A few months ago, a lovely acquaintance who wants to be an interpreter, asked us whether she needed a college degree to succeed as a (court) interpreter. We hadn't really thought about this, as college is such a natural step in most professionals' lives, but the question is more than valid and merited some more thought. The answer is a bit more complicated than it seems, but basically, we'd say the answer is: yes, you should probably have a college degree to make sure you put yourself in the best-possible competitive position. The longer answer is: it depends. Let us elaborate on that.
Translation and interpretation are very competitive industries, and according to some surveys (there aren't too many on this topic, actually), the vast majority of translators and interpreters hold at least a bachelor's degree, but many have advanced degrees, including doctoral degrees. However, especially in the US, these degrees aren't necessarily in T&I but in other fields. In Europe, things are quite different, as T&I programs are easily available at most universities, so anecdotally we will go out on a limb here and use our background in the industry to boldly state that most translators and interpreters who work professionally in Europe not only have college degrees, but have degrees in the actual field. Which one is better, a T&I degree or a degree in another field, perhaps in your area of specialization? That's a topic for another post.
Now, is a degree strictly necessary to work as a translator and interpreter? No, it's not. Ours is a fairly unregulated industry, and there are no hard educational guidelines, as opposed to, say, lawyers, who need to have a J.D. (or an LLM if they are coming from another country) to sit for the Bar Exam. Not so for translators and interpreters.
However, we personally only know two successful interpreters (and no translators) who do not hold a college degree. We are not saying it's essential, but it's just another tool that you need to have in your toolbox. The reality is that few professional jobs in this economy are open to non-college graduates, for better or for worse. Newcomers to the profession have to compete with colleagues who might have 20+ years of experience and hold graduate degrees, so any newcomer is well advised to get as much formal education under their belt as possible. While it's not impossible to succeed in this business without a college degree, it's unusual and it's an uphill battle.
We did some soul-searching and asked ourselves: would we work with (=outsource to) a colleague who did not have a formal college degree? This is a tough question, and the answer is: probably not, as we have a long list of superstar colleagues with impressive credentials to whom we are more likely to outsource. Would we discount someone without a college degree immediately, as many employers and LSPs might do? Probably not, but it does give us pause, and we do think earning a college degree shows initiative and determination. We are usually particularly puzzled by those who are one class or a few credits away from finishing their degrees, and unfortunately, in education, things are black or white in terms of credentials. Either you have a degree or you don't (there is no such thing as an almost-degree). While we don't want to draw general conclusions on someone's work ethic based on whether or not one has a college degree, having one does show dedication and stamina, which are important in our industry.
So, in a nutshell, we think that in order to be competitive in our industry, every newcomer should have a college degree in some field. We are not saying you won't be successful without one, but the chances of success are usually higher with a college degree. On the interpreting side, we've seen a few colleagues who do very well for themselves without a degree, but they are the exception rather than the rule. What do you think, dear colleagues? Ah, and for the record, Judy has an MBA in marketing and an undergraduate degree in business administration, while Dagy has a master's degree in conference interpreting, a bachelor's degree in translation and interpretation, and the equivalent of a master's degre in French and communications. That should be sufficient degrees for now, although we have thought about getting a PhD...