How to survive COVID-19 and get ready for what is next.

April 7, 2020 § 8 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

During these weeks of confinement, we have been bombarded with phone calls and emails directed to us as professionals. Most of us are constantly getting emails asking us to reduce our professional fees (“rates” as they are referred to by agencies), to charge our interpreting services by the minute, to register for a webinar, to enroll in a program, to buy software, hardware, or a remote interpreting platform. We get emails and read articles basically telling us that in-person work is gone forever. We get communications from somebody assuring us that, despite these changes, the horrible economy that awaits us at the end of this crisis, they can save us! Add this to the pandemic news broadcasted on TV around the clock, couple it with your (some justified) concerns about your professional future and the uncertainty of the duration, and sooner or later you will be depressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, or scared.

Faced with this reality, I decided I better save my sanity and keep me apt to go back to a more competitive than-ever market awaiting right behind the light at the end of the tunnel. My first thought was: What should I do? and that is how I came up with the three-step strategy I would like to share with all of you.

First step: Eliminate your worries.

I realized that in this new, but temporary world, I needed to feel like I was in charge of my life. I know I am not enjoying full freedom of action because my life, and that of everyone else, depend on my complying with stay at home, social distancing, and other public health rules. I thought, however, that I may control certain things that can improve the quality of my life during these tough times.

I realized that to improve my quality of life in quarantine, I had to settle my financial issues as much as I could. It came to me right away: I had to get paid by all clients who owed me money for work performed before the coronavirus restrictions. Fortunately, there were few in my case. I contacted them all, asked them how they were doing in the middle of this crisis; I wished them well, assured them they could count on me for any interpreting needs now, explained that I was facing the exact same problems they had in front, and I asked them very nicely to please pay me what they owed. In my case, they all paid, but I was ready to negotiate payment terms if needed. I was prepared to accept payment for fifty percent of the amount owed now, and the rest in sixty days. I figured this was a better solution than a total loss, or a threat of litigation that would take even longer to run its course through the system and be very costly. I also have two more clients where the payment is not due yet.

Next, I contacted my clients who cancelled or postponed events to the end of this year or next year and after following the same good bedside manners strategy above, I asked for money. Where I had an Act of God, Force Majeure clause in the contract, I made the clients aware of the fact I knew I had a right to collect from them, and asked them to honor the agreement. I had two of these and they both promptly paid. One of them told me the check was already in the mail (and it was true) and the other thanked me for reminding them of the clause. The legal situation was different with the other seven postponements or cancellations I have had so far, my contract did not cover force majeure. Fortunately, and mainly because my clients are direct clients who value me, not agencies that see me as a commodity, I negotiated with them and got them to reimburse me 100 percent of the expenses I had made (minimal as I will explain later) and they were comfortable with my proposal of paying me fifty percent of my fee.  As I explained, this was the most decent and ethical way to care for each other because we would all absorb one half of the loss. Six of these clients have paid, and I need to test my strategy with the last one who just cancelled yesterday.

Continuing with my income recovery, my next target were airlines and hotels. Most of my work requires traveling, so cancellation of assignments meant cancelling flights and hotel reservations. If you are like me, I treat air travel in two ways: When the client is willing to pay a fully refundable fee for the seat I want, I purchase the ticket and get reimbursed by the client when I bill them after the assignment. When the client cannot, or will not agree to the above, because it is very important to travel business so I can work rested, I purchase the business class seat at the lower non-refundable fee and then get reimbursed by the client as I explained before. You need not worry about this if your client directly buys your ticket. For many reasons, mainly, because it allows me to be in charge of my professional and personal agenda, and if natural disasters occur (hurricanes, snow storms, tornadoes, etc.) and now pandemics, I generally fly on the same airline (or its partners when I have no choice). This makes the refund process much easier. I only needed one phone call to cancel all my flights. Fully-refundable and non-refundable tickets were treated the same during COVID-19. This means there is no cancellation fee or extra charge to change the tickets to a future date. In my case, tickets for those flights to countries where travel is currently banned were fully reimbursed, and tickets for other destinations were refunded by applying the full amount (no deductions) to future flights to the same destinations or to others of similar value, paying the difference for a more expensive destination, or getting a credit for less expensive ones. So far, the deadline to purchase, not to travel, on those tickets is December 31 of this year or earlier if the tickets were purchased before March 1, 2020. All this took me about 5 minutes because traveling on the same airline gives you certain privileges over the rest. This is a reason I constantly encourage my colleagues to travel on the same airline. Delta, United and even Amtrak have announced they will lower requirements to keep status next year. American Airlines should follow soon. Regarding hotel reservations is the same thing. Cancelling a reservation will have no cost to you as long as you do it ahead of time. Even rooms paid in full at the time of reservation are being refunded when cancelled due to COVID-19 if the cancellation is due to a travel ban or quarantine order.

Once I did this, I saw I needed to adjust my budget. I carefully looked at my expenses and saw where I could cut expenses without altering my lifestyle even more. The first thing was the big savings associated with eating at home every day. For years, I had all my meals at restaurants and bars. I can now cover a week of food expenses with the money I used to spend in about 2 days of eating out. Next, I got rid of some expensive cable TV channels I do not need now. I cannot have satellite dish TV because I live in a high rise that does not permit it, but I noticed there were very expensive channels I do not need. I kept my news channels plan and my foreign TV plan because I need the news to see what is going on outside, and I need to keep my window to the rest of the world by watching TV stations from Europe, Asia and Latin America. But I decided I could cancel the very expensive sports package. I can survive without some 40 channels that cannot show me anything new because there are no sports been played at this time anywhere in the world. I will subscribe to this package again once things go back to normal. The same goes for all the pay movie channels. Cancel HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, The Movie Channel, etc. Instead, pay for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu or a similar service. You will save tons of money.

A very important way to save money is to cancel any plans to attend a translation/interpreting conference this year. Many of the good ones have been canceled or postponed until next year already, and others will follow soon. Even if the pandemic is under control later during the year, and air travel and distancing rules are relaxed, events that inexplicably do not cancel this year will have poor attendance and fewer presentations. Even after all restrictions are lifted, people will be afraid to get on a plane or attend a workshop in a room with another 50 individuals. Conferences are a great investment in our continuing education, but understand they are expensive (some of them outrageously expensive). Do not spend your money going to a conference this year.

Do your research. Most governments are offering assistance to independent contractors. Credits, loans, direct payments, unemployment insurance, free medical services, are some benefits our colleagues can get. Do your individual research by country, and sometimes region, province or state, to see what you are eligible for.

Finally, accept that doing a quarantine is fine. Embrace this provisional reality. Reduce your stress. Watch the news once a day. Do not look at the screen every hour to see how many new cases and deaths in the last hour. It is not a sporting event. Read a book, watch a movie, a Broadway musical, or an opera on your smart TV; spend time doing a hobby that relaxes you, whether it is crossword puzzles, stamps, knitting, or playing video games. Just relax, eliminate your worries, be at peace.

Second step: Eliminate the noise.

Once you are relaxed, you need to stay relaxed. The only way to do it is eliminating everything that stresses you out, especially when this uneasiness is caused by others trying to stay afloat (nothing wrong with that) by making you believe you need a service or product they are selling, and you need it now (nothing good with that).

The first thing we need to do is to ignore most of what comes into your home via internet. Guard yourself against scammers who want to tap into your credit cards and bank accounts. Ignore any correspondence from banks or stores asking you to confirm or update your personal information. If your bank wants to contact you, they will send you a secure message to your bank application account. Also ignore a sales pitch from an agency or platform. As of now, we are getting invitations to webinars and online workshops by people we did not even know existed or even if we did, we never knew them as teachers or trainers. Everybody is trying to make money in these tough times, but keep your priorities straight. There are some legitimate webinars offered online at this time (too many in my opinion) but even here, look at your finances and decide if you can afford the webinar now, and also remember that even a class with a great instructor may not be a good choice. Ask yourself how much will you learn from a presentation while wrestling with your kids at the same time. And then you have the free webinars and workshops. They entice you to do it, to give in to peer pressure, and to make you feel guilty for bypassing a free event. Once again, look at your priorities, guard your peace of mind. Understand that many of these free seminars are not free. They are sales events similar to the ones you see late at night on TV. They will not charge you for the seminar, but will encourage to buy their products and services, and will get your information for ulterior purposes. Don’t forget these are people you may know, but they are acting like salesmen. Noting illegal with that, but do not believe everything they tell you. The world is not going to remote interpreting forever. If you are a court interpreter or a community interpreter, you will go back to the jails and courthouses, you will be working at community centers and school classrooms once this is all over. Do not spend the money you don’t have, with no reliable source of income, because of the promise of a future when you will work from home. Remember, if it sounds too good…

If you are conference interpreters, assess if you truly work conferences most of the time. If they call you for two conferences a year, and one of them is at your local community center where you work with your court interpreter friend with a table top booth, think long and hard before buying an expensive computer, microphone, headset and internet service. You probably will get none of the work they spoke about during the free online event.  Even if you are a full time conference interpreter in the United States or Western Europe considering a big investment in times of coronavirus: Have you thought these same agencies now trying to sell you a service or a product, will generally retain the services of interpreters from developing countries where they get paid for a full week of work what you make in one day back in your country? Again, there is nothing illegal here, but think long and hard before building a studio in your home. There will be more events held remotely than before, but big conferences, important business and diplomatic negotiations will continue to be in-person. These have cancelled for now. They have not migrated to remote. Have you heard of the meeting after the meeting? The most important in-person events are going nowhere.

Some chats offered and organized for free by some individuals or professional associations are fine; I recommend them. If you live alone, they allow you to talk to someone besides the cat, and you will know they are not trying to sell you anything.

Please stay away from well-intentioned friends who know diddly about medicine, public health, and the economy, but constantly guide you through how to protect yourself. Do not listen to those calling you to tell you to exercise every day. Right now, you are in quarantine with your life upside down. You are not training for the 2021 Olympics. It is OK to spend the day watching Netflix; do not feel bad because you did not run a marathon around your kitchen table today; you are not a bad professional interpreter if you ignored “the” webinar because you felt like playing videogames. It is OK. No one knows you better than you. I have nothing against the cable company, those who advertise online, or those promoting their webinars. I am only focusing everything from the perspective of the professional interpreter stuck at home with an uncertain future ahead. These are tough times. Eliminate the noise. Have that ice cream.

Third step: Prepare for life after COVID-19

Once you are relaxed and the noise is gone, you can focus on the future by doing certain things you control and will help you fill in your days at home with valuable things.

At the top of this list you must write down: “Keep in touch with my direct clients.” Maintain that relationship by reminding them you are here to help them. Communicate periodically, you know your clients and you know what works better for each case. Do not call them every day; an email every two weeks should be enough. When you email them, do not start by expressing your worries or by asking for work. Show them empathy, ask them about their families, employees, and business. Make them see you understand what they are going through because you are experiencing the same. Be ready to assist them with small things during the crisis by offering, as an exception, remote services while educating them about the pros and cons of a remote solution. Explain to them what they should expect from a remote service with you working from an apartment with 3 children in the room next door so they lower their expectations. Acknowledge they have to make difficult decision, and reassure them of your presence in their back-to-work plans, stressing that you will be ready the day they open their doors again. You must be ready to hit the ground running from day one, even if day one is postponed repeatedly. You do not want them to catch you unprepared. You cannot give them a chance to think of looking for another interpreter because you were not ready.

Never agree to lower fees or poor working conditions during the quarantine of after. Doing so will cause you permanent damage. You will never work for a better fee, and you will be known by other interpreters as the individual who works for peanuts. No colleague will ever ask you to work with them, and people will hate it when forced by a client to share the booth with you. I understand not everybody is prepared to face a crisis that includes total loss of income. If this is your case, think of what I say in this paragraph before you accept the “job” offer. If you must make money to put food on the table, you should look for alternate sources of income. If you interpret you are at least bilingual. Perhaps you can do tutoring on line, lead advanced virtual conversation groups for people learning a foreign language. Many interpreters have a professional degree in other disciplines and others are well-read and traveled. They can tutor on history, literature, English, chemistry, biology, math, etc., I am not asking you to replace professional school teachers, just to tutor kids and adults so they can do their homework, learn and practice something they like, and have something to do while locked up at home. Remember: many parents would love this option and rest from their kids for two hours a day. This way you will make ends meet without permanently tarnishing your professional reputation.

A big part of getting ready for what is coming next is to keep in touch with your trusted colleagues. Make sure that during COVID-19 you talk to those interpreters you regularly share the booth with, and the ones with a different language combination in the booth next door. Email and chat with them regularly. Be all ready as a group so you can tackle a project right away. These are the colleagues you can share direct clients with because you know they will not steal away from you any of them. The key is to be ready to work from day one, before somebody gives your client the idea of contacting an agency. Just as I suggest you stay in touch with your trusted professional group, I tell you not to contact the agencies during COVID-19. Unlike your trusted colleagues and direct clients, this would be a waste of time. Agencies will call you (if you want to work with them) regardless. They look at a list and select you from there. Remember all those bulk mails where they ask you to recommend somebody if you cannot accept the job? They want a warm, inexpensive body. They do not want you. Set your priorities.

Finally, spend quality time with yourself. Do things for you that you never had time to do before. Spend quality time with your roommates: spouse, partner, children, extended family and house guest. Compromise and try to keep the peace. Remember you are all confined to a small space.

Dear colleagues, this post was written for you, the individual professional interpreter, and it offers a perspective that benefits you over anyone else. Please share with the rest of us your comments about the things you are doing to stay sane, safe, and ready to work from day one, and more important: stay healthy and stay safe (physically, mentally, and emotionally).

Interpreters need this from a city more than anything else.

August 20, 2019 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

These are the top ten airports with the most connectivity:

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

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

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

How to pack for an out-of-town conference.

July 14, 2013 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Today I want to share with you my formula to work assignments all over the world while only carrying what I really need.  There is nothing more annoying than having to cough up excessive weight fees at the airport counter or arriving sweaty and tired from dragging heavy luggage from terminal to terminal to hotel and back to your home.  I know that many of you travel as much as I do and I am sure you have a system that works for you. My first rule is: When you already have a method that yields a light bag without being deprived of the basics, don’t change anything; but if you struggle every time you pack before a trip, or if you cannot figure out why your stuff doesn’t fit in the bag when you pack at the hotel, even if you were able to put it all in there at the beginning of the trip and you haven’t bought anything else, then this posting may be for you.  Second rule: My system works perfectly for men, but women would have to make some adjustments as you have to pack items that we do not.  While the little shampoo and conditioner bottles at the hotel bathroom may solve a man’s problem, many women will need to carry (or purchase at the point of destination) bigger bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Men can travel for a month with a pair of shoes; women cannot.  But even if you have long hair and need to pack high heels and booths, these tips can help you with the rest of the items you throw in the suitcase and never even use during the trip.

I have been traveling all my life, and when I say traveling, I mean it. Last year I was on the road for 320 days, and rarely stayed home in Chicago for more than a week at a time.  This means that I have learned how to live with less without being deprived of life essentials.

If you are going to be away for a week or less, you need a suitcase, ideally a garment bag so that your clothes are protected. My favorite is the 46” Zurich wheeled garment bag from Swiss Gear. It is affordable and of good quality, plus you can get it at places like Office Max and Target.  You can always bring a collapsible bag inside the garment bag in case you need more extra room on your way back.  You will also need your favorite briefcase. This will be your carry-on and it is where you will keep your electronics.  If the trip is longer, or if you need to take more shoes, shampoos, or other items, take a second suitcase.  I prefer the 20” Swiss Gear Zurich upright spinner because I like to take it on the plane with me, but if you prefer the 24” one, that is fine, just document it together with the garment bag.  I like these collection because it looks good, it is durable, and the price is right.  I learned many years ago that there is no need to buy expensive luggage if it will last you, at the most, one year (Have you seen how they handle your bags at the airport?)  I suggest you fly an airline where you have a frequent flyer plan. This way in most cases you can take two pieces of luggage in the plane’s underbelly at no extra charge. You will also board before most passengers, even when flying coach, so you will have plenty of overhead compartment room for your carry-on luggage.  Get your electronic boarding pass sent to your iPhone, store it in Passbook (the application is free) go to the airport, document your bags, and relax at the airline club. Domestically I prefer Admiral’s Club over United, Delta and other smaller carriers, but we all have different tastes. The important thing is that you want to find a place where you can charge your gadgets and enjoy a drink before the trip.

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What to pack? Men need to pack three wrinkle-free blazers that match the season at the place of the event. Remember, you may live in the northern hemisphere where it is winter, but if your assignment is down south you will need summer clothes.  Take three of the classics: navy blue, black, grey, dark brown, light brown, etcetera.  Take 6 pants. Same rules apply.  You will need 5 wrinkle-free pants and one set of jeans. Remember that you are wearing your sixth wrinkle-free pants during the flight. These items, plus six wrinkle-free long sleeve dress shirts in assorted colors will give you all the combinations you need for a month-long trip. I would also take 9 ties, a two-way belt (the kind you turn around to go from black to brown) and enough underwear for a week.  Hotels have laundry and dry cleaning services that are often cheaper than the same services in a big urban area.  My laundry and cleaners are always more affordable at a hotel in Virginia than at home in Chicago.   After that, all you need are three polo shirts, one T-shirt, shorts for the gym, a baseball hat, and a pair of snickers. You are already wearing your dress shoes. Take comfortable good moccasin-style shoes. No shoelaces when going through security at the airport; for the ladies: No boots when dealing with TSA.  Remember, you are already wearing the extra jacket or winter coat during the flight.

It is essential to pack your toiletries in the garment bag as well. Less items to show at the airport security point. Always take travel size items like deodorants, shaving gels, hair products, after shaves, toothpaste, and others. Do not forget your toothbrush. Men: Don’t bother with shampoos, conditioners, mouthwash, or body lotion. Hotels provide them. They also furnish other toiletries when you request them at the front desk. My experience has taught me that you should also take a small pair of scissors, nail-clippers, a sewing kit, shoe-shine cloth, and yes: a corkscrew.  The worst thing after a long day in the booth is a bottle of wine in the room and no corkscrew.  Finally, a small collapsible umbrella and your vitamins and prescription medications need to go in the big bag.  Save some for the carry-on if you will need them during the flight, plus an extra set in case of an emergency. The rest can travel with the checked in luggage.

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In your carry-on, ideally the same briefcase you will take to the event, take all your work tools: i-Phone, i-Pod, i-Pad, computer, all necessary chargers and cables, a portable electronic dictionary (in case there is no internet) your headphones (the best ones for music and the best ones for work) a few of your favorite pens, all your hotel, airline, car rental loyalty program cards, plenty of business cards, your passport (if traveling abroad) some cash and foreign currency if applicable, your official identification card, an ATM card, and a couple of good solid credit cards (from a travel plan so you get credit) That’s it. All other documents should be scanned and taken electronically, your reading materials, for work and for fun, should be on the i-Pad.  Finally, lock your home when you leave and put your home keys away for the duration of the trip. Most briefcases have a place where you can hang clip them. Do this so that you can easily find them when you get back after a long trip.

I know we all have different habits and needs, so this posting may not
completely solve your problems; however, I hope it gives you some suggestions
that you can incorporate to your travel routine the next time you are hired to
interpret an event away from home.  Please share your comments and suggestions on this issue that is crucial to so many of our friends and colleagues.

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