The 'Great Invisible Industry' That Speaks Your Language

In an increasingly globalized society, knowing more than one language is often a major advantage in the job market. However, being an expert in a language is a highly successful and competitive career in itself. And in times of world tragedy, such as the recent tsunami and earthquakes that ravaged Japan, being a translator gives you something other than money to donate.

Continue Reading Below

Kevin Hendzel, spokesperson for the American Translators Association, said the industry has more than 13.5 million translators and interpreters and has been growing at a rate of 13% annually over the past several years – despite the rough economic backdrop. Today, translators work everywhere from courtrooms to hospitals, tech companies and government, providing a vast array of services.

The industry serves in 180 different languages, Hendzel said. The federal government spends more than $1 billion annually on translator services and state and local governments collectively spend $900 million.

"The industry is much larger than people know," Hendzel said. "It one of those great invisible industries, and a great enabler of international commerce."

Aside from being experts in their language, Hendzel said translators also need to be experts in their concentration. He has been a translator of Russian to English for more than 25 years, and works in the nuclear materials field. Typically translators have one dominant language and area of expertise, he said.

"The problem with doing different languages and subjects is there isn't enough room in your brain," he said. "They need to have a huge base of knowledge to be successful. It's harder for kids coming out of school, because they know a lot about a language, but not a lot about the world."

Being an expert in a specific area, in addition to knowing a language inside and out, helps to differentiate a translator from his or her competition, Hendzel said.

"Doing Spanish translation in the U.S. for example, even if you are very skilled, you have an enormous amount of competition," he said.

The most in-demand translators are those speaking Arabic languages, when it comes to open government positions, and French, Portuguese, Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Chinese are more in-demand on the technology side of things. Many translators work freelance, earning between $25,000 and $175,000 a year, Hendzel said. United Nations translators are on the higher end of the pay scale, earning between $150,000 and $200,000 a year.

"There is a lot of money out there for translators and interpreters," he said. "Many people do this as a second career, after doing something else for a long time. This is the only industry that grew through the recession, because globalization continues to accelerate and demand continues to grow."

Translators also often flock to foreign countries in the aftermath of disasters, like the recent earthquakes and tsunami in Japan. Hendzel estimates there will be more than 10,000 translators and interpreters working in the country due to the recent tragedies.

When the earthquake struck Haiti a little more than a year ago, there were nearly 4,000 translators in the country within 24 hours, he said. Many translators work pro-bono in such cases for different charities or news organizations.

"The community response was quite significant," Hendzel said of the Haiti situation. "There were less than 2,000 working there in the end, some paid, some volunteer. Haitian Creole and French -- it's a tougher language. Japanese is an entirely different situation."