Hurdle n°1: “experience required”
You have passed all your exams, you have donned the gown and hood of your university, you have received your degree and you are now officially qualified to work as an interpreter. But how to make the transition from qualified interpreter to working interpreter?
Well, here are a few thoughts drawn for personal experience, as a lecturer and as a freelance interpreter.
First hard fact to get to grips with: in this highly competitive, niche market, a proper qualification is indispensable, but it won’t necessarily be enough to open the doors of professional booths for you. Why ? Because however hard you have worked at your degree, what your potential employer/client will see, first and foremost, is your lack of experience. It is risky to place an inexperienced professional in a position of responsibility – and when you are in a booth, once the microphone is on, what you say is what goes, accurate or not. It takes a lot of skills and experience to be able to repair seamlessly something incorrect when you’re interpreting simultaneously. This brings us back to the first hurdle: experience, or lack thereof.
Now how can you overcome this catch-twenty-two situation?
There is a solution: volunteering. But – and this “but” needs to come in right away – let’s be clear on the meaning of volunteering: you should never, ever accept to do a job for free when it could and should be paid. In other words, you should only volunteer your professional services as an interpreter within a certain framework: for instance, with reputable charities who don’t have the funds to pay for interpreting for all their meetings (which means that if you do a good job, when they have a session for which funds are available for interpreting, they’re likely to call you). So think Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontière, or organisations like ICV Volunteers. It’s also worth looking into events like the Caux Conferences, the European Social Forum or think-tanks with a social focus and an international dimension. These organisations need interpreters, but don’t have a big enough budget – so they will often provide you with accommodation, and maybe pay for your transport. But they will only take on serious applicants !
So be honest and humble, and adopt a professional attitude. Just because it’s unpaid work for a charity doesn’t mean that you should take it lightly. So don’t lie on your skills, or on your qualifications – if you’ve never sat in a booth, you shouldn’t claim you can do sim. And if you trained and still struggled through exams, you should probably be spending more time practicing before you claim to be able to volunteer for conference interpreting. It’s in your interest too: volunteering your services and not delivering will reflect badly on your professional ethos and you won’t get called back of offered any paid job. Small market, small world – you have to be reliable and competent from day 1.
Freelance interpreter and French Teaching Fellow at Heriot-Watt University
Regarding volunteer interpreting, see below a text I drafted for AIIC in 2005 which provides a handy checklist for the potential volunteer.
The list below does not claim to be exhaustive nor is it obligatory – its sole purpose is to provide guidance in an area sorely lacking in guidelines. At the end of the day, it is the potential volunteer interpreter who must decide whether he or she feels sufficient sympathy for the aims of the potential beneficiary to be able to forego payment in return for services provided.
What are the name and aims of the potential beneficiary?
Is this an officially recognised charity (recognised by government/authorities, etc)?
Where and when do you require interpretation?
What languages will be spoken at the conference?
Name and full details of contact person (title and position, postal and e-mail address, phone/fax number, cell phone number)
Working and technical conditions should be the same as those recommended by AIIC (manning strengths, language combinations and working hours) – essential for satisfactory performance
It is recommended that the volunteer interpreter complete a contract form with the beneficiary, indicating that no fees are being charged, possibly indicating the amount of fees the interpreter is willing to forego
Agreement to work on a volunteer basis is as binding as a paid contract (if unable to fulfil the commitment, the volunteer interpreter must find a replacement colleague with the same language combination)
In the event of missions away from the professional domicile involving travel and subsistence expenses, the volunteer interpreter should first try to ensure, through the regional bureau, that there are no interpreters available nearer to or actually at the conference venue, before accepting the mission.
Ensure that the conference organiser has contacted all possible sources of financing and is unable to obtain financial support to cover interpreting costs
Try to ensure that mention is made in conference documentation of the fact that interpreting services are provided by volunteer interpreters
Adopted by Council (July 2005)
Thank you Helen.
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Love your advice and love your writing style just as well. I’ve no qualifications in the world of interpreting or translating but I’ve worked in a small company who couldn’t afford to get translations or interpreting services done and so once in a while i’d get called to do such work as I was a bilingual speaker of English and Arabic. And once I made one small mistake in translating a legal document that almost sent my company down the drain but what can I do? I wasn’t hired to do this stuff and didn’t offer my services. But I did learn one thing how such a small tiny mistake in translating a word which i didn’t give much attention cost our company at that time a lot. Ever since I have been more careful when translating or interpreting.