The ten worst things that interpreters can do to themselves.

April 1, 2014 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the past we have used this series to underline some of the problems that we face when practicing our profession; we have vented a little, laughed a little, but most importantly, we have discussed short-term and long-term solutions to all of these problems. It is now time to look in the mirror and list those things that we do to ourselves, sometimes without even realizing it, that can personally harm us and sometimes even hurt the profession as a whole. Let’s take a peek:

  1. Lower your fee to keep the client. This is the worst of the worst of the worst thing any professional can ever do. Interpreters are professionals and their service commands a professional fee. We are not talking about general labor, this is specialized complex work. Sadly, many of our colleagues are afraid of losing the client and in order to keep the cheap client happy they are all too-ready to drop their fees to the basement. Dear colleagues, I don’t know about you, but I am in the business of working less and making more. I rather work two days a week and make the same money that other interpreter makes in five days. I can find plenty of things to do on those other three days, including looking for more business and having availability for those well-paying last minute assignments. I know some staff interpreters argue that this does not apply to them because they have a fixed income, but it does apply to them because they also interpret on weekends, after hours and during their vacation time. Others may say that sometimes we have to lower our fee because the client truly cannot pay what we ask. For those situations you need to remember that our services are expensive. This is not something for people to pay with their left over income. We provide a service that is paid with saved or even loaned money. That is just how it is. As far as “feeling guilty” in a particular situation, my suggestion is to donate your work for free in those cases. It has worked better for me, and when you ask for a receipt, in many places it is tax deductible as a charitable contribution. Never lower your fee because that harms you and it also hurts the profession. The client has to get used to the fact that interpreters are professionals providing a professional service, but we can only achieve this goal when it is us, the interpreters, who believe that we are professionals and provide a professional service.
  2. Be unprepared. The best way to make sure that a client will never call you again is to show up unprepared. Interpreting is a very difficult profession because we are one of the very few professions where we are required to know our craft and to have a very detailed knowledge of the client’s occupation. It is never enough to go to work as a good simultaneous or consecutive interpreter; it is never acceptable to go to work as a true bilingual individual. We need to be those things and we also need to know the subject matter to be interpreted, the work and background of the presenters, the educational level of the audience, and the basic technology needed to operate the interpretation equipment in the booth. Those colleagues who are afraid to ask for presentations and other materials ahead of time are killing themselves. Unless they already know the topic, those who choose not to study or at least read about the issues to be covered by the presenter are simply committing malpractice.
  3. A nightmare in the booth. Among interpreters there are very few things more detrimental to an interpreter’s reputation than bad behavior in the booth (or the courtroom, the hospital, the gala dinner, or any other place where we render our services) Always remember: Interpreting is a team sport. We need to have the support of our colleague in the booth as much as they need to have ours. Always be courteous to your teammate, because we practice a team and not a tag-team profession, be alert and ready to help when you are not interpreting, do not leave the booth or abandon your interpreting station unless it is an emergency, before you start an assignment talk with your booth-mate about little things such as shifts, where to sit, having the lights on or off in the booth, uniform terminology, and all other details necessary to have a successful rendition. The nicer you are to the other person in the booth the more people will want to work with you, and more people translates into more work.
  4. Stay away from social media. This is a relatively new addition to my top ten but it is becoming more important every year. In a global economy where technology allows for fast travel, remote interpreting, and instant communication, your name needs to be out there for all to see. The least expensive and a very effective way to stay competitive is to get involved in all kinds of social media. It is easier to develop networks when you do Twitter, you establish connections through Linked-in, you create and maintain a professional page on Facebook, Google+, and so on. At least try to keep up with some of them. Write a blog or at least comment on other colleagues’ blogs to stay visible. It is essential to have a website for clients to find you, learn about your background and experience, and to pay you by credit card or PayPal. Those who stay away from social media will stay away from main stream interpreting and will eventually be forgotten.
  5. Unwillingness to travel. Good interpreters must be flexible. We are in a profession that cannot be practiced from an office, cannot be practiced from a single city, and at certain level cannot be practiced in one single country either. Unless you are a staff in-house interpreter somewhere, or as a freelancer you have decided to settle for a certain professional level (that is not even remotely near the top of our profession) then you have to be willing to travel everywhere, anytime, for as long as needed, and on very short notice. Unfortunately these are the rules of the game. Unlike translators, we need to be on the move. This is something you need to ponder long and hard if you are truly committed to be a first-class full-time interpreter. Of course, this is not for everybody. Many people decide to practice a less involved version of the profession and choose to remain in a single town and only work within a geographically limited area. Others prefer to travel once or twice a year, or maybe want to have notice way before the assignment. This is fine if you want practice the profession at that particular level and you make it well known. Those who try to have the two lifestyles of staying at home and pretend that they are willing to travel will eventually hurt their career as sooner or later it will be common knowledge that they are not really that flexible.
  6. Ignore technology. One of the most exciting aspects of practicing our profession in the twenty first century is the technology we now have. Staying away from electronic dictionaries, internet search engines, and other technological advantages we now have over our colleagues who worked 20 years ago will soon put you on a “B” list. We must understand and embrace change. It is so convenient to take notes on an iPad, to interpret in a booth with a console that rewinds the last few seconds of a speech, to have all your research materials and presentations stored in the cloud, that every day we see more of our colleagues doing it. The day when hard copy dictionaries and steno pads will be a vanished species is practically around the corner. And speaking of the corner, video remote interpreting already turned the corner and it is coming towards you at the speed of light. Instead of fighting it and resisting it, we need to embrace it, we need to be a part of this technologies’ development process. There will always be a need for live “in-person” interpreting, but most work will be done remotely. Technology allows it in many different settings and the market wants it. Warning: Do not be like those interpreters who fought against simultaneous interpretation equipment 60 years ago because you could end up like them.
  7. Avoid interpreter conferences. Unfortunately many colleagues have decided not to go to professional conferences; many more go to the minimum required to keep their professional certifications, accreditations and licenses current, and a great number of interpreters are willing to attend a conference provided that it is near their hometown. We have heard many excuses and explanations to justify this reluctance to attend conferences and workshops: The program is not attractive, I know more than the presenters, it is too expensive, they are boring, you don’t learn anything… Sadly, those who view professional conferences this way have it all wrong. Our conferences at all levels: international, national, regional and local, are all beneficial. Not everything presented will always be new to you, but there is always something to learn. You may have more professional experience than some presenters, but they may have done some research that will increase your vast knowledge. Some are more expensive than others but they last longer and therefore may be enough to meet the year’s continuing education credits requirement, and they are also tax deductible in many countries. Conferences are never boring if you really understand their value: You attend them to develop a professional network. Yes, you go to a conference with your business cards and a few one liners to break the ice so you can get more work, get a better deal on the purchase of interpreting equipment, buy the newest dictionaries and textbooks, and as an added bonus: You go to have fun. Avoiding professional gatherings make you invisible to your peers, to the agencies, and to the rest of the world.
  8. Be timid when negotiating work conditions. Once again, those who are timid or afraid will rarely get excellent work conditions to do their job. It frustrates me to see a good interpreter working under terrible conditions and it happens all the time because many of our colleagues are afraid to ask for the right booth, the full-time technician, the best booth location, all conference materials, and so on. It really saddens me to see how some very capable interpreters are willing to accept an assignment without paid travel days, Per Diem, and a fair cancellation fee. By accepting these substandard working conditions the interpreter hurts his career and he harms all of us as a profession. There are plenty of good clients willing to pay what we deserve, but every time that somebody works under this less-than-acceptable conditions it gets more difficult to convince the agency or the ultimate client that the standard conditions are needed to get the best human talent and the best service. Don’t be afraid of losing the bad client. A cheap client is only a good client when the word client goes after the word “former.” Always remember: If you go along with this substandard conditions only once you will never get the full standard working conditions again.
  9. Mistreat the new interpreters. Even with all the new technology interpreting is a human being profession. The problem is that we are not eternal and eventually, because of the growing market, or due to our aging process, new blood will need to come into the profession, just like we once did. Those of you who know me or follow the blog know that I am all for teaching and sharing with the newcomers to the booth, the battle field, the courtroom, the medical office, and elsewhere. Clients and agencies want to keep the quality of the interpretation in their events, and the only way to ensure that continuity is to hire and train the next generation. The label of “problematic” goes to those veteran professionals who ignore, scold, or patronize young interpreters. As you know, clients are not very willing to hire a problematic interpreter for an assignment. They rather skip their name and move on to the next one on the list. If you care for the profession, if your reputation matters to you, and if you want to work until you decide to retire, just be nice to the new ones. In fact, just as you can teach them a thing or two, they can also teach you technology and help you become more marketable. It is a win-win situation.
  10. Wait for the assignment to come to your doorstep. Understanding the market is a requirement to be a successful interpreter. The good assignments will come to you if you go out there looking for them. I will never understand those colleagues who sit at home waiting for the agency, the courthouse or the hospital to call. A true professional has to look for work. You need to be a good interpreter, a knowledgeable individual, and a reliable professional, but unless you let others know that you are all of those things the world won’t even know that you exist. The career of an interpreter includes interpreting, studying, and marketing. Remember, this is a profession but it is also a business. Never lose sight of it. An interpreter who does not look for work is a lazy interpreter, and a lazy interpreter is a failure.

Dear colleagues, I am aware that there are many other bad things that we do to ourselves. These are some of the ones that in my opinion require of our attention. We have to avoid them and correct them. Please feel free to share with us those things that we do to ourselves and in your opinion hurt us as professionals or harm us all as a profession.

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§ 12 Responses to The ten worst things that interpreters can do to themselves.

  • Mima Calderon says:

    I can’t stand it when interpreters are technologically handicapped. I also can’t stand it when they refuse to txt message!!

  • Lisa Terzariol says:

    I might add, as part of a nightmare in the booth, people who marinate in perfume or cologne before coming to work. Or eat garlic and onions the night before.

  • […] Dear colleagues: In the past we have used this series to underline some of the problems that we face when practicing our profession; we have vented a little, laughed a little, but most importantly,…  […]

  • Julia Page says:

    Bien Dicho! Gracias por compartir estos consejos tan sabios!

  • Great reminders and insightful comments- thanks!

  • Jennifer Bikkal Horne says:

    …and please silence your cell phone if you are in the booth!

  • Susan says:

    I love it!
    Thank you….

  • Maria Blagojevic says:

    Work on your laptop with loud keyboard and ignore that the time: your colleague might not be annoyed but be sure that the audience hears every strike! This way you put both of you at risk not to be called again.
    Leave the booth every time your colleague takes over: your colleague might suddenly start coughing, he/she might need help for million reasons… not being fraternal is not going to help you get more work. On the contrary!
    Refuse to help the client find a second interpreter fearing the competition: the client might find two colleagues who like working together and decide not to take you because you didn’t have a partner!

    And many more… and, yes, I fully agree with the above! Most frequent though with some of my (older) colleagues is avoiding social media with the excuse ‘I don’t wnat to sell myself and my soul’…

  • hybridee says:

    Very useful and an excellent reminder-update to keep in mind always. Thanks!
    Martha Macias

  • Pavle Vamoser says:

    very true … a fresh generation with fresh ideas …and a new World🙂. I am not joking, and believe I have seen a lot, from typing on portable typewriters and carrying a full bag of dictionaries… to notebooks and modern technology…only one thing did not change: interpreters must support each other… for their own sake and the sake of the profession.

  • Eunaude says:

    This in a very interesting list.

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