The Long Dark Summertime of the Soul

“That’s it for this season! I won’t be back in the booth until mid-September.” These words were spoken by a colleague of mine almost a month ago now (on June 17, to be exact). Her comment got me thinking about one of the things at the top of freelance conference interpreters’ minds around this time of year: the dreaded summer break.

Now, don’t get me wrong: freelance interpreters like their summer holidays as much as the next person! The problem, really, is that we tend to get far too much of them. Take my colleague, for example. Let’s assume (reasonably, I think) that she, like many freelance interpreters in Europe, won’t be getting back into the booth until the second Strasbourg session in September, which starts on the 26th. That gives her a whopping one hundred days of summer vacation between interpreting jobs.

That figure, while falling just short of the 104 days that Phineas and Ferb made famous, is still considerably more than most other professionals would consider necessary to recover from a busy spring season. This year, my own summer break will start tomorrow (which explains why I am writing about holidays today) and will last until my first fall contract on September 12th. That gives me a total of 65 days to do … what?

I know it’s from the wrong book, but still, it fits here, don’t you think?

Well, first I’ll spend some time recovering from a grueling spring season that saw me travel 83,599 km and spend 62 nights away from home (I know this for a fact, because I have this little app on LinkedIn that actually keeps track of my travel times and distances – depressing, really). I also plan to refamiliarize myself with where everything is kept in my kitchen and bathroom at home, not to mention reintroduce myself to my kids.

A big highlight of my summer will be the trip I’ll be taking back to the homeland to see my family and celebrate both my mom’s birthday (the big 65) and my Oma’s birthday (the big 100). That trip, which starts this weekend (yay!), will take up what’s left of July.

Then what? Well, it would be great, having fully recharged the ol’ batteries and caught up with my family, to be able to get back down to work upon my return home on August 1st.

Of course, we all know that’s impossible. I can hear my readers laughing uproariously already. Everybody knows the entire European continent shuts down for the month of August while its population heads for the beach or the mountains, and there’s nothing that you or I or anyone else can do to change that. This is where the bright, happy summer break starts turning into a very long, dark summertime indeed.

Wowbagger, eat your heart out…

A conference interpreters’s working life – being concentrated, for obvious reasons, into the periods when people hold conferences – is highly seasonal. In Europe at least, the busy seasons for interpreting are surprisingly short, with one peak from March to May and another from October to November. The Germans have a good word to describe the lengthy bit in between: they call the dip in activity seen in many industries in August the Sommerloch. For interpreters, I’d say it’s not so much a “hole” as a gaping chasm.

The Long and the Short of It

Despite the seasonal nature of our work, interpreters, like all other people, have to pay the rent or mortgage, the car loan, and all the other bills on a monthly basis. So what does this mean? Well, for me at least, it means working like even more of a madwoman in the short high season so that I have something left over to make it through the long summer. For others, it might mean taking on other types of work to bridge the gap.

The good news here is that the translation industry seems to work in reverse to the interpreting industry. Companies seem to tend to get their big jobs ready to ship out for translation just before they shut down for the summer – and expect to have the translations sitting on their desks waiting for them when they open up shop again on September 1st. This summer translation peak is manna from heaven for those interpreters who also translate. They get to spend those empty days actually earning money instead of just watching it disappear from their bank accounts. A bonus here is that many full-time professional translators also choose to take some time off over the summer, meaning that companies are more likely to call upon “standbys” to fill the gap.

Of course, not all interpreters can or do translate (I touched briefly upon this point in my recent article for IAPTI, Confessions of a Conference Interpreter). Similarly, not all interpreters are lucky enough to be able to work “overtime” in high season to compensate for the lack of earnings during the rest of the year. I guess everybody has to find their own way of coping with the lack of income over the summer season, and there are probably as many solutions as there are interpreters in this world.

Busy, Busy …

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that conference interpreters sit around doing nothing at all during their extended summer break. On the contrary, interpreters are notorious for finding ways of keeping themselves busy, and so I suspect there are precious few out there just sitting around all summer bemoaning their underoccupied fate.

One excellent way to fill up those long summer days is to use them for professional development. Learning new languages or brushing up on the ones they already speak are probably among the favorite summertime occupations for interpreters. This can be done in any number of ways: by arranging stays in countries where the language is spoken, ensuring their summer reading list includes books in those languages, or signing up for extra language classes.

Professional development can also come in the form of one of the many summer courses targeted at conference interpreters. This year, there are refresher courses for practicing interpreters being offered at Cambridge, Lisbon, Heriot Watt University in Ediburgh, Germersheim, York University in Toronto, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg,  and probably some other places I’ve missed. There was supposed to be a refresher course this summer at the University of Westminster, too, but we all know what happened to that plan. Also, there is a Training for Trainers seminar scheduled for early September in Budapest and run by the incomparable Dick Fleming. The UIMP summer school is not specifically targeted at interpreters, but is a popular summer destination for colleagues planning to add Spanish. And there are probably many more courses that I haven’t heard about.

Anyone looking to network in person this summer might want to check out the FIT’s XIX World Congress in San Francisco on the topic of “Bridging Cultures”. Conference interpreting highlights on the conference agenda include keynote speeches by Olga Cosmidou, Director General of Interpreting for the European Parliament and Benoît Kremer, President of AIIC. Funnily enough, the World Congress is being held in August. I don’t know whether this is an admission of the fact that interpreters have nothing better to do at that time of year, or if it is because other unwritten rules apply to the U.S. conference season that I know nothing about.

As for my own long, dark summertime of the soul, I imagine that I will be forced to spend much of August emptying my inbox, which currently boasts almost 2000 unsorted emails and is sure to have doubled in size by the time I get back from my three-week-long, largely internet-free holiday (just for readers’ information, I have prepared and scheduled blog posts throughout the month of July, so there will be something coming out every week while I am away). Also, my Portuguese teacher has come up with the brilliant idea of holding a test in the first week of September, an event for which I am woefully unprepared. Well, I guess I’ve got 65 long, summer days ahead of me to remedy that …

22 thoughts on “The Long Dark Summertime of the Soul

  1. Things are exactly the same here in Brazil, our agendas are usually empty the second half of December, January, February and early March (we use to say nothing actually starts before Carnival), I guess this is when I’ll have time to read all your great posts!! Boa sorte com teu português e boas férias!

  2. The periods of activity you mention, are they for Spain? In Geneva, we work pretty much from mid-February until end of June and from September until mid-December (my experience, anyway). Sometimes, for some strange reason, January or July might be very busy. August is the month were I’m pretty sure there will be no odd 2 days in the middle of the month to cut off your holidays in two. But then, once I decide about a holiday-trip, I will turn down offers, especially if I’ve made all my bookings and set my mind on going away somewhere.
    Unlike you, I feel no panic about being free 😉
    Maybe you should start now to prepare for retirement 😮 (at 92???, haha!)

    • Lucky you! I think maybe the difference between your schedule and mine has a lot to do with you being a local in a major interpreting market (Geneva) and me being non-local. I imagine interpreters living in Geneva or Brussels have more regular work schedules than those of us who have to be flown in (since we are more expensive, we are often only called upon during the truly busy times, not the shoulder season).

      As for me, I definitely live the boom-and-bust cycle I described above, and from comments and conversations held with other freelance colleagues with small local markets, I think many others do as well.

      I am definitely “underemployed” at least four months of the year – which may not mean I have no work at all, just not the amount I would be happy with. And the other months I have to work/travel more than I would like to inorder to make up for the shortfall. Low season might be one phone call and three days’ work (e.g. in January), whereas high season is multiple, overlapping offers and trying to figure out how to get home between jobs to see the kids (e.g. in May). But hey, I’m not complaining – although I do think that it is worth sharing this information with aspiring intepreters, since they may not realize the type of lifestyle we lead.

  3. As a non-interpreter, I found this fascinating! I guess I never really realized how set the seasons are. That’s not the case with translation, at least in my experience and with my clients. The good part for you is that you know what to expect and when to expect it. Not so for me; sometimes clients fall silent at the most unexpected times and I’m left wondering, “Is it me?!” 😉 That is certainly a *long* break though, and I can see why you would want to take on other work or do professional development. Still, it sounds like you most certainly need a break from all the work crammed into a relatively short season. Enjoy your holiday with family and being disconnected!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You’re right, after a few years you start getting used to the rhythms, and you even know which clients are likely to call you when (and which weeks not to expect any calls at all!).

  4. Enjoy your summer holidays! I really liked reading your post, since this is the second summer I am spending as a local in Brussels, and apparently July this year is grimmer than ever! All those thoughts have been going through my head, as well. At least it gives me time to study French and enjoy the great Brussels rain!

  5. Pingback: That Old Freelance Magic « The Interpreter Diaries

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