploma or GED, and completion of an interpretation course, but such courses usually amount to 40 to 160 hours of study from home. Just google “medical interpretation certification.”


In the US, the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters offers robust certificate programs. Their certification process is generally considered the most rigorous and prestigious. In addition to certification courses, there are plenty of online resources for learning medical language and even the language specific to the novel coronavirus pandemic, so you can talk the talk and walk the walk.


How Do You Get Started Working in Medical Interpretation?


The internet makes it possible for talented individuals to work independently. Freelance marketplaces like Upwork and allow you to create a profile and bid for gigs in interpretation. You can search for jobs on offer and submit your proposal or receive invitations to bid. In either case, you’ll need to demonstrate education, experience, and ideally, great reviews and ratings from satisfied customers.


There are also interpreter-specific marketplaces.  Google these keywords and you’ll find plenty of opportunities.  The other benefit of “going public” on these marketplaces is that translation and interpretation companies may recruit you to work for them as part of their networks. Some may require exclusivity but be wary: there are much fish in the sea and you don’t want to exclude yourself from potential job opportunities.


How Much Can You Take Home as a Medical Interpreter?


According to, the average hourly rate of a medical interpreter in the United States is about $22. However, that rate can vary significantly depending on your location, your language, and your experience. Moreover, according to the US Bureau of Statistics, the average annual income of an interpreter is projected to grow at an average 1.8% rate, more than double the rate of other occupations. In addition, the employment of interpreters and translators is projected to grow 19 percent from 2018 to 2028, far faster than the average for all occupations. Globalization trends as well as the continuing increase in the non-English-speaking US population are driving growth.


But medical interpretation is not just about the Benjamins. You’re performing a much-needed service and contributing to society’s fight against the pandemic. And you’ll be able to do it from the comfort and safety of home, without exposing yourself to excessive risk. So if you’re bilingual and have the gift of gab, interpretation should be on your radar as a career option and a supplementary income source.



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