Sunday, May 1, 2016

Mapping the road to a career in the translation and interpretation (T&I) industry

At the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year, my interpreting students asked me if the curriculum included a module on the business side of interpreting. It was obvious that they were thinking of the eventual return of their investment in a Master’s level degree in interpreting. Knowing the program does include a couple of modules on this important issue, I told them I would wait until the winter semester to address this topic. The idea was to avoid topic overlap during their program of studies. They recently had a session on the interpreting market in their respective places of residence and found the session to be extremely helpful but still wanted to know more. Thus, I prepared a handout with some ideas on how to tackle the work market.

Giving useful advice to your students, some of whom do not have work experience and are looking forward to getting started, requires an effort to come up with a cohesive set of suggestions. What follows is a summary of the tips I provided to them. Of course, some of them may look obvious but I thought they were all worth including.

Networking and a little investment.  Be ready to invest time to explore and create opportunities and money to invest in them.

Getting started.  Preparing your entry to the T&I market starts in school, for those without prior interpreting experience. Some classmates, especially in graduate school, become lifelong friends. Shared efforts of furthering oneself often engender extraordinary bonds.  Classmates sharing the same language pair and similar interests and commitment can become colleagues and associates.  Instructors can also be a terrific source of information. For example, thanks to one of his instructors, English-Arabic student Ahmed Al-Tameemi got a remarkable opportunity to interpret for Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when the first Syrian refugees arrived in Toronto a few months ago.

Internships and other opportunities through your program of studies:  An internship is an extremely valuable experience that allows for strengthening skills in a real-world situation and exposes students to key players of the profession.

Joining a professional association while enrolled in a program of studies.  Most professional associations have lower membership fees for students.  Keep abreast of your association’s activities and try to participate in them.  Also, volunteer in your professional association by serving as a committee member, contributing articles to a newsletter, etc.

Knowing the interpreting market for your language pair. All efforts to find work locally will be unproductive if there is limited or no demand in your immediate city in your language pair. So it is worth doing some inquiry.

Knowing government trends in the hiring of interpreters and translators.  As is well-known, most translators and interpreters are independent workers, but job opportunities do exist. It is important, however, to be abreast of current hiring trends.  It appears, for example, that the Translation Bureau of the Canadian government is not filling vacant positions.  This might be temporary, however, so it is good to keep informed about trends like this.

Offering services to government agencies and law offices.  While government tends to be at the lower end of the fee range for T&I service, law offices seem to be willing to pay more for professional services.  Also, government agencies may farm out interpreting services to a T&I agency and working opportunities are to be channeled through it. It is worth doing some investigation of local trends on this account.

Conference-like interpreting.  International festivals, embassies, consulates, language schools of local universities, convention centers, international centers, international chambers of commerce, and multi-national and large corporations are likely to require interpreting services.

Being entrepreneurial.  T&I agencies are part of our industry and they are not about to go away.  In fact, they seem to be thriving. If you wonder why, the answer is simple: convenience. Agencies are appealing to both clients and interpreters and translators.  Oftentimes clients do not know where to find these professionals. Translators and interpreters, on the other hand, find it convenient not to have to look for clients. Both parties in this equation seem to be willing to pay for that convenience: the client pays the agency’s rate and the interpreters/translators get a cut for their services. Of course, the agency keeps a percentage of the amount to cover the cost of business and to make a profit. Depending on how much profit the agency wants to make, the cut for the interpreter/translator is smaller.  Translators and interpreters should be more entrepreneurial and cater to those clients who are looking for convenience. This means, of course, creating your own T&I practice. If lawyers create their own practices, why can’t interpreters and translators? When trying to cater to a specific type of client; for example, legal professionals – the courts included – it important to highlight advantages of contacting the interpreter directly; for example, personalized attention, reliability, competitive rates (no middle man), etc.

When setting up one’s own practice, it matters to not look like an agency. It is best to use identifiers such as studio or practice; For example, Beyond Words Interpretation Studio.

Client Education and translator and interpreter protection.   Lay people tend to not know the difference between translation and interpretation.  This can be seen in the media where reporters refer to the interpreter as the translator. Buyers of translation services very often times do not know what to look for when contracting the services of an interpreter or translator or what to expect. As the American Translators Association (ATA) rightly points out, “there are hundreds of ways a translation project can go off track – ridiculous deadlines, misapplied machine translation, poor project management.” The ATA web site provides several resources free of charge to help novice translators and interpreters know how to best help their clients.  They include Getting it Right – a guide for clients to be informed when buying translation services. This guide is available in Brazilian Portuguese, French, Russian, and Spanish, among other languages. ATA also provides separate agreement templates for the provision of both translation and interpretation services.  T&I agencies usually have their own provision of services agreement, but when the terms and conditions of those agreements are unacceptable, the samples provided by the ATA can prove extremely useful. 

Having your own website / blog.   Of course, there are supporters and detractors of the idea of having a website or a blog.  Those who argue against it seem to be convinced that the annual cost of a website or blog (domain name, hosting, anti-virus protection etc.) does not warrant the effort or the money. Those in favor argue that a website helps in establishing credibility and allows one to connect to one’s client base, provided it well designed and search engine optimization[1] is done. For bloggers who maintain their own blogs, like me, the annual cost is virtually zero.
Registering on T&I directories. The following are just a few examples of sites that post job and work opportunities (contract work) for several industries, including T&I.
Proz.  It claims to be the largest translation network in the world. Upwork. The site says that freelancers can do “[a]nything that can be done on a computer – from web and mobile programming to graphic design.”  The Open Mic. This site offers the option of creating a profile, sharing stories about the T&I industry, discussing important topics, and following colleagues. Translation directory. This is a paying platform (8€/month)
Note:  The cost/benefit ratio would need to be assessed when registering and paying for these directories as the cost could rapidly add up. Also, it seems that compensation for some translation contracts can be as low as 0.1USD cent per word.  This is can be downside of these platforms.

Word-of-mouth.  Do not underestimate the value of this way of getting business. We all are part of an immediate community, which leads me to an extremely important issue. While this might sound like a platitude, I cannot insist more on the importance of ethical behavior and professional conduct. Unethical behavior will only take you so far. It will be known, and sooner or later it will catch up with you.

Publications for entrepreneurial translators and interpreters
While the following publications focus on translation, they may prove useful for language professionals in general.
1.       Dagmar, Jenner and Judy. 2010.  The Entrepreneurial Linguist: The Business-School Approach to Freelance Translation.  Paperback: 20 - 25 US$, Kindle: 8.99 US$
The authors dispense tips and tricks on how to run a translation and interpreting business through their blog Translation Times. They also offer a workshop called "The Entrepreneurial Linguist."
2.       McKay, Corinne.  2016. How to succeed as a freelance translator. Third edition.  Paperback:  20US$
This publication includes over 250 pages of practical tips on writing a translation-targeted resume and cover letter, preparing a marketing plan, setting up a functional home office, and finding and keeping well-paying clients. It includes separate sections on marketing to agencies and direct clients, a chapter focusing on your first year as a freelance translator and a chapter on online networking and social media.
Corinne McKay is also the author of the blog Thoughts on Translation, which she launched in February 2008

I never suspected that talking about marketing one’s services would raise so much interest. All above tips may sound obvious to the seasoned, established professional, but it is amazing to learn first-hand how important it is for those who want to enter the profession.  It seems to be so important that European Terminology, a Facebook page for terminologist of the European Union recently shared a post on this topic. It is worth that it’s addressed to translators but interpreters can benefit from it nonetheless.

[1] Search engine optimization (SEO) refers to strategies, techniques and tactics used to increase traffic (visitors) to a website or blog by obtaining a high-ranking placement in the search results page of a search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and other search engines. This can be accomplished by making sure content is unique and that the site or blog pages are able to be indexed correctly by search engines such Google and Yahoo.