Interpreters need this from a city more than anything else.

August 20, 2019 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

My job takes me to many places all over the world, this means constant traveling by air, and sometimes by land. Transportation is very important and it is key to my performance as a professional interpreter. Recently, some of my travels have taken me to three continents where I have attended professional conferences where I saw many of my friends and favorite colleagues. As always, the conversation took us to a common topic: traveling. We shared how we got to these conferences, and then I realized that most interpreters I know live in a market at least two-flights away from conferences, business meetings, and international events. They all had to travel longer and spent more hours at airports waiting for connecting flights. I immediately thought of how difficult it must be for them to get to an assignment. This is something I rarely considered before; they took twice as long to get to that interpreting booth they were now sharing with me.

I have lived in big and small markets. The difference is huge. We always think of small markets as unattractive for a professional career as an interpreter because of lack of opportunities: no assignments, no venues, no events; sometimes we also discard them due to the shortage of interpreters in less frequently used languages.  These are all valid reasons not to live in such markets when your expectations are to find work where you live, but these markets are less than ideal for those willing to travel.

Living in a small market means you have to catch a plane to an airport that is hub to the airline you will fly, switch planes, wait for hours at the airport until it is time for your connection, and then you finally arrive. Some interpreters would even have it more difficult as they have to take three planes, or drive to the first airport from a smaller town where they live. Sometimes this means an additional travel day than those who will get to the assignment from a big city. These colleagues will likely travel on the first airline available because their market does not give them any options, therefore, they will be less likely to achieve airline status.

The biggest disadvantage for these interpreters is their availability. They cannot take as many assignments because it takes too long to get to the venue; and even when they arrive, they will be more tired than their colleagues who took a direct flight and slept on the plane, avoided the stress associated with catching connecting flights, and will have a much better chance to find their luggage at their destination than those whose bags had to be transferred from plane to plane. This is also very important for interpreters who work business negotiations and often need to be somewhere far away on short notice.

For all the professional reasons above, and mainly, because of its airports and geographical location, I chose Chicago as my operations center. The city has two of the largest, busiest airports in the world, and especially O’Hare International Airport offers me options no other airport can offer me in the United States. Chicago is the only city in the United States, and one of only five in the world (London, Johannesburg, Doha, and Dubai) with direct flights to all continents except Antarctica (https://www.travelandleisure.com/travel-news/chicago-international-flights). It is hub to the two biggest airlines in the world: #1 American Airlines, and #2 United Airlines; it is hub to the biggest discount airline in North America: Southwest Airlines, and it is a focus city for Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines, and; O’Hare International Airport is considered America’s best-connected airport.

These are the top ten airports with the most connectivity:

  • London Heathrow Airport
  • Frankfurt Airport
  • Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
  • Chicago O’Hare International Airport
  • Toronto Pearson International Airport
  • Singapore Changi Airport
  • Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, Jakarta
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
  • Kuala Lumpur International Airport
  • Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris

As professional interpreters, we need to get to the place of the assignment stress-free, and as soon as possible. Traveling wears out your body, it tires your brain. We need to be at the site of the assignment rested and mentally sharp. Direct flights help us do that. Even with the growth of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) big cities will continue to have a competitive advantage over smaller population centers. Shortage of interpreters in many languages other than Spanish and other Western European languages; and lack of facilities where (RSI) interpreters can go to a virtual booth and work side by side with a colleague and a technician, will limit the options of these interpreters in outline areas. I personally do RSI, but I will not do it at home, without a boothmate and on-site technical support, left to my own technical skills to troubleshoot a problem, and hoping for the best as far as internet speed, connectivity, background noises, etc.

The way to get to the next professional level must include living in a big city, and to succeed in the private sector, you need the competitive advantage of having an airport that puts you one flight away from practically everywhere in the world. I now invite you to please share your comments on this important issue.

When client and agency do not listen to the interpreter.

April 3, 2017 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

After years of working as a professional interpreter you get to see and live many things. It is called experience. Learning from our mistakes, observing the way other colleagues solve a problem, and years of practice and study make us better interpreters, and gives us the confidence to tackle tough assignments.

Once, years ago, I was retained to interpret during a very important event with the participation of some of the highest government officials from many of the most powerful countries in the world. The event was held in one largest city in the world. It involved several interpreter booths, and interpreters of different language pairs.

The assignment, we were told, was to take place at three venues and it would include all of the guests: A big ballroom for a round table discussion by the dignitaries during the morning session; a press conference in a separate room but at the same facility right before lunch; and where they would eat, there would be several speeches by some of the distinguished visitors right after lunch.  In my particular case, the Spanish booth would have several dignitaries needing interpreting services.

The city hosting the event is a world-class city that holds many top-tier events throughout the year, but it is not the capital of a country.  The local government officials in charge of the activities had great experience with logistics of summits like the one about to take place, and the local interpreting agency is arguably the best one in the region. Unfortunately, they were overconfident and did not prepare for an event involving so many celebrities and such a myriad of languages.

The interpreters in the booths, and the interpretation equipment technicians, who are often the same all over the world, had worked in these conditions many times and knew what needed to happen.

From my first telephonic conversation with the agency, certain things had not been planned thoroughly and I raised my concerns. The main problem was that, after the first session, the dignitaries would have a press conference somewhere else in the building, but unlike the first ballroom, this time there would only be interpreter booths for certain languages: the ones expected to get most questions from the media, and Spanish was not one.

When I asked what would happen if one visitor was asked a question, I was told to just walk to him, whisper the question in his ear, and interpret the answer consecutively.  Logically, I had the two obvious follow-up questions: How am I going to find my way to the guest quickly when surrounded by so many bodyguards; and second: What about the context? Are these VIPs supposed to divine what was said before the interpreter gets to them? Had they thought that these visitors would have no context and no idea about everything said in the press-conference up to that point?

First I was told that they would look into it. Days later nearly at the event, I was told that things would stay the same despite my objections and concerns.  I suspected something would get ugly the next day but it was too late to back out of the project. I was left with one last recourse: Use my experience as an interpreter to do the best I could under those circumstances.

When I arrived to the ballroom on the morning of the event, I was greeted by a well-known interpreter equipment technician who told me right away: “You know there are no booths for you at the press conference and at the luncheon, right?” Well, I knew about the press conference, but the luncheon situation was news to me.  I was told that only the English, Arabic and French interpreters would have booths at those two events. I just threw my hands up in the air, smiled, and told him: “well, at least it couldn’t get any worse, right?” He looked at me right in the eye, and answered: “at least you are not the Korean interpreter. They don’t have a booth here either.  The will be asked to sit right behind the Korean delegation and whisper the entire thing…”  I just turned around and retrieved to the safety of my “morning-only” Spanish booth.

The morning session went fine. My colleague in the booth and I did our job as usual and the round-table moved along as scheduled. I must say I was impressed by the professionalism of my Korean colleagues. After taking a deep breath when they learned there would be no booth, they went to their delegation, sat behind them, and interpreted magnificently without complains or remarks about the adverse circumstances they encountered.

We moved on to the second event. The Spanish interpreters were lucky at the press conference because there were no questions to any of our clients. I felt bad for them as they sat there without understanding a word of what happened during the session, but at least I was not in the shoes of the Portuguese interpreters who had to do their best Harry Houdini impersonation to squeeze in and reach their delegations from Brazil and Portugal to do a whispered rendition for their clients, without the benefit of any prior context, followed by a consecutive interpretation of a long answer by one of the two delegations.

The luncheon was another disaster with little room for extra chairs for the interpreters and without headphones. I call this interpretation “silverware interpreting” because it is difficult to hear anything a speaker is saying when you must listen over your own voice and the symphony of spoons, forks and knives dangling against the china.  I heard no derogatory remarks, but the delegations were not happy with the interpreting infrastructure offered by the program organizers.

I realized there are no valid excuses for these mistakes. It is understandable that clients and agencies who rarely work these events, especially if they are monolinguals, may not think of all these basic needs of the foreign language audience; what is inexcusable is to ignore the interpreters’ and sound technicians’ comments and observations when they live and breathe these programs. Ignorance or stinginess should never be an obstacle to the correct delivery of a professional service.

I now ask you to share with the rest of us those times when you knew more than the agency or the client but they did not listen.

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.

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