I got a question the other day about American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters.
The question was in response to an article I wrote on the highest-paying translation languages and the person was wondering how much money an ASL interpreter could expect to make.
I’ll start out by saying that I’m not an ASL interpreter.
I tried to do some interpreting exercises in college but never was able to get it down very well, so I decided to stick to translation.
That being said, there are few resources online that outline the salary range of ASL interpreters, and where they generally earn more.
We have to look beyond common resources, like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, because these sources often combine both the translation and interpretation industries into their calculations.
As any professional language ninja knows, translation is way different than interpretation and the industries look different.
Employment Outlook for ASL Interpreters
OK, so the first step in figuring out employment outlook for ASL interpreters is to look at the number of ASL users in the United States.
A lot of people erroneously state that ASL is the fourth most used language in the country.
This is most likely untrue.
That would mean that ASL users would come after English, Spanish, and Chinese and would number between roughly 1.3 and 1.6 million users.
However, Gallaudet University researchers admit that there is a big discrepancy on the number of users reported. They suggest that while the number fits anywhere between 500,000 and 2 million users, it is likely to be towards the lower end.
Some researchers even suggest that the number of ASL users in the United States fits somewhere between 100,000 and 250,000 users.
Compare those numbers with the number of Spanish speakers in then United States, which has been reported to be around 28 million, and you’ll see that there is less demand for ASL interpreters than there is for Spanish speakers, solely based on the number of users.
ASL Interpreter Salaries
OK, so demand for ASL interpreters is not as high as other language interpreters.
Granted, there are probably less ASL interpreters than say, Spanish-English interpreters, but the ratio of ASL interpreters to ASL users is likely smaller than the ratio of Spanish-English interpreters to Spanish speakers.
That being said, let’s look at actual salaries.
While translators get paid based on amount per word, interpreters usually get paid per hour interpreting.
Here’s a graphic from Payscale.com showing how much sign language interpreters (not solely ASL interpreters) make in the United States.
The median hourly rate comes out to $24.91.
But the thing to remember is that hourly rate can depend a whole lot on two different factors:
Just as with translation, where you live will to a large extent dictate how much you charge.
However, there isn’t a whole lot of cumulative data strictly limited to interpreter earnings by location.
Anecdotally speaking, though, here are some examples of interpreters that have posted their hourly rates, along with where they live (and interpret):
- Colorado – $37
- Southern California – $75
- DC – $75
- Maryland (part-time job at a community college) – $45
- Indiana – $50
- New Jersey community college – $65
- Utah – $50
In addition to location, certification can and does play a big role in determining how much a freelance interpreter can charge for services.
First off, though, let me talk a little about the certification process when it comes to ASL interpreting.
ASL certification usually comes in two different forms: a state certification that is issued (obviously) by a state organization. The state certification process tests your ability to interpret and perform additional sign language and deaf-related functions, such as teaching deaf students or teaching ASL.
The other certification that is commonly sought by aspiring ASL interpreters is the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) certification.
There are too many certification levels offered by RID and associate organizations, so I won’t review them all here. Needless to say, you can find all the information you need at the RID website.
The important thing to note for our discussion on sign language interpreter salaries is that certification will usually increase your hourly interpreting rate.
Well, one way to show that is by looking at the state court interpreting rates for ASL interpreters and specifically the rates for certified interpreters vs. rates of interpreters who are not certified:
Keep in mind that most state courts require that a sign language interpreter be certified to some degree.
There are some states that allow non-certified interpreters, but those states are the exception, not the rule.