While I was studying translation in college I had the opportunity to do some interpretation training, and take it from someone that has tried first hand, they are not the same.
However, while I am not an interpreter, I have been around the language profession for a long time, including the interpretation field, and I understand the answers to the question of how to become an interpreter through talking with my colleagues who are in the profession.
So now that I've got that out of the way, it's time to talk about how to become an interpreter.
Becoming an Interpreter
Just like with translators, there is no single road you should take in order to become an interpreter. If you are just starting out in the language field, and have an interest in pursuing interpretation as a career, one of the things you should first understand is that interpreters interpret in all sorts of different settings. Interpretation does not only encompass interpreting at the United Nations for world leaders. In addition to conference interpreting though, there are also court interpreters, telephone interpreters, accompanying interpreters, etc. However, no matter what type of interpreter you are interested in becoming, there are steps you can take to better your chances of becoming an interpreter.
Step 1 - Experience
Whether you would rather work through interpretation agencies, find work on your own, or do some of both, you're going to need experience. Experience, though, serves two goals. First, you obviously need to know how to interpret. And you're not going to know how to do it effectively if you don't have any experience under your belt. Second, it's important to have experience that you can point to when pitching potential clients.
Remember, clients (or agencies) at first don't know you from any other person out there selling interpreting services. The best way you can win the job is by showing them who've you worked for before. Using these people/companies/organizations as references will give you more leverage over interpreters that don't have this resource. And it doesn't matter if your interpretation experience was a paid job or something you did for free. As long as you did a good job and can get a positive reference, then you will be considered over many other interpreters.
The question then becomes, how does someone go about getting that experience? Well, like most things, the trick is to start off small. Look for opportunities at your local universities for example. Many times they host conferences and forums with foreign dignitaries or others that might be in need of interpretation. Sometimes these conferences use foreign language students as interpreters and don't necessarily pay them, but it is experience nonetheless.
Another option is to look for volunteer opportunities in your community. One of the best places is your community hospital. Hospitals are in continual need for interpreters and volunteering won't take up a lot of your time. This experience could be what gives you an edge when applying for those interpreter jobs.
Step 2 - Interpretation Degree
This isn't really a separate step from the one above, but is a good idea for anyone interested in becoming an interpreter. Interpretation agencies will always consider experience and any relevant education, so if you have both, you're a much better candidate to them.
Going to school to get an interpreter degree can be very helpful for becoming an interpreter. There are many advantages to getting an interpretation degree. Taking courses in interpretation gives you an opportunity to learn some of the techniques that interpreters use to become better. Additionally, you will have more contact with people (professors and other professionals) who can provide more opportunities for work in the interpretation field.
If you don't get an interpretation-specific degree, another good thing to do is to get a degree in the field you are interested in interpreting. For example, if you want to become a medical interpreter, you would be served best by getting a degree related to the medical field. If you want to become a an interpreter for the U.N., it would probably be beneficial if you got a degree related to international studies.
Understand Interpretation Regulations
In addition to the above suggestions, another step you should take is to research the type of interpretation certification you might need for the specific type of interpreting you want to do.
Let's take federal court interpreting, for example. Federal court interpreters have to pass a few different interpretation tests in order to be certified to work in the federal court system. it is important to remember that for some types of interpretation, there are specific steps that must be taken in order to become an interpreter. Court interpretation is a good example of this type. Federal court interpreters, for example, have to pass two different tests (a process that takes at least two years).
Step 4 - Market YourselfThis is probably the most crucial step for language professionals of any kind. I often tell beginning translators that the most important thing they can to find work is to market themselves. A lot of times it's not necessarily the best translator that gets the job, it's the translator that has his or her name out there the most visible.
The same can be said for interpreters. It's important that interpreters, especially those that don't have an established client base, market their services at every opportunity. This could mean building a webpage that helps build your client base, talking to everyone you know about your job prospects, and scouring your local state and community for interpreting opportunities.
Hopefully, all these steps will help you in your quest to become a professional interpreter.