Getting Conference Interpreting Work

A few days ago, we received a message from a lovely colleague here in the US who is also a fellow legal interpreter. However, he is under the (correct) impression that conference interpreting is a more glamorous field, and asked us how to get into conference interpreting. As is so often the case, the answer is a bit long, so we thought we'd answer his very good question here for the benefit of all readers. For ease of reading, we will list our (useful) advice in bullet-style format. Please note that this advice is based on the US market for conference interpreting, as our colleague resides here.

First things first. Let's talk logistics and details:


  •  We have never met an interpreter who doesn't love conference interpreting work. It's (sometimes) glamorous, exciting, and a nice change of pace for medical and legal interpreters. We do know quite a few full-time conference interpreters who are not medical/legal interpreters as well, but they are mostly in Europe and tend to work with the European Union. Here in the US, we know few freelancers who can make a living just doing conference interpreting work, but there certainly exceptions (in-house at the State Department, United Nations, etc.)
  • Getting conference interpreting assignments can be hard. They require a lot of legwork. Don't expect to get a conference interpreting assignment every week as a freelancer in the US. We know very few people who get that many assignments. And every interpreter we know would like to have more conference interpreting assignments, including us.
  • You don't get paid to prepare for the assignment, and you need to factor that into your price quote. You thus shouldn't accept to interpret at the annual meeting of the American Association of Ventriloquists unless you know something about the field. 
  • Conference interpreting is limited to mostly larger cities. Not all conferences are large and not all conferences happen in Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Chicago or Las Vegas, but as a general rule, you have a better shot at being a conference interpreter if you live in a larger city. Most conference organizers are usually not willing to fly in interpreters from Boise to Omaha when there are perfectly good interpreters in Omaha, which makes sense.
  • Conferences are planned a long time out -- we know because one of us lives in the conference capital of America, Las Vegas. That said, we have yet to encounter one single hotel in Las Vegas that has permanent interpreting booths installed and most hotels rarely work with booths and equipment, so it's oftentimes a struggle to get this all organized. And yes, we've shown up to events with no booths at all. That's not the case in most of Europe, where even small hotels will have conference facilities with interpreter capabilities, which is nice.

  • Now, how do you get these assignments? Let's start with a few basics.
    • Many conference interpreting assignments come through agencies. We don't work with agencies at all on the translation side, but will take occasional conference interpreting assignments if the terms work for us. The good part here is that these LSPs are relatively easy to find, and you can contact those in your area who specialize in conference interpreting. Perhaps you can take the project manager to lunch and let him/her know that you are really interested after you pass the initial screening and traditional CV review.
    • Other conference interpreting assignments come from tourism bureaus, convention centers, individual hotels, and destination management companies. Market your services to them. Get out in the community and talk to the decision-makers.
    • Team  up with a good equipment provider who can take care of the A/V and all the equipment so you can recommend someone you trust to the client. It's usually best to let the client deal directly with the equipment vendor, unless you want to act as project manager/agency.
    • Find a top-notch booth partner. Conference interpreters always work in pairs, so nothing is more essential than a superstar booth partner. You might have to kiss a few frogs before you find your ideal partner. Remember that you will be sharing a small space for extended periods of time, so make sure you choose wisely.
    • Request documents ahead of time. Many conference organizers struggle to get the presenter's PowerPoints or even the outline, but trust us: you do need some material to prepare properly. If nothing can be found, you should still spend several hours compiling vocabulary based on the client's website and general company information that's available to the public. We usually include a disclaimer in our price quotes that we cannot guarantee our usual quality if we do not receive pertinent materials XYZ days before the event. Sometimes we still don't get any materials, but the show must go on.
    • Finally, the best way to get conference interpreting clients is to do a great job at any interpreting you do in any field and to let clients know what you are also interested in conference interpreting assignments. Get the word out.
    This brief list is not meant to be exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination. We merely wanted to get the conversation started and would love to hear from conference interpreter colleagues (and anyone else!). Please do share what you know by leaving a comment below. Happy conference interpreting!

    The Interpreter Ethicist: Should Interpreters Accept Tips?

    Tipping is big here in the US, and pretty much everyone expects a tip in the services industry: the barista, the hairdresser, the cab driver, the guest room attendant at a hotel, the waitstaff at any restaurant, even the guy who opens the door for you at a fancy hotel. However, professionals such as lawyers, doctors and accountants are customarily not tipped. So where do interpreters fit in? Do interpreters ever get tipped? Should they? Is it ethical to accept tips? If yes, when is it and when isn't it? Let's explore this interesting topic today.

    In all the years we've been working as interpreters, we've only had a few situations in which clients wanted to tip us. Here are two:

    • One time Judy was interpreting in court for a private client in a civil case (this means that the client was paying and not the government, as in Nevada the government only pays for interpreters in criminal cases). This particular client won his case and was very grateful for Judy's services. Even though Judy had been invoicing the law firm that was representing the client, he told her she did such an outstanding job that he insisted on tipping her. He pulled out his wallet, took out $20, and offered the bill to Judy. She didn't know what to do, as that was the first time it had happened. So she followed her first instinct, which was to decline, and that's probably never a bad decision. The client insisted for a bit, but Judy told him that she was already invoicing his law firm at her regular rate and that tips weren't necessary. The client finally put the $20 back in his wallet and thanked Judy once again. Now, would it have been ethical for Judy to accept the tip? Maybe; or maybe not. We consulted the codes of ethics of both California and Nevada, and as is typical with codes of ethics, there's no specific information about a situation like the one that Judy was in. Accepting a tip from a private party after the assignment is over doesn't violate the impartiality clause, as the client was already paying Judy (through his law firm) in the first place and she still remains impartial. So, the extra $20 wouldn't have affected that pillar of our code of ethics one way or another. However, could accepting the tip be a violation of another one of the elements of our code of ethics, such as professionalism? We aren't sure, but we'd love to hear your opinion.

    • The other situation occurred during a business interpreting assignment. Judy had spent five days with a lovely couple from South America during a tradeshow, and she enabled communication with the client's vendors. She learned a lot about their business during that week, and they established an easy rapport. This type of interpreting is completely different from court interpreting, where one has to remain impartial, and on the last day, the couple invited Judy to lunch. They had already paid a 50% deposit for the interpreting services, and Judy had agreed to invoice them for the rest at the end of the week. However, they pulled out an envelope with cash at the end of the meal and said they wanted to pay the balance right away and threw in an extra $100 for the great service (but of course still wanted an invoice and a receipt). Judy had never been paid in cash before, but was happy to receive the payment. She wasn't sure about the extra $100, and hesitated a bit. The client insisted she accept the money and told her that she'd helped him and his wife have a very successful business trip. Judy finally did accept the extra $100, but remained unsure. Was it ethical to do so? We think it was.

    We'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, dear colleagues. As with so many questions on ethics, there are really no clear-cut right or wrong answers. Please join the conversation by leaving a comment.

    European Union Looking for Translators

    Happy Friday, dear readers! Today's quick post is to let you know about an employment opportunity with the European Union that just landed in our inbox. The mighty European Union, the largest employer of interpreters and translators on the planet, is looking for German, Spanish, Greek and Swedish translators. From the posting, it's  not entirely clear to us if these positions are in-house in Brussels or if they are freelance positions, but surely the European Union will be able to answer all your questions. Please have a look at the following link for more information and to apply.  

    While Dagy is an accredited freelancer conference interpreter with the European Union, we don't have any first-hand knowledge of the selection process for translators, but we'd love it if colleagues who translate for the EU would be willing to share their experiences by leaving a comment. 

    Best of luck and keep us posted!

    Professional Headshots: Our Experience

    We are SO not models.
    We've long been advocates of professional headshots to be used on business cards, websites, marketing materials, etc. Long gone are the days when we saw many T&I professionals use cropped summer snapshots as their profile pictures on LinkedIn and other online media, and that's a great development. Lawyers, doctors, and other professionals long ago discovered the power of professional images, and translators and interpreters need them, too. It's rare to visit a website these days that doesn't feature an image of the actual services provider. It builds trust and it's always nice to see a picture of a real person rather than a stock image. We are usually surprised when there isn't a real picture to be found on someone's website, and we bet clients feel the same way. Having a professional image is relatively easy and doesn't require a big investment. This year, we just spent $100 each because of a fabulous special at a local studio that made us feel like royalty for an afternoon.

    Dagy's royal treatment.
    A few years ago, we started encouraging our local and national associations to host photo shoots with professional photographers at discounted rates for their members, which allowed many colleagues to obtain top-notch photos at reasonable prices. We had our pictures taken at several of these events, and it's fantastic that this is catching on!  Even if you hire your own photographer, it's usually a worthwhile investment and one of the few upfront investments you need to make in your online presence. 

    Photo by Sam Woodard.
    Photo by Sam Woodard.
    After doing four or five outdoor photo shoots in a row (all in Vegas), we decided to have an indoor studio photo shoot this year. We had just received a very attractive offer from Fremont East Studios through our downtown Vegas co-working space Work in Progress and we had a fantastic experience! The photo shoot even included the services of a highly talented and lovely make-up artist, and the studio was fantastic and very comfortable. We hope you enjoy both the finished product (that's Judy on the left) and some goofy behind-the-scenes pictures as well. As you can tell, we are very far from being model material, and we usually don't know how to stand, where to look, or what to do with our hands (told you we weren't model material). Luckily for us, photographer Sam Woodard and make-up artist Doralynne Valenzuela told us exactly what to do. What a great all-female team! You'd think that posing in a studio would be really unnatural and awkward, but it was quite the opposite.

    And don't forget that this is a classic business expense. Actually, it's one of our most entertaining business expenses of the year. 

    What about you, dear colleagues? Have you had a professsional headshot taken or are you still thinking about it? We are always looking for good photo ideas, so we'd love to hear about your experiences!

    It's Official!

    After four years and more than 3,000 books sold, we are proud to announce that we have finally tackled a big project. Yes, we are currently working on the new edition (second edition, actually) of The Entrepreneurial Linguist: The Business-School Approach to Freelance Translation. This edition will include several completely revised chapters as well as a chapter specifically for interpreters as well. The book will be available on Lulu, Amazon, etc. in print and PDF format and of course in all e-book formats through BookBaby.

    While we don't have a hard deadline for this, we would love to be able to introduce our new book at the 55th Annual Conference of the American Translators Association in Chicago in November, as we will both be there. We are currently reviewing all existing content, creating new chapter(s), and putting thought into the cover design and illustrations. 

    Since we are currently working on the new edition, we'd love to hear from our colleagues. Is there anything you'd like to see included? Please do let us know by leaving a comment and we will be delighted to review all suggestions and input.

    Thanks for your support of our first edition, and we look forward to sharing our second edition with all of you! We will keep you posted about our progress right here on this blog.


    Book Review: "Entre Deux Voix"

    The book on the road at Heathrow airport.
    Note: It’s summertime, which usually means books and book reviews, and here is our first one of the summer. Dagy reviews a French-language book below. Judy has nothing to contribute because she doesn’t speak French. FYI: This English-language review includes a few sections in French.

    Instead of attacking my oversized ZEIT newspaper on my recent flight from Heathrow to Vegas, I decided to read Jenny Sigot Müller’s debut novel (not self-published, but by an actual publisher!) “Entre deux voix” (Between two voices). It was mostly a good read and it saved me angry looks from the poor person stuck on the middle seat next to me who would have certainly disliked having my huge paper spill over into her tray table.

    While the cover says “Journal d’une jeune interprète de conférence”  (journal of a young conference interpreter), the book reads much more like a novel than a private journal, and it could have benefited from a catchier title. Even though this is a journal, the author, a practicing conference interpreter in Switzerland, decided to keep the reader in the dark about the mysterious “agency” that usually hires her, which struck me as odd. Puzzlingly, she receives faxes from them for her assignments, even though the novel is clearly set in modern tech times, and as far as I know, the fax went extinct in 2000, but I digress. The author also does not disclose the clients she ends up working with. One of them is most certainly Red Bull, but the author never mentions the brand. While this is certainly understandable from an actual conference interpreter’s ethical perspective, it leaves too many blanks for the uninitiated reader. This is, after all, a work of fiction. Or not, as mentioned above.

    Speaking about outsiders to the profession: Even though I sincerely hope that the general public will reach for this book in the bookstore, they might find it doesn’t provide sufficient background information about the industry. For instance, the author doesn't explain what a source text is or what the difference between consecutive and simultaneous might be. It isn’t until very late in the book that the reader even learns the narrator's working languages (English and French; any others?).

    As probably most novice authors do, the author did fall into several traps, mostly in terms of style (je hurle de toutes mes forces; j’éteins la lampe d’un geste déterminé). Wittingly or not, she oscillates between overly dramatic passages (especially when describing her very first interpreting assignment), staccato-like writing and traditional prose. What struck me as troubling was that an interpreter who’s clearly aware of the power of language would use the generic masculine when talking about interpreters in general: Et l’interprète a une autre voix, qu’il revêt une fois le micro allumé, etc.

    Most authors seem to think that no novel is complete without the typical love story (or budding love story) thrown in, but the story line in this book is so contrived and kitschy that the book would certainly be better off without it.

    Luckily, there were other traps that the author successfully avoided, such as celebrating the greatness of interpreters in general. Instead, the plot is mostly about the one-sided rivalry deliberately created by an experienced interpreter and the poor up-and-coming interpreter (narrator) who finds herself facing extreme hostility for no apparent reason and struggling to cope with that situation.


    Overall, a few flaws  aside, this was a good read. Even though it will not be a contender for the Pulitzer prize, industry professionals will certainly enjoy reading it. Here's the author's website, and of course, the book is also available on Amazon.

    Do You Need a College Degree?

    A few months ago, a lovely acquaintance who wants to be an interpreter, asked us whether she needed a college degree to succeed as a (court) interpreter. We hadn't really thought about this, as college is such a natural step in most professionals' lives, but the question is more than valid and merited some more thought. The answer is a bit more complicated than it seems, but basically, we'd say the answer is: yes, you should probably have a college degree to make sure you put yourself in the best-possible competitive position. The longer answer is: it depends. Let us elaborate on that.

    Translation and interpretation are very competitive industries, and according to some surveys (there aren't too many on this topic, actually), the vast majority of translators and interpreters hold at least a bachelor's degree, but many have advanced degrees, including doctoral degrees. However, especially in the US, these degrees aren't necessarily in T&I but in other fields. In Europe, things are quite different, as T&I programs are easily available at most universities, so anecdotally we will go out on a limb here and use our background in the industry to boldly state that most translators and interpreters who work professionally in Europe not only have college degrees, but have degrees in the actual field. Which one is better, a T&I degree or a degree in another field, perhaps in your area of specialization? That's a topic for another post.

    Now, is a degree strictly necessary to work as a translator and interpreter? No, it's not. Ours is a fairly unregulated industry, and there are no hard educational guidelines, as opposed to, say, lawyers, who need to have a J.D. (or an LLM if they are coming from another country) to sit for the Bar Exam. Not so for translators and interpreters.

    However, we personally only know two successful interpreters (and no translators) who do not hold a college degree. We are not saying it's essential, but it's just another tool that you need to have in your toolbox. The reality is that few professional jobs in this economy are open to non-college graduates, for better or for worse. Newcomers to the profession have to compete with colleagues who might have 20+ years of experience and hold graduate degrees, so any newcomer is well advised to get as much formal education under their belt as possible. While it's not impossible to succeed in this business without a college degree, it's unusual and it's an uphill battle.

    We did some soul-searching and asked ourselves: would we work with (=outsource to) a colleague who did not have a formal college degree? This is a tough question, and the answer is: probably not, as we have a long list of superstar colleagues with impressive credentials to whom we are more likely to outsource. Would we discount someone without a college degree immediately, as many employers and LSPs might do? Probably not, but it does give us pause, and we do think earning a college degree shows initiative and determination. We are usually particularly puzzled by those who are one class or a few credits away from finishing their degrees, and unfortunately, in education, things are black or white in terms of credentials. Either you have a degree or you don't (there is no such thing as an almost-degree). While we don't want to draw general conclusions on someone's work ethic based on whether or not one has a college degree, having one does show dedication and stamina, which are important in our industry.

    So, in a nutshell, we think that in order to be competitive in our industry, every newcomer should have a college degree in some field. We are not saying you won't be successful without one, but the chances of success are usually higher with a college degree. On the interpreting side, we've seen a few colleagues who do very well for themselves without a degree, but they are the exception rather than the rule. What do you think, dear colleagues? Ah, and for the record, Judy has an MBA in marketing and an undergraduate degree in business administration, while Dagy has a master's degree in conference interpreting, a bachelor's degree in translation and interpretation, and the equivalent of a master's degre in French and communications. That should be sufficient degrees for now, although we have thought about getting a PhD...

    Free Software We Love: Toggl

    Today's post is short and sweet, and it's about software we love that makes our lives easier. After kissing a few software frogs, we went with a dear colleague's suggestion and started using Toggl to keep track of hours worked. We charge more and more clients by the hour, and needed a simple and reliable way to keep track of our hours. Toggl does the trick. There's nothing to download and no learning curve. While some features are fee-based, we have not used them and just use the free version. Paid features include invoicing options, which we don't need because we already have a very solid accounting system.

    We started using Toggl within five minutes of visiting the website, and it is user-friendly and intuitive. You create a free account in a few minutes, and you are off to track your time based on projects. The company's tag line is "Insanely simple time tracking," and that describes it well. We are actually quite addicted to the software now, as it lets us see very clearly exactly how we allocate our time. Of course you do have to get used to clicking the "start" button when you start working on a particular project, which took us a few days to remember. Just like lawyers, we only get paid when we have billable client hours and it's fascinating to see that some days we only bill four or five hours to clients and the rest is work that cannot be billed to any clients. These tasks include administrative work, answering e-mails, quotes, invoices, inquiries, blogging, social media, filing, organizational tasks, teaching (for which we get paid a fixed amount and do not bill hourly), pro bono work, etc. It really does put our work day in perspective! We also really like the easy reports that Toggl allows you to compile. If requested, these can be sent to the client.

    What about you, dear colleagues? Do you use a time-tracking tool like Toggl? If yes, which one? We'd love to hear about other software options. 

    Workshops in Europe: September

    It's official! We will both be in Europe in September, as Judy will be crossing the pond to work from Vienna for a month, and she's also fitting in two recently announced workshops. Here is additional information -- we would love to see you there!

    At ITI London, September 2013. Picture by Dagy.
    Manchester, UK (North-West Translators' Network, a regional group of the ITI). On September 20, Judy will present her popular three-hour "No Pain, No Gain: Active Marketing to Direct Clients" workshop, which includes exercises, a raffle (win books!), and yes, a skit. Last year, Judy gave this workshop in London and York, and they both sold out very quickly. We felt really bad for colleagues who could not get in, so please do book your spot early! The room seats 60.

    Vienna, Austria. UNIVERSITAS Austria Interpreters' and Translators' Association. On September 27, Judy and Dagy will be part of the association's 60th anniversary celebrations (a two-day event) and will present a German-language session on social media for translators and interpreters. More information (in German) is available here. The two-day event will also include a keynote presentation by Nataly Kelly, VP of Marketing at technology company Smartling and co-author of Found in Translation.

    We love meeting fellow translators and interpreters at conferences and events! If you plan on attending either one of these workshops, please do drop us a note so we can meet up.

    Who Wants to Go to Summer School?

    Translators and interpreters are always learning and improving their skills, so there's no reason to not continue doing so during the summer -- well, there are a few reasons, but we digress. This summer, UC San Diego-Extension's Certificate for Spanish/English Translation and Interpretation program (all online), where Judy teaches, offers a variety of classes that might be of interest for both beginning and more advanced interpreters and translators.

    Introduction to Interpretation (no prerequisites, starts July 1) is a five-week course delivered via Blackboard (an online learning platform). Every week, students will access customized, pre-recorded PPT presentations with audio, which last approximately 2-3 hours per week. Students complete assignments every week, including weekly quizzes, and learn about all basic aspects of interpreting. The PPT presentations include dozens of exercises with original content. Students are only graded on one actual interpreting assignment (the final exam), as this class is meant for beginners.

    Introduction to Translation (no prerequisites, starts August 5) is a five-week course that teaches newcomers to the profession the basics of translation, and introduces them to a strategic way to approach translations. This course is ideal for those who want to find out if this profession is for them. Judy will share the realities of our profession without sugar-coating the challenges translators face. Students will submit two graded translations and many exercises.

    Strategic Branding & Marketing for Interpreters and Translators (several prerequisites, starts July 1) is a ten-week course where Judy teaches everything she knows about marketing your services as a translator and/or interpreter. The course follows the same format as the other classes and includes easy-to-use information on marketing to agencies and direct clients, social media, networking, outreach, public relations, etc.

    To view all classes in the certificate program, please have a look at this link. Our lovely colleague and federally certified court interpreter Jennifer de la Cruz also teaches in the program, and she's a very popular instructor! Be sure to have a look at her classes, too. Happy summer!



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    The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.