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.

When the interpreter does not hear the speaker.

October 21, 2015 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

In recent weeks I have been contacted by two different colleagues who basically had the same problem: What do you do as an interpreter when you did not hear what the speaker said, and the cause of the problem is the speaker himself?  I thought about the question, and I realized that this situation is more common than we may think when we first consider it.

There are many reasons why an interpreter’s professional life can get complicated, and one of them is a poor speaker.  There are also a multitude of circumstances that arise during a conference, negotiation, trial or interview, that will not let us hear what was said, many of them can be traced to a deficient sound system, bad interpreting equipment, wrongly situated interpreters’ booth, technician’s ineptitude, and others.  Today we will focus on those occasions when the problem can be traced back to the speaker.

There are basically three kinds of speakers for the matter that occupies us this time: The experienced speaker, the novice, and the careless.  A seasoned individual used to public speaking will speak clearly, at a good pace, and with the audience in mind. If these speakers are used to an international audience, they will also adjust the form and content of their speech so it can be interpreted to a series of foreign languages without major problems. With some exceptions, we find these orators at the events of the highest level.  They are the group that creates the least problems for the interpreters, and can be approached with suggestions to improve the rendition into the target languages.

Many novice speakers have to deal with fears and insecurities, their experience addressing a crowd is non-existent or at best very limited, and they ignore the details and even the basic rules that must be observed when talking to a diverse, multicultural, and foreign language speaking audience.  They can be very difficult to interpret, and hard to hear; but once they are past their fears and insecurities, they are usually receptive, coachable, and willing to work with the interpreters.

It is the careless speaker that causes most of the interpreters’ headaches.  Many of them have been around long enough to know how to speak in public and how to address a foreign language crowd; they all know that there are special considerations by the orator when a speech needs to be interpreted into another language, but they consider it of little significance and dismiss it. Some of them are even worse, as they truly ignore the basic rules of public speaking before an international audience because they just don’t see any benefit or motivation to learn them.  These are the speakers that will keep interpreters sleepless all night.

Besides separating this problem from all technical and logistics occurrences that can cause difficulties when listening to the speaker, to be able to look at this issue in detail, we must deal separately with the different types of interpreting where the situation may be present sometimes.

Conference Interpreting.

The most common situation is when the speaker abandons the microphone.  The presenter leaves the podium with the fixed wired microphone and walks around the stage speaking directly to the audience without any devise, or holds a handheld mike as he speaks, but keeps the microphone pointing to the opposite direction from his mouth, making it impossible to hear in the booth what was said.  The problem could also exist when the speaker has a lapel microphone which has been poorly placed on his body or when he ruffles the mike with his hands or clothes.

The best way to avoid this issue is through education.  With the exception of the experienced speaker, most people will benefit from a brief orientation on how to work with interpreters. Reputable truly professional agencies and event promoters will likely take care of this issue by providing some literature to the presenter ahead of time, or by asking the speaker to set aside a few minutes before the speech to talk to the interpreters who will let him know what adjustments he needs to make for the benefit of the booth and more importantly, for the benefit of the foreign language speakers who are in the audience as guests or as paid ticket holders.  I suggest that you have a standard brochure, prepared by you to be given to the speaker, where you address and explain all these nuances and considerations that must be kept in mind when speaking before an audience with interpreters.  This can be used when the agency is not that reputable or experienced and does not even think about this speaker orientation aspect of the event, and you can offer it as an added value to the client, and charge for it.

Next, unless it is an experienced individual or a very busy dignitary or celebrity with no time to spare, you need to be ready to meet with the speaker before the event anyway; even if it is just to ask if he read the brochure and to inquire if he has any questions, or, as it will no doubt happen many times, to go over the contents of the brochure with those orators who “did not have time to read the brochure ahead of time”.  It requires that at least one interpreter from the team (usually the lead interpreter for the event) arrive to the venue a little earlier. When there are several booths, you can distribute responsibilities so that an interpreter is testing the equipment with the technicians while you are meeting with the speaker about the orientation brochure.

The strategy above should take care of most situations, but you have to be prepared for the speaker who forgets what he was told during the orientation and leaves the microphone behind in any of the ways described above.  In that case your options are limited a somewhat drastic measures:  (1) Your first option should be interpreter console in the booth (when available) and let the speaker know that he is not using the microphone, or that he did not turn it on, by pressing the slow-down button on the console. This is a discreet way to communicate with the presenter without leaving the booth.  (2) When the interpreter console does not have this button, as many older models do not, then the interpreters should use the help of the technician, and ask him to let the speaker know that there is a problem, either by the technician approaching the stage and communicating with the speaker by discreet signs, or by passing a note to the podium.  (3)  If the technician is not around at that particular time, one of the interpreters will have to leave the booth and hopefully, from the back of the room, get the attention of the orator. If this is not possible due to the booth location, lighting of the room, or the distance to the stage, then the interpreter should approach the stage and deliver the note to the speaker.  (4)  Finally, there will be times when none of the above options may be available because the interpreters’ booth is in a place relatively inaccessible from the stage (many built-in booths have access from the street through a separate entrance from the main auditorium’s). In those rare cases the interpreter can get to the speaker by asking the audience he is interpreting for, to please ask the speaker to speak into the mike. This is a drastic measure but it is better than leaving half of the attendees in the dark as to what the speaker said during the presentation.

Court Interpreting.

The situation in court is different.  First, unlike a conference setting, there will be several people speaking back and forth during the same occurrence, usually a hearing.  Some of them will be aware of the need to be heard by the interpreter while others, like the witnesses and the parties to the litigation, will not even realize that the hearing is being interpreted into a foreign language.  The most common scenarios where it will be difficult, if not impossible, to hear what has been said will be when the person speaking moves away from the microphone. In the case of the witnesses and litigants the problem could also be that they simply do not speak loud enough.

Because of its rigorous rules and protocol, and because there is a record being kept of the hearing, interpreters in this setting have an easier way to correct a party when they cannot hear what was said. It is enough for the interpreter to raise her hand and voice and state aloud (in the third person because there is a record of the hearing and therefore the voice of the person speaking has to be announced for the transcriber) that “the interpreter cannot hear the attorney, judge, witness, plaintiff, etc., and ask that the parties speak into the microphone. Thank you”. Some interpreters may prefer to ask the judge to admonish the parties to speak louder or using the microphone, by stating aloud, immediately after the word or phrase was uttered, that: “the interpreter respectfully asks the court to instruct the parties to speak louder and into the microphone”.  Because as a general rule there are no booths and the interpreters are very close to the judge and litigants, this can easily be accomplished in an expeditious way. The only word of caution would be that the interpreters must find the best place to locate themselves (in those courtrooms where there is no interpreter desk) to avoid interrupting the proceedings very often.  Another valuable resource that should be used before interrupting the hearing is a simple consultation with the passive interpreter in the team. Many times the passive interpreter may be able to discern what was said because, unlike the active interpreter, she is not listening to the hearing over her own voice at this time.

Consecutive interpreting.

This problem could be easy to solve or very difficult during a consecutive rendition. It depends on the venue. When doing consecutive interpreting in court, usually for a party or witness who is testifying from the stand, the solution is the same as in the case of simultaneous court interpreting above. Sometimes, if the word that was not heard is irrelevant to the hearing, the interpreter can ask the witness, who is sitting next to her, directly. It would be better, and safer, to announce this circumstance first by stating aloud: “the interpreter will ask the witness to clarify (or repeat) a word that the interpreter did not hear…”

When the interpreter is working as an escort and there are words that he did not hear because of background noise, or because the speaker turned her heard the other way when she said the word, the interpreter can simply and informally stop her on the spot and ask her to repeat what she just said. This is quite common when visiting touristic attractions, industrial plants, or places where crowds gather such as markets, plazas, train stations, and so on.  The same solution can be applied to healthcare interpreting during doctor or nurse appointments.

The situation is quite more complicated in the case of a long consecutive rendition during a press conference, diplomatic negotiation, or a ceremony.  In this case there could be different scenarios: (1) When the interpreters are working as a team, the passive interpreter can help the active colleague in a similar way as described above when we dealt with court interpreting. (2) The situation is more difficult when the interpreter is working alone. Many times the solution will depend on the style of the interpreter as he could start the rendition while slipping a note to an aide asking for a term that he did not hear, he could ask the speaker to repeat the term after he finished his statement and before the interpreter starts the consecutive rendition, or the interpreter can go ahead with the rendition and stop to ask at the time when the word that he did not hear was said by the speaker.  This may sound quite scary, but we must remember that this case scenario will rarely happen as interpreters are well-prepared for these events and know the relevant terminology; Many times the word that the interpreter did not hear can be inferred from the context of what the speaker said, sometimes the name is repeated later on the speech and the interpreter heard it the second time, and the word may turn out to be irrelevant to the message and therefore it can be left out. Remember, this is not short court consecutive interpretation.

As we clearly see, once again we face the reality that interpreting is a very difficult profession, but many of the complications and problems that appear during the rendition can be prevented and resolved with good preparation, which includes educating the speaker. I now ask you to share with the rest of us some of the times when you had to face this same issue, and tell us how you solved the situation and saved the day.

When the event organizer refuses to hire a full time technician.

September 19, 2014 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

One of my worst nightmares is to be in a situation where I am ready, able, and willing to do my job, and I cannot do it because something beyond my control went wrong… very wrong. In a world where we depend more on technology every day, the importance of all the devices we use in our work is paramount. An entire event can turn into a disaster if technology does not cooperate. To stay competitive, it is extremely important that the professional interpreter be knowledgeable and up-to-date on the latest technological developments that impact our industry, such as computer hardware, software, hand-held devices, and social media; that is undisputable. We should have on that same priority level the operation of headphones and microphones, interpreting consoles, portable equipment, and the basic principles of how the interpreting equipment in particular, and the audio-visual system in general, function. The idea is not to replace the computer engineer or the sound technician; the only goal is to be able to understand a problem so it can be better described to the specialist who will, in turn, take care of the issue. An interpreter who can solve small technical problems with a simple suggestion, and therefore keeps the event on track, is definitely a very valuable asset.

Those who know me are aware of the fact that I am mechanically impaired. I cannot do anything with my hands, and I have never wanted to. I am also a big advocate of hiring professionals to do all jobs, from the auto mechanic to the housecleaning person, and from the accountant to the physician. No “do it yourself” for me. Fortunately, I really like computers, electronic media, and all the gadgets I can put my hands on. This has allowed me to keep up with those issues that are relevant to our profession, but always knowing my limitations and recognizing and appreciating the essential role that the sound technician plays in the interpreting world. To be clear: As far as the interpreters are concerned, the sound technician is the most important individual in the venue. They are that crucial; especially the good ones, those who already know you, the ones that know the type of headphones we prefer, the levels we like, and even the little things that make that particular interpreter comfortable and therefore more productive. They travel with us from town to town or country to country, they know us personally, and we call them friends.

For these reasons, when negotiating an assignment I always insist on top notch equipment and the best technicians. I convey to the event organizer, or the agency, the importance of having a capable technician next to the booth throughout the event. The most experienced and prestigious agencies, convention centers, and event organizers already know it, but some newcomers may need the explanation. During my career I have seen that those agencies and promoters who want to be in the business for a long time, the ones who want to have a good reputation, and the ones who care about the quality of the event, always agree to this very basic, logical, and simple request. Unfortunately, sometimes you run into the ones who keep alive the expression: “the exception to the rule.”

Not too long ago, I was working a very prestigious event where we got to see what happens when you try to “save” money at the expense of the technician. On the day the event started I arrived, as usual, plenty early to check the booth, sound, computers, stage, and everything else that you need to be aware of to have a successful event. As I entered the room, I saw one of my friend technicians from way back. Since I had not been involved on the planning of the event, and I was just a “hired gun”, I was very happy to see such a professional experienced technician in charge of the system. I went on to get ready and did not think much about the technician anymore. It was not until that afternoon when we started having some problems with the sound that I saw my friend again; he went into action and took care of the problem in no time at all. It was seamless.

The next day I arrived at the venue and went straight to the booth to get ready. The colleague who was interpreting with me arrived, we talked for a few minutes and then the event started. Everything was fine for about two hours when all of a sudden we had a problem with the sound. There was a lot of static and the quality was very poor. I looked for my friend the technician. I did not see him outside any of the booths or anywhere else. It was then that one of the event organizers came to the booth and told us that a “technician was on his way to fix the problem.” One of the hosts of this event got on stage and announced that an engineer was going to take care of the sound problem, and that we were going to adjourn until the sound was restored. Everybody got up and headed to the cafeteria.

At that time I saw a couple of individuals coming to the interpreting area, they approached us, and asked questions about the sound. I began to describe what the problem was. As I was describing the problem I noticed the nervousness on the face of this young man who was going to fix the problem. At that point I asked him for my friend, the experienced technician. I had seen him in the room the day before, but I had not seen him that day at all. The young technician told me that my friend was not there, that he had only been hired to do the set up and to be there on the first day in case something went wrong. He then told me that he and the other technician with him were full-time employees of the company that had organized the event, and they were “IT support”, not sound system technicians. He told me that they had never worked with interpreting equipment before, and that everything they knew about these equipment was what they had learned from my friend in the last two days when he and his crew did the equipment set up, and what they saw him doing the day before. It turns out that this very important, and profitable event decided to save money on the tech support.

What happened next was a comedy of errors. These hard-working IT staff had the best intentions and tried their best, but they did not have the knowledge to solve the problem. After almost an hour of unsuccessfully trying to fix the equipment, I suggested they replace all equipment with the back-up units my friend had left in case they were needed. They did it and the event continued. There was another glitch that afternoon when a speaker played a video from his laptop and they expected us (in the booth) to capture the sound from the conference room through our headphones and interpret the video that way. Needless to say, this was impossible. We could barely hear the sound; there was no way to interpret the video that way. I asked them to hook the laptop into the sound system so we could get the sound in our headphones just as if it was coming from a microphone. They did not know how to do it. I described the cable they needed and told them that they could buy it anywhere for very little money. Once I said “little money” they listened. One of their staffers went out, purchased the cable, and we had perfect sound in the booth. The video was interpreted, but there was another delay.

At the end of the day all interpreters from all languages got together, we talked about what happened during the day, and we all decided to request a real sound technician for the duration of the event. When we went to talk to the organizers we found them buried in complaints from the attendees who were not happy about the delays due to equipment malfunction (that could have been resolved in a few minutes like the first day when the professional technician was in the premises) At that point I knew we were getting our technician without even having to request him. Sure enough, after the commotion ended, a representative of the organizers came to inform us that they had talked to the technician and he would be at the event first thing in the morning. He then told us that the professional technician was going to stay for the rest of the event, and that he would be our point of contact in case there was another technical problem. The organizers learned their lesson! Unfortunately, they learned it the hard way. Now they know that there are many ways to cut costs, but having an event without a sound technician is not one of them. As things go sometimes, the next morning my technician friend checked all the equipment and adjusted certain things that had been changed by the IT staff the day before, he stayed with us for the rest of the week until the event ended, and we never had another incident. On the last day, as we were leaving the venue, I reminded all my colleagues from the other booths of this valuable lesson, and I asked them to always remember it, and use it as an example when another agency or event organizer decided to go without a full-time sound technician to cut costs. I now ask all of you to please share with the rest of us your stories of equipment malfunction, and what was done to solve the problem.

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