Many Interpreters Don’t Understand the Value of the Service They Provide.
July 18, 2022 § 9 Comments
When interpreters you never heard of take to social media, even LinkedIn, to talk about their many RSI assignments, bragging about how they work long hours at odd times of the night, just to be “congratulated” by others doing the same thing, and by people known for hiring interpreters for little pay and poor working conditions, and next you look at what our European Parliament colleagues are doing, you must conclude it is admirable, and worthy of our full support.
These brave interpreters are fighting to protect their health and to work under the conditions previously agreed to, but they are also fighting for the profession. If an institution like the Parliament gets away with violating a collective agreement, and resorts to hiring cheap interpreters, even from places outside the Union, all other interpreters will be next. Those of us who mainly work in the private sector, and as individual contractors with some institutions, must understand that the rules broken somewhere else, and the disregarded agreements, will happen in our market not long from now. These are some of the reasons why we should all support our EP colleagues; but there is another reason we should admire them, respect them, and use them as an inspiration and role model: They understand the value of the service they provide, and they use it as a tool to protect the profession.
It is funny how at the same time these colleagues are fighting this battle, many others have quit, decided not to act, or chose a strategy that does not let them negotiate as equals with those who impact their interpreting practice.
Recently, the court interpreters of an American State, who have been paid one of the lowest professional fees in America, and have not seen a fee raise or cost of living adjustment for years, asked for a $10 USD per hour fee increase, set a deadline for the authorities to respond, and threatened with a walk off if those dates were not observed and their demand for a raise was not honored. First, the action had a lot of support, it got precious media coverage locally and nationwide, but a few days later, after the State gave them questionable reasons, basically denying the raise and telling them they would “consider” their petition for the 2024 budget, despite the determination of some interpreters to go ahead with the walk off, most interpreters gave in and continued to work. They feared not being scheduled to work (for peanuts) anymore.
A few weeks ago, a nationwide association of judicial interpreters held a conference in the United States. Among the guests to speak about their successes on language access to the courts, an individual who has repeatedly lowered court interpreters’ work conditions in one of the States in America was scheduled to participate and praise the accomplishments of the program he is responsible for. I learned of this situation when an interpreter who works in that State reached me in Europe to share the news and to ask me why in my opinion that person had been invited to speak, despite his actions as an administrator which have resulted in leaving approximately 20 or so state-certified court interpreters (a considerable number in a small State like this one) out of work, because of his practice of hiring interpreters without a court certification, and interpreters from other States who work for a pay lower than the one State court interpreters must get paid.
I immediately suggested all interpreters in the State take this opportunity, when the interpreting universe of the United States is paying attention to this conference, to publicly denounce these practices for the world to know. In other words: to bombard the conference Twitter account with stories of how the practice of these government officials is not to observe court interpreter state policy, and to deny court work to those who complain. Even though this was a unique chance to pressure the State, except for a few colleagues, who I salute, the rest of the interpreters decided not to go to war with the State government to protect their profession. They feared retaliation and not being “called to interpret anymore”.
Finally, a few days ago I was asked to sign a petition to the authorities asking for a fee raise for a group of specialty interpreters in the United States. These are the only interpreters authorized to practice at this level; they are an elite group, and considered among the best in their field. Unfortunately, they are also known as the interpreter group that has not seen a raise, or cost of living adjustment in over 6 years. Even though I knew from the start I would sign the letter in solidarity with my colleagues (I rarely work in that system because they pay very little), I read the letter and was sad to see it was a very timid letter applying no leverage. My first reaction was: Why is a government agency that has not cared enough about its interpreters for so many years going to change policy after reading a letter with no teeth? Unlike the interpreters’ letter in the first case above, which at least had a deadline and a threat of strike, these federal court interpreters exercised no leverage. They put no pressure on the authorities.
The European Parliament interpreters showed us the value of our work. If the interpreters in other organizations or public service agencies stopped working, the system would be crippled. The authorities know this and know they would need to avoid such labor stoppage no matter what. All government agencies in the world operate within a budget and it takes time to modify it, but all government agencies in the world have additional emergency funds to be used to keep the government running. Had these interpreters exercised their leverage, their raises would be coming right now.
Interpreters everywhere must understand that communication among those who don’t share a common language is impossible without their services. They need to see there is a great demand for what we do elsewhere; that during the time of a stoppage they can interpret in other fields and venues, especially in these days of distance interpreting. The day most interpreters shake off their fears, doubts, and lack of confidence, and do as our European Parliament colleagues did, their fees and work conditions will finally be as they should. It is a matter of understanding they need us more than we need them.
Like President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “The only thing to fear is fear itself”.
How can I get work as conference interpreter?
January 13, 2017 § 15 Comments
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 Professional Interpreter: One Profession. One Real Profession.
June 9, 2012 § 6 Comments
It seems to me that a week never goes by without a colleague telling me that he or she was misunderstood, humiliated, obstructed, or underpaid while doing his or her job. Some of them react with anger, others with frustration, a few seem resigned, but a growing number of our fellow interpreters have been reacting to these real-life situations by taking action, doing something about it. Finally, interpreters finding a solution to this “never-ending” comedy of errors where the interpreter is often an unwilling character.
As those of you who know me personally (and many others have figured out by reading this blog) know, I have always considered myself a professional at the same level as all those who we provide our services to: Scientists, politicians, attorneys, diplomats, physicians, military officers, school principals; and I try to act that way when I provide my interpretation services. I feel that we should all consider ourselves a real profession, perhaps even a profession above many others as we are also a little bit of an art. For this reason, when I first heard of InterpretAmerica a couple of years ago, I immediately fell in love with the idea and threw my support (mostly moral I admit) behind the incredibly hard work that Katharine Allen and Barry Olsen are doing.
I attended InterpretAmerica last year. It was like a dream, something you can only find in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. The medical interpreters were there sitting next to the court interpreters, the military interpreters were having a conversation with the agencies; the equipment companies were there having a chat with the educational institutions, and the conference interpreters were sharing experiences, and learning, from the community interpreters. This was unreal: I saw everybody I know and work with in my different interpretation fields, all under one roof! The colleagues from the east coast were there, so were those from the west coast, the European Parliament, the professional organizations, I saw board members and influential colleagues from ATA, AIIC, NAJIT, IMIA, and many more.
Next week, InterpretAmerica will hold its Third North American Summit on June 15 and 16 in beautiful Monterey, California. Looking at the schedule and list of speakers, it looks like this will be the best summit so far. The speaker list includes colleagues like Sign Language interpreter Jack Jason (Marlee Matlin’s interpreter) Andrew Clifford from Glendon College, Renee Jourdenais from MIIS, my good friend Jonathan Levy from Cyracom with a military interpreting perspective that will probably be new to may in attendance, Barbara Moser-Mercer from the University of Geneva, and others of the same level.
Unfortunately, this year I will not be able to attend the summit due to professional obligations, but I will be checking in regularly with many of my friends who will be there. As you know, I have devoted this blog to everything important and useful to our profession. This is one of the most important efforts in the history of interpretation in the United States. I encourage you to attend the summit, to exchange ideas, to take those ideas back home where you should share them with your colleagues. And to those of you who cannot attend this year’s summit, I invite you to set aside the dates of next year’s gathering and go. In the meantime, stay in touch with those attending, and vote for InterpretAmerica in the Chase Bank campaign to qualify for a $250,000.00 grant. I invite all my colleagues who are attending the summit, or have attended one in the past, to share their experiences with this movement started by Katharine and Barry.