When clients do not provide information in advance.

February 10, 2020 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We are expected to accurately interpret all subjects from one language into another, often to an audience that knows the topic, sometimes to people who have devoted their lives to that subject. We meet these expectations and deliver the rendition by performing many complex tasks, among them extensive preparation, including research and study of the topics to be presented during the conference, lecture, workshop, business negotiation, press conference, court hearing, diplomatic summit, etc.

We are professionally trained to research a subject, understand it, prepare glossaries, and study it, but this is not enough. Knowledge in any subject is infinite and it must be narrowed down to the specific themes to be presented or discussed at the event we were hired to interpret. Speakers have different styles and many have done their own research, written books or papers that will be presented, or at least alluded to, often for the first time, during the dissertation.

Due to these facts, the only way we can deliver the best quality service is by studying the presenters’ materials ahead of time.  This means our client must provide this information: documents, videos, audio recordings, for us to prepare, and we need to get them as far in advance as possible.

Documents are very important because that will be the main portion of the lecture; it often includes power point presentations we must review for several reasons: We need to make sure we understand the contents of every slide, that we find the best equivalent terms in the target language; we must pay attention to the information each slide contains because we need to tell the presenter how long the slide needs to stay on the screen before moving on to the next one, to give the audience time to listen to the interpretation and then see the contents of the slide (words, figures, charts, images, quotes, etc.) This is time consuming and it could take interpreters several days to go through the power point presentation.

Videos are difficult to interpret. Sometimes the sound is not very good, or words get lost behind the sounds of very loud music or noise; the speakers on the video may talk too fast, have a heavy accent, use regional expressions, tell a joke or share a sports story. Many speakers choose movie or TV show clips with nothing to do with the conference, because they were chosen as icebreakers or to drive a point across. There are videos of songs also. Interpreters need to study these videos; some must be watched many times. They have to assess the jokes, idiomatic expressions, cultural differences, and sports analogies, and then decide what to do: find a similar joke in the target language, use an equivalent sports story on a sport the audience will relate to, find the best idiomatic expression on the other language to convey the same message using the same register. Sometimes the best solution is to recommend the speaker not to use the video, particularly when there are cultural concerns.  Then, on the day of the event, interpreters need to make sure the video’s volume and quality of sound is the right one for both: the room and the booth.

Audio recordings could be an interpreter’s nightmare, especially in court interpreting where the quality of the sound is less than desirable because many of these audio recordings come from wiretaps, hidden microphones, concealed body microphones, and so on. These recordings are plagued with obscenities, slang, low register speech, and powerful background noises. Interpreters devote endless hours to listening and sometimes decoding what was said. This time-consuming task must be performed ahead of the event so the interpreter knows the recording’s contents and determines what words to use during the rendition. After reviewing the recording an interpreter can suggest to the client to use a transcript of the audio recording, with a written translation into the target language, and either project it on the screen at the same time the audience listens to the recording and the interpreters simultaneous rendition, or to distribute paper transcripts and translations for the audience to follow along the recording.

These arguments should be sufficient for all clients to provide these materials to the interpreting team ahead of time; many knowledgeable, experienced clients do so and the results are evident: a great interpretation. Others are more reluctant, and there are some who unfortunately neglect the interpreters or clearly decide not to provide an iota of information before the event.

Interpreters need to convey to the client the reason they have to see the materials before the assignment; they have to explain that interpreting is a fiduciary profession, that we are bound by a strict duty of confidentiality, and make them see we have no interest in the information past the day of the interpretation. When the client is concerned about intellectual property rights or national security, Interpreters can offer flexibility to the client, and for an additional fee, they can agree to review said materials at the client’s place of business, but always ahead of the event.

All interpreting services contracts must include a provision stating that the client assumes the obligation to provide all requested and needed materials to the interpreters as early as possible, and always before the event.

Even with such a clause, sometimes, interpreters get no materials, get part of them, or they get all materials, but a video or a slide were added at the last minute and the interpreting team learns of this change at the venue, right before the start of the event, or even worse: during the rendition when the slide is shown on the screen or the video is played.

In these cases, professional interpreters have two reactions coming straight from their gut simultaneously: “I will stand up and walk away. I am not interpreting this”, and “I am a professional, the client’s incompetence or negligence it’s not the audience’s fault. I’ll stay and try my best”. Both reactions are good and have value. Let me explain:

The good client will always deliver materials on time, you need not to concern about them, but there are other clients late with the materials, deliver only part of them, and sometimes forget to provide needed information altogether, but they have potential, you want to keep them, and they will improve if you try a little harder. I say give these clients a second chance.

As soon as it is evident they will not provide materials, talk to them and clarify that what they did was wrong, but, because you are a consummate professional, you will try your best and stay and interpret the event even though the final result will not be nearly as good as it would be if the materials were provided. If they fail again on a second event: drop them, you are wasting your time with them, and time is money.

Finally, if your contract calls for client to deliver all requested and needed materials and the client did not comply, when you are not interested on that client, and it was a nightmare dealing with them during the preparations for the event, I would walk out without interpreting, demand payment of my fees, explain to them they breached the professional services contract they had with you, and if they refuse to pay, sue them for your fee plus damages and your attorney’s fees.

On both cases you taught the client a lesson: To the client you want to keep, you tried to educate them and keep them on your list. To the client you never want to see again, you showed them that interpreters are professionals they cannot take advantage of.

I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this important subject.

The Super Bowl: Interpreters, American football, and a big day in the United States.

January 27, 2020 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

Because Americans love to bring up sports in a conference, and due to the acquired taste needed to enjoy a sport popular in the United States and few other places in the world, every year I write a post on this event.

On February 2 the United States will hold a very American event; it is the most watched TV event in our country, and the day when the game is played is an unofficial holiday that is more popular than most holidays on the official calendar.   I am referring to the Super Bowl: The national professional football championship game in the United States of America; and it is not football… at least not THAT football played in the rest of the world.  This popular sport in the United States is known abroad as “American football,” and even this designation seems troublesome to many who have watched a little American football and do not understand it well.  Although it is mainly played holding a ball, the sport is known in the United States as football for two reasons:  (1) Because this American-born sport comes from “rugby football” (now rugby) that came from soccer (football outside the United States) and (2) Because it is football, but it is not British organized football, which when American football invented was called “association football” and was later known by the second syllable of the word “association”“socc” which mutated into “soccer.”  You now understand where the name came from, but is it really football? For Americans it is. Remember that all other popular team sports in the United States are played with your hands or a stick (baseball, basketball and ice hockey). The only sport in the United States where points can be scored by kicking the ball is (American) football. So, even though most of the time the ball is carried by hand or caught with your hands, sometimes, a team scores or defends field position by kicking or punting the football.   Now, why is all this relevant to us as interpreters?   Because if you interpret from American English you are likely to run into speakers who will talk about the Super Bowl, football, or will use examples taken from this very popular sport in the U.S.

On Sunday, most Americans will gather in front of the TV set to watch the National Football Conference champion San Francisco Forty Niners (they got their name from the 1849 California gold rush) battle the American Football Conference champion Kansas City Chiefs for the Vince Lombardi Trophy (official name of the trophy given to the team that wins the Super Bowl) which incidentally is a trophy in the shape of a football, not a bowl.  It is because the game was not named after a trophy, it was named after a tradition.  There are two football levels in the United States: college football played by amateur students, and professional football.  College football is older than pro-football and for many decades the different college champions were determined by playing invitational football games at the end of the college football season on New Year’s Day.  These games were called (and still are) “Bowls.”  You may have heard of the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and many others.  When a professional football game was created to determine the over-all champion between the champions of the American and National Conferences, it was just natural (and profitable) to call it the “Super Bowl.”

Although the game will involve two teams representing two regions, the game itself will be played in Miami, Florida where the weather at this time of the year is more welcoming. There will be millions watching the match, and there will be hundreds of millions spent on TV commercials during the game.

As I do every year on these dates, I have included a basic glossary of English<>Spanish football terms that may be useful to you, particularly those of you who do escort, diplomatic, and conference interpreting from American English to Mexican Spanish.  “American” football is very popular in Mexico (where they have college football) Eventually, many of you will face situations where two people will discuss the Super Bowl; as you are interpreting somebody will tell a football story during a presentation; or you may end up at a TV or radio studio simultaneously interpreting a football game for your own or another foreign market.

The following glossary does not cover every term in football; it includes terms very common, and where there were several translations of a football term, I selected the term used in Mexico by the Mexican media that covers the sport.


Football Fútbol Americano
National Football League Liga Nacional de Fútbol Americano
NFL N-F-L (ene-efe-ele)
American Football Conference Conferencia Americana
National Football Conference Conferencia Nacional
Preseason Pretemporada
Regular season Temporada regular
Playoffs Postemporada
Wildcard Equipo comodín
Standings Tabla de posiciones
Field Terreno de juego
End zone Zona de anotación/ diagonales
Locker room Vestidor
Super Bowl Súper Tazón
Pro Bowl Tazón Profesional/ Juego de estrellas
Uniform & Equipment Uniforme y Equipo
Football Balón/ Ovoide
Jersey Jersey
Helmet Casco
Facemask Máscara
Chinstrap Barbiquejo
Shoulder pads Hombreras
Thigh pads Musleras
Knee pads Rodilleras
Jockstrap Suspensorio
Cleats Tacos
Tee Base
Fundamentals Términos básicos
Starting player Titular
Backup player Reserva
Offense Ofensiva
Defense Defensiva
Special teams Equipos especiales
Kickoff Patada/ saque
Punt Despeje
Return Devolución
Fair catch Recepción libre
Possession Posesión del balón
Drive Marcha/ avance
First and ten Primero y diez
First and goal Primero y gol
Line of scrimmage Línea de golpeo
Neutral zone Zona neutral
Snap Centro
Long snap Centro largo/ centro al pateador
Huddle Pelotón
Pocket Bolsillo protector
Fumble Balón libre
Turnover Pérdida de balón
Takeaway Robo
Giveaway Entrega
Interception Intercepción
Completion Pase completo
Tackle Tacleada/ derribada
Blitz Carga
Pass rush Presión al mariscal de campo
Sack Captura
Run/ carry Acarreo
Pass Pase
“I” Formation Formación “I”
Shotgun Formation Formación escopeta
“T” Formation Formación “T”
Wishbone Formation Formación wishbone
Goal posts Postes
Crossbar Travesaño
Sidelines Líneas laterales/ banca
Chain Cadena
Out-of-bounds Fuera del terreno
Head Coach Entrenador en jefe
Game Officials Jueces
Flag Pañuelo
Center Centro
Guard Guardia
Offensive Tackle Tacleador ofensivo
Offensive line Línea ofensiva
End Ala
Wide Receiver Receptor abierto
Tight end Ala cerrada
Running Back Corredor
Halfback Corredor
Fullback Corredor de poder
Quarterback Mariscal de campo
Backfield Cuadro defensivo
Defensive end Ala defensiva
Defensive tackle Tacleador defensivo
Nose guard Guardia nariz
Linebacker Apoyador
Cornerback Esquinero
Free safety Profundo libre
Strong safety Profundo fuerte
Place kicker Pateador
Punter Pateador de despeje
Penalty Castigo

Even if you are not a football fan, and even if you are not watching the big game on Sunday, I hope you find this glossary useful.  Now I invite you to comment on football, sports interpreting in general, or maybe you would like to share a “sports interpreting anecdote” with all of us.

“Your fee is well over the budget for this assignment”.

August 15, 2018 § 9 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Have you noticed mediocre agencies always say: “unfortunately, your fee is way over the budget this client has for the event”? This seems to be the answer I get most of the time, even from the big multinational interpreting services agencies, and it is the main reason I reject an assignment offered.

It makes me wonder how those huge multinational agencies, worshipped by their colleagues in the “industry”, who claim to be service providers to the biggest corporations and organizations in the world, can be as big and profitable as their financial statements show, (and believe me, thanks to public litigation records from lawsuits involving some, market share values, and their own bragging about their success, we know they are turning profits never seen before) when according to their conversations with interpreters, our fees are almost always above their clients’ budgets for their main, once-a-year conference, launching of a new product presentations, multi-million dollar fundraisers, or award ceremonies.  I find it difficult to believe these agencies would only work with “starving” clients.

The main issue is how these agencies’ clients decide on a budget for their events. I would think that corporations have little knowledge about interpreting services, and for that reason they go to language service agencies to find out about interpreting costs, just as they go to the caterer for information on the cost of food, or to the hotel to see how much it costs to rent a ballroom for the weekend. The agency informs the client or event organizer how much interpreters will charge, and what else they need to factor in (equipment, booths, technical support) before determining the amount needed for interpreting services. The agency tells the client what interpreters will cost. Then, armed with all necessary information, the corporation of association sets a budget. It is not the other way around.

The problem is that agencies want to pay interpreters very little so they can have great margins, and they tell their clients they can get interpreters for very low fees; even when the agency knows they will never get the best human talent for such a tiny paycheck. They have offered lower quality interpreters willing to work for below market non-professional fees.

If an ignorant client contacts the agency and tells them they want an interpreter for no more than a certain amount, and the amount is below prevailing professional interpreter fees, that is the time for an agency to educate the client and tell them: “…sorry, but a team of interpreters would cost you such and such professional fee per interpreter per day…” and then explain that interpreters charge by the day, that every time they are retained to work four hours or less, they must be paid for half a day, unless the four-hour (or less) assignment encompasses both morning and afternoon hours, because in that case interpreters need to be paid for a full day since they cannot generate any other income on that day.  During this conversation, an agency interested in quality interpretation would add: “…by the way, half days are handled this way…”

Then, if the event requires interpreters from out of town, the agency must make it very clear to the client these interpreters will charge at least half of the full-day fee for each travel day. Finally, the agency should clarify that, separate from their fees, these out-of-town professional interpreters will need for the client to cover their travel costs: travel, lodging, in-town transportation, and Per Diem.

At the beginning, these agencies may have to sacrifice part of their margin, but in the long run they will turn more profitable than those who turn their backs on the interpreting profession and embrace the low-quality ranks of the so-called “industry”, because their clients will notice the difference in the quality of the service and will go back to the same agency time and again. These are the agencies interpreters look for. These are the real interpreting services agencies. I would like to hear your ideas on this issue, and please share any relevant experiences you had.

“Excuse me, interpreter, we will record your rendition”.

January 22, 2018 § 15 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A few months ago I came back to the booth after a break during an event I was interpreting and I found my boothmate talking to one of the conference attendees. He was asking for her permission to bring a digital recorder inside the booth because he wanted to record the interpretation of the conference. Before my colleague responded, I explained to the gentleman that recording an interpreter rendition is more complex than simply asking the interpreter.  I told him that it would not be possible to record us, and I asked him to talk to the event organizers who would work on all clearances and legal documents needed before anything could be recorded to be played back at a later time.  He understood my polite negative, picked up his microphone and recording devise, and exited the booth.

Once we were alone, my boothmate told me she did not know that anything other than our consent was needed. She told me that often, other organizers and agencies had recorded her rendition without even asking for her permission. I was very surprised.

The United States and many other countries have enacted legislation that protect intellectual property. There are also international conventions to protect patents, trademarks, and copyrights covering tangible and intangible products discovered, invented, or created by the human mind. The use and exploitation of this intellectual property without the authorization of the author violates law and perpetrators are subject to both criminal and civil liability.

Only after the author, or legal holder, of an intellectual property right has consented to its use or exploitation this can be manufactured, sold, printed, reproduced, or used. Because the protected intellectual property is the work product of an individual, this inventor, creator, or author must be compensated. Such compensation is called royalties.

American legislation defines royalties as “…a percentage of gross or net profit, or a fixed amount per sale to which a creator of a work is entitled which is agreed upon in a contract between the creator and the manufacturer, publisher, agent, and/or distributor. “ Inventors, authors, movie makers, music composers, scriptwriters, musicians, interpreters, translators, and other creators of an intellectual product , contract with manufacturers, publishers, movie production companies, producers, event organizers, agents, and distributors to be paid royalties in exchange for a license or authorization to manufacture or sell the product. Royalties are payments made by one entity (the licensee) to another entity (the licensor) in exchange for the right to use intellectual property or physical assets owned by the licensor.

In a situation like the one I describe above, the speaker at the podium is the author of the knowledge and information he is disseminating among the attendees to the conference. He owns that intellectual property. The interpreters in the booth are the authors of the content in the target language of the knowledge and information the speaker at the podium disseminated in the source language. Both, the speaker (in the source language) and the interpreters (in the target language) would be licensors to the attendee who requested the recording when he went to the booth. This individual would be the licensee to the speaker as far as the knowledge and information disseminated by the speaker during the speech, and for the elocution of the contents in the source language. He would also be the licensee to the interpreters for the rendition of the speech into the foreign (signed, or indigenous) target language.

The attendee would need, at least, the authorization of the speaker to record the presentation in the source language, and the consent of both, speaker and interpreters to record the presentation in the target language. Attendee would need to negotiate the payment of royalties with speaker and interpreters, and all licensors would need to be compensated for the use of their intellectual property.

It could be more complicated; the speaker may have partners who coauthored the paper he is presenting; a university, government, or other entity may be the legal holder to the intellectual property rights because of a contractual agreement between the speaker and his sponsors.  The interpreters could have negotiated the sale of their intellectual property (the rendition into the target language) to the agency that retained them, the main speaker, the university, government or other entity who sponsored the research, or any other party legally entitled to said intellectual property.  It is never as simple as letting the attendee record your rendition.

Years ago, interpreters would get to the booth, and whenever there were no speakers of the target language they were there to interpret, they would just sit in the booth doing very little. There were no “customers” for their intellectual product.  This has changed. Now often interpreters must interpret into their target language even if there are no speakers in the room, because there may be others virtually attending the presentation from a remote location, or because the speech, and its interpretation into several target languages, will be sold to others who could not attend the live event.

For this reason interpreters must know of the event organizer’s plans. If there will be a video or audio recording of the presentation, we must negotiate royalties. Those fees belong to us, not to the speaker or the event organizer; and they do not belong in the pockets of the agency that hired us to do the conference. As interpreters we must be very careful of what we sign. Speaker and event organizer may be paying royalties to the agency for the recording, and the interpreting agency may not be passing these payments on to you, the rightful owner.

Interpreters can negotiate this intellectual property rights. They can sell them to a third party if they wish to do so. They can even transfer them for free. It is up to the skill and business mind of the interpreter to decide what to do, but we must know that we can negotiate; that we are in the driver’s seat. I would allow no type of recording of my work unless I get paid royalties. How I negotiate payment, how to calculate them, and whether or not I will settle for a lump payment or a recurring payment every time the recording is sold, will depend on the content, and my long term relationship with that client.

Please do not ignore your intellectual property rights. The United States Code, Code of Federal Regulations, and other legislation will protect us in the U.S., but when working abroad, and even when the work product (recorded rendition) will be sold abroad, or the licensee entity is a foreign national, check local legislation and look for any international treaty. Finally, regardless of the location of the job, always include an intellectual property/payment of royalties clause in your interpreting services contract. At the minimum you should prohibit any recording of your rendition without your written consent.

I now invite you to leave your comments and to share your experiences with this issue that will be more pervasive every day.

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.

An interpreter’s worst nightmare: What to do?

February 22, 2016 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Like all human beings, interpreters have fears and concerns. Everybody has experienced adverse situations and tough times, and nobody wants to be in that situation ever again.  We all worry about getting sick, having no money, experiencing loneliness, suffering a tragic accident, having serious problems at home, and so on. This is normal, and in fact, the possibility of facing one of these scenarios worries most individuals, not just interpreters.  Then, we have the career related concerns: losing your job, not getting any assignments, losing your hearing or your voice, fighting with the bad agencies and unscrupulous colleagues, dealing with morose clients who only pay every other leap year, and many others.  All these things make us miserable, most of them will never happen to us, and if they do, they will likely come into our lives as a “light version” of the problem; but we worry nevertheless.

Everything mentioned above has the potential to keep us up all night and make us lose our appetite, but not one of them can be truly referred to as our worst nightmare.  You see, talking to many colleagues all over the world throughout the years, and reflecting on my own personal fears, I have seen how the things that impact us more, strictly from the professional perspective, are those situations where we cannot perform as expected and, on top of the professional failure, we go through professional embarrassment.  We have all experienced situations when a certain term, word, or fact that we know (or should know) does not come to mind.  This is usually cause for concern, and more so when it happens often or for a fairly long period of time.  For the most part this is taken care of by a note or a whisper from our booth mate with the right term, word, or facts. We correct ourselves, nod at the colleague with a “thank you” gesture, shake up the embarrassing uncomfortable episode, and move on.

The facts I just described above are part of the interpreter’s nightmare, but they are still missing the coup the grace. For this to turn into a horrendous situation, the interpreter’s mishap has to be in public. This sense of embarrassment and professional shame will make you want to shrink to the size of an atom and disappear for the next twenty centuries.  Let me share a story that I witnessed first-hand:

I was retained to work an important high-profile assignment that was going to take place at a country’s top military facility. The name of the country will remain undisclosed for professional courtesy reasons.  The event was attended by people, including many journalists, of about eighty different countries, so there were many interpreters in many language combinations.  On this occasion I had the fortune to work with an excellent colleague, and although I did not know all of the other interpreters, I also recognized many of the other colleagues at the event who had been hired to work other language combinations.  The event presented two tasks for the interpreters: We had speeches and presentations that were to be interpreted simultaneously, but at the end of every high-profile speaker’s presentation there would be a question and answer period that had to be interpreted consecutively.  Interpreters had a table at the end of the stage, and one interpreter from each language pair was supposed to go to the table for the questions while the other interpreter remained in the booth for a simultaneous rendition of the answers. If necessary, interpreters were to rotate every thirty minutes.

The presentations were very technical and many of the questions were more of a political statement by journalists from foreign countries, as it often happens in these events. Throughout the day, my colleagues did a superb job in the booth and with the consecutive rendition at the table. Things were smooth until a journalist, from a country where a language other than English or Spanish is spoken, asked one of this “political statement” type of questions. The question was long, but nothing different from what the others had been asking, and definitely something an interpreter at that level should handle without any trouble.  Once the question was posed, the interpreter looked at her notes and started her rendition. Once she started her interpretation, I noticed that she was not saying what the journalist asked; I am not an expert in this other language, and I would never dare to add it to my language combinations for the booth, but I noticed a big mistake; in fact, as the interpreter was interpreting back the question, I looked at one of my other colleagues who also understands the language at a level like mine or better, and her face told me that I was right.  As the interpreter was speaking, the journalist who asked the question got up from his seat in the audience and without a microphone shouted: “…That is not what I asked. The interpreter is wrong. She did not understand the question, so I will repeat it in English…“  The interpreter sat there quietly, she did not make any noise. She lowered her head and stayed there while the journalist repeated the question in English.  The next few questions were in different languages, so this interpreter did not have to intervene anymore.

Dear friends and colleagues, this is an interpreter’s worst nightmare: to make a mistake and be corrected by the person you are interpreting for; to know that this person, who is not an interpreter and does not speak the target language at a level comparable to yours, is right and you were wrong; to have this all happen during a very high-profile event, and for this to be witnessed by many of your colleagues who work at this very top level of the profession.

In this case the interpreter did not do anything, she did not defend her rendition; she did not ask for clarification of something she did not understand; she did not apologize; she did not get up and leave; she did not cry; she did not ask for her booth mate to replace her; she just remain there, sitting with her head lowered and her hands on her lap.

I did not know this colleague, although I believe that I had seen her in the booth a couple of times before. I do not know if she is new to the profession, which I doubt because no newbies start at the level of the event where this happened.  I do not know if she is a great interpreter, or if this was not her preferred language pair; I do not even know if she was ill, or going through a personal crisis at the time of the incident. All I know is that she had to endure this interpreter’s worst nightmare, and she handled it by staying there, quiet, without moving a finger.

After the event ended I tried to see if those who knew her best were approaching her to show their support, or to show their contempt as it happens sometimes, but no one did. She continued acting as if nothing had happened for the rest of the day, and for the next few days that we worked together at the event.

That night at the hotel, I thought about the incident and wondered how I would have reacted to that situation. I could not tell for sure.  I do not know.  Maybe she checked her rendition as soon as she could to make sure she was truly wrong; maybe she reached the journalist who asked the question and apologized afterwards; maybe she talked to the event organizer and explained what had just happened; maybe she cried with a dear colleague in private; maybe she realized that she was not ready for these events yet.

That night I fell asleep with two certainties: That we are all vulnerable to a situation similar to what happened to this colleague, and that nobody really knows how they are going to react when faced with this horrendous scenario; all we can wish and hope is that it never happens to us and that if it does, our training and experience will guide us to the best reaction to minimize the damage caused by our mistake and to control the negative effects this could have on our professional careers.  I now invite you to tell us about your worst interpreter’s nightmare and how do you think you might react if something like this happened to you.

That Interpreter should not be here.

August 24, 2015 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Today I want to bring up an issue that definitely happens in the United States and perhaps (to some extent) elsewhere.  A few years ago I was working a conference in a big facility that can hold many conferences simultaneously.  During a break, I ran into a technician I have known for years. He was there working for a different event.  Over a cup of coffee we started a typical conversation, very familiar to those of you who work the conference circuit and from time to time get to see interpreters and tech support that are working another event.  From the conversation, I learned that the conference he was doing required interpretation, and the interpreters working in the Spanish booth were from another country.

According to the technician, the event organizer had brought these two interpreters from South America just for the conference.

Later on, during the lunch break, I decided to go to the other conference room to meet the South American colleagues.  I introduced myself and welcomed them to the United States. One of them told me that this was not the first time they had interpreted a conference in the United States.

More conversation revealed that these two individuals were very capable and knew the profession. I also found out the subject matter of the four-day conference and it was nothing that required of any specialized knowledge or expertise; in other words: It was the type of conference that any top-tier U.S. based conference interpreter can handle.  The only difference: These two colleagues were paid less than half of the prevailing interpreter fee in that part of the United States.  The event organizer got two good interpreters from another country for the fee of one interpreter living in the U.S. and still had money left over.  These colleagues disclosed that they had entered the United States on what they described as a visitor’s visa and that they were going to get paid back home in their own currency.

This made me quite uneasy, because, unless the interpreters were wrong and they really had a work visa, which would make their hiring more costly than retaining American colleagues, they were not supposed to work in this country.

Unfortunately, I have heard that several event organizers may be following this practice in the United States. There are other instances when foreign interpreters have been used for events in the U.S. because they have agreed to work for a lower fee. These interpreters, who many times are very good professionals, will get a paycheck bigger than what they usually get back home, but unfortunately, they could be at risk for potential violations to the United States immigration laws because they have entered the country on a visitor’s visa and they have actually worked without legal authority.  I wonder how many times event organizers tell their clients that those less expensive interpreters they are bringing from abroad may put the event’s reputation in a bad situation because of possible immigration violations.

Many of us have also heard about the very capable interpreters who live on the Mexican side of the border, and are sometimes brought to the United States to interpret events for a lower fee than a domestic colleague. We have heard how they apparently enter the country on their border crosser cards and possibly work without a permit issued by the immigration authorities.

I want to make it clear that I am not talking about the escort, conference, legal or diplomatic interpreters who come into the country to work with businesspeople, diplomats, or other dignitaries from their home country. I have no problem with that because these colleagues are coming to do a job that requires of their expertise and perhaps additional qualifications such as a security clearance, company requirements, or an established relationship with an attorney regarding a case litigated abroad.

I am not accusing anybody of violating the immigration laws of the United States either. It is possible that for some unknown reason, an agency or event organizer decided that it is more cost effective to spend money on attorney’s fees and pay for a work visa for an interpreter who will enter the country to work for less than a week, and will get paid considerably less than a United States-based interpreter. If this is happening in the country, local interpreters and their organizations should bring this up to the entity that is holding the event and to the competent authorities.  In my opinion, it is not right that capable and available local talent be bypassed to save some money, and it is even worse when there are violations of law. It is also wrong for the foreign interpreters, especially if they cannot work in the U.S. They will probably have to work even harder and longer than the local colleagues, as they will need to acquire the cultural context and local nuances that are so important for a quality and successful rendition; and they will have to do it for a low fee and a high legal risk.  I now ask you to share your opinion and comments on this issue, and I think we would like to know if other countries are facing this problem as well.

Why not a less expensive good new interpreter?

January 23, 2013 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

When I recently wrote about the difference between hiring a less expensive interpreter instead of paying for a good seasoned experienced one, some colleagues raised the scenario where a new interpreter could be good but newer to the profession. The issue was that this new colleague could be as good as an experienced interpreter minus the years in the booth. If a client can retain the services of such a professional for less money, why bother with a more expensive interpreter who would be charging more just because of the years of professional work.

It seems to me that this is a very valid point and worth of analysis. It is a well-known fact that there are many extremely good interpreters entering the market every year. I know it because I have worked with some of them. They are good, professional, reliable, and they charge less than a well established top-level interpreter. The perfect answer to a client’s need!

However, and there is always a “however,” the business of interpretation is much more than booth performance and professional attitude. It is my personal experience that the client wants a one-stop all-inclusive service that frees him to do everything else needed to have a successful event. When a client is paying top money for an experienced interpreter he or she expects a professional who knows about booth location, interpretation equipment, and much more. They want an interpreter who is able to suggest equipment, technician, protocol, and many other things. My clients hire me because of my booth performance, but they also know that they can count on me for all dealings with the rest of the interpreters, tech support, booth location, speaker orientation, and the intangibles like the best coffee shop near the convention center, the closest Ipad charging station at the airport, a good restaurant suggestion at the conference site, and tons of other things that they expect the good interpreter to know. I know that many of my colleagues have seen the sign of relief on a client’s face when you tell them that you know the technician, that you have worked with him; or when you arrive at the hotel or convention center and the local staff greets you as an old friend. They love it when you can get the extra wireless microphones, or the additional thirty minutes of conference room after they were told it was impossible to do it. Well, this is why the client is paying the experienced interpreters’ fees. If a short-sighted client wants excellent work in the booth and nothing else, a new good and inexpensive interpreter is an attractive option, but if the client was to forget about interpretation and concentrate on everything else, she or he will happily pay for the services of a one-stop high-quality seasoned well-known interpreter.

I personally believe that a good solution is a mix of several top-notch interpreters and an all-star team of newcomers. I have always loved to teach everything I know to the new generation, and I know I am not alone; many of you do the same. Therefore, my answer to those who contacted me after my previous posting is: There is a difference between great new interpreters and great experienced interpreters that goes beyond the fee we charge. Let’s build the next generation of interpreters by working together, teaching them the many nuances of the profession, and showing them that a good interpreter should never charge little money. I would love to hear your comments.

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