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!


    Viviana Spicer on July 30, 2014 at 10:11 AM said...

    Absolutely agree about the necessity of preparing vocabulary beforehand. You'd be surprised how easy it is to "forget" a common word during conference interpreting! Preparation is key!

    Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 4, 2014 at 10:39 AM said...

    @Viviana: Thanks for reading and for commenting. Yes, preparation is key! Interestingly enough, it's oftentimes the very common words that interpreters can draw a blank on. We've all been through it...

    Leon on December 30, 2015 at 4:59 AM said...

    Agree. Preparation is a must for me especially when I'm interpreting for a client of a industry I'm not familiar with. With preparation I feel more confident and that even helps when, all of a sudden, I can't pick up the accurate word for a phrase, but confidence will help me think of a descriptive sentence to express the meaning. Being confident is crucially important and preparation is the pre condition.


    Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on December 30, 2015 at 8:57 AM said...

    @Leon: Thanks for your insight! Preparation is absolutely crucial for sure, and it gives you lots of confidence for these challenging interpreting assignments.

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