How can I get work as conference interpreter?

January 13, 2017 § 15 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.

The “must attend” conferences of 2017.

January 5, 2017 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

2016 was a great year for many of us. Quite a few of you developed professionally and became better at what you do. I congratulate you for that important achievement; unfortunately, competitors are still out there, languages are still changing, technology continues to improve, and clients (agencies or direct corporations) are willing to pay for what they need but are looking for the best service at the best possible price.  The question is: How do we adapt to reality, keep up with technology, and improve our service?  The answer is complex and it includes many different issues that have to be addressed.  Today, at the dawn of a new year, the time for planning activities, and programming agendas, we will concentrate on one of them: Professional development.

It is practically impossible to beat the competition, command a high professional fee, and have a satisfied client who does not want to have anything to do with any other interpreter but you, unless you can deliver quality interpreting and state-of-the-art technology.  In other words, we need to be better interpreters.  We need to study, we have to practice our craft, we should have a peer support network (those colleagues you call when in doubt about a term, a client or grammar) and we need to attend professional conferences.

I personally find immense value in professional conferences because you learn from the workshops and presentations, you network with colleagues and friends, and you find out what is happening out there in the very competitive world of interpreting.  Fortunately there are many professional conferences all year long and all over the world.  Fortunately (for many of us) attending a professional conference is tax deductible in our respective countries.  Unfortunately there are so many attractive conferences and we have to pick and choose where to go.   I understand that some of you may decide to attend one conference per year or maybe your policy is to go to conferences that are offered near your home base. I also know that many of you have professional agendas that may keep you from attending a particular event even if you wanted to be there.  I applaud all organizations and individuals who put together a conference. I salute all presenters and support staff that makes a conference possible, and I wish I could attend them all.

Because this is impossible, I decided to share with all of you the 2017 conferences that I am determined to attend:

The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) Annual Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina (April 22-23).  I go to this conference because it is IAPTI. Because it is about us, the interpreters and translators! This conference, and this organization for that matter, presents a unique point of view of our profession that I consider priceless.  It is the only international conference of this size where there are no corporate sponsors. All you see is translators and interpreters like you.  Some of the results of this innovative approach are that the conference attracts a very important group of colleagues that stay away from other events because they are bothered by the corporate presence.  This is the conference to attend if you want to learn how to deal with agencies, corporate clients and governments, because the absence of all those other players fosters this dialogue.  You can attend the presentations and workshops knowing that no presenter is there to sell you anything and that is fun to have at least once a year. Extra added bonus: Beautiful Buenos Aires! I am personally delighted that IAPTI decided to take its conference to Latin America where so many colleagues need these events.

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. (May 19-21) I am determined to be in Washington, D.C. in May for the largest judiciary and legal interpreter and translator gathering anywhere in the world.  This conference lets me have an accurate idea of the changes in this area that is so important for our profession in the United States.  It is a unique event because everybody shares the same field and you get to see and network with colleagues that do not attend other non-court interpreting conferences. Extra added bonus: As the capital of the United States, Washington, D.C. offers interpreters and translators the opportunity to physically see where it all happens: the government institutions and agencies, monuments, museums, and the federal court system: History and the law!

International Federation of Translators (FIT) XXI World Congress in Brisbane, Australia (August 3-5) This is an excellent event to attend for several reasons: It is an international meeting of professionals who actually live all over the world. There are other big events where interpreters and translators from many countries get together, but most of them live in the United States or the United Kingdom; at the FIT World Congress most of the professionals attending the event will be coming from their respective countries, bringing along different perspectives, points of view, and first-hand information on the status of the profession somewhere different from the country where you live. Extra added bonus: Despite the long trip for most of us, the central theme of the congress is “Disruption and Diversification”. Enough said: This are issues that affect all of us and should be near and dear to the heart of all professional interpreters and translators.

XXI Translation and Interpreting Congress San Jerónimo (FIL/OMT) in Guadalajara, Mexico (November 25-26) Every year the Mexican Translators Association (OMT) puts together a magnificent program featuring well-known presenters from all over the world. Coming from an unprecedented success during their XX Congress, the 2017 edition will surely have workshops and presentations in varied, useful, and trending topics. This is the activity to attend this year for those colleagues who work with the Spanish language.  Extra added bonus: The Congress is held in the same venue (Expo Guadalajara) and at the same time as the International Book Fair, one of the largest in the Spanish language world. Besides the professional sessions, attendees can also stroll up and down the immense fairgrounds a purchase some books, listen to some or the most renowned authors in the world, or just window shop in between sessions.

I know the choice is difficult, and some of you may have reservations about professional gatherings like the ones I covered above.  Remember, the world of interpreting is more competitive every day and you will need an edge to beat the competition.  That advantage might be what you learned at one of these conferences, or whom you met while at the convention.  Please kindly share your thoughts and let us know what local, national or international conference or conferences you plan to attend in 2017.

What we learned as Interpreters in 2016.

December 29, 2016 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2016 is coming to an end and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2017, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months.  As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, 2016 was no exception.  The year that ends gave me once again the opportunity to work with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had some positive developments this year:  In the United States, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) and in Mexico the Organización Mexicana de Traductores (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) held very successful conferences in San Antonio, Texas and Guadalajara, Mexico respectively. In April I attended the Sixth Latin American Translation and Interpreting Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina where some of the best professionals gathered to learn and share experiences in a high-quality, professional environment. I also had the opportunity to participate in other professional conferences and seminars of tremendous level where I was honored to share some experiences and exchange ideas with many professional colleagues. Thank you to all my colleagues who attended my presentations, workshops and seminars in Cancún, Toronto, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Querétaro, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Lima, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Pachuca, Phoenix, Ohrid, Beirut, and Guadalajara. It was a pleasure to spend some time with all of you in 2016.

The year that ends in a few days saw the growth of our profession in the healthcare and media fields, where we currently have more and better prepared professional certified interpreters than ever before. I also noticed the growth of our profession in Africa where our friends and colleagues held several professional events, and 2017 promises to be even better. And just this week we learned that, after many months, our Vietnamese court interpreter friends and colleagues in Melbourne, Australia Magistrates’ Court won their hard fought battle against the system and an opportunist contractor and are finally going to be paid a decent professional fee under favorable work conditions.

Unfortunately, not everything was good.  Our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States continued their fight against mediocrity and misdirected greed with SOSi, the contractor selected by the U.S. federal government to be the sole provider of interpreting services in all immigration courts of the United States. 2016 was the year when this contractor took working conditions and the quality of interpreting services to an all-time unprecedented low.  Some professional associations, individual judges, and attorneys have voiced their objections to this practices, but not much has changed. The war is far from over, and these colleagues should use the Melbourne Australia success story as a source of motivation.

Our colleagues in the American immigration courts are not alone in their struggle, the Workers’ Compensation Court interpreters of California, state-level court interpreters in New Mexico, and other court interpreters in some American east coast states are also fighting against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and others. Some European countries, like Spain and the United Kingdom, are under siege by governments that want to lower the quality of translation and interpreting services in the legal arena to unimaginable levels of incompetence.

Interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards and creating questionable certification programs, the multi-national language agencies continued to push telephone interpreting whenever, and wherever they can, offering rock-bottom per minute fees to the interpreters. A handful of translators attempted to disrupt one of the top professional translator and interpreter associations in the world because they refused to understand the legal system where the association was incorporated, wanted to advance a personal agenda, and in a way that raises deep concerns, attacked the association because of the national origin of its board. The year was also marked by many efforts to distract, and perhaps mislead interpreters and translators, through carefully crafted conferences, webinars, publications and other events where some renowned colleagues, for reasons unknown to me, addressed our peers with a new carefully planned tactic that consists on making interpreters and translators believe that the agency is on their side by softening the rhetoric, showing some cosmetic empathy, and advancing their low fee, low quality service agenda on a stealth way.

Of course, we also had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2016 was full of para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services. As you can see, much changed and much stayed the same. I choose to think that there were more good things than bad ones, but I continue to be aware of the awesome problems we still face as a profession from threats that come from without and within. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your learned lessons (good and bad) of 2016. I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!

Theater, translators, and the unique world we inhabit.

June 22, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

If you know me personally, you know how much I like going to the theater. I enjoy musicals, drama, comedy, classic and contemporary, big and small productions; I watch anything and everything: from the biggest names on stage to community theater.  For professional reasons, I am presently in New York City, and I have taken this opportunity, as I always do, to see as many plays and musicals as allowed by my busy agenda.  This past weekend, I saw “On Your Feet!” the musical that tells the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, the world famous musician/producer and songwriter/musician/performer respectively.

The play is full of beautiful music, with top-notch singers and dancers in a production second to none, but the most relevant aspect of the musical is the story.  The performance takes you by the hand through the lives of Emilio Estefan and Gloria Fajardo, with all of the highs and lows they have experienced in life. From Emilio’s childhood when a little boy had to say goodbye to his family in Cuba in order to escape the atrocities of the Castro regime, to little Gloria’s life in Miami as part of an immigrant family that faced all obstacles encountered by those who move to another country, with a different culture that is expressed in an unknown language, as well as the devastating Multiple Sclerosis that her father suffered during Gloria’s youth.  The play shows us how a strong will, ambition, determination, and hard work (and huge talent), were key to their success.  The musical is in English, but it is culturally and linguistically permeated by a Cuban atmosphere at every step.  It does not hide or minimize the struggle to be accepted when you look, speak, and sound different.

During (in my opinion) the most important scene of the play, already successful Gloria and Emilio meet their record producer to convince him to back an album in English. By then, they were famous and recognized in the Hispanic world and culture everywhere, but they lived in the United States and wanted to reach everybody with their music. The producer tells them that their music is popular with those who share a Hispanic taste, that their style is for latinos, that their work would never make it in the wider English speaking American society. He suggests they stick to their culture and stay Cuban. At this point, a very angry Emilio approaches the producer, and within a paper-thin distance from the producer’s face tells him: “look at my face up close, and take a good look, because this is how Americans look”.

At that point, the audience reacted with a huge applause. It was extremely moving, and very telling. In a few words, Emilio had summarized the reality that we are currently facing in the United States as a nation, and in the rest of the world as the human species.  Emilio’s face is the face of all immigrants, refugees, political and economic, who leave everything, and sometimes everyone, behind to pursue an opportunity to contribute to society at large.  As interpreters we are constantly exposed to people from all walks of life and from all corners of earth. We interact with them on a daily basis and we see first- hand their flaws and their qualities. This is our reality, but it is not everyone’s; In fact, most people, especially those who do not live in the big urban areas in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, spend a big part of their life around people who look like them, act like them, think like them, and speak a common language with a familiar accent.  This is the rule around the world; we, and some other professionals who work with different cultures, are the exception.

As interpreters, we hear different languages spoken with different accents every day, it is part of our “normal”; but we need plays like “On Your Feet!” for the rest of the people who are too quick to form an opinion and disqualify others a priori, just because they do not share their language, wear the same clothes, or eat the same food. This is the true value of the play: one that goes beyond the challenges that the Estefans had to overcome to get to the top and stay there. Given the current environment generated by the U.S. presidential campaign, the brexit vote in the U.K., and people’s attitude towards war refugees, and indigenous immigrants all over the world, artistic manifestations like this one give us an opportunity to reflect and talk to others about what is really important.

I believe that theater and our profession are connected.  In both cases we are only successful when our message is understood by others. Plays and musicals are written in a particular language, and they cannot reach a universal audience unless they are translated. Can you imagine a world where only English speakers knew Shakespeare, or Spanish speakers were the only ones enjoying the works of Lope de Vega? It seems impossible, but it is only possible because of the work of many translators who have taken these and many other works to the masses for centuries.

As a theater lover, I try to see plays and musicals everywhere I go, particularly in those cities famous for their theater.  Every time I am in New York City, London, Chicago, Toronto, Madrid, Buenos Aires, or Mexico City, I make a deliberate effort to attend a play. I enjoy musicals and plays in their original language, but as an interpreter, I am always fascinated by a good translation and localization of a play.

Although the success or failure of a foreign play rests on the shoulders of the translator, it is rare to see a program, or a marquee that credits the translator. I have examined many programs to discover at the end of the booklet that the people who provided the lightbulbs for the stage are credited on the program, but the translator is usually missing.

It is for this reason that I was in shock when I saw that a translator was given a very well-deserved credit for a very difficult play.

I was in Madrid about two years ago. It was late in the afternoon after a very exhausting job. I really needed something to lift my spirits and at the same time take my mind away from more work waiting for me the next day. Of course, I immediately thought about going to the theater, and before I knew it, I found myself at the steps of Teatro Lope de Vega on the Gran Vía. I looked up and saw that they were showing “El Rey León”. By then, I had already seen The Lion King many times in New York City, London, and Mexico City, so I hesitated for a minute. Another theater was showing “Chicago” a couple of blocks down the street, but after a quick reflection, I decided to buy a ticket for the Spanish version of The Lion King.

It turns out that I made the right choice, the play was excellent, actors, musicians, costume designers.  Everybody did a first-class job; but the best part in my opinion, was the translation and adaptation of the play. Dialogues, lyrics, and cultural references were all impeccable. I had seen the musical in Spanish before in Mexico City, but humor is very different in Madrid, and the localization was excellent. Moreover, translating a play with some dialogues and lyrics in Swahili, leaving those portions untouched, but making them fit the Spanish version, despite the fact that they had been originally conceived with English in mind, was an enormous task. The translation was very good.

Everything I have shared with you resulted on a memorable experience that I still bring up to my friends and colleagues more than two years after the fact, but the highlight of the evening happened when, as I was reading the program, I found the translator. There he was: Jordi Galceran, from Barcelona, getting a well-deserved credit for his work. I never forgot that moment, and since that night, I continue to look for the translator on every program; unfortunately, for the most part, I cannot find any names. For this reason, I have taken the opportunity that this blog entry, on diversity and tolerance in a Broadway musical gave me, to advocate for the respect and recognition that our translator friends and colleagues deserve. I now invite you to share your stories on diversity and tolerance of foreign groups and cultures, and to write down the names of any translators of plays or musicals that you may want to honor by mentioning them here.

Young interpreters are the key to save the profession.

May 31, 2016 § 8 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

These past four weeks I had the fortune to work with, and be around, some of the brightest young interpreters and students. I attended four events that reminded me of the importance of passing the torch to the next generation of capable professionals. First, I lectured at the Masters’ Degree program at Anáhuac University in Mexico City, then, I attended the Sixth Latin American Translation and Interpreting Congress in Buenos Aires, followed by a talk to the students of the Autonomous University of Querétaro, Mexico, as part of their Translation and Interpreting Summit; and then, I was a presenter and a panelist during the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) pre-conference and conference in San Antonio, Texas.

Besides the great presentations, networking, and greeting of old friends and meeting many new ones, including the “living legends” of our profession and dear veteran colleagues, I had the opportunity to talk to the youth. Many of my conversations were with college students and brand new interpreters and translators who are just entering the global market. As expected, I saw the enthusiasm of youth, and I noticed something else: These new interpreters and translators, and the ones still studying to become our colleagues, are very capable, knowledgeable, and in some ways they are already ahead of us. Let me explain:

Many of these youngsters had a better academic formation than some of us, they are a product of a world that did not exist when we were starting our careers. While we were the product of a cold war era where the rule was hard work, hauling of heavy suitcases full of dictionaries and reference books all the way to the booth, endless library research hours, and practicing with your peers (in order to get constructive feedback on your performance); these new interpreters’ world includes laptops, tablets, electronic dictionaries, Wikipedia and Google.  They never had to use the services of a travel agent to get to a conference because they always had Kayak or other similar application; they never had a booth-mate smoking and handling conference materials with cigarette burns.  They did not become interpreters hoping to see enough work coming to their hometown, and most of them did not have the goal of working as a staff interpreter for a big company or international organization.  They knew that travel was part of the business and they did not hesitate, they wanted to have their own professional practice and own their time and career choices.  I know that you probably know all of these characteristics of our new colleagues, but I am mentioning them here because it is only when we stop and reflect on them that we can understand the young interpreters, and welcome them to the profession as we should.

Many of you have been around long enough to recognize the following situation. It happens constantly, and it takes place everywhere in the world:

Every time that graduation season comes along, and on every occasion that the results of newly certified, licensed, admitted, credentialed, or whatever the term may be, interpreters are announced; many of our colleagues, staff and freelancers, whether they are in a conference booth, courthouse, hospital, international organization, or government agency, will make a comment similar to this: “…There are all these new interpreters graduating this month, I don’t know why they studied this career, there is no work for them around here. We can hardly get work for the ones we already have…” or: “…I hope that nobody gets certified; every time there are newly certified interpreters, the first thing they do is to come here and try to get work. We don’t need them! We are fine just the way we are now…” and of course: “…these new kids from college think they know more than us, and are always trying to change the way we do things in here. I don’t like working with them. They want to do everything with a computer…”

We are all familiar with these reactions and attitudes. Some colleagues endorse them, some of us dislike them enormously, but the reality is that this predisposition against the “new interpreter” is pervasive, particularly against the “new young interpreter”; it is everywhere.  They exist because they come from a natural fear that humans experience when they are faced with the unknown. Add to this the fact that people feel that their source of income will be threatened, and you get the reality described above. It is a bad situation, buy fortunately, it is all based on ignorance, and as it is always the case, lack of knowledge can be defeated with information.

I propose that all of us, veteran professional interpreters and new colleagues, because this situation impacts everybody, look at it from both perspectives: that of the experienced interpreter, and that of the newly graduated.

Why is it that so many veteran interpreters get so upset when youngsters graduate from college, when it is announced that there are new certified interpreters, and when they are told that they will be sharing the booth with a new, much younger colleague? Because many veterans are afraid. They fear that they will not get work anymore, they are afraid of showing their rendition to a younger partner who may detect diminishing skills that another veteran would never dare to disclose to the client or agency; they are embarrassed to show their lack of knowledge of modern technology, and looking incompetent before the new interpreter who will lose any respect for the veteran who cannot even do a quick Google search in the booth. They are aware of their lack of technological skills, they know that modernity requires them and the client values them, and therefore, they feel ignorant, perhaps of lesser professional quality than the young ones, and they fight the change. As a result of these insecurities, many veterans ignore, despise, and mistreat newcomers, creating a tension that helps nobody, and erodes the profession.

On the other side, new interpreters resent this treatment by those who are already making a living by practicing the profession. Some of them put up with the insults, abuse and assignment bypassing, as part of the “paying your dues” process; others are more fortunate, of just luckier, and despite the campaign against them by the old-timers, they are noticed by a veteran interpreter, the agency, or the client, and they blossom as interpreters. Sadly, many of these bright and very capable new professionals get discouraged and abandon the quality path of our craft, they let their guard down, and they are lured to the dangerous dark side of our reality: they become the prey of those in the interpreting “industry”, who will wine them and dine them until they are ready to become one more laborer in the interpreting sweat shop.  You see, by rejecting these excellent professionals whose only “sin” is their youth and to be technologically literate, we are throwing them to the jaws of those colleges and universities that (maybe in good faith, or perhaps because of their own monetary benefit) promote the concept of graduating and going straight to the big multinational agencies where quality is not even on their priority list. We are leaving them at the mercy of aggressive recruiters who work for these international calling centers where their interpreting talent will be wasted, and they will work for a fee so low that their college loans will have to be paid back by their grandchildren. At the least, we will leave them vulnerable to the big professional associations who mask these low-paying job fairs as “professional conferences” and “mentor” these youngsters until they are conditioned to accept whatever the “industry” tells them to do.

The truth is, dear friends and colleagues, new young interpreters are also at fault. Many times, when faced with the very real possibility of working an assignment with a veteran interpreter who has achieved prestige, but was not college-trained, (in many occasions because the career did not exist yet, or because there were so few institutions of higher education offering it), the newly graduated acts as if she were better that the empiric, self-taught colleague, refusing to listen to any suggestions or comments that the veteran may share. This will undoubtedly result in a bad situation where the newcomer looks arrogant and ignorant, and the experienced interpreter feels disrespected.  Another common scenario has a new interpreter losing patience and his “cool” when the older veteran does not seem to understand the technological terms or simply shows up to the booth dragging behind one half of the Library of Congress. There has to be self-reflection, tolerance, understanding, and respect of the other’s personality, experience, formal education, technical skills, and personal style when interpreting.

Let’s see, the first thing an interpreter who is going to work with a colleague for the first time (even more so when they are from a different generation) needs to do, is to look at himself in the mirror, and remember when he was young and the “victim” of a prior generation of interpreters; and then, he must acknowledge his strengths and weaknesses.  The veteran may have the confidence that only years of working give you; he may know the speaker, the subject matter, the venue, or the sound technician very well. He may know the interpreters in the other booths and how to work relay assignments with them. The younger interpreter may know how to take notes with a tablet or I-pad; and how to research a speaker, term, or topic with her phone, without having to leave the booth.  They need to be honest with themselves, and acknowledge their shortcomings: The older interpreter may not be very good; maybe he never was, but at a time when no interpreters were around, he was better than nothing. In this case, he needs to be a professional and decline the assignment. Everybody will respect this move more than a cavalier attitude motivated by ego and a state of denial.  The young interpreter may conclude that the event is just to “big” for her; she should realize that, although these assignments may be right for her in the future, she is not ready yet. People will respect this honest assessment of an assignment and the interpreter’s skill to do it at this time.  The older interpreter may have to accept that technology arrived to the booth and that it is here to stay; he has to understand that taking several minutes to research a term in the paper dictionary is now unacceptable.  The new interpreter may notice how the veteran interpreter has a better idea as to the location of the booth, or at dealing with the speaker, and she should not dismiss a lesson learned in the booth just because the interpreter teaching the lesson does not have an interpreting college degree.

You see, it is really simple when you think about it: if the veteran interpreter lets his guard down, he will become a better professional, as he will learn from the younger booth-mate how to use so many of the modern tools that will make him more marketable and better.  If the younger interpreter gets over the fear of working with the older guy, she will learn the ropes of the profession that are not taught in school. She will learn how to negotiate a better contract, how to get better clients, and how to do a complex high-profile assignment without even sweating.  The reality is: everybody has something to teach. We all have something to learn. The goal of every experienced interpreter should be to leave the profession better than they found it, and the only way to do it, is to pass on every piece of knowledge and experience onto the next generation.  The goal of every new interpreter should be to take the profession to the next level, and the only way to do it is to continue to build on top of the structure already in place left behind by those who came first. There cannot be any progress if the new generation wants to reinvent the wheel.  If we all do our part, we will also protect the profession by retaining the talent for the quality, well-remunerated work, and letting the “industry” feast on those not-so-talented colleagues who will need to do a greater effort to improve their service before they can “escape” the claws of assembly-line interpreting.

Yes, there will be some growing pains, it will take some effort to adapt to a different generation booth-mate, but the quality of the rendition will improve, and all interpreters will have so much fun working with a veteran, or a rookie, in the booth, the courthouse, the hospital, the government agency, the international organization, and everywhere else that real professional interpreters are needed.  I now encourage you all, my young and seasoned colleagues, to share with the rest of us your constructive ways to strengthen the professional relationship between experienced veterans and new interpreters.

Traveling interpreters, getting to the assignment, and the complexity of their work.

March 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Interpreting is an exhausting, mentally and physically demanding task that can only be performed at the highest level when the interpreter is recharged with energy and has a rested brain.  Once we start interpreting, there is no room for any down time.  We need total concentration and full awareness through our five senses, and then some.  To make my point even clearer, I ask you to go back to the moment when you get home after a full day of interpreting.  You are extremely tired and ready to fall asleep on the couch without any warning.  Your brain is shutting down the same way a computer does when it is overloaded.

Interpreting is not an easy task, and the topics we work with are usually difficult, highly sophisticated, and complex.  The last thing we need is to show up to work tired or stressed out.  We need to be in top mental shape to deliver the kind of service our client expects and is paying for.  Interpreters need to rest before an assignment.  We do not need to be distracted with any “sideshows” or situations that can affect our concentration or drain our energy right before we get to the booth, courthouse, hospital, or table of negotiations.  The risk of not showing to work rested and stress-free is even higher for those of us who constantly travel to do our job.

Add two, five, twelve hours of travel time to the enormous task of researching and studying for an assignment. Factor in jet lag, changes of season (going from a summer weather in the southern hemisphere to a winter weather up north), altitude, local food, and cultural differences. All happening within a very short period, usually from the time you get on an airplane to the time you land at the point of destination. The results could be devastating. A tired interpreter could be the start of a disaster.

Because of the huge responsibility that is riding on our shoulders, and because of our professionalism, it is our responsibility to always bring our “A” game to the booth; but, how can we do it when facing these long trips?  The answer is relatively simple: Turn the trip into a relaxing experience; try to make it as pleasurable as possible. Rest, sleep, and try to keep a “normal” life despite of a traveling schedule.   It all starts with the way we travel.

We should always try to travel as comfortably as possible.  To me, the golden rule is to travel in style so you can recharge the batteries on the way to the assignment. Whether you get there by train or airplane, try to travel first or business class.  Leave economy to the tourists. Business class got its name from the idea of delivering a transportation service to the traveler who has a reason to be at the point of destination that is definitely different from going to the beach and drinking a piña colada.  When you travel by train on a first class, or private dormitory car, you can sleep, study, relax, and get ready for the job ahead. Flying first or business class is the difference between sleeping on your back, eating a fairly decent meal on the plane, and showering at the port of destination’s airline club before meeting your client and going to the venue.

Granted, traveling first and even business is not cheap. Fortunately, because we travel so much, we can do it if we are a little smart. These are some of the things I suggest you do to be able to travel as you should without having to pay an arm and a leg.

First, get the client to pay for it whenever possible. You will soon find out that in many cases, most clients are willing to pay for a business class ticket when you are traveling a long distance. It is not that difficult to explain how tiresome it would be to fly economy from Chicago to Sydney or even from Seattle to New York City.  Educate your client. Explain the advantages of having a well-rested interpreting team. You have nothing to lose.

Second, find out what airline has a hub, or at least has the most flights out of your hometown, and join their frequent flyer program. Most airlines will give you a bunch of miles, or kilometers, just for joining their loyalty program.  This will be your preferred airline from now on.

The third thing you need to do is to get rid of all those credit cards that you have, and switch to one or two cards (depending on the place you live) that give you air miles in the main airline that serves your hometown. Once you have it, pay for everything with that card, even those things you usually pay with cash. Pay your credit card bill in full at the end of the month, and there will be no interest to pay, and you will be accumulating miles.

Once you have taken the steps above, book all your flights on your preferred airline.  Don’t succumb to the temptation of saving twenty dollars on a cheaper flight with a low-cost carrier. You are now in the business of accumulating miles (or kilometers).  You can earn miles even when you travel to places that your airline does not serve. Find out what airlines partner with your preferred air carrier, and fly with them. Most airlines in North and South America, Asia, and Europe are members of the One-World or the Star Alliance.  You just need to find out which one of these alliances your airline belongs to.

Research what hotel chains, car rental companies, and restaurant programs offer miles on your preferred airline carrier and do business with them exclusively. You are now adding up miles (or kilometers) every time you buy a plane ticket, pay your cable TV, buy groceries, or go to the dentist.

Once you have enough miles, do not cash them in for a trip to Cancun. Instead, apply them to a yearly membership to your preferred airline carrier’s airport lounge.  In fact, if you believe that you can afford it from the start, when applying for the credit card that works with your airline, get the more expensive credit card. It will cost you some five hundred U.S. dollars a year, but it will let you travel with two bags at no cost, and will get you to the airline lounges for free. Do the math. I think it is worth.

Why are you accumulating all these airline miles if you are not going to use them to go to Cancun? Because not all of your clients will be willing to pay for a business class airplane ticket.

Many clients, especially international organizations and government agencies, do not pay for business class tickets because it is against their policy. They are mandated by law or charter to wisely disburse the monies of the taxpayers, members, or donors.  They will get you the cheapest ticket on the plane, because they have a deal with the air carrier to get the unused seats for a very low price.  You will get these seats, but once that you have them, on your own, without the client’s involvement, you will switch seats to a more comfortable place on the plane a little farther away from the lavatories, with more leg room, and you will not have to endure the middle seat from Toronto to Buenos Aires.  You will be able to do this for free because you will be an airline Gold member, Platinum member, and so on.  Next, you will ask your client to book you on a plane that leaves at odd hours.  These flights tend to be somewhat empty on the first and business class cabins because most business and rich people travel at more convenient times of the day.  The reason why you want to be on this flights is that once you have an airline member status, you can request an upgrade to the next higher class for free. There are many empty business class seats on the 5:00 am flight, and one of them will be yours.   This will be a deal between you and the airline. It does not affect your client, and you will be able to take care of your health and professional reputation by getting to the booth rested and ready to work.

My final piece of advice: Avoid discount airlines at all cost. You will never relax on these carriers. I truly suffer when I find myself on one of their planes (fortunately a rare event). I remember once around Halloween, when I was traveling from Washington, D.C. to Seattle Washington, a flight that takes around seven hours, and a flight attendant decided to wake up the passengers , many of them were asleep, to “animate them” by organizing several games. Even one of the pilots came out to the main cabin (these airlines have no first or business class) dressed as a wizard, and they started to play these games, interrupting, in my case, the work I was peacefully doing on my computer. You should also keep in mind that most passengers on these carriers are not very savvy travelers, making the getting on and off the plane a very long process, wasting precious minutes that you should be spending taking a shower at the airline club.

Smart traveling is more than a mimosa before the plane pushes back. It is having a work and rest space while traveling to your destination. It is having access to the internet, eating a quality meal, to be able to shower or use the gym at the airline lounge at the airport; it is also getting to know the flight crew when you travel all the time and getting little perks from them during your trip.  Remember: it is called business class because it was meant for people like you who travel as part of making a living.  I now invite you to share your comments and suggestions as to other ways to make traveling more pleasant and relaxing for the interpreter who calls planet earth “my office”.

Improving our knowledge, enhancing our skills in the New Year.

January 18, 2016 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Many professional responsibilities and obligations come with a new year.  As interpreters and translators we must strive to deliver a better service than the year before, and the best way to achieve it is through practice and study.  We need to improve our personal libraries, increase our professional resources, and find a way to learn something new and brush up on our ethics, while getting the continuing education credits needed to keep our certifications, patents or licenses.

This is the time of the year when we plan some of the major events that will happen during the year; the time to block some dates on our professional appointment books to be able to attend professional conferences. Those of you who have read the blog for a long time know that every year I share with you those professional conferences that I consider “a must” due to their content, the reputation of the organizations behind them, and the networking benefits derived from attending the event. This year is no exception.

As always, I start my conference “grocery list” by writing down the characteristics that I consider essential for my professional development. This way I make sure that I will not end up at a conference that will take my money and give me little, or nothing, in exchange.

The right conference needs to offer useful and practical presentations geared to different segments of professional interpreters and translators according to their years of practice.  There is nothing more confusing to a new interpreter or translator than finding themselves in the middle of a big conference where nothing in the program appeals to them.  There have to be workshops and presentations that speak to the new blood, and help them become good and sound interpreters and translators who will enjoy their professional lives.  By the same token, we must have workshops that appeal to the experienced professional. There are hundreds of colleagues who stay away from professional conferences because all they see in the program is very basic.  They want advanced skills workshops, advanced level presentations, interesting innovative topics on interpreting, translating and languages, instead of the same old seminars that focus on the newcomers and completely ignore the already-established interpreter and translator.  Finally, a good conference has to offer presentations and workshops on technology, the business of interpreting and translation from the perspective of the professional individual, instead of the corporate view that so often permeates the conferences in the United States and so many other countries, and it must include panels and forums on how we should proactively take action, and reactively defend, from the constant attacks by some of the other players in our field: agencies, government entities, direct clients, misguided interpreters and translators, and so on.

To me, it is not a good option to attend a conference, which will cost me money, to hear the same basic stuff directed to the new interpreters and translators. We need conferences that offer advanced-level content for interpreters and translators, forums and presentations that deal with sophisticated ethical and legal situations that we face in our professions.  At the same time, the new colleagues need to be exposed to these topics on a beginner-level format, and they need to learn of the difficult ethical and legal situations they will eventually face as part of their professional practice.

I do not think that a good conference should include presentations by multilingual agencies or government speakers who, under the color of “good practices to get more business”, use these professional forums, with the organizing professional association’s blessing (because money talks), to indoctrinate new colleagues, and also veterans of feeble mind, on the right way to become a “yes man” or “yes woman” and do everything needed to please the agency or government entity in order to keep the contract or the assignment, even when this means precarious working conditions, rock-bottom fees, and humiliating practices that step by step chip away the pride and professional will of the “linguist” (as they often call them) and turn him into little more than a serf with no will of his own.  I want to make clear that I am all for hosting representatives of government offices and honest agencies who share information as to their policy and operations, but no promotion or indoctrination. There are honest businesses and government officers who are willing to follow this more suitable approach. We are all professionals, and we know that there are plenty of conferences organized by these entities, and we can attend them if we want to get that type of “insight” without having to waste presentation time during our own events listening to these detrimental forces.

I do not see the value of attending interpreter and translator associations’ conferences sponsored by those entities who are trying to convince us that we are an “industry” instead of a profession; because an industry has laborers, not professionals, and the latter demand a higher pay.  There is no need to spend your hard-earned money on conferences devoted to convince you that machines should translate and humans proofread, that interpreting services must be delivered by video using underpaid interpreters, and that if you dare to speak up against this nonsense, it means that you are opposed to the future of the profession.  I want to attend a conference where we can openly debate these modern tendencies of our professions, where we can plan how we will negotiate as equals with the owners of these technologies, and hold a dialogue with the scientists behind these new technologies, without a discredited multinational agency’s president as moderator of a panel, or a bunch of agency representatives giving us their company’s talking points again and again without answering any hard questions.

I want to be part of a conference where experienced interpreters and translators develop professional bonds and friendships with the newcomers to the professions, without having to compete against the recruiters who, disguised as compassionate veteran colleagues or experts, try to get the new interpreters and translators to drink the Kool-Aid that will make them believe that we are an industry, that modern translators proof-read machine translations, and good interpreters do VRI for a ridiculous low fee because they now “have more time to do other things since they do not need to travel like before”.

I want to go to a conference where I will have a good time and enjoy the company of my peers without having to look over my shoulder because the “industry recruiters” are constantly coming around spreading their nets to catch the new guy and the weak veteran.

Unfortunately, there will be no IAPTI international conference this year.  Because this organization delivers all of the points on my wish list, I always have to recommend it at the top of my “must-attend” conferences.  IAPTI cares so much for its members that after listening to them, it decided to move their annual conference from the fall to a different time of the year. Logistically, it was impossible to hold an international conference just a few months after the very successful event in Bordeaux this past September. The good news is that not everything is lost. Even though the international conference will have to wait until 2017, there will be several “IAPTINGS” all over the world throughout the year.  This are smaller, shorter regional high quality events that give us the opportunity to put in practice everything mentioned above.  Stay alert and look for these events; there might be one near you during 2016.

For my Spanish speaker colleagues, I truly recommend the VI Translation and Interpretation Latin American Congress (VI Congreso Latinoamericano de Traducción e Interpretación) to be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 21-24, 2016. Because of its impressive list of presenters and speakers, and from the wide variety of topics to be discussed, this congress represents a unique opportunity for all our colleagues to learn and network in a professional environment with magnificent Buenos Aires as the backdrop. I hope to see you there.

For all my judiciary interpreters and legal translators, I recommend the NAJIT 2016 Annual Conference in San Antonio, Texas on May 13-15, 2016. Although this year’s program has not been published yet, NAJIT is the largest judicial interpreter and translator organization in the United States, and perhaps in the world, and it constantly schedules topics of interest to the legal community; this is a great opportunity to network and give this event, and its current Board, a try.  I will personally attend the conference for the reasons I just mentioned, and because I have reason to believe that the organization is moving on the right direction towards the professional individual interpreter and translator and their rights.

During the fall of 2016 I will be attending the 20th. Anniversary of the OMT Translation and Interpretation International Congress San Jerónimo (XX Congreso Internacional de Traducción e Interpretación San Jerónimo 2016) in Guadalajara, Mexico on November 26-27. This is a great event every year. It is held at the same time that the FIL International Book Fair at the Expo Guadalajara, and it brings together top-notch interpreters and translators, as well as celebrities of the world of linguistics and literature from all over.  This year the congress turns 20 and for what I have heard, it promises to be the best ever! Join us in Guadalajara this November and live this unique experience.

Although these are the conferences I suggest, keep your eyes open as there may be some local conferences that you should attend in your part of the world. I will probably end up attending quite a few more during 2016.  I would also invite you to look for smaller events that may be happening near you; events like Lenguando, and other workshops and seminars somewhere in Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Finally, I invite you to share with the rest of us the main reasons that motivate you to attend a conference as well as those things that turn you off.

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