How can I get work as conference interpreter?

January 13, 2017 § 14 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The title of this blog entry is a question that I am asked everywhere all the time.  As I travel, I come across many great colleagues, some who just graduated and are now starting their professional careers, some veteran interpreters with a long experience in other fields such as court, healthcare, or military interpreting, and others who, for other reasons, have decided to try their luck as conference interpreters.

The story I hear is basically the same all the time: “I really want to be a conference interpreter, but there is no work”, or “who should I talk to if I want to work as a conference interpreter?”

These questions are valid, and they do need an answer, but before we get to that, I would like to emphasize something else: conference interpreting is difficult and very demanding. Because of its diversity of subject matters, the importance of the events to be interpreted, and the quality-demanding audience that listens to your rendition, it is like no other field. Although interpreting in other areas can be extremely hard, and sometimes it could be high-profile, no other interpreting work requires it every time.

I want to make sure that you understand that I am not saying other fields are easier; in fact sometimes they are more difficult as they demand an accurate professional rendition under adverse circumstances such as noisy courtrooms, military bases, and hospitals; and in the case of court interpreting, they require of a complete rendition with the interpreter having very little time to do it (as it happens with the short consecutive mode that is used in court for the testimony of a witness). I am just making the point that conference interpreting often requires that the interpreter work with a speech produced by a very sophisticated speaker, and (unlike other interpretations where sometimes the target’s native language skills are somewhat limited) it is always rendered to a very knowledgeable audience that, although monolingual, can easily recognize if the registry, terminology, grammar, general vocabulary, and skills of the interpreter are up to the level of the event to be interpreted.

For these reasons, it is quite important to be honest about our skills’ level at present time, and based on that answer, decide if we can move on to answer the question on the title above, or if we should work on our craft first, and postpone the question for later.

There is no single answer that tells us how to get work as conference interpreters. It is very different to work as staff or independent contractor for an international organization such as the OAS, UN, or the European Parliament, where you have to go through certain established protocols and systems, including testing and sometimes background investigations. The criteria to be satisfied and the approval process is also different for those interpreters who want to do conferences for government entities as staffers or independents. For these jobs, testing and security clearances are usually required, always following a process determined by the appropriate country government or particular agency. There is plenty of information on how to try to get these assignments, so we will not cover them further in this post. We will concentrate on how to get conference work as an independent contractor in the private sector.

Conference work in the private sector may include interpreting for corporations, colleges, professional associations, or political and special interest groups.  The events where interpreting is required can go from enormous conferences, business negotiations, professional lectures, and college courses, to political rallies, press briefings, or commencement speeches.  The only thing conference work never includes is the so-called “conference work” that in reality is community interpreting.

I am referring to the assignments to interpret a neighborhood association’s meeting, the planning of an action by a community organization, a recruitment effort by a religious organization, and similar jobs. They do not qualify as conference interpreting because they are done under precarious circumstances such as lack of interpreting equipment, even a booth or at least a table-top. In this so-called “conference interpreting” assignments the interpreter is expected to do the job in sub-standard working conditions and without any quality control.  It is not unusual to find an interpreter working solo on these projects, and there is a practice of mixing professional interpreters with para-professionals in an attempt to mask the lack of quality in the rendition. Organizers of these events believe that they can attract struggling professional interpreters hungry for conference work, and pay them a miserable fee, if they advertise the job as “conference interpreting”, even though it is not.

The first thing qualified professional interpreters need to do if they want conference work is to physically be where the action is. Unlike healthcare, community, and court interpreting, conference interpreting does not happen in every city and town. These are large expensive events, require of planning and take place for a purpose: dissemination of knowledge, motivation of a sales force, rallying behind a specific idea, candidate or organization, presentation of a newly discovered scientific finding, and so on.

Obviously, these events need to be held in cities with infrastructure, airports, train stations, hotels, convention centers, universities, and many times, other unrelated attractions such as beaches, amusement parks, or historical sites.  Conference interpreters need to be in these places; ready, willing and able to jump into an assignment at a moment’s notice. Event organizers, interpreting agencies, and direct clients will always go for the local talent first. It is more flexible and cost-effective. How can an agency call you at the last moment, or how can a colleague ask you to cover for her in case of an emergency, unless you live in the city where the conference is taking place?

Even in the age of remote conference interpreting, clients will go for the local interpreter first because that is the person they know.  It is possible to remotely interpret a conference from a small town anywhere in the world, but it is next to impossible for the agency or event organizer to find these interpreters in a place far away. Interpreters need to be where the assignments are, at least to be seen and acknowledged as part of the very competitive conference interpreter community.

My many years of experience doing this work have taught me that the international organization and government agency work in the United States is in Washington, D.C. and New York City.  I also learned, and statistics back it up, that the private sector conference work in America is in Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, New Orleans, Honolulu, and Miami.  My experience elsewhere, with my language combination, tells me that the action takes place in Cancun, Panama City, Buenos Aires, London, Dubai, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur.  Yes, there are secondary markets, many of them in the Western United States, but they do not have many year-round, simultaneous, world class events. It is not the same to host an annual big event in a city, or to have five to ten big events at the same time in the same city, several at the same venue, as it happens in Chicago’s McCormick Place.  I lived in a mid-size city in the Midwestern United States for a few years, and I did not get any conference work to speak of. Professionally speaking, those were wasted years that I will never get back.  To summarize: regular conference interpreting work requires relocation to one of these cities.

The next important thing to get work is to be able and willing to travel at any time, and with no advanced notice. I have gone from watching TV at home to an airplane bound for Europe with an hour’s notice. In fact, as I write this entry, I am getting ready for a trip abroad to cover an assignment I just got yesterday afternoon. Traveling for conference work means several things: (1) You need to be free to travel all the time without any personal, health, or family obstacles or complications; (2) You must be able to travel anywhere. This means that you have to be eligible to get visas to most countries in the world, and you always need to have a valid passport. (3) You need to be a good businessperson with resources to invest in your career.  This means that you must have the financial resources to buy a plane ticket and hotel room, many times at the most expensive rate because of the late purchase, knowing that it will take weeks, and sometimes months, to be reimbursed by the client. If nothing else, you need to have a healthy international credit card. Personally, just in case I have no time to do it at the last minute, I keep at home enough money in the most popular foreign currencies (euro, pound, Canadian dollar, yen, Mexican peso, etc.) so I can leave right away.  As you can see, conference interpreting is a career that demands a lot, and it is not for everybody.

Finally, to be able to get work, an interpreter who meets all the characteristics above, needs to get in touch with the most reputable agencies, event organizers, big corporations, and offer his services. These interpreters will not get any work, but they cannot give up. They need to insist every few months and systematically contact these major players until one day they get the call. It will probably be because a regular conference interpreter got sick, died, had a conflict or an emergency, and nobody else from the trusted regular roster was available. It is then that the agency will get a hold of the most enthusiastic new interpreter who never let them forget him, despite the fact that he did not get any work for a couple of years.

Then, it is totally up to you: the new interpreter, to be ready, prepared and willing to give the performance of your life. You will only have one chance to show your skills in the booth. This is the day when you must leave a good impression on the agency, event organizer, technicians, and more importantly, the other interpreters you will work with. These colleagues will give feedback to the client, and their opinion carries a lot of weight. They will also become your source of referrals if you are good. Be an excellent booth mate and shine.

One last thing: Please do not charge rock bottom fees for your services. It does not matter how excited you are with your first conference job.  The excitement will be gone in a month and you will have to live with your fees for a long time. A new interpreter who enters the market charging lower fees will soon become the pariah of the profession. Nobody will want to work with you. You must understand that charging less not only hurts you, it hurts your colleagues, and it diminishes the profession.

I hope this long answer helps some of you interested in this fabulous career of conference interpreter. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this topic.

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§ 14 Responses to How can I get work as conference interpreter?

  • Mylène says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this information. I appreciate it very much!

  • Doris Ganser says:

    Excellent, as always. On the “mechanical” side – add re 1) – Being free to travel includes having a carry-on packed at all times with cosmetics, underwear, travel hair dryer (they often don’t work when you’re in a hurry, often in the best hotels), a washcloth (for Germany, you don’t get one), a few sizes of empty plastic bags, pens, paper, some candy or breakfast bars, any medication if you need it, and a few other personal basics. It should only require (and have room for) adding a suit, a few blouses/shirts, a sweater, a pair of extra shoes. — The quick departure can happen in legal interpreting, too: In a deposition, an attorney suddenly shouts, “Let’s go on location.” You may not get an hour to get ready but depart directly from the attorney’s office and may not return until 3 days later. Keep that suitcase in the car. Happened to me only 3 times, the first time unprepared, attorneys agreed to buy essentials on location without much time to do so. [I have been out of interpreting for a few years since I am now ancient – 82 – had to stop interpreting when they introduced Power Point Presentations, which I could no longer read from the booth — don’t forget your glasses. Still translating, however.]

    • Murielle says:

      Thanks. I will make sure I have my suitcase ready, although I have never had a single assignment. But I call that faith! ;o)

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    Great note from you, Tony!

    Regarding your quote: “…This is the day when you must leave a good impression on the agency, event organizer, technicians, and more importantly, the other interpreters you will work with. These colleagues will give feedback to the client, and their opinion carries a lot of weight. They will also become your source of referrals if you are good. Be an excellent booth mate and shine…”, it serves us well to remember the old axiom that states: There’s no second chance to create a good first impression.

    May I suggest doing what I do. I weekly read anywhere between 13 to 14 publications online that include magazines, periodicals and traditional news, and I do it in three languages. That way, I get a very good idea as to what’s going on worldwide and keeps me up to snuff with current events. It is a TREMENDOUS GAIN in the use of current words that may just crop-up during someone’s speech, which in turn adds to the interpreter’s vocabulary and proficiency. I do keep the interesting words in a Word® document to make a glossary that I can use anytime to refresh my memory.
    Yes, it does take up some of your time, but allow me to tell you that when the chips are down, it makes the difference between the wheat and the chaff.

    I’m an extremely inquisitive individual by nature, so I delve into everything, from NASA to Greek sculpture, because I find all that fascinating. My never-ending delight in research of so-called “weird” stuff, keeps me on my toes and continually fills me with a sense of wonderment! Also, from the very beginning, I decided that it was MY DUTY AND RESPONSIBILITY to be as linguistically proficient as I could, ergo the yen for knowing a little bit about a whole lot.

    In my experience as conference interpreter I’ve been very fortunate in having had advance notice to get ready for conferences, so I always carry my trusty all-around dictionary, my booth light and my binoculars so that I can read that presentation screen that always seems to be a mile (1.6 km) away.

    In addition to attempting in getting an advance script or program regarding the conference’s speakers and their subject matter, it’s a dice throw: They NEVER, EVER follow it, so one must be able to interpret off the cuff whatever the speaker happens to improvise upon. That’s when all those articles and their vocabulary help, and give you a leg up as to the wording used by that person!

    Unlike court interpretation, conferences will allow a wide linguistic berth in the interpretation of the material spoken, so to me it’s a delightful and very enjoyable —although mentally fatiguing— exercise.

    As far as having a packed bag at all times (Thank you, Doris Ganser), I don’t have to have the hair dryer: I’m half bald and the remaining hair can easily be finger-combed!

    Cheers!

    André Csihas, FCCI

  • Fatima says:

    Great insight into the nitty-gritty of conference interpreting.

  • Thank you for this article. I used to do some conferences, but I’ve only interpreted in 32 conferences in a little over 13 years. So why am I not doing 32 conferences per year, instead of 32 conferences every 16 years? Well, the clients hired national interpretation companies who then would hire me and my partners. They mostly care about the almighty dollar and not quality. Today, I only do one conference per year and that’s because they’re my personal client that I serve through my company and not someone else’s.

    Our profession has been flooded with pseudo-professionals who have no business in interpreting for conferences. We must amalgamate and get rid of the quacks, just like the medical profession did over a hundred years ago. The bottom-dweller and the unscrupulous company are to blame for the lack of work.

    • Gabor Menkes says:

      Here is my response to the question “How can I get work as a conference interpreter?” from the perspective of a Hungarian refugee living in the Netherlands.
      First, I worked at a multinational company as a localization coordinator for the first 9 years after I finished my interpreter’s/translator’s training because nobody had taught me what it takes to be working on a free-lance basis.

      In 1999 I met a colleague who, forced by family circumstances, asked me to take her place at a conference, a few days away. There I met other colleagues who thought that it would be a good idea to recommend me for future jobs and things snowballed. So my conference interpreting “career” really started in the last trimester of 1999, with 11 jobs in 3 months’ time. In the almost 18 years since then, I have established a customer base and built contacts with colleagues. Whenever I meet a colleague that I did not know before, I make sure to give my business card. If they think that I am competent and likeable, they will hopefully recommend me to their clients and/or colleagues whenever they learn that someone is looking for a professional with my language combinations.

      • André Csihás, FCCI says:

        Te magyar vagy? Én is… nem tudom elhinni. (Translation from the Hungarian: Are you Hungarian? Me too… I can’t believe it.

        Vízlát (greetings),

        Csihás András, FCCI

      • gabormenkes says:

        Igen – de hogy lehet ezt a beszélgetést a blogon kivül folyytatni?

        (Meaning: yes, but how can we continue our conversation outside the blog?)

        Gábor Menkes ~~~~~~~~~~

      • Thank you. Please have your conversation outside the blog. As André knows, you are both welcome to post relevant comments anytime

  • Ana Dema says:

    Totally agree with your stance on fees. Enthusiasm must be reserved for CPD, not to lower your fees.

  • giolester says:

    Enlightening as usual, Tony. Thank you.

  • Handan Bao says:

    I can’t agree more on how a rock-bottom fee hurts colleagues and diminishes the profession!

  • Murielle says:

    Thank you ever so much for the information. I am currently a translator and a public service interpreter – just starting – and I want to become a conference interpreter. I am planning to do a masters degree in conference interpreting next year, but would like to get started in the private sector beforehand or alongside the course; or at least get some useful contacts. Your pieces of advice are very helpful. Thanks again. Murielle

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