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 …

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Off mic with Phil Smith: A Compendium

I am currently on my summer holidays, but that doesn’t mean that followers of The Interpreter Diaries shouldn’t have something to read, so I’ve decided to share with you a series of articles by another interpreter-writer.

“Off mic with Phil Smith” is a column written for Communicate!, the AIIC webzine. Phil Smith is a freelance conference interpreter and fellow AIIC member. In this column, he writes about just about anything, not only what he does for a living – although interpreting always manages to find its way into his articles somehow.

Phil’s articles aren’t written in the form of a blog, so unfortunately they are not all available in one place – until today, that is. After undertaking some extensive and painstaking research (actually, I just Googled “Off mic with Phil Smith”), I have put together this compendium of Phil’s articles for your enjoyment, all of which have been published in Communicate! over the last several years.

Happy reading!

Work life imbalance (summer 2005)

Relay race (September/October 2005)

Communication breakdown (November/December 2005)

Diary of a technologically novel assembly (February/March 2006)

Breakfast (May/June 2006)

A sense of loss (Summer 2006)

Looking the part (October/November 2006)

Booths (December 2006)

Private market forces (September 2007)

Little triggers (spring 2008)

Skin deep (Summer 2009)

Respect (fall 2009)

Ordem e Progresso (summer 2010)

Food for thought (fall 2010)

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 …