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.
September 4, 2014 § 12 Comments
Good professional interpreters are usually consumed with taking care of their clients, improving their skills, managing their agenda, and marketing to new clients. This takes a lot of time and energy, and it is essential to succeed as an interpreter. Unfortunately, sometimes during their career some interpreters may experience other aspects of the profession that are less pleasant, more time-consuming, and very stressful.
Our professional tools are our brain, mouth, and a language combination. We can make mistakes, we are susceptible to questioning and second-guessing by others, and in our litigious society we are exposed to lawsuits that can leave us with no career, no resources, and a tainted reputation.
There are many circumstances that can affect our career as professional interpreters, but at this time I would like to focus on two of them:
The first one occurs when our work is subject to criticism and questioning by our peers or by others. This often happens in a legal setting. All court interpreters have faced situations when in the middle of a court hearing a judge, attorney, witness, litigant, and even a juror, have interrupted our rendition to correct what we just said. Most of the time we were right and they were wrong. On occasion, because we are not machines, and because nobody can possibly know all regional expressions, these voices do us a favor as they correct our mistake and allow justice to be served. These are the scenarios we usually face when doing our job. It sounds simple and straight to the point: Either we are right and we say so in order to keep the process moving along, or we are wrong, and in that case we correct our error. The same facts are true in a healthcare or community interpreting setting; even at the negotiating table or in the booth during a conference we sometimes make mistakes out of exhaustion, due to bad acoustics, a speaker with a heavy accent, or because we misunderstood a word or term. This is why we have team interpreting, this is why good interpreting equipment, an appropriate conference room, and breaks or recesses are important.
Unfortunately in the real world we have to deal with attorneys who are not happy because their foreign language speaking client or witness is not saying what they wanted them to say in the trial, and with doctors and nurses who want to dodge the consequences of their negligence, and with the party that lost at the business negotiating table, or with the agency that tries to justify the disaster caused by its outdated broken-down interpreting equipment. The first thing they all do is to cast a doubt over the rendition of the interpreter. It is even worse when all of this happens and you know that those who are questioning your work are clearly wrong.
The second situation I want to bring to your attention is when the same individuals mentioned above, decide to go for the jugular and to put the blame on the interpreter’s rendition; so they take you to court. They argue inadequate interpretation and you are sued for damages. How can we defend our work when our rendition is questioned and we know we are right? What can we do to protect ourselves in case somebody takes us to court for damages? There are preventive measures that we can take as interpreters to diminish the possibility of having to defend our work, our assets, and our reputation.
There are also steps we must follow in case our professional work is questioned or attacked in court.
These complex issues have to be addressed, and as true professionals we must be prepared in case this happens to us. For this reason, I will present: “How to Defend Our Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter” during Lenguando Londres in London on September 13, 2014 at 2:30 pm. I invite you to attend the event on the 13 and 14 of this month and see how you will be able to interact with some of the superstars of all language-related professions, and I encourage you to attend this presentation where we will discuss these sad but possible scenarios, we will explore the different preventive measures that we should always take in order to avoid an adverse outcome, and we will talk about the path to follow once our rendition or our skill has been formally questioned in a court of law. I hope to see you in London; but even if you are not attending, I ask you to share with the rest of us your experiences on having your rendition questioned, challenged, or having a lawsuit filed against you as an interpreter.
December 30, 2013 § 1 Comment
Now that 2013 is coming to an end and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2014, we can look back and assess what we learned during the past 12 months. As interpreters our career is a constant learning experience, and from talking with many of my colleagues 2013 was no exception. I personally grew up professionally and got to appreciate our profession even more. The year that ends gave me once again the opportunity to work with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.
Our profession had some positive developments this year: IAPTI held its very successful first conference in London England, Asetrad had a magnificent anniversary event in Toledo Spain, from the evidence so far it looks like the new grading system for the U.S. federal court interpreter certification worked fine, there were many opportunities for professional development, some of them very good, including several webinars in different languages and on different topics; we had some important technological advancements that made our life easier, and contrary to the pessimists’ forecast, there was plenty of work and opportunities. Of course not everything was good. Our colleagues in the U.K. continue to fight a war against mediocrity and misdirected greed, interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards and creating questionable certification programs, and of course, we had the pseudo-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services.
During 2013 I worked with interpreters from many countries and diverse fields of expertise. I was able to learn from, and to share my knowledge and experience with many colleagues dear to me and with some new interpreters and translators. This past year gave me the opportunity to learn many things at the professional conferences I attended, from the interpretation and translation books first published in 2013 that I read, and of course working in the booth, at the courthouse, the formal dinners, and the recording studio.
This year I had the honor to see how several of my students became federally certified court interpreters in the United States, and I had the fortune to present before conference audiences in different countries. During the year that ends I traveled to many professional conferences and workshops, all good and beneficial. Because of their content, and for the impact they had on me, I have to mention the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators’ (NAJIT) Annual Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, the Spanish Association of Translators, Proof-readers and Interpreters’ (ASETRAD) Conference in Toledo, Spain, the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters’ (IAPTI) Annual Conference in London, England, and the Mexican Translators Organization’s (OMT) conference in Guadalajara Mexico where I had the pleasure to attend the magnificent International Book Fair. My only regret was that for professional obligations I had to cancel my trip to San Antonio Texas to attend the American Translators Association’s (ATA) Annual Conference. This year that is about to end was filled with professional experiences acquired all over the world as I constantly traveled throughout the year, meeting new colleagues and catching up with good friends. Now, as I sit before my computer reminiscing and re-living all of these life-enriching experiences, I ask you to share some of your most significant professional moments during this past year.
November 19, 2013 § 4 Comments
As interpreters and translators we have been gathering for decades in workshops, conferences, and professional associations. We are lucky to have so many places where we can improve our skills, enhance our knowledge, and do networking with others. We have the fortune to have excellent organizations that are international and very big like ATA and FIT; others that are regional and smaller, some that are specific to a particular field like NAJIT and IMIA, and we even have separate organizations exclusively for interpreters or translators. All these professional groups are very important and useful to our profession. They all serve different purposes, and we need them all. A few years ago we witnessed the birth of InterpretAmerica, another forum for all interpreters to talk to each other as professionals, and to directly address the other players in our industry: equipment providers, government contractors, the big language agencies, academic institutions, international organisms, and others.
We had all these resources to thrive in our profession but something was missing: We had no outlet to talk to each other as individual professional interpreters and translators; a place where we could talk about the business side of our work. A forum where we could address the recent changes brought to our work by the globalization movement; the disparity and often times ruthless competition that we face as freelancers in a world where new technology and gigantic language service providers are driving the professional fees down; and in some cases the quality of the service even lower.
We all know of the court interpreting crisis that has developed in the United Kingdom. Many of you know that, unlike the U.S. federal court system where you find the best court interpreters because it pays the highest fees, American immigration courts pay very little under less than ideal working conditions, and for the most part do not use the services of top tier interpreters. Of course, it is common knowledge that big language service providers are paying incredibly low fees to good translators based in developing countries, and it is no secret that every day more businesses turn to machine translation to solve their most common communication problems.
What most interpreters and translators do not know, is that there are other countries in the world who want to emulate the United Kingdom’s model; that there are government agencies who outsource the authority to “certify” or “qualify” individuals as interpreters or translators in order to comply with legal mandates and to meet the demand for these services, at least on paper.
A few weeks ago I attended in London the first congress of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) an event where hundreds of well-known veteran interpreters and translators from all over the world met with the most talented new generation of professional interpreters and translators I have ever seen in my life. The reason for this event: to discuss all these developments and issues that we currently face in our profession, in order to be better prepared and armed with skill and knowledge to embrace technology and face globalization as freelancers. The organization and the conference are for individual translators and interpreters. No corporate memberships. No big language service providers. It was refreshing to attend presentations that dealt with issues such as how to protect your market, defend the quality of your work, and honor the real value of your work so you never give in to those who want you to work for less than a fair fee. It was wonderful to see so many colleagues taking note of the business side of the profession so they can do better when competing for the good client in the real world. I salute the brains, heart and soul of this much needed type of professional association: Aurora Humarán and Lorena Andrea Vicente, President and Vice-president of IAPTI respectively.
Dear colleagues, in this new global economy, where we are all competing in the same world market, we need all the professional associations we have. They are all useful.
I invite all of my freelance interpreter and translator friends and colleagues who want to thrive in this new economy to acquire the necessary tools and resources to win. IAPTI is an essential resource. I encourage you all to submit a membership application and to attend next year’s conference. I can assure you that you will be inspired by the talent and energy of this new group of young interpreters and translators. As a member of IAPTI you will be in a better position to flourish in our industry. You will love the atmosphere of a IAPTI conference where everybody is like you: an individual translator or interpreter trying to deliver an excellent product in exchange for an excellent pay. I invite our friends and colleagues who are part of IAPTI, and those who were in London for the conference, to share their comments with the rest of us.