Getting Paid Twice

Today we'd like to discuss an issue that has to do with ethics. This might have happened to you before as well: a client sends the payment, you thank him or her for it, and then, for some reason, your receive the payment a second time. This can happen because of some error in bank transfer or because of a duplicate check, which is the 20th-century relic that American companies still prefer for payment. Either way, we are usually quite happy to receive the payment, but want to be paid only once. Now, if the customer pays twice, what should you do? The short answer: you should let the client know and give the money back.

This initially happened to us very early in our career, and getting twice the amount would have meant a worry-free month. This is a very big company with thousands of employees and complex accounting structures. It's quite likely that they would never have noticed this small error (a negligible amount by their standards). We hesitated for a fracture of a fracture of a second, but then immediately told the client they had paid us twice. The client was very impressed and told us that he would reward us for our honesty -- and he has, as he's been a client for almost 10 years. He did mention that there's no way he would have ever noticed the mistake, and the accounting department was unaware as well. We wired the second payment back to him and everyone was happy. 

The second time it happened was a few weeks ago. A small, rural court paid Judy for her court interpreting services, and as Judy was logging the payment in our accounting software, she noticed that the amount was twice as high as it should have been. She promptly e-mailed the accounting folks, and they were quite happy to hear from her. She sent the check back (very low tech, we know) and they issued a new check within a few days.

Our advice: as tempting as it might be to keep the incorrect amount, it's essential to do the right thing and let the client know about the error. It might just result in a more loyal client, and you will definitely get karma points. It's also, without doubt, the ethically and morally correct thing to do. If this has ever happened to you, dear colleagues: how did you handle it? Please share your experiences!

Open Letter to the EU

Today's blog post is by Dagy, and it's all about interpreting at the European Union.

Dear EU,

You know how much I care about you, but since this seems to be a very one-sided affair, I feel the need to take our relationship to the next level by making it public. We might need some couples therapy.

Our story goes back a few years, when the EU’s recruiting efforts for freelance interpreters, especially for the German and English booth, kicked into full gear. Given the major advertising campaign that included videos, websites, speeches at universities, organized study visits to Brussels and much more, it was safe to assume that you, the EU, desperately needed people to work for you. I immediately fell for you because you seemed very attractive. In hindsight, I feel that all of your efforts were quite misleading.

Back then, there was no reason for any of us to question the EU’s sincerity. As the Secretary General of the Austrian interpreters’ and translators’ association UNIVERSITAS Austria, I went to great lengths to encourage my fellow interpreters to apply. We even dedicated an issue of our member magazine to working at the EU. Looking back, I feel bad for raising false hopes. I guess I was still under your spell then.

After thorough preparation, I took the accreditation exam for the German booth for my working languages English, Spanish, and French more than six months ago. I passed them all on my first try and I couldn’t wait to tell the rest of the world about it (read my enthusiastic article here). While the representative of the European Commission’s interpreting service told me right after I passed that there would be no work for me unless I moved to Brussels (I live in Vienna), the representative of the European Parliament’s interpreting service said nothing along these lines. Since I had heard from several EU interpreters that chances for actually working at the Parliament once in a while weren’t bad, I started daydreaming about flying from Vienna to Brussels and working among high-profile colleagues. Not every other day, mind you, but once in a while. Here’s how many days of work I’ve gotten from the EU since I passed the accreditation test: zero. That’s right: not even one. After I went to all this trouble, got my hopes up high about starting a mutually beneficial relationship with you, dear EU, you have yet to call me once. (Since the EU is high-tech, the call would actually be a note on the online calendar where I always provide plenty of availability, just for the record.)

As months went by without hearing from you, I grew increasingly frustrated. But I was willing to make another sacrifice for the sake of our relationship: since I believe Brussels is a very livable city, I was actually considering moving there a year or two down the road. I was getting really excited about this option, until I read a forum discussion on SCICnet, which is the official platform for accredited EU interpreters. I read about freelance colleagues from the English booth who actually moved to Brussels expecting to get work, which sounds reasonable to me, since everybody insists that living somewhere else isn’t doing the trick. But guess what? They were still not getting enough work to make a living or even pay their rent. How is that possible?

Dear EU, what’s wrong with you? Why do you woo so many of us if you don’t actually want or need us? What happened? Didn’t you determine how many people you would actually need before you started your huge marketing campaign? Why bother going to all this trouble? I certainly didn't expect to have an exclusive, long-term relationship with you right after I passed the exam, but no dates in six months? 

I recently sent you (i.e. an executive at the European Parliament’s interpreting service) an e-mail to inquire about our future and got the following response: “Passing an accreditation test doesn’t necessarily translate into getting work.” Why not? Why bother? Since when is an accreditation a purpose in itself? Why are you still encouraging people to apply if you aren’t willing to let the few who have already passed get behind the microphone?

Please take the time to respond publicly. While this is not about me personally (I have plenty of work here in Vienna), I believe that aspiring interpreters have a right to know what to expect from you.  It’s time to put your cards on the table, even if you end up telling us that you are in way over your head. I’m a big girl, I can take the truth!

Lovingly yours,

Dagmar Jenner

The Art of Small Talk

Ah, small talk. One of us doesn't care for it (Dagy), and one really enjoys it (Judy). Regardless of one's preference, the art of making small talk is an essential business skill, and interpreters and translators are well advised to figure out how to talk to (almost) anyone. Here are some thoughts and tips about small talk:

  • Think positive. Many translators are quite introverted, but interpreters not so much! It can be scary to leave the comfort of your home office and go out into the world to, say, a networking event, which will require small talk. However, small talk isn't limited to networking events: you might have to chat with a client while waiting for the interpreting session to start or talk to a potential client who has requested a lunch meeting. In general, think positive. What's the worst that can happen? Nothing bad can really come out of this (other than that you might just not establish a connection, which is OK), so take a deep breath. Talking is easy, right? You can do it. And you are not the only person who feels awkward when doing this -- trust us, you are not alone. How's that for a pep talk?
  • Ask questions. Most people feel quite comfortable talking about themselves, so the way to get a conversation started is to ask some interested questions. Of course, it's a fine line between being interested and being nosy, so be sure not to cross the line. There are some topics that work well for most situations, especially in the US: where are you from; tell me about your business; I have heard about your company, and would like to know more; what's your alma mater; do you have any vacation plans, etc. Most of the time, conversation will develop quite naturally. In case it doesn't, that's fine, too. You must kiss some frogs.
  • Give a compliment. This works best if you are a woman and you are complimenting another woman, but can occasionally work in other constellations as well. Make sure you are genuine, so don't say it if you don't mean it. These compliments are much more acceptable and comments in some countries, say the US, than in places like Austria and Germany, but it's worth a try. It can be something as simple as: "I love you scarf! I had one of those, but I lost it on a business trip to Portland. May I ask where you purchased it?"
  • Don't do any hard selling. Many small talk situations will arise during networking events, so we recommend staying away from any me-me-me talk and hard selling. Everyone knows that you are there to sell your services, as is everyone else, so there's no need to be pushy. Talk about your business if it comes up, if you are asked, or if it seems like a natural transition. Don't immediately insist on presenting your business card. Don't rush.
  • Buy drinks. For better or for worst, things do seem to be easier with a glass of wine in hand (or cup of coffee, or dessert, or whatever). Be prepared to take out your wallet and ask people if you can buy them _________. This is a small investment (unless you are at an expensive Vegas hotel, of course), and might yield great results (or it might not). We've never really had anyone say no to this offer.
  • Be prepared. Even if you don't like football but the Super Bowl is that week, well, you better be able to talk about this in general terms. It's also important to be informed about what's happening in your community, your country and the world. This essential because these are all great, easy and non-controversial conversation topics. Being informed will make you look intelligent, engaged and connected to your world.
  • Have fun. Have you seen the groups standing around, talking, laughing and having a jolly good time? It sure sounds like they have fun, and everyone wants to be part of that group. Be part of the group yourself by relaxing, telling yourself that nothing bad is going to happen, being open to meeting new people and make small talk, even if it bores you. And then just have fun! This is, after all, work, and it would be worse. Much worse than hanging out at a nice event with interesting people. 
This is, of course, only a short list of ideas. We'd really enjoy hearing what our dear colleagues have to add. Feel free to share any experience you've had as well! Happy small talking. 

Nice Interpreter!

Today's post is about the importance of being, well, nice. It's essential to be a great interpreter -- that goes without saying -- but there's also much to be said about the importance of soft skills. In the interpreting world, these skills are especially relevant in conference interpreting settings, where you will interact with the client who hired you and the people for whom you will interpret. We've heard from many clients that if they have two interpreters who are equally qualified, but one is nicer and more approachable than the other, they would undoubtedly choose the former. It's only natural that clients gravitate towards professionals who do what they promise to do, show up on time, well-dressed and well-prepared, make the client look good, and are pleasant to work with. So what makes a "nice" interpreter? There are many different definitions and schools of thought on this, and ours is only one of them, but here are some thoughts. Be prepared for something we rarely dispense: tough love.  
  • Clients are queens and kings. Of course, this does not mean that you should blindly accepts your client's terms, but it does mean that you should treat your client with the utmost respect at all times. After all, without clients, you don't have a business and can't make a living, so you would be well advised to make yourself popular with them. However, we can't even tell you how many colleagues we've heard badmouth the client, even at the actual interpreting event. If there is a problem that the client can't solve, refrain from commenting on it. As a matter of fact, refrain from saying anything negative at all. You are there as a professional to do a job, so do it without complaining (unless you the problems are preventing you from doing your job, of course).
  • Don't hide insecurities behind a mask of studied arrogance. It's not attractive, and no one expects you to know everything. In fact, some of the best interpreters and most well-known university instructors and interpreter trainers, think Holly Mikkelson and Esther Navarro-Hall, are the first to say that they don't know and that they will have to do the research. Develop the self-confidence to say that you don't know but that you will find the answer.
  • Don't show off. Your client has hired you to do a job, so do it, and do it well. This is not the time for you to pontificate about your knowledge of ancient Greek, obscure grammatical tidbits or general irrelevant stuff. We've seen this quite a lot: many interpreters aren't very good at making small talk with clients (a blog post on small talk will be forthcoming), and since they don't know what to talk about, some opt to boast about their achievements or talk about themselves. Rather, ask the client what you can do for him/her: is everything set for the event? Do they need a restaurant recommendation, as they are probably in your city, which they don't know well? Do they need anything from you? It's essential to think a bit about the client's needs. Go above and beyond what's required and you might just make yourself popular with the client.
  • Be honest. At a recent interpreting event, one of the attendees, who was listening to Judy's interpreting, came up to her and thanked her for a great job. He also pointed out that he wanted to be sure to have all the jokes interpreted as well. This was a difficult thing to do, as all the jokes were almost exclusively US-centric, thus making it difficult to get the humor if you haven't lived in the US (think Gilligan's Island, The Apprentice, Joan Rivers, etc.) Judy had indeed been struggling with trying to interpret these jokes in a way that made some sense, but the jokes were essentially lost in interpretation.  Judy thanked the attendee for his input, explained the challenges and admitted that some of the jokes might not indeed be funny in Spanish and told the client why that was the case. Of course, he'd never heard of Joan Rivers or The Apprentice, so he's lacking the cultural knowledge for the joke to be funny. He fully understood and thanked Judy for her honesty.
  • Extreme examples. We recently overheard a conference interpreter ask the project manager for an illegal drug (really). In general, as a profession, we oftentimes complain that clients don't take us seriously as professionals, but it goes both ways, and we still have a long way to go. In addition, we heard about a court interpreter who decided to change her shirt inside the booth and sat around in her bra while she located the shirt in her bag, treating the attendees to quite a show. 
This is a slightly controversial topic, and we'd love to see some constructive discussion about this. Any thoughts, dear colleagues? Let's get the conversation started. 

A Week at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS)

At the end of May, Judy attended a five-day course titled "Advanced Techniques for Court Interpreters" at the venerable Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS). Read on for her report on what she learned, what she didn't learn, and all the fun she had.
Graduation day with Prof. Mikkelson and Prof. Navarro-Hall.
One of my goals for this year was to attend a training course by a premier interpreting institution, namely Germersheim in Germany, which offers cutting-edge online interpreting classes. However, I decided to do something even better and chose to attend an in-person course at perhaps the best translation and interpreting university in the United States: MIIS.

Sightseeing with Patty (center) and Vero.
The idea behind attending “Advanced Techniques for Court Interpreters” was to learn from two true court interpreting legends: Prof. Holly Mikkelson and Prof. Esther Navarro-Hall. I really enjoy both of their teaching styles and knew I had a lot to learn about simultaneous interpreting. Plus, even though I really enjoy talking and writing about studying, the reality is that I don’t study much on my own, which, as my twin correctly points out, is a bit out of character. I have been known to interpret TED talks that I really enjoy or work with Speechpool recordings, but none of these are court-specific nor are they recorded at 160 words per minute, which is what I need to practice to prepare to take the federal court interpreting exam. I decided that this course would be a worthwhile investment, but since I believe in reasonable priced educational opportunities that are accessible to all colleagues, I balked at the $1,200 price tag (for 30 hours). Nonetheless, I sent in my payment, booked a hotel, looked for some warmer clothes and cleared my calendar.

Vero, Patty and I with the fabulous Esther Navarro-Hall (center).
Overall, I had a fantastic time in Monterey and at MIIS at the end of May and would gladly repeat the experience. It was an honor to spend five full days with Holly and Esther, and my group of 12 was fantastic. I really appreciate Holly and Esther’s laid-back and approachable style. They are not purists, but yet deeply knowledgeable about court interpreting in general and the exam in particular. I particularly treasured the actual time in the interpreting booth with recordings for simultaneous exercises – that’s exactly what I needed. Esther gave me some much-needed feedback on my shortcomings. I did confirm that the consecutive mode is my strength, and would have loved to share my strategies with fellow students, except I sadly have none: I just have good memory and take limited notes that I usually can’t read. I also slowly overcame my fear of sight translation into English. I have not really practiced sight translation, and I was surprised that I did better than I had feared. We took a mock exam on the last day, which was a great opportunity to experience an (almost real) exam.
Picture by my colleague Francisco Montes.

However, as with every class, there is always some room for improvement – albeit very little. In general, I was surprised that the MIIS facilities were quite basic – I’ve seen nicer buildings, booths and better equipped rooms at much humbler universities. The room with the booths had a center table at which we spent hours a day, but it didn’t have seating for the 12 people in our group. Even though there was some skill disparity between students, the instructors did a fine job at selecting a group of strong students who are already state court-certified so we could learn from each other. I do think we could have benefited from a smaller group and from more time in the booth, as we did consecutive in person by reading the texts out loud and going around the table (scary!) rather than in the individual booths, which would have greatly increased the practice time.

That's Vero in the middle and Patty on the right.
Monterey is a gorgeous little town, and we had several group dinners and lunches. In addition to the fantastic learning and the opportunity to get feedback from such legendary instructors, I was delighted by the collegial atmosphere and by the opportunity to spend time with my Nevada group: Patty Sánchez-Gastelum (who is single, BTW, in case you were wondering), Verónica Ramírez Santana and I went to MIIS as colleagues, as I had not had the chance to spend much time with them, and came back as great friends. We are now practicing together and serving as each other’s cheerleading team for the exam. Since coming back from Monterey, we've already done two intense study sessions at my house, which I've found to be tremendously beneficial.

After the workshop, I volunteered to give MIIS a testimonial about the course. No word about whether I will get a discount on a future workshop, though! And finally, after two months of waiting, I received my exam date: July 16 in Denver, Colorado. That's my mom's birthday, so perhaps that's a good sign. Wish me luck -- I bet I will need it.

Introduction to Translation at UC-San Diego Extension Starts 6/25

Once again, Judy is delighted to teach her "Introduction to Translation" class online at University of San Diego-Extension. This five-week class is taught via a sophisticated online learning software (Blackboard) that is easy to learn. It's been a wonderful experience to teach beginning -- and many advanced -- students from around the world who want to know more about the industry. This class is part of an online certificate in Spanish/English translation studies, but this introductory class is open to everyone.

It's an asynchronous class, which means that students access the pre-recorded audio PowerPoint lessons at their leisure and then submit their work, all online. Students have included a full university professor, a nurse, an attorney, a student on a religious mission in South America, and students logging in all the way from Spain. A student has labeled this class a "reality check," which is quite accurate, as Judy wants to give everyone an honest look into our industry, including its joys as well as trials and tribulations. Students will learn exactly what it takes to be a translator. The feedback has been fantastic thus far, and Judy has now accepted to teach another class (Introduction to Interpretation), which starts in the fall.

The class costs $225 and starts 6/25. You can sign up here

InterpretAmerica: Webcast

The InterpretAmerica Summit, which is a unique interpreting event that brings together interpreters from many different fields, including court, medical, community, conference, and conflict zone, will take place in Reston, VA, next week -- June 14 and 15. Every other year, the Summit is held on the West Coast, namely, in gorgeous Monterey, CA, but this year's event is on the other side of the country. Unfortunately, we will not be able to attend this fantastic conference, which is expertly organized by our colleagues Katharine Allen and Barry Olsen, so we were delighted to see that for a mere $25 we will be able to attend virtually -- how cool is that? The second day of the event, June 15, will be available to all of us with a high-speed internet connection. To register, click here.

This year's keynote speakers include Saima Wahab, a Pashtun conflict zone interpreter. We recently read her book, "My Father's Country," which was a Christmas gift from a lovely friend, and it's a fantastic read and unique insight into the world of conflict zone interpreting -- and the shocking lack of training for conflict zone interpreters, which we hope she will address. 

This might just be the best $25 we have spent all month -- "see" you there?

Advice for Beginners: Specialization

Many beginning interpreters oftentimes ask us about specialization and whether it's essential that they specialize. We get many of these questions from Judy's students at the Spanish/English translation certificate program at University of San Diego-Extension and from Dagy's mentees. We thought it might be helpful to give a short summary on translation specialization. 

  • One project does not equal specialization. This is a classic mistake that we also made early in our careers. Just because you have done a project (or two or three) in a specific area doesn't mean that's a specialization. You should really have in-depth knowledge. 
  • Choose wisely. A specialization is an area that you know very, very well and that you can confidently say you are an expert in. Remember that if you choose a specific area, say chemistry or finance, it's best to have significant experience, including perhaps a graduate degree and work experience outside the T&I field, in that specific area. You will be competing with colleagues who have both experience and credentials, so it's important that you are prepared. For instance, we have a dear friend and colleague who has a doctorate in chemistry. Naturally, Karen Tkaczyk's area of specialization is chemistry.
  • Non-specializations. It's impossible to be an expert in everything. It looks quite unprofessional to say that you specialize in everything, so we suggest staying away from that approach. Also be sure to put some thought into areas that you don't want to work in at all because you are not qualified, interested, or both. For instance, we once got a call from a client who really wanted to hire us to translate a physics text. We don't know anything about physics, even though we took eight years of it, and even though we were flattered, we politely declined and recommended a colleague. That project would have been a disaster. We also wisely stay away from in-depth medical translations.
  • It's OK not to have one. It's not a bad thing to not have a specialization or significant experience in any area at the beginning of your career. Everyone starts out without experience (we did, too), and we wouldn't recommend lying about any experience you have. However, think about experience outside the T&I field: perhaps you were a Little League coach and thus know a lot about baseball or volunteered at your local Habitat for Humanity and thus know a bit about non-profits. The experience doesn't have to be in both languages, but any background and educational credentials will come in handy. For instance, Judy's graduate degree is in business management, so business translations were a natural fit for her. We had also done previous copywriting work (before we started our business, that is), so we felt that the advertising field might be a good specialization (and we were right).
  • Add one! It might also very well happen that you will add specializations throughout your career, which is a good thing. We recommend choosing closely related fields so you don't have to invest too much time and resources.
  • Getting faster. As a general rule, the more specialized you are, the faster you will be able to translate because you will be very familiar with the terminology. For instance, we have colleagues who only translate clinical trials, real estate purchase contracts or patents. They have usually amassed large glossaries and translation memories and spent little time researching and lots of time translation, thus positively affecting their bottom line.
We think this is a good start, but would love to hear from both colleagues and newcomers. Join the conversation by leaving a comment!
Join the conversation! Commenting is a great way to become part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media is all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

Subscribe by email:


Twitter update

Site Info

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

Translation Times