That Old Freelance Magic

Does this ever happen to you? While learning a new language, you come across a word you’ve never seen before.  No sooner have you entered it into your internal glossary than it suddenly seems to start popping up everywhere, forcing you to wonder whether it was there all along and you just didn’t notice, or whether there is some maleficent force in the universe playing games with your head by strategically placing newly learned terminology right where you’d least expect it.

Something similar has been happening to me over the past few weeks, ever since I wrote that post on the freelance interpreter’s summer. It seems that everywhere I turn these days, I see blog posts about freelancing. The most likely explanation for this is that the blogosphere has always been full of this sort of thing, and that only now that I have started making my own contributions am I noticing others’. Another possibility is that these other freelance bloggers, like myself, find the freelance lifestyle to be highly appropriate subject matter for summer posts. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence.

Be it as it may, I’d like to share some of the more interesting posts on freelancing that I’ve come across this summer.

First there was a post by The Liaison Interpreter where he explained that there is virtually no such thing as a freelancer in Japan (Trust, freelancing and the Financial Dpt., July 22). As someone who lives in the land of autónomos, pymes and the S.L.U., I found this a very interesting read.

A few days later, Translation Times posted information on a freelance survey and encouraged readers to participate (Changing the Perception of Freelancers, August 1). Proof of just how slow off the mark I am this summer is that I didn’t read the full post until the survey deadline (August 9) had passed, so I can’t even do the same and encourage those of you reading this to contribute your replies. However, I do look forward to hearing about the results when they come out this fall.

The translation blog Want Words had Twitter all a-flutter in late July and early August, with the publication of two posts on freelancing that struck a chord in some readers and raised hackles in others (8 Reasons to hate freelance translation, July 29; When not to go into freelance translation, August 2). I won’t say which of these it did in me, but I will say that the author certainly appears to subscribe (like yours truly) to the school of thought that blogs are meant to provoke debate.

And finally, the author of Dolmetscher-Berlin posted a lovely photo of herself enjoying the good life and then proceeded to explain why being a freelancer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially in the summertime (Süsses Leben, August 9). I enjoyed this post, not just for the photo and the freelance talk, but also for the up-to-date insights it offered into the workings of an industry I was briefly involved in many years ago: script translation.

Crisis? What Crisis?

Usually, I take my freelance status pretty much as a given, and the above posts also seem to follow the line that a language service provider’s life is, practically by definition, that of the self-employed. But an innocent question asked by a curious friend at dinner last night reminded me that for a conference interpreter with my profile, there is, at least theoretically, another option.

“Why have you never applied to be a staff interpreter for the EU?” was the question. The one reason that trumps all others, and which basically makes the decision a no-brainer for me, is that I wouldn’t want to uproot my family of isleños and cart them off to Brussels. The long answer, the bulk of which I’ll spare readers but which my friend received in full last night, also includes the fact that I’ve never had a “proper job” in my life and I’m not entirely sure I have the personality type for it.

This brings me to a very useful checklist that AIIC has put together for young people thinking about becoming interpreters. It’s a short quiz entitled “Will a professional conference interpreter’s lifestyle suit me?”, and if you have been asking yourself this question, then I highly recommend you go through it and see how you fare. As the quiz itself indicates, there are no wrong answers.

At some point, The Interpreter Diaries will be looking in more detail at the relative merits of freelance vs. staff interpreting (and how one usually goes about trying to become one or the other). Personally, I reckon that as long as I have more boxes ticked off under the “freelance” column than under the “staff” one, then I am still doing all right. Of course, the big brother of the “mid-summer crisis” is the mid-life crisis, and one never really knows when that one might strike …

Interpreting Myths: The Video

Yes, I’m still on holidays. By the time this post is published, I will have celebrated two family birthdays and engaged in some serious R&R, Canadian-style. Soon, I will be back at home and ready to get blogging again for real (just when everybody else turns off their computers for the summer and heads off to the beach – what’s wrong with this picture?).

Anyway, this week’s post looks at a video I did for Lourdes of AIB many moons ago (I’m guessing by the fleece sweater I’m wearing that it must have been filmed sometime around Christmas). In the video, I look at a number of common myths surrounding interpreter training. If you haven’t seen the video yet, then you might want to take 7:41 minutes of your time to do so.

Below, I am also including the original script that I wrote for the video. Anyone who is too busy to watch the video can skim the script for the main ideas. Readers interested in seeing how far an interpreter trainer can go off track when trying to improvise on a theme on the basis of written notes can compare the written and recorded versions of the speech. Also, students wanting to test their consecutive note-taking technique can try to take notes from the video, as it is pretty much in line with the kind of speech I would give in a consecutive class, in terms of length, structure and difficulty of the subject matter (although it might be lacking in figures).


Top misconceptions about training to become an interpreter


Many believe you don’t need any training at all, you just have to speak a couple of languages to become an interpreter. This misconception possibly arises from the fact that when you watch a good interpreter in action, it all appears so effortless. This may lead the uninitiated to think that anyone can do it that easily.

This is absolutely FALSE. It’s like saying anyone who can use a thermometer can be a doctor, or owning a pair of skis will make you a ski jumper. While the thorough knowledge of languages is absolutely essential to becoming an interpreter, it is not enough in itself. The reason why it all looks so easy is because the interpreter has spent years training and practicing the skills required to do his or her job.


Here, the idea seems to be that some people are born with a “knack” for interpreting and others don’t. It is true that a certain number of “in-born” traits will make it easier for one to learn the skills required to become an interpreter. For instance, it helps to:

– be a good communicator
– have a quick and well-organised mind
– have the ability to concentrate and focus, especially in stressful situations
– have strong nerves
– have intellectual curiosity
– be adaptable to new situations
– be a people person (although not all interpreters are extroverts)
– be a team player
– show personal integrity

However, even having all of these things won’t automatically make you a “born interpreter”. In the ten years that I have been training interpreters, I have seen many a promising student show up on the first day with all of these traits, and still not make it as interpreters in the end. The fact is, if you don’t apply yourself and work hard to learn the specific skills related to interpreting, you will never make it.

Which brings me to myth number 3…


This one is actually a bit mystifying for me, since most people seem to agree that pretty much every other profession requires training. You want to build a skyscraper? Go and study architecture. You want to run a multinational? Sign up for an MBA. You want to become an interpreter? Apply to a postgraduate interpreting course.

The idea here behind the myth that interpreting can’t be taught would appear to be that since the whole interpreting process all happens so quickly inside one’s head, there is no way to actually figure out what’s going on in there and then teach the techniques required. This is particularly the case for simultaneous translation, where observers see the interpreter listening, mentally analysing and translating the message, and speaking all at the same time.

I’m pleased to say that this belief is also FALSE:

Decades of theoretical research into interpreting have led to well-developed theories of interpretation which show that interpreting is not just an instinctive activity that can only be “learned by doing”. Hundreds of academic articles and dozens of books have been published on the subject. All this has led to a theoretical and practical understanding of just how the interpreting feat is accomplished – and this is what is taught to aspiring interpreters.

During an interpreter training course, the interpreting process is broken down into different phases and skill sets. Each is tackled separately first, and then brought together to create the final product. I liken the process to learning how to juggle. It’s a matter of first learning to throw the balls separately, and then gradually managing to keep them all up in the air. Inevitably, a lot of balls will end up on the floor as the learning takes place, but the end result will be students who are able to do all of these skills apparently “at once” and perform the act of interpreting.

The whole process of becoming an interpreter, far from being impossible to learn, is actually very long and painstaking, and students themselves often complain that one year is not enough (this is the usual length of a postgraduate degree in conference interpreting). This stands in stark contrast to the views of laypeople, who seem to think that no training at all is required, or indeed, even possible.

If you are going undertake training as an interpreter, you had better make sure that you are at the right place, where the job is going to be done right.

Which brings me to my fourth and final myth about interpreter training:


This is simply not true. Just as I’m sure you would do a lot of research before applying to an executive MBA, I highly recommend prospective students research various interpreting schools before making their choice. They shouldn’t necessarily just pick the course closest to home, or the one at the university their friends plan to attend.

What to look out for? According to the AIIC (the International Association of Conference Interpreters), which has drafted a list of best practice for conference interpreting training programmes, a course should be at the postgraduate level, be at least one year long, be taught by conference interpreters, include an aptitude test, and teach both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting techniques.

The AIIC’s recommendations, as well as a number of other tips for prospective students of interpreting, can be found on the website of AIB, along with a lot of other useful information about the profession. AIB offers objective, useful information and debunks a lot of myths, including the four I have talked about today.

Related Post

“The Right Stuff?”

“The Right Stuff?”

Before I get down to the issues everyone wants to talk about – passing exams, finding jobs, etc. – I feel there is one more underlying matter which needs to be addressed first. Controversy-seekers, take note, because the topic for this week is: is there such a thing as an ideal personality profile for interpreters?

NASA is looking for people with advanced degrees in engineering or physics, 1,000 hours flight time as a jet pilot, and excellent physical shape. Any takers?

If you want to become an astronaut, NASA will happily inform you of the ideal candidate profile. The same thing holds for air traffic controllers, stockbrokers, and a host of other professions. Now, I am by no means implying that conference interpreting is in any way comparable to these other professions (you’ll be surprised to hear what profession it does resemble – more on that in a moment). But I do think it is valid to ask whether there are certain character traits that will help you achieve the goal of becoming an interpreter.

To find an answer to this question, instead of just dusting off all the old clichés and half-truths going around about interpreters, I decided to start by taking the empirical approach to the question: I looked around in the booth to see what sorts of personalities I found there.

At this point, I was reminded of a questionnaire I was asked to fill out recently for the kindergarten my daughter will be attending in September. On the form, I was asked to indicate whether my little interpreter-in-waiting (or not!) was:

–  Sociable or withdrawn
–  Chatty or taciturn
–  Passive or assertive
–  Adventurous or hesitant
–  Fun-loving or serious

… I’ll spare you the rest of the descriptors on the list, since they mostly had to do with table manners and toilet training.

What I did was think about all of the interpreters I have worked with over the years to see if I could find at least one who fits each of the above descriptions. And I can assure you that I had no trouble at all finding examples of each! Good news for the shrinking violets among us – and bad news for the empirical method.

Since I still needed an answer to my question, I then tried to determine the ideal interpreter personality profile by elimination, i.e. by trying to figure out everything an interpreter is NOT and then assuming that the opposite is what makes a good interpreter. I had considerably more luck when I applied this reverse method, because I did manage to determine that:

– I have no colleagues who seem uninterested in the world
– I don’t know any interpreters who can’t handle stress.

Let’s just pause briefly to examine the two traits identified by the above process of elimination.

Intellectual Curiosity

All the interpreters I know really do appear to share an insatiable curiosity about the world. I’d argue that this is possibly the most important trait an interpreter can have.

Conference interpreting is not like some other careers, where you first dedicate an initial period to learning your business and then spend the rest of the time practicing it. As the practicing interpreters among my readers witll know, interpreting entails a constant learning process – with every new client, conference, or meeting comes a new learning curve – and so anyone who doesn’t have this desire (whether inborn or acquired) to always learn more will probably not be able to handle the sheer breadth and depth of information that needs to be absorbed over the course of an interpreting career.

Learning about different languages and cultures at the level required for interpreting obviously takes a lot of time and commitment as well, and I would think that this is easier to muster in an enquiring mind.

Of course, in today’s world, one could argue that most professions require lifelong learning. If that is true, then at least interpreting is no exception to this rule.

Dealing with Stress

To the all-important issue of stress, now. Yes, the job is extremely stressful. AIIC’s recently published Workload Study confirms this.  Having said that, I would disagree with a claim I once heard many years ago that interpreters suffer the same stress levels as air traffic controllers – I may experience stress in the booth or on the field, but I do not hold the lives of thousands of people of people in my hands when I work.

Now, I’m sure a lot of other professions are characterised by high stress levels as well. Just finding a job can be pretty stressful in today’s world! But I think it’s clear that if you want to become an interpreter, you should not be the type of person who deals poorly with stress.

Anyway, stress is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, without stress to activate the release of adrenaline and the subsequent “fight or flight” response, humanity would probably still be several steps back in the evolutionary process.

On that note, I think it’s safe to say that in the booth, stress should probably more often lead to “fight” than to “flight”. It should be more likely to put your interpreting senses on edge and allow you to perform the necessary multi-tasking effectively than to send you shimmying up a tree.

The Right Stuff, Indeed

To sum up, lifelong learning and stress management will always be part of an interpreter’s job, so those who have personalities that suit this profile will probably have an easier time of making it as interpreters.

Of course, that’s not all it’s about. Being able to use a fork and spoon correctly and knowing when to ask to go to the potty will probably help, too… But seriously, AIIC has published a complete list of personal traits that it considers useful for interpreters, which I would encourage you to consult if you want to know more.

For those with a bit more time on their hands who are curious to know more about the research that has been done into the personality profiles of interpreters, take some time to read this academic paper on the subject, which debunks many of the existing myths in a most scholarly fashion (here comes the reply to the question raised at the beginning: one of the author’s conclusions is that interpreters share the same personality type with… librarians!).

So there you have some reflections on what might be considered “The Right Stuff” for interpreters. I can’t wait to hear what readers have to say.