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.

This time of the year could be very dangerous for some court interpreters.

April 27, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I just read a contract that one of the States in the U.S. is asking all court interpreters to sign if they want to continue to work in their system. The document is 38 pages long and it is full of legal terminology, rules, and sanctions that only an attorney can understand.  This is not an isolated case. Because of political pressure and budgetary prioritization, court interpreter programs are getting less money from their administrative offices at the state level. In other words: There is hardly any money to pay for interpreting services at the state level in many states.

Although the Civil Rights Act is over fifty years old, it was only a few years ago that the federal government decided to enforce its compliance at the state level in the case of equal access to the administration of justice, regardless of the language spoken by the user of the service.  When the federal government came knocking on the door of each of the fifty states, and told their state judiciary to comply with the law or lose the funds they had been getting from the feds, states started to look for a solution to this problem. In reality, up to that moment, the states were complying with the constitutional requirement to provide court interpreters in criminal cases, but in many states there were no court-funded court interpreters available for civil cases and other additional services offered by the courts to the English-speaking population.  The message from Washington, D.C. was loud and clear: In order to continue to receive (much needed) federal funds, the states had to provide interpreters for all services they offered, not just criminal cases.

In some parts of the country the first problem was as simple as this: There were not enough certified court interpreters to meet the legal requirements; in other regions the problem was slightly different: There were plenty of certified interpreters, but the courts were not willing to pay the professional fees commanded by these (for the most part) top-notch interpreters in that state.  These professionals had been there for years, but due to the low fees paid by the state court system, they were not even considering the state judiciary as a prospective client.

When faced with this dilemma, a logical and ethical option should have been to develop a program to encourage more young people to become certified court interpreters, train them, and then test them to see if they could meet the state-level certification requirements, set years before and universally accepted as the minimum requirements to do a decent court interpreting job.  Some states’ needs could be met this way, but not all of them. For that reason, a second logical step would have been to raise the professional fees paid to court interpreters in order to entice those top-notch interpreters, who were not working for the courts, by making the assignment profitable and attractive. Finally, for those places where this was not enough, state courts could have used modern technology and provide interpreting services by video or teleconference. Administrative offices had to develop a plan, categorize the services offered and decide which ones required of an experienced certified court interpreter, find the ones that a brand new certified court interpreter could provide, and select those instances that, because of their nature and relevance, could be covered remotely by a certified court interpreter elsewhere in the state or even somewhere else.  This process also needed that state court judges and officials acted within the constitutional system and asked their respective legislatures for the funds to comply with the federal mandate.  It is doubtful that legislatures would risk losing federal funds by not approving such monies; and in those cases where the local legislators would not grant more funds, state court administrators and chief judges needed to do their job, and truly provide equal access to justice to all by reorganizing priorities, and perhaps sacrificing some programs, even those that were near and dear to a judge’s heart, in order to find the funds needed to meet this priority that is above most others, not just because of the federal funds that the state would lose in the event of non-compliance, but because those in charge of the judiciary should consider equal access to justice a top priority, and I really mean at the very top.

Unfortunately, my dear friends and colleagues, most states chose an easier way, even though it did not deliver what the Civil Rights Act intended.  They decided not to rock the boat with the legislature and play it safe, they decided not to make true equal access to justice a priority by recruiting and training quality certified court interpreters, instead, they opted for ignoring the excellent professionals in their area by not raising interpreter fees, thus making the assignments profitable to professional interpreters. They decided to come up with a “plan” to keep the federal money in their accounts by making believe that they were complying with the federal mandate of equal access to justice. This is what many of the states decided to do:

Instead of recruiting and training new certified court interpreters, they decided to create a group of paraprofessionals who would “deliver” interpreting services. These individuals were drafted from the ranks of those who had always failed the certification exams, and by recruiting bilingual individuals with no interpreting knowledge whatsoever. States justified their decision by arguing that these individuals would receive the necessary “training” to interpret in certain scenarios of lesser importance, where people who had partially passed the certification test would be considered as professionally qualified (semantics vary from state to state but it is basically the same) even though in the real world they should be deemed as unfit to do the job. Moreover, bilinguals would be trained to “assist” non-English speakers with some administrative matters in the courthouse. Of course, this brilliant decision would set the profession back to the good old days when prevailing judicial culture was that knowing two languages was all you needed to interpret in court; but that was of little importance when balanced against the possibility of cancelling a court program that was politically useful to a judge or an administrator.  This is how the “warm body next to the court services user so we don’t lose federal funds” theory was born.  The spirit of the law was ignored.

There is as much quality and true access to the administration of justice when a person who failed the court interpreter certification test, or a bilingual court staffer, interprets for a non-English speaker individual as there is medical knowledge when the guy who failed the medical board sees a hospital patient, even if the appointment is to take care of an ingrowing toenail.

Of course, the process above taught court administrators a valuable lesson: court interpreting services was a good place to save money, a wonderful way to channel budget resources somewhere else, and a great way to avoid antagonizing the state legislature, because there would be no need to ask for more money to fund the program.  This was the origin of the next step backwards: Fee reduction.

Court administrators did not stop here. They now knew that they could get away with more, so they decided to lower interpreter fees. In most cases the reduction did not come as a lowering of the fee itself; it was accomplished by cutting guaranteed hours, reducing mileage and travel reimbursement, changing cancellation policy, and by creating a new bureaucratic machinery designed to oversee what interpreters do minute-by-minute. Maybe it should be referred to as “to spy” instead of to “oversee”.

Fast forward to today, and you will find these huge interpreting services contracts in many states. The reason for them is not that court interpreters all of a sudden went bad and stopped doing the good work that they did for decades; these contracts are motivated by more reductions to the interpreters’ fees and by developing this super-protection for the state, leaving the freelancer with little or no defense before potential abuse by the court administrators.  What other justification can these state contracts have when the federal court interpreter contract is a very short agreement, which usually does not change from one fiscal year to the next, and is drafted and developed individually by every federal judicial district?

These state contracts that court interpreters are expected to sign without the slightest objection, have been drafted by the administrative office of the courts’ legal departments; they have been amended to include any possible ways to reduce the interpreters’ real fee that the states missed when drafting last year’s contract, they include sanctions to interpreters who do not comply with sometimes ridiculous duties, without setting any process of notice and hearing; they are written in a complex style full of legal terms and ambiguity that only an attorney can understand.

I am very fortunate that I do not need to sign one of these contracts, as state courts have not been my clients for several years; but it concerns me, as a defender of our profession, that my colleagues may sign these documents out of fear or hopelessness.  I invite all those court interpreters who have been, or will be asked to sign one of these agreements in the next few months, before the new fiscal year starts in July, to seek legal representation. It is your professional career, it is your future. I believe that state (and national) level professional associations should negotiate a deal with a labor relations or civil law attorney, where services would be provided at a lower fee, and offer it as a benefit to their members. In fact, I would like to see all interpreters who are members of a state or regional professional association present a common front and negotiate these contracts with the state administrator.  As state court interpreters we need protection, because if we do not act, we will continue to move backwards. They already told many of us that there is no money and they blamed it on the state legislature, now we know that perhaps they did not try to protect the interpreter program no matter what.

They are paying you less, making your work conditions very uncomfortable, they already took some of our work away and gave it to mediocre cheaper paraprofessionals.  All professionals negotiate the terms of a contract, and before they reach an agreement, they have the benefit of legal representation. The administrative office of the courts is represented by their attorneys; interpreters, like all professionals, should at least be represented by an attorney before they sign a new agreement. I now ask you to comment on this situation and the ways to recover what we had already achieved in the past, so we can move forward, and for the first time fully comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Washington D.C. at The Professional Interpreter.