A few months ago, the JNCL-NCLIS (Joint National Committee for Languages) met in Washington DC to discuss the interpreter-as-employee or interpreter-as-contractor debate currently ongoing at the state and federal levels of government. Attended by mostly companies that act as agents of interpreting services, the organization takes the stance that interpreters are knowledge workers, and should be considered independent agents. It would seem that if we are to consider interpreters as agents, that we would likewise look to interpreters as being professionals.
There’s lots of ways to look at professionalization. Here, we consider the interpreter in a way that JNCL assumes… The interpreter as its own business entity, or firm.
Much of the research on Professional Service Firms (PSFs) has related to the incumbents – legal and accounting firms – yet there’s clearly more that should be on the list. Andrew von Nordenflycht developed a new way to think about What is a Professional Service Firm? by building a taxonomy of PSFs… made up of firms claiming the PSF title, such as management consulting, advertising, architecture, university, and even social work.
The taxonomy breaks down PSF firms into categories, according to how they meet three characteristics:
Is interpreting done by Professional Service Firms?
The interpreting industry fits of one of the types, called ‘Neo-PSF’. Firms of this strain have a high degree of knowledge intensity, low level of capital, and an unprofessionalized workforce. Other examples in this category are management consultancies and ad agencies. And there are implications if this categorization is true, according to the model.
First, let us deal with the newly unearthed elephant in the room – are we really thinking that interpreters are ‘unprofessionalized’? Here’s why it makes sense to think in this way according to the model.
A professionalized workforce means that a professional occupation has ‘strong control over the practice of the occupation.’ And that we could see this on display through two qualities – ideology and self-regulation.
In terms of ideology, we can think of how a code of ethics signals norms of behavior for professionals, and how this affects the training leading to a newly minted professional. This is an imperfect-at-best quality in the interpreting profession. Codes of ethics exist, yet there is no central professional association engaged with all the diverse parts of the interpreting market. Interpreter training programs follow no single regulation in curriculum, and not all interpreters are required to train and certify.
Self-regulation is the second aspect of a professionalized workforce. Here, we suggest looking at relative-ness instead of binary-ness… Asking the question: “To what degree is the interpreting industry self-regulated by interpreters?” And, prior to answering that, we consider “How autonomous is this interpreter?”
Interpreters act autonomously, but in varying degrees. Many choose which clients to work with, at what prices, how to use their linguistic skills in doing their work, and so on. But again, there are huge differences throughout the interpreting market – community vs. conference – wage earner vs. contractor...
Autonomy can also be seen in how ‘firms’ are structured. Many interpreters, in acting as sole proprietor/LLC/S Corporation (in the US), are not typically owned and operated by outsiders, such as shareholders or investment companies.
Self-regulated professionals also have the ability to mute competition. This is done in two ways, and only imperfectly applies to the interpreting industry. First, certification acts as a barrier to entry into a professionalized workforce. Second, inter-professional competition is often limited, so that the trustworthiness of professionals is not threatened in the eyes of clients. This is done in many industries through agreed limitations on soliciting competitors’ clients, and limitations on competition based on price.
It makes sense to think that interpreters are both meeting and not meeting these qualities. Nordenflycht suggests that PSFs fit somewhere on a range – from least to most autonomous. So, if we are to consider interpreting firms to be made up of autonomous professionals, we do this in the knowledge that industries with more professionalization exhibit entirely different features, such as professional certification being backed by the state – think of lawyers and the bar exam.
Professionalization is one area where mediocrity is intentionally not celebrated, so not everyone gets an award for effort. When we relate the items listed above to the interpreting industry, at least from the viewpoint of the actual service providers (interpreters), there can only be a partial claim to ideology and self-regulation – So, only a partial claim to the broader industry having a ‘professionalized workforce’. It’s as if interpreters really want to be considered professionalized, but there are too many holes in the tarp.
Interpreters have designed their firms in ways that associate well with the model's recommendations. For example, the industry should understand and manage the ‘cat herding’ phenomenon – where workers have ‘strong preferences for autonomy and a consequent distaste for direction, supervision and formal organizational processes’. Sound familiar?
The model also recommends ways in which these types of firms should organize. Neo-PSF firms should develop ‘alternative compensation’ plans, where worker income relates to dollars produced, for example, rather than a static wage. Second, that workers act autonomously and informally with the firm. Third, that there is no ‘outside ownership’. It seems that most independent interpreters already meet these suggestions.
Since interpreters seem to naturally design their businesses in ways predicted by this model, we should think about what's next... The model seems to indicate that professionalization is the main issue on the table, and that ideology and autonomy are how we must focus going forward.
You can access the Wiki page for PSFs here.
This post created by Michael Grez and Tian Huang of Intran Solutions.
Image: 'Minute Man National Park', by Leopold, C., licensed by CC 2.0
Professional interpreters, like any entrepreneurs, are continually on the lookout for ways to be distinct. Draw these distinctions for the client, and they have a better way to understand what value is on the table, and whether it’s a good choice for their particular situation.
The trick is to know how to communicate about distinction, and it’s here where we find that metaphor helps.
The Rachel Whiteread exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is a great candidate to find metaphors for interpreting.
Rachel’s art represents negative space… The space inside or outside the things around us. It’s the space we typically think of as empty when we look under the bed, and the nooks and crannies hidden within an English muffin.
Where this connects with interpreting is in how the two types of spaces – negative and positive space – come together to create the ‘thing’ that makes up the whole. Rachel explored this idea in her negative space representations of everyday things, like water bladders.
The cast shows what seems at first to be the actual bladder, yet it represents how the inner space of the bladder is built to perfectly fit with the bladder itself. Here, we see a connection to how interpreting happens – where the interpreter’s language and actions are aligned with those of the speaker.
Another work, House, was an installation in London in the early 1990’s and draws a closer connection to not just what is happening between the interpreter and speaker, but for the broader community of all interactants through interpreting. House represented a single typical house – the insides of one that was part of a larger redevelopment project of a whole community. The artist painstakingly casted the entire inside of one of the structures. As the outside of the house was later peeled away, the representation of the inside was all that remained – displaying the space used by its former inhabitants. It was this space that, like the bladder cast, existed as perfectly aligned, not only with the house’s structure, but also the structure of the family that lived within.
Getting to our interpreting metaphor…
Think of the participants who communicate through an interpreter as houses in a community. These houses act as individual constructs, but they also act together through the space outside which connects houses into a cohesive neighborhood. People walk and talk through the space between these houses, so they may do the things that communities do – for Sunday brunch together, for the kids to visit and play.
Professional interpreters create a space, especially designed for these interlocutors to act in their community. This design acts as a safe and secure environment for people to go from one house of language to another, enabling the accomplishment of business in their social community – for the negotiation of terms in a contract, or for a speech to an audience of thousands.
Interpreting is typically considered the act of an individual, but the more we work with our clients – whether that’s in an international conference, or a deposition – the more we realize that interpreting is fundamentally a social phenomenon. We’d love to hear about your ideas on this.
Post written by Tian Huang and Michael Grez of Intran Solutions LLC. We provide professional interpreting services between Chinese and English – based in Washington DC, serving clients worldwide.
Photo-top: Sculpture Exhibition
cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Anthony O'Neil - geograph.org.uk/p/5657102
Photo-bottom: Bladders, courtesy of Intran Solutions
A recent article in the New York Times talks about the work psychologists are doing to describe how we value art. One finding is that people value art they know is created by humans over the same thought to be created by robots. It seems we are beginning to empirically understand what philosophers have thought for ages – that art acts as a common thread between people, despite their differences in space, time, culture, etc.
(We’ll connect this idea to the interpreting industry shortly)
A research group from Boston College concluded that there’s a human quality that remains in art. Perhaps this reasons why you can get a print of a famous piece of artwork for $30, but the same in its original form for $30,000.
My partner and I were recently discussing this same type of thing during a trip to beautiful Glenwood Springs, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Much of what you find in the art galleries along the touristy section of town is made by local artists. Original works are presented here, with typical prices ranging anywhere from $800-$2500. Below these pieces, you’ll often find prints of the originals offered from $25-$45.
We were shocked at the difference in price, and during the long drive home (we live in Arlington, Virginia), we began to wonder if these same type of pricing dynamics might exist in our market – as interpreters.
The difference in pricing between interpreters can be just as wide. This is often explained away simply by referring to commonly held notions about what makes interpreting ‘good’.
Traditionally, ‘good’ means that the interpreter is highly qualified in providing accurate and complete renditions of the original speech, for example.
But are not prints also accurate and complete depictions of original pieces of art? There must be some additional element beyond the traditional view.
We believe that interpreting prices depends greatly on the human element. Just as the human element in art facilitates an interaction between people across space and time, the same for interpreting facilitates an interaction between people across linguistic and cultural borders.
Getting to what the ‘human element’ is seems to be the tricky part. To get there would require throwing lots of linguisticky terminology. Things like: The interpreting professional is required to display a certain type of interactional competence in order to facilitate a co-construction of meaning in action between participants.
Rather than unpack that here, let’s just say that...
The way we see including the human element is to see interpreting through a bifocal lens: the traditional way (the renditioning of original speech), but also as facilitating interaction between people.
This post is written by Tian Huang and Michael Grez of Intran Solutions LLC. We provide conference-level interpreting services between Mandarin and English. Based in Washington. Clients serviced worldwide.
The image can be located here.
An interpreter’s perspective on the book – Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us
Seth Godin, in his newish book on Tribes, takes on a challenging task – prompting us to consider how we see our role as workers in our modern, social world.
We’ve looked at tribes from the point of view of our own profession – conference interpretation. Here, we break down the basics – what tribes are and how they work, and how interpreters might see what they do from the perspective of the tribe.
What are Tribes?
Tribes happen when people are connected to each other, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. Tribalism isn’t new, and has taken on a slight tinge – traditionally connected with concepts such as ethnicity or labor, for example. Tribes live together in valleys, having relieved themselves of the day-to-day drudgery of rugged mountain-man individualism. When people enter into a tribe, they enter into a community that moves in a common direction. They have shared interests, ways of communicating, and a leader to direct traffic. Most importantly, tribes happen because the community wants change, and have faith that the change they seek is desired and actionable.
So, there are leaders and followers. Godin evokes the specter of Steve Jobs and others in the tech lineage as examples of tribal leaders. Leaders design iProducts. iConsumers buy them, and crucially, build communities that recognize a common allegiance, thereby building momentum for iProfit. Followers, as it stands, should be respected in fulfilling their role, yet Godin leaves us feeling that anybody who’s anybody really would want to be the leader.
The conference interpreter’s perspective:
Interpreters traditionally don’t, but can fit the model. Interpreters embody the rugged individual. They speak your language, but they also speak that other language too. Jobs are typically by contract, not employment. Even the tools of the trade, like the notes they take to remember your 15 minutes of speech, are custom made for that interpreter – no two sets of notes are alike.
Interpreters act with other interpreters as a crowd, rather than a tribe. They are the mountain goats of linguists, their bonds made through an association of geography or language. At the end of the day, most self-employed interpreters know that crowd-level success is great, but individual success is necessary.
Is there a way off the mountain for interpreters?
Tribes need a way for people to commune with one another. In Godin’s modernist view of the tribal world, community is shifting away from old notions of manufacture, ethnicity, and nationality – towards new conceptualizations of ideas and services. Social media doesn’t make a tribe in and of it’s own merits. Members create tribes when leaders leverage a medium to facilitate communal ownership of the platform.
Such facilitation seems to be exactly what interpreters do for clients. Moving away from the A/B-language view of the interpreter, could it be that the interpreter acts as tribal leader, utilizing a medium (interpreting) that facilitates tribal qualities in the community of clients they serve? Going back to Godin’s Tribal concept, let’s situate that with the interpreter. Tribes happen when:
The challenge of application rests on the idea of faith. Currently, interpreter codes of ethics mandate that the interpreter take on a neutral stance. The interpreter should take on their role as if they do not exist – where meaning is the sole province of the speaker. For interpreters to take on a role as leader, they would require a new mandate. Wittgenstein famously said that meaning is a two-sided coin… negotiated between people, rather than dictated by individuals. Are interpreters arbitrators of meaning, or are they simply translators of meaning?
We think that the value prospect of the entrepreneurial interpreter lies in their capacity as tribal leaders.
This blog written by:
Michael Grez and Tian Huang of Intran Solutions LLC, provider of authentic conference interpreting service between Chinese and English - based in Washington, DC.
Takeaway: People can understand interpreter problems without knowing the language.
A while ago, we received some feedback from a client that we just finished interpreting for.
“Thanks for doing such a good job!”
Really, we wondered? How could someone who doesn’t speak both languages ‘feel’ that the interpreter did a “good job”?
The client continued: “I felt that when I emphasized something - that you did the same when you were interpreting.”
This idea got us started thinking about how that famous line – that 90% of all communication is non-verbal, meaning that you should be able to understand a whole lot of what someone says without even knowing the language. It seemed like for us as interpreters, that this would be very important to deeply understand, so we took this idea and ran with it.
The result has become a collaborative effort between us, an interpreting company, and an academic friend at a university... Michael Grez of Intran Solutions, along with Dr. Kazuki Hata of Tokyo City University, recently presented their findings at the recent American Association of Applied Linguistics conference in Portland, called Repair in Interpreted Monologue.
The findings show that people who use interpreters can understand - not only that their interpreter is experiencing problems - but also can understand how the interpreter is trying to fix that problem. All without knowing the language.
This is particularly important for anyone who uses interpreters, because it’s absolutely necessary that communications can flow freely between people, and not be bothered by wondering whether or not the interpreter is doing their job well enough. Because, as soon as they’re wondering about the interpreter, they’re not focused on what they need to be focused on – the client, getting the sale, getting to Yes, or whatever.
So, we think that there is a lot more room in the interpreting industry for teams like this– where the rubber of academia can meet the road of interpreting practice. We’ll keep you posted on other collaborative efforts as we find them.
Until then… Have you ever heard of practicing interpreters and academics joining forces? If so, we would love to hear from you.
This article is co-written by Michael Grez and Tian Huang, co-owners of Intran Solutions, provider of interpreting and translation services between Chinese and English, based in Washington, D.C. Special thanks to Kazuki Hata!
Image provided by the United States Navy.
A recent report put out by the Economist Intelligence Unit describes how language affects business done across borders. This article describes how translation (spoken interpretation and written translation) fits in this puzzle, so that company can better understand the situations where they might best utilize such services.
The skinny: Companies understand they are not providing the best returns for shareholders because of failures in cross-border communication. Translators are an important part of the solution mix. Here’s how...
Comprised of a survey and interviews with experts and senior executives, the report suggests that companies experience challenges relating to how well, or poorly, multi-language resources are managed. Here’s some quick stats:
Beyond such fluffy statics, it’s most important to consider local challenges. 61% of Chinese-based firms say that they have ‘suffered financial losses as a result of failed cross-border transactions.’ Lan Kang, the general manager of human resources at Fosun Group, based in Shanghai, attributes such difficulties not only to language, but also culture: The ‘high-context’ Chinese style of communication does not always translate well into the ‘explicit’ approach normally taken in the American style. But, how does a company cross such barriers in the best way? There’s a choice between using employed bilinguals, or contracted translators.
On using bilinguals
It is true that job candidates with two+ languages are in demand - approximately 40% expect job candidates to be multilingual. Bilinguals are useful, especially at the higher end of the employment market, where superior skillsets are correlated with superior second-language skills. Yet, bilinguals are not always the best option. The bilingual bottleneck can filter out other desirable traits more specifically suited to the job, especially in places like China, where Ms Kang says ‘Western multinationals often limit themselves to English-speakers and thus miss out on people with excellent operational experience who don’t speak English.’ There are also other issues, that we have discussed previously.
On using translators
The results of this report indicate that interpreters are most commonly used during communications with an outside firm. 42% report using interpreters and translators to communicate with ‘external partners across borders’. Almost half of that, 23%, report the same internally.
Likewise, of the external factors affecting cross-border communications, the most critical are in developing relationships with clients or customers overseas, selling overseas, and branding/marketing. This makes sense - You only get to make a first impression once, and if that involves butchering the relationship via poor communication efforts… As they say, that’s all folks.
The translator wants how much money?
It’s true. Good translators are expensive. That’s why we think that companies doing cross-border trade or operations should carefully consider their specific situation. Bilingual employees might just be the right option, or they might not.
So, consider the situation:
If YES, that interpreter or translator might just be a great investment. You, your customer, and your shareholders will appreciate how your interpreter pays dividends.
The Confluence conference is designed to offer “workshops, and opportunities for discussion, networking and career development, and celebration focusing on various aspects of translation, including literary, practical and philosophical dimensions.”
It drew attendees from all local walks of life, including translators working between an impressive range of languages, a limited number of interpreters (like ourselves), and institutions. Here’s our take on the conference overall, and a bit about our small part in it.
Confluence 2016 happened over two days, during International Translation Day, at Montgomery College near Washington DC. The first day, which we did not attend, was an open mic session with translators describing their translated works. The following day drew about 100 people, who attended presentations about both translating and interpreting topics.
The keynote was offered by David Bellos, of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? fame. One of the most impressive points made in this presentation has been previously mentioned in Thirwell’s review of the same book…
It’s often said, for instance, that a translation can’t ever be an adequate substitute for the original. But a translation, Bellos writes, isn’t trying to be the same as the original, but to be like it. Which is why the usual conceptual duo of translation — fidelity, and the literal — is too clumsy. These ideas just derive from the misplaced anxiety that a translation is trying to be a substitute.
Vivian Cook would be impressed.
Bellos’ presentation moved several audience members to explore a whole host of issues. For almost an hour, the questions came. Could it be that the translation community is hungry for a more theory/research driven approach to their practice? We hope so.
The presentations offered by others seemed more focused on the local community of translators and interpreters, and institutions. For example, local translators, like Andrew Gudgel and Minh Van T. Tran, spoke about their own translating work and discussed how poetic form can be maintained in translation. Later in the afternoon, Maria Brau and Amanda Curry discussed the FBI’s use of translators in an institutional capacity.
For our part…
Intran Solutions presented Signaling Quality through Interpretation. This focused on creating a new method of practice for interpreters that is designed from linguistic and economic perspectives. This was a big experiment for us, because we weren’t sure how the audience would take to discussing such topics, and we were very interested in getting critical feedback from the community. Wonderful things seem to have come out of it. Several audience members offered questions and critiques that will help us build on the idea.
Every conference brings something a little different to the table. Confluence focuses on the local Washington DC scene. If there was anything that we’d like to see changed, it would be to label interpreting as distinct from translation. Still, it was awesome to see such variety present in such a local event.
(Picture: Big Guns by Krystian Olszanski)
Author: Michael Grez
Intran Solutions' Director. Chinese/English Interpretation. Contact us at (610) 701-1345 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Being A Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence. By Jonathan Downie. Routledge; 102 pages
In the early 2000’s, while Yahoo executives slept soundly in their beds each night, Google got us using a service that would eventually doom the incumbent position. Interpreters look at what Search did there, and they wonder, could real-time Translate do the same to their industry?
And so there’s been a lot of speak about how the industry should counter. Jonathan Downie, an accomplished new-generation interpreter, based in the UK, makes an argument in his new book Being a Successful Interpreter. The idea is simple: Interpreters should take off the white veil of neutrality and put on the sexy red dress that is value-added service.
Over 102 pages, he approaches this argument from different angles. Training, professional development, branding, organizing, academia, the body, and the soul. The umbrella seems solid enough, but some arguments are better than others. The best is about the need to adopt a value added perspective, and that’s why we are writing this review.
This book knows what it wants to be – a call and motivation for change in how interpreters go about seeing their professional roles. It’s a manifesto-lite, but hides itself under the false guise of knowing what the consequences are of its suggested actions. It doesn’t. Here is a selection of those. Broadly, Downie claims that the interpreting professionals/profession should focus on two areas:
The argument is this… Interpreters that grew up in a Kodak world haven’t recognized the values inherent in how the modern economy works. The modern world is more decentralized, and so interpreters cannot rely on coming out of an Interpreting MA program with a cushy institutional job that takes care of things like salary, branding, etc. This difference has created a need for a change in the way interpreters see their market role and responsibilities. And that change means that interpreters need to take charge of a whole host of things that past generations have taken for granted.
Adding value then means that we need to understand more. More about negotiations, our client’s needs and wants, professionalism, diet, our industry’s associations, and so much more. That we need to take an engaged and holistic view in developing our profession and professional career path.
This is super cool, so we recommend the book. And Downie’s got a lot of other support. Each chapter has a follow-up interview with some very respected industry professionals, and references are used well.
Where things break down is in the application of some of these ideas. For starters, the arguments made in this book are mostly Brit/Euro-centric. It’s only a few times that organizations, languages, or even geographies outside of this area are even mentioned, let alone dealt with in how they support or falsify any given claim.
The other major issue is the constant shift in who is being spoken to and who Downie sees as responsible for what. Are interpreters the “elite…groups of professionals” described in the introduction, or the hapless traditionalists described in Chapter 3 – “Can professionals develop?” Further on, in Chapter 5, Downie veers off message in speaking directly to established interpreting associations, and implicitly supports their continued top-down structure. Such moves are self-defeating in suggesting that interpreters should personally take on the task of rebranding the profession by “rebranding our own individual work”, but then claiming that “…the future of interpreting associations will involve finding ways to encourage their members to add value to clients” (emphasis added). This lead this reader to question our own position as a new-to-market LSP – “Is the charge of creating value for clients upon the shoulders of the individual or institutions?”
All this being said, read this book. These are arguments that need discussing now, and Downie moves the discussion away from the entitlement paradigm trap. Some sort of updated organization is certainly called for in the industry, and it’s apparent that there’s no clear consensus on how that’s supposed to develop.
The ideas presented in these pages are challenging for the reader, because they expose warts that have been long hidden by that white veil. If we want to put on that new sexy red dress, we’re going to have to consider in very real ways just what we are perceived as being by our clients. Without understanding the respective differences in each client's situation, we are probably better off keeping that veil on. And that's a shame, because we really do have a lot of value to offer, if we can just understand the client.
Author: Michael Grez
Intran Solutions' Director. Chinese/English Interpretation. Contact us at (610) 701-1345 or email@example.com
There’s been a big push from the interpreting community to professionalize. We seem to be moving from the neutral language-elephant in the room to a value-adding aspect of what businesses, governments, and individuals do. This is all super cool, but making that shift means it’s important for interpreters to reconsider all of the tools we use in designing value, just like we’ve already done with headphones and booths. Here, we take-on one of the least celebrated – but most important – tools an interpreter uses: The Notepad.
What goes into a good notepad? It should be easy to use, look professional, and be as cost effective as possible. Most find that ‘Steno Pads’ (short for Stenographer’s Notepad) are a good option, but having a customized notepad can do so much more.
How can I make my own custom notepads?
The bits and bobs of a notepad are pretty simple. Here’s what goes into making one, along with what we recommend, should you decide to make one yourself.
Customizing your pad means thinking about even its most mundane parts. You’ll select the paper’s brightness, weight (thickness), size, color, and any pre-printed stuff like horizontal writing lines (rules) or vertical margin lines. We recommend paper that’s not too ‘bright’ to mitigate strain on the eyes. 20lb paper is pretty good to write on – it doesn’t tear or shift and can be printed on any printer. The regular size, 8.5”x11”, works fine as well, because two pad-sized pieces can be cut out of it. My personal preference is to use blank white ‘multipurpose’ paper, with a single printed line down each notepad’s page. Here’s a PDF if you’d like to check out how this looks.
The Back and Front
For backing, we recommend something thicker than the 24-point chipboard we originally purchased. This turned out to be too thin, so we’re doubling up on these sheets for now so that the pad doesn’t warp while being held. As for the front, we purchased 5.5”x8.5” postcards with custom printing on the front. These are customized with images, like the interpreter’s name and company logo.
The binding mechanism is the hinge on your notepad. There are several types, each with their own features. We chose the type called Wire-O, because pages don’t tend to get clogged up when flipped back and forth, larger sizes (9/16”) can hold up to 100 sheets of paper, and the look is refined. There are cheaper types of binding, such as spiral binding, but we find these don’t work as well. We use 3:1 pitch (that just means there are three holes per each holed inch), but 2:1 pitch might be usable as well.
Paper Trimmer Machine
This guillotine-like device trims the paper, back and front sheets to your preferred size. We chose Yescom’s 400 sheet capacity trimmer. It handles, at one time, all the pieces that go into a single notepad, and consistently cuts well.
Like Paper Trimmers, Binding Machines come in a range of prices and quality levels. We opted for the Akiles Wiremac-M Manual Wire-O® Binding Machine. The main things we considered here are the ‘pitch patterns’, from which you can choose either 3:1 or 2:1, its ability to choose which holes are punched and which aren’t, the ease-of-use of the binding device, and overall robustness.
Is it worth it?
The initial cost is pretty high. We spent about $420 for the machines, and each pad costs about $1.25 to produce. A comparable quality store-bought pad would cost about $5.50, so this means that we will break even after about 100 pads. After that, we’re saving money, and using pads that are efficient to make and use.
Best of all, our clients know that we mean it when we use the term: professional interpreter.
Face to face settings have been the cash cows of interpretation for generations. We go to a place, and do our voodoo. Things today are going in a different direction. We still dabble in the ancient art of word voodoo, but where and how we do it is changing.
My first foray into this was my first few assignments doing telephonic. I had avoided it for as long as possible, after hearing horror stories from a friend that did some pay-by-the-minute medical interpreting jobs.
Her take: It’s a rat race. Just-in-time service. Low pay. Monotonous topics from one conversation to the next. A pure commodity play.
I got interested when an affiliate offered an opportunity to work on a few higher-profile projects, which were quite different from what my friend had been doing, because the pay was higher, the phone call was scheduled, and the topic was complex.
What I got was an excellent opportunity to provide interpreting services to people that weren’t in the same physical location, albeit with a little stretching and bending on my part. It’s can be a great option for people who need a real conversation with someone halfway around the world-as long as the interpreter has an understanding of these and other best practices.
Telephonic is different because of…
While interpreting (consecutively), I prefer that the speakers and I can see each other. I’ve spoken about this here before. The idea is that it’s easier for an interpreter to establish rapport and for all parties to know the best time to start/stop speaking. Telephonic means that speaker transfer happens without the benefit of visual cues (as happens when an interpreter looks up from their notes to signal they’ve finished interpreting, for example). Recommendation: Focus on designing clear and consistent intonation change in your voice as your interpretation ends.
Getting Down to Business
Calls tend to be focused on the business at hand. This is different than face-to-face environments, where people tend to chat about whatever before and even during meetings. The phone calls I’ve been on have tended to be short, concise, and focused purely on business-at-hand topics, which can shift rapidly (questions can fly out from anywhere at almost any time). Recommendation: Treat telephonic with the same, or better, care of preparation as you would in a face-to-face environment.
Telephonic Interpretation happens in both simultaneous and consecutive modes, but I’ve focused on the latter here. Interpreters who are thinking of venturing into the higher echelons of this market should check their confidence and skills to remain dynamic throughout the entire conversation, and be prepared for gigs to be cancelled outright or cut short. It’s cool, this brave new world of telephonic, but it’s also a challenge.
'Old Couple' picture courtesy of jantik
If you've ever seen the famous 'Who's on First' skit between Abbot and Costello, you might have noticed how quickly they go back and forth (check out 01:39-2:06).
Other times, interpreted discourse happens in sequence, like with consecutive interpretation. In the sequential version of interpretation, the interpreter and speaker must coordinate the stopping and starting of speaking. Done poorly, the speaker and interpreter speak over-top one another. On the other extreme, neither person talks, and the conversation's flow breaks down.
An analogy is two people trying to get through a door at the same time. If they both go through together, they end up smashing into one another and no one gets through. If they both wait to go, no one gets through just the same. People are normally pretty good at getting through doors in situations like this, because of social conventions: think of the 'lady's first' concept.
Experienced interpreters have suggested that new interpreters should wait a certain amount of time (between two to seven seconds in this case) to start speaking. The argument is that the interpreter needs to make sure that the speaker is absolutely finished talking before they 'take over' and start talking. Here's how that would look in sequence:
1. Speaker talks.
2. Speaker stops talking.
3. 2-7 second pause.
4. Interpreter talks...
But, is this pause really necessary? To answer that question, we can employ what academics call ‘Conversation Analysis’ to discover how an interpreter and the people they service might coordinate with one another – in a natural way. The basic concept is this: Conversations are made of pieces, called turns, where each person takes a turn speaking (just like is shown in the sequence shown above). For simplicity's sake, it's you're turn when you're speaking, and it's my turn when I'm speaking. Likewise, when one person is finished speaking, their turn stops and another person can take up a new turn.
In the interpreting world, such as at a business meeting, it's very important that each person eligible to speak (both attendees and interpreters) know when one turn can change into another turn. The shift from one person’s turn to another person’s turn is called turn transition. In consecutive interpretation mode, interpreters are always involved in turn transition, either as someone releasing a turn, or taking up a new turn. Here’s that previous example, in light of all this new lingo, where the interpreter takes up a turn.
1. Speaker talks (speaker's turn)
2. Speaker stops talking. (turn transition)
3. 2-7 second pause. (nobody’s turn)
4. Interpreter talking (interpreter’s turn)
This sequence is really weird. Try it yourself! Go find your best friend and talk to them. In the middle of the conversation, just pause for two-seven seconds after they finish speaking. I GUARANTEE it will feel like the world has stopped, and they will be wondering "What's wrong???” The reason for this is that such pauses almost never happen in conversation (such pauses are typically maxed out at 1 second). When they do, they clearly indicate what linguists so eloquently call 'trouble'. When such a problem arises, the common social rule is to try to identify and then correct it. The goal of the conversation has suddenly changed from talking about the weather to identifying what the problem is.
Interpreters that follow bad advice, like extended pauses, likewise indicate to everyone present that there is some kind of trouble. Put yourself in the speaker's shoes, and think about what you might assume the trouble is. If I were to be in such a situation, I would automatically assume that the trouble is that the interpreter is having trouble interpreting.
Extended pauses in conversation may redirect the topic of conversation. Interpreters should not be the cause of redirection.
How should an interpreter know when to take up their turn? That's easy! You do it all the time. Go have a conversation with your best friend again. About half way through, think to yourself about how you know when to start speaking. It just happens, right?
Academics have identified several strategies for understanding when a turn may be coming to completion, such as the following: syntactic completion (a whole concept has been presented, such as happens in written language when you see a period at the end of a sentence), intonation change (a speaker's tone might go down when a statement has been completed, or up for a question), speed change (a speaker uses one rhythm continually when speaking and then suddenly shifts into a lower or higher speed to complete their turn), and actual words that indicate completion (someone says: "I will not do it - period").
There is a cornucopia of ways in which we understand that a speaker is finished talking, and these are already intuitively built in to your everyday skills used in conversation. As an interpreter, I rely on these strategies, plus one interpreting-specific strategy that’s based on body language. When writing notes (and listening to the speaker), I look at my notepad and position my head down. When I notice the speaker completing their turn (using the indicators above), I change my body position so that when the turn ends, I have completed my note-taking - my head is positioned up - and my eyes gaze around at the audience and my notes. This position is maintained throughout my turn. When I subsequently release my turn, I switch back to the first position. These visual cues are consistently used throughout the session, and quickly become understood by everyone present.
Interpreters should render, rather than redirect, discourse in the other language.
Michael Grez, co-founder of Intran Solutions. He is a linguist specializing in interactional theories of communication.
Tian Huang, co-founder of Intran Solutions. She provides conference interpretation and translation between Chinese and English.
(picture courtesy of erfan a. setiawan)
This is one of the most common questions that interpreters get from clients. It’s even one that some interpreters themselves can be unsure about how to answer…and that is really weird. If we switch the words around a bit to, say, law, we don’t see such confusion. Do I need a lawyer or a person who knows about law? There are seemingly obvious times when someone would need a lawyer, and other times when paying for such professional services are overkill. The same goes for almost any professional service industry, like dentistry or even auto mechanics.
Here’s our guideline. You need an interpreter when the message is bigger than yourself. If this seems a bit vague, allow me a moment to unpack that a bit.
Start with bilinguals
There are lots of them. Some speak their second language so well that it’s hard to tell that they’re not a native-speaker. Others are bilingual only in certain situations, like buying coffee or taking a taxi. So, there’s all kinds of bilinguals, but the one thing they all share is a sense that they can, in fact, communicate in their second language.
All interpreters are bilinguals, but they do something different than bilinguals do… Interpreters speak for others only when other people/organizations/institutions speak together.
Are bilinguals and interpreters different?
Describe your best friend in two words. You could say anything, right? When I asked myself this question, I came up with words like ‘happy’ and ‘smart’. Now, do the same thing, but look at your best friend in a mirror while you do it. What comes to your mind now? Probably words based on what you can see in the mirror. For me, different words came to mind, like ‘bearded’, or ‘smiling’. Bilinguals speak like we all do - from the self-perspective (without the mirror). Interpreters interpret from the other-perspective (with the mirror).
Interpreters are bilinguals, but never both at the same time. I am a bilingual when I decide what to say. I am an interpreter when you decide what I say. As such, interpreters put aside all of their emotions and thoughts on what and who’s being spoken about, and interpret according to their functional role.
But what’s all this about the message being bigger than yourself? Most interpreting involves some kind of organization or institution. On one-end of the scale, there might be two governments communicating to each other across their respective languages. On the other end, there might be an individual and institution speaking together, such as happens in a court room or hospital.
The message is bigger than any person when there’s this white elephant in the room, called the institution. It’s not just two friends sitting down and having a chat. The message becomes bigger when a judge and defendant speak, because those people are part of what goes on in a courtroom – and so an interpreter is needed. Take the judge and the defendant outside and put them by the backyard pool talking shop – no interpreter might be needed (but perhaps a bilingual is!). Same goes for doctors and patients. Same goes for bilateral trade negotiators.
Use an interpreter when the message is bigger than you and the person you are speaking with.
It’s obvious that we all would benefit from a real discussion about what freelancers have actually done to get their business off the ground. The collaborative project put together by Tian and Mike (we do Chinese/English interpretation and translation) has engaged with this discussion by putting up a webpage designed specifically for new interpreters. It’s a page with resources about the business of interpreting, using the internet to tell people about yourself, and how to set up a business. This article is a take on one of those aspects – interpreting resources.
Why ‘interpreter’ (not translator) resources?
The markets for translation and interpretation are different, so we think they should be discussed separately. Need some convincing?
Translation is a geographically decentralized market (translators can typically be hired to do work anywhere they have access to the internet), whereas interpreters are centralized (interpreters typically do their interpreting right where the client is – face to face). This means that interpreters and translators compete with their peers in different ways. A translator in New York, with NY costs of living, might have to compete with a translator in Bangkok. Interpreters, however, complete with a more local market – so they don’t deal with price differentials based on the cost of living.
Another major difference is ‘who’ the purchaser of services is. A person that wants to apply for university may be asked to provide English versions of any non-English transcripts, so it’s the person (not the institution) that’s purchasing the translation. However, a non-English speaking person that goes to a hospital may only be allowed to interact with doctors through an interpreter provided by the hospital. Our limited experience suggests that translators (and translator-agents) typically contract with both clients and institutions, whereas interpreters (and interpreter-agents) typically contract more with institutions.
The point is that interpreters and translators must understand the dynamics that go into making their market. Sometimes it’s difficult to piece the differences apart. And you can imagine that if it’s difficult for us to do this, then it must be super difficult for our clients! So, let’s just look at one market at a time. For now, let’s go with the interpreting market.
There are a lot of resource categories that we have dealt with. We’ll explain them below along with some anecdotes to link them all together for you.
The first couple of things on our list when we started (and probably for you as well) were to develop interpreting skills and then to get other people to believe in those skills. So, two things here: practice and certifications.
Practice, for us, involved going through a consistent training regiment. We practiced both consecutive and simultaneous modes together, and have used a variety of videos of speeches as content to be interpreted. Early on, we worked on TED videos. Once these videos started to become repetitive (great content, but they are all similarly constructed), we started to branch out into other types of speeches. As we switched over from student to professional, we focused primarily on videos from YouTube channels and FORA. Videos were selected by considering the specific market we anticipated entering as a professional interpreter. Practice is still a component of professional life, but is now mixed with actual interpreting assignments.
Certification is also helpful to help clients better understand what quality is present in the interpreter. We’ve found that clients often look for ATA certification (despite this certification officially being for translation only), and US Department of State ‘certification’. Other certifications also exist, but tend to be more limited in scope to an industry or specialization, such as state-court or IMIA (International Medical Interpreter’s Association) certification.
Next, we looked at how to ‘get the word out’ and network. An interesting article in the latest ITI Bulletin (Institute of Translation & Interpreting) finds that 65% of clients are acquired by a professional and personal network. 70% of those come from the professional networking side. Conferences work great here, so you might look into ATA’s annual conference, and events put on by your local ATA chapter. Since we live in the DC region, we got in touch with an organization called NCATA (National Capital Area Translator’s Association). You may notice that most of these organizations mention translation in their titles, but don’t lose faith! Interpreters have a place in these organizations as well. Other ways to get the word out include attending job fairs, like the one we went to at the University of Maryland last fall.
Once we developed interpreting skills, a plan for getting certifications, and began attending conferences and events, we discovered that we needed to get into the mechanics of the market. This meant that we had to understand how contracting and pricing works. The importance of contracts was probably one of the greatest unknowns as we started our business. They define all the terms of work, such as who you work with, what terms you get paid by, and so on. Both ATA and Proz offer templates of contracts that we used to learn about how contracts should look, from the point of view of these institutions. We then used this knowledge to evaluate the small print in the contracts we started receiving from agencies and clients.
And, finally, pricing (the four letter word that wasn’t). It’s certainly a touchy subject, but we found that public information exists! GSA (Governmental Services Administration) provides publicly available pricing information on the contractors they work with, which a new interpreter might consider contacting in the hopes of developing an agent/contractor relationship. We also found that some interpreters and translators put their advertised rates on their website.
This is a lot of information, and it can be overwhelming to try to put it all together. So, please feel free to check out these – and other – resources on our website. We would love to hear about your experiences in using them. We’ll be putting more up on the other two areas – developing an identity online and setting up a business – in the next few weeks.
As a novice interpreter, I’ve been aimed at getting conference assignments since Day 1. I’ve always remembered how inspired I was at hearing seasoned conference interpreters’ anecdotes about interpreting for heads of states or among the first people to have witnessed a historic moment. I want to be one of those successful conference interpreters!
However, the path leading to the successful conference interpreters’ club is not easy. Since I’m still awaiting for the State Department’s interpreting exam results, I have had to take on some community interpreting assignments. This is where I began to have a much deeper understanding of social responsibility.
All my Chinese-speaking community interpreting clients are first generation immigrants, speaking very little English. They can only communicate with English-speaking social workers, nurses or dentists via the interpreter. In situations like this, both parties (the client and the care-provider) give their wholehearted trust to the interpreter, expecting him or her to deliver quality meaning. It also means that the client's’ lack of local-language skills could easily have themselves be the ultimate victim of poor quality interpretation and/or professionalism.
A few months back, a client told me about one such experience. Their interpreter had suggested that the client not follow a court-order, because ‘no one would find out’. Sure enough, someone did. The client ended up paying the price. I still remember my shock at hearing such lack of professionalism.
A few weeks ago, an elderly client expressed thanks at me for not scolding her for using her cane incorrectly in a demonstration to the nurse. Apparently, a prior interpreter had done just this.
Incidents like this help me realize, regardless of significant payment disparity, community interpreting is not inferior in comparison to conference interpreting. Interpreting in a conference setting makes me feel important, because I could be the voice of a reputable political figure or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. However, community interpretation provides me with a sense of doing something equally important, because I could be the voice of an immigrant who can’t otherwise communicate their needs and rights with a representative from the country where he or she lives.
One of my mentors is a Russian conference interpreter. She once told me, in the community of conference interpreters, everyone is aware of the risks in dumping. Community interpreting, while not offering the glitz and glamor and-quite frankly-monetary benefits of conference interpreting, is not so much an exception to this rule, but a complement to it. Classroom ethics training ticks boxes. Community interpretation engages the soul. I am very proud of be a member of this community.
Sales, it can be said, is all about interjecting yesses into a conversation. It’s why, when we go to a car dealership, they don’t ask questions like “Do you want to buy this car?”, but instead ask questions like, “Wouldn’t it be great to drive this car?” Creepiness aside, interpreters can often fall prey to allowing too many noes into the conversation.
Do you do translation? No, I’m an interpreter.
Oh, so you speak two languages? Yes, but no. I interpret between languages.
One way to gauge how confused interpretation consumers are is the degree to which agencies go to ‘educate the consumer’. A quick review of ATA’s agency database in the greater Washington DC area reveals that 5 of 8 agencies (63%) explicitly describe interpretation modes in some way. This is typically done through a wordy and convoluted explanation of how or where the mode is done.
We also feel the need to educate. But, in avoiding the feel of being patronizing to our prospective clients, we think it’s best to offer information in a way that they can make choices about what they learn. So, we built this idea into our website by offering layered specifics and images.
The first layer presents an overview of our services: Consecutive Interpretation, Simultaneous Interpretation and Translation. Our distinctness is brought out by using words that people can relate to on this page, like authentic, adapt, communication, accuracy and quality. Other, more academic concepts are also sprinkled throughout, like inter-person, native speaker, and target language, but these are kept to a minimum.
Overcoming Confusion through integrated imaging.
Consecutive interpretation is presented alongside a thumbnail of how it works.
This is set next to another thumbnail for simultaneous interpretation:
Further down the page, we also offer a thumbnail for translation:
All images are clickable. For simplicity sake, here, we are only talking about the second layer comparison for consecutive and simultaneous modes.
Clicking on the first thumbnail above takes the prospective client to a page with detailed information about consecutive interpretation, along with another, bigger, thumbnail. This is the same as on the previous page, but includes more detail and an explanation in the form of text:
Here, the prospective client can engage with the idea that consecutive interpretation is effective in creating a step-by-step discourse, between two interlocutors - blue and orange. A short explanation of the image is provided above the image. Advantages and disadvantages of consecutive interpretation (in contrast to simultaneous interpretation) is written below.
The same format is presented to the prospective client when they go to the simultaneous interpretation side. Here’s that image:
This represents the same two interlocutors, now engaging in a more fluid discourse, as opposed to the step-by-step nature of consecutive interpreting. Again, short explanation above the image. Advantages, and disadvantages presented below.
This form of presentation, we hope, allows prospective clients to engage with the amount of detail they want and feel they need. It keeps us away from talking about ‘what is not’ (interpretation is not translation, for example), and decreases the amount of patronizing we push onto prospective clients while they are just trying to figure out the types of value we can provide.
Authenticity is a quality that any product or service requires for relevance in today’s market, and with good cause. Consumers are constantly on the lookout for products saying one thing, but are actually another. The online world is filled with services and products inseparable from fakes, and so we look for ratings and reviews to steady our hand as we click on the ‘buy’ button.
The Economist recently considered how authenticity has become the preeminent quality that brands wish to present to their customers. Profitability, it seems, is ever less dependent upon the bells and whistles, and more upon whether we think those bells and whistles actually ding and sing. In the translating and interpreting industry, there has been a call for increased certification. ATA has stringent testing to be ‘ATA certified’ (for translators only) in the states. ITI, based in the UK, offers multiple layers of certification, or ‘membership grades’, ranging from ‘Student’ to ‘Fellow’ membership.
Speaking about communication in the workplace, Cheryl Sandberg claims that ‘Authenticity in communication’ involves asking a question: ‘How do you…make decisions when no one is saying the truth” (being polite to one another instead of saying the hard truth)? For her, authenticity is designing situations so that you take responsibility for more than your specific role. For many of us, we would recognize this as a quality of an effective leader.
For the language interpreter, though, authenticity deals with ‘authenticity in communication’ on the meta-level. If people are constantly speaking around the truth – using twists and turns in how they talk – to get their point across without being harshly direct, how does an interpreter go about not only communicating the ‘what is said’, but also the ‘what is meant’?
For Intran Solutions, we take this to mean that interpreting involves always staying true to the information in what’s said, but repackaging this message along with the intended politeness (or harshness!) into a single thing that the person you are speaking to hears. Sound tricky? Sure it is. That’s why it’s so important for those of us who need interpreters to trust the authenticity of their interpreter, so that the person they are speaking to can trust the authenticity of what they are hearing. Without authenticity, communication between languages is really no better than buying the cheapest pair of shoes you can find online and hoping that you get what you paid for.