Against a backdrop of court interpreter strikes in multiple US states throughout 2023 — some of which resulted in raises — non-freelance translators and interpreters (T&Is) seem to have retained their earnings power as inflation spiked in 2022.
According to the most recent data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), T&Is’ earnings increased 9% from 2021-22. The median annual salary in 2021 was USD 49,100, with an hourly rate of USD 23.61, while the rates in 2022 were USD 53,640 and USD 25.79, respectively.
The increase marks a turnaround from 2021 when linguists saw their earnings decline by 6%. Of course, this does not necessarily apply to all professionals across the board: In the 10th percentile, T&Is made just USD 16.13 per hour, or USD 33,540 a year, while those in the 90th percentile raked in USD 44.78 per hour, or USD 93,140 annually.
However, data from the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) does not distinguish earnings by full-time workers from those earned by part-timers, simply acknowledging, “Part-time work is common for interpreters and translators, and work schedules may vary.”
T&I employers were categorized as professional, scientific, and technical (30% of employers); educational (20%); hospitals (8%); and government (5%). (Twenty-one percent of T&Is were reportedly self-employed and their earnings were not included in pay calculations.)
More specifically, the top-paying industries were computer system design (USD 51.22 per hour or USD 106,540 per year); the Federal executive branch (USD 45.28 per hour or USD 94,170 per year); and advertising and PR (USD 43.94 per hour or USD 91,390 per year).
States with the highest salaries are clustered on the Eastern seaboard: New Jersey, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Virginia, and New York.
As for the highest employment levels, those range from 6,750 in California and 6,660 in Texas to 2,760 and 2,500 in Florida and New York, respectively.
Supply, Demand, and…Computers
Out of an estimated non-freelance T&I 68,700 jobs, 52,160 are currently filled. According to the BLS, the field will grow four percent from 2022-32, with about 7,200 openings for T&Is expected each year.
“Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire,” the OOH stated. (The explanation omitted inadequate pay as a factor in professionals leaving the field, as Massachusetts court interpreters described while planning a strike over stagnant wages.)
The OOH attributes the growing need for T&Is to “a more diverse US population and increasing globalization,” though the estimates of future job openings include interpreters of American Sign Language for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.
That four percent growth rate is much less than the 24% projected in the 2022 OOH, but is on par with the three percent growth rate estimated across all industries. The OOH did not explain the discrepancy in its figures from one year to the next, but addressed technology somewhat obliquely.
“Computers have made the work of translators and localization specialists more efficient,” the BLS wrote. “However, many of these jobs cannot be entirely automated because computers cannot yet produce work comparable to what human translators do in most cases.”
Indeed, as computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools, machine translation (MT) and, now, AI have been adopted at scale by the language industry, translators’ roles and day-to-day tasks have evolved. Interpreters, too, may see changes to their work as language models that include speech translation — such as Meta’s multimodal SeamlessM4T — gain ground.