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.
    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.

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