By KRIS MAHER, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

From The Wall Street Journal Online


January 2005 – The hot job market for interpreters and translators shows no signs of cooling.

With many areas of the country currently experiencing shortages of interpreters and translators, government agencies and companies are trying to fill in the gaps by hiring people with high-level language skills to help with everything from fighting terrorism to courtroom interpreting.

Some of the demand sparked by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is being kept alive by turmoil in the Middle East and other international hot spots.

The State Department, for example, is looking for specialists in Dari and Pashtun, languages that are spoken in Afghanistan, says Brenda Sprague, director of the department’s Office of Language Services. The department employs about 40 language specialists full-time and works with about 1,500 specialists on a contract basis.

Finding interpreters and translators “is a tremendous challenge because we need people with extraordinarily sophisticated language skills” to handle terminology associated with intellectual-property rights, nuclear devices and commercial treaties, Ms. Sprague says.

Indeed, while some government agencies have boosted language staffs during the past few years, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, many still face a shortage. “What you are seeing quite dramatically in the federal government is a recognition that we have an insufficient number of translators and interpreters,” says Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service.

Part of the problem is that many of the most sought-after languages have shifted since the end of the Cold War. Today, Urdu, Farsi, Kurdish, Korean and Tagalog are among the most needed, says Kevin Hendzel, spokesman for the American Translators Association. “These are languages that five years ago nobody paid any attention to,” he says, adding, “If you’ve been studying Urdu for five or six years, you’ve got your career mapped out for you.”

There are between 12,000 and 15,000 interpreters and translators in the U.S.  Most earn from $30,000 to $60,000. Rising demand has pushed up many salaries in the past several years. People with security clearances who are willing to work in other countries can earn as much as $100,000 or more.

On the domestic front, shifting immigrant populations also has driven demand for language specialists. “Areas that haven’t traditionally seen this type of population are seeing tremendous influxes,” says Jonathan Levy, chief executive of Source Language Solutions, Tucson, Ariz., which trains interpreters and consults with companies.

In Atlanta, after Spanish interpreters, the greatest demand is for people who speak Mandarin, Korean, Bosnian, Croatian, Vietnamese and Somali, says Garry Guan, who owns Asian American Language Services, an Atlanta company that provides interpreters to businesses, law firms, courts and hospitals.

In Nevada, Tongan and Tagalog interpreters are needed, according to David Gordon, coordinator for the Nevada Certified Court Interpreters Program in Carson City. This year, Mr. Gordon had to track down Tagalog and Bosnian interpreters for separate murder trials. “The challenge is increasing,” he says.

Of Interest from the Career Center

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Interpreters also are increasingly needed to help resolve issues involving entry into the U.S. In the past several months, Bowne Global Solutions, which is based in New York and provides language services to companies and immigration courts throughout the U.S., added 47 languages to its offerings, most of them African, says Deane Dayton, senior vice president of interpretation.

Bowne provides interpreters to immigration courts throughout the U.S. under a contract with the Department of Justice that requires it to provide an interpreter in any language to any court.

Bowne also is actively pursuing other contracts with the government, according to Mr. Dayton. “When people start to get security-conscious, the need for language services grows,” he says.


Other Readings of Interest

  • Difference as Advantage
    By Chandra Prasad, IMDiversity Special Contributor
    Minority professionals don’t have to abandon their unique cultures, values, languages, and ideas in order to get ahead.  Indeed, maximizing the benefits of your cultural identity and language skills on the job can give you an edge and make good business sense.
  • Interactive U.S. Languages Map
    At the Modern Languages Association web site (new window)
    Interactive feature presents and breaks down language data from the U.S. Census nationwide, state-by-state, or by specific locations.  Note: May be a little slow loading the first time.



This article is reprinted with permission from Career Journal, the executive career site of theWall Street Journal. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.