Watch This: 4 Essential Interpreter Skills

What does it take to be an interpreter? Well, we won't really have space to list everything here, so for the sake of brevity we'd like to point out a few key skills that, in our humble opinion, interpreters should have to be successful.

These skills go beyond the obvious language skills, memory skills, etc. We purposely picked a few things that we can easily illustrate with videos of... pofessional athletes. Yes, really!  This might sound like a stretch, but please hear us out. We oftentimes hear the -- very applicable and correct -- analogy that interpreting is similar to theater, that you have to perform whenever it's showtime, that there's no way back once you've started speaking (or acting), and that there's no safety net. So: what do interpreters have in common with a tennis player, a cross-country skier, a ski jumper, and a gymnast? Have a look.

1) Interpreters must be fast. 
Interpreters must think on their feet all the time, and they need to speak, think, and process things very fast -- much faster than non-interpreters. Sometimes we feel like we are constantly sprinting, and we are, but there's not always a clearly defined finish line. We like watching videos of all things speed-related right before big interpreting assignments to get our blood flowing, and we particularly like this compilation of best finishes by Petter Northug, one of the best cross-country skiers in the world. He's a two-time Olympic champion from Norway, and you can probably see that it gives him great pleasure to beat anyone from Sweden (big rivalry).

Ready to pick up some speed? Watch this.

2) Interpreters must be precise.
Not unlike Olympic champion gymnasts, such as Aly Raisman, interpreters must be very precise, especially in judicial settings. You need to nail every twist and turn, err, every sentence just so in order to enable communication and keep the register and tone. From the outside looking in, we've oftentimes heard that interpreting seems like magic, and while it's not, it is an art to master. When we need a little reminder of how important precision is, we remember that we have one (just one!) thing in common with American gymnast Aly Raisman: we are very precise (but we are afraid of the uneven bars).

3) Interpreters must be passionate.
We are both quite passionate tennis players (Judy is a former NCAA Division I tennis player), so to illustrate passion and dedication, we could not think of a better example that perhaps the best tennis player of all time (male or female): American Serena Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles--the most in the open era. It's very rare for any one athlete to dominate the sport as much as Serena does. Just like Serena, interpreters must be passionate about what they do, because it requires a lot of dedication and commitment to be a truly great interpreter. Get inspired by Serena:

4) Interpreters must be fearless. 
In a way, interpreting is an act of faith because you never truly know what's coming at you next. It's like jumping off a cliff without being 100% sure that there's enough water underneath for you to dive into. Or it's like jumping off a huge ski jumping hill at a speed of up to 60 miles an hour. Yes, interpreters, on one level or another, have to be fearless (but prepared, of course). It's normal to feel some nerves before important interpreting assignments, but you have to believe that you can do it in order to start. Once you've started, there's no way back. No one knows this better than ski jumpers, such as Austrian world champion Stefan Kraft.

Basic Listserv Etiquette

Happy Friday, dear colleagues and readers! Today's quick observations revolve around mass e-mail lists, usually organized and hosted by a professional organization. These are known as listservs, and they are a very valuable tool for translators and interpreters. We are members of myriad listservs hosted by many T&I organizations, such as ATA, NAJIT, Universitas Austria, and others. We have found these listservs to be very enriching, on both a professional and personal level.

Unfortunately, throughout the years we have noticed some very disheartening trends, including rude and completely inappropiate messages, personal insults, and everything in between. Perhaps it's a reflection of our society in general that civil discourse has deterioriated, but we still believe that most of these interactions can and should be positive. That being said: we do think some of the tone used on listservs is getting worse these days, and we'd like to share some thoughts on the topic. Ready for some tough love?

  1. Your colleagues and potential clients are reading what you post and respond. Keep in mind that responses and/or posts will go out to everyone on the listserv, which can be in the thousands. This is not the place to pick fights, air dirty laundry, or have unreasonsable disagreements with anyone in particular. Take those offline or contact the person in question directly. We don't frequently respond to posts, but we read most of them, and we always take note of unreasonable and disrespectful posters and make sure to not work with them -- and many other linguists do to the same. 
  2. Know your technology. Oftentimes we see linguists post along the lines of "Please remove me from these mass e-mails, they are stupid and annoying." Such a message is not only not appropiate to send to the entire community, but it also reveals a lack of understanding about technology in general and listservs in particular. You don't want to be known as the person who struggles with basic technology. In general, listservs are opt-in only, and the user controls how they want to receive messages. An "unsubscribe" link is usually conveniently located at the bottom of messages, but you have to unsubscribe yourself. No one can do it for you.
  3. Be helpful. The idea behind listservs is, in part, to strengthen the community from within by sharing information, resources, interesting articles about our profession, and to help solve tricky terminology issues. If you can contribute, be sure to do so -- but agree to disagree. There are many ways to skin a cat or to solve translation puzzles, and it's important to respect others' solutions. We've often found that arguing over who is right makes linguists seem petty and close-minded, and remember: those reading might become clients, and petty and close-minded are not good traits. Sorry about the tough love here, but we've literally seen (and read) it all, including colleagues being banned from listservs by the moderators (yes, really) for bad behavior. This is undoubtedly bad for your reputation and for your business.
  4. Think before you post. Translators spend a lot of time by themselves, so sometimes the almost-human interaction that listservs provide can be a very welcome distraction. That being said, think before you fire off a response in anger. You will never be able to take it back, and do you want, say, 3,000 of your colleagues reading something you wrote while angry? Don't do it. If you wouldn't say it to anyone's face, there's no reason to type it. The same rules of basic human decency still apply online, and you can't hide behind an anonymous e-mail address --although incredibly, some do.
  5. You don't have to read everything. Some of the complaints that are frequently aired is that "I don't find this interesting." Well, that's reality: you won't find everything that's posted interesting, but someone will. It's not about the individual, but about the community, and if you don't find the subject line interesting, don't read it. Our tip: switch your message delivery options to "daily digest" instead of getting each individual message or set up an e-mail rule on your Outlook (or whichever program you use) to send all listserv messages into a special folder so they bypass your inbox and you can read them at your leisure.
So that's it; a short summary of some things we think we can all do to make listservs even more enjoable for all. We'd love to hear your comments. 

Interpreting Incomprehensible Speakers

 A few months ago, Dagy witnessed any interpreter‘s worst nightmare: during a large conference organized by a multi-level marketing company, one of the speakers turned out to speak an almost incomprehensible Austrian dialect (he was from the southern province of Styria). 

Is this Judy or Dagy interpreting? We actually don't know.
Dagy was in the English booth and understood him alright (here’s to the advantage of working from your first language). However, this meant trouble in other booths staffed by excellent interpreters who were working into their native language. Not surprisingly, they understood very little of what the motivational speaker was saying since his German had almost no resemblance to the kind of German usually spoken at conferences. Apparently, after a few moments of shock, my fellow interpreters did the best they could, which involved mostly guesswork. At some point, they decided to switch to the English channel and work from there into their languages, which was probably the best call. 

However, in the meantime, many conference participants who depended on the interpreting service had already started to complain to the organizer, which prompted her to send up members of the organizing team who grabbed the microphone from the professional interpreters and tried to do their job. This only made matters worse. These staff members might have understood the Austrian German, but they spoke only basic foreign languages and had absolutely no training in interpreting, which is why they threw in the towel after a few minutes. To me, that’s one of the biggest imaginable affronts that any interpreter might experience in their professional life. I felt vicariously humiliated and decided to mention it to the client after the conference.

But it got even worse: the company’s CEO spoke on the following day and actually made fun of the hard-working interpreters and their troubles on the previous day, while thanking just about everybody else for their work. This struck me as particularly offensive, given that it was the company who had hired an incomprehensible speaker whom even a lot of native German speakers in the audience did not understand (I overheard many conversations to that effect during the coffee and lunch breaks).

I later e-mailed the client about this matter and she mostly dismissed my concerns, which considerably lowered my willingness to work for this client in the future. What would you have done in such a situation?  We would love to hear your opinions. 

The Interpreter and the Prince

Image copyright: Bernhard ELBE LPD Wien
Have you ever wondered what it's like to interpret for a real prince? We have, too, and now that Dagy has had the experience, she's delighted to report on it for you. 

To curtsy or not to curtsy? That was the first thing that crossed my mind when the Austrian State Department (officially the Ministry of Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs) called me about an interpreting assignment during the official visit of the Prince of Wales to Austria. To make a long story short: there was no need to curtsy and it was a great experience.

The Prince of Wales and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, were on a whirlwind tour of Europe and Austria was to be the last leg of their journey. They arrived Wednesday afternoon, met a few dignitaries and attended a state banquet. I was to interpret on their second and last day during Prince Charles’s short visit to the Austrian Integration Fund (ÖIF), a government agency that provides services to recognized refugees.

My main task was to spring into action whenever the Austrian Minister of the Interior needed me and to interpret any German-language statements into English for His Royal Highness.  A few days before the job, I received plenty of background information, made sure to memorize the correct form of address (“Your Royal Highness”) and I also learned that curtsying was not required. I’m all for respecting the protocol, but I was actually quite relieved about that.

Image copyright: Bernhard ELBE LPD Wien
Since most of the talking was done in English, I rarely had to intervene and I mostly enjoyed the (almost) royal company (naturally, I saw him mostly from behind and from the side). Not surprisingly, Prince Charles came across as very approachable and likeable. He talked to refugees from Syria and Iraq, learned about the services and volunteer-run programs offered by this government agency and attended a so-called values and orientation workshop designed to introduce refugees to Austrian values and society (see picture on the right).

The whole visit lasted just 45 minutes, with perfect timing. After the motorcade with Prince Charles left, everybody was happy that things went smoothly, including the interpreter.  Since Prince Charles last visited Vienna 31 years ago with his late wife Diana, let’s hope he will come back sooner than that, maybe as king. I certainly wouldn’t mind being part of that experience again. 

Waiting for Translations: New Pricing Model?

On call: doctors and translators.
The German-speaking blogosphere recently saw an interesting discussion about pricing models for translations centered around whether should you should charge by the line/word or by the hour/project, which is an important topic, as is pricing in general. While the jury is still out on this one (we personally like the hour-based approach for certain projects and have written about this issue extensively), Dagy recently had a very unique request from an advertising agency client that we'd never had before: they asked her to provide a quote for her availability for possible translations, six days in a row, including the weekend.

After consulting with her favorite business partner, Dagy decided to charge EUR 500 per business day and EUR 750 for every day of the weekend, plus a slightly discounted rate per line for any translations. In exchange, she guaranteed permanent availability and the fastest possible completion of all translations, every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.  Even though we've worked hard on developing and insisting on professional rates for our services, Dagy did fall into the stereotypical self-exploiting freelancer trap with one thing: she didn’t even think about including a lunch break in her quote. We've made many business mistakes, and we usually don't make the same one twice, so next time we will definitely contractually set a lunch break. Lesson learned!

The client happily accepted after zero haggling. Dagy had to cancel quite a few appointments she had scheduled during those days, but it certainly paid off. Most days, she received no translations. On two days, she did a lot of translations, which had a nice impact on the final invoice. While Dagy did feel a little limited in her daily activities, she was certainly happy with what ended up being a highly lucrative week. During her stand-by times, she also proofed several hundred pages of a German-language annual report, which is per se a major project, and also worked on a wide variety of other client projects.

We believe this experience goes to show that even very unique pricing models are possible in our industry and that clients are prepared to pay adequate prices for extraordinary services. Why not keep that in mind next time you negotiate with a client?

By the way: what Dagy ended up translating were documents regarding a highly confidential company acquisition by a large European company. The estimated purchase price was in the billions. It does feel nice to have been part of such a major deal, even to a very small extent. 

While a friend suggested she use part of that money (it was, after all, a lucrative week) to upgrade to business class on her upcoming flight to the US, Dagy decided to put some of the money aside for future tax payments and to make a donation to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (also known as the UN Refugee Agency) to benefit people who are much less lucky than she is. 

On Making Rates Public

Image created on
Happy Friday, dear readers and colleagues! Today's quick post is about making or rates (or fees) available publicly. We have chosen to do so, but we understand that many linguists choose the opposite approach. We think it's an interesting topic indeed, and here are some of our thoughts on this:

  • In general, we believe transparency is a good thing for the market and for the industry. We don't really see too much of a downside n making rates public. Most other businesses and service providers do.
  • It's important to think of the client. Think of yourself as a customer: if you are on someone's website, and when you click on "rates" and it says "please call," do you really call? Or do you simply go to the next provider who does disclose rates? We usually do. 
  • Making your rates public saves you time. We don't get too many e-mails of potential clients just asking our rates without having a specific project in mind that we can quote on, but when we do, we simply e-mail them a link to our rates. Most potential clients will have already seen them on our website, though, which saves both them and us time we could also spend on better things.
  • We very much understand the argument that some collleagues don't want to publish their rates becuase they are afraid it's not good that they charge different clients different rates. There's nothing wrong with that, though. This is an unregulated industry, and you are welcome to use price differentiation. Pretty much every business on the planet does it. For instance, your glass of wine is cheaper during happy hour at the bar than an hour later and ten feet away in the restaurant area, skiing is more expensive on Saturdays than on Wednesdays, and seniors get a discount on train tickets. You get the idea - it's fine to offer different price points, including discounts to certain groups (non-profits, teachers, military --whatever works). If you'd prefer to post a range, which we think is a good idea, go ahead and do that.
  • Oftentimes, colleagues mention that they are afraid of pricing themselves out of the market. That's a good point, but once you set rates at a level that work for you, you should probably stick to them -- and they shouldn't change too much, whether you disclose them publicly or not. And you probably don't want the bottom-feeder clients who want to pay peanuts anyway, right? The bottom line: you will definitely price yourself out of some work (we all do), but your best bet is to go after the business you want at a price point that allows you to be a happy linguist who runs a profitable small business. 
So those are our main thoughts on this topic -- what do you think? We'd love to discuss this important topic here on this forum and look forward to your comments. 

BP17: A Translation Conference, Reinvented

This May, we are both quite excited to be heading to the same conference together: BP17 in Budapest, which is organized  by our colleague Csaba Ban (yes, remarkably, there's  no big association or organization behind this conference). Throughout the last few years, we've heard amazing things about this conference, and this year, Judy is honored to be a speaker at the event. 

What we love about this conference is that it is quite different from traditional T&I conferences, and we are always looking for interesting and new experiences. The twelve TED-style talks (limited to 20 minutes) will be given by a great selection of speakers from four continents, including Paula Arturo, Nick Rosenthal, Michael Farrell, Jonathan Downie, and many others. These short talks are a great idea to get lots of information in a short period of time, and we also happen to love TED talks (who doesn't?). These will be held on May 5, and May 4 will be all about masterclasses, including Judy's. There are six of them -- and one of them is an ATA certification exam, which is fantastic, as those are relatively rare in Europe. As you can see, Csaba has been busy! May 6 will be a more traditional conference day with lots of sessions to choose from, which we look forward to. Half of the sessions will focus on business, which we applaud -- we need more conferences that focus on business, as we are all businesspeople first and linguists second. All sessions on May 4 and 6 will be held at the Hotel Arena, the
conference hotel.

And there's the venue for May 5, which we are already drooling over: a beautiful old movie theater called Urania. It's the loving maintained theater that you wish you had in your hometown -- and we bet it will make for a great picture backdrop!

Unlike many other conferences, if you purchase a full pass, the price will include a farewell dinner, which will apparently turn into a party (count us in) as well as lunch. The best deal is the 2-day conference pass (masterclasses are extra), and you can bring a guest to the farewell dinner for EUR 42. The two-day pass is quite reasonably priced at EUR 239, and the conference hotel is affordable as well. Amazingly, Csaba has also organized several day trips that can be booked separately -- we just might go to one of them. These trips are something we have never seen at American conferences, and we are all for them. There's nothing quite like getting to know your colleagues while on a short trip.

So in case you cannot tell: we really are very much looking forward to this conference, and look forward to seeing all our friends and colleagues. We've been to Budapest before, and it's a spectacular city. See you there the first week of May?

Keeping Your Distance

View from US District Court, Reno, NV.
If you are intrigued by the title of today's post, you might or might not be a court interpreter. If you are (and even if you are not), please read on for today's brief comments on ethics and keeping your distance.

One of the pillars of the code of ethics for court interpreters is neutrality: we don't get involved, we are on no one's side, and we are certainly not allowed to give legal advice (nor are we qualified). We are there to interpret and to do absolutely nothing else. Obeying this basic rule will serve you well as a court interpreter, and it seems easy enough, but in practice it can be tricky.

One of the rules of thumb that we try to use is to not be alone with a person who needs interpreting services in a judicial setting. One usually needs at least three people for interpreting to take place (in our case, the non-English speaker, the non-Spanish speaker, and the interpreter) and no good usually comes out of having any sort of one-on-one conversation with the non-English speaker (LEP), so it must be avoided at all costs. The question is: how do you avoid talking to people if they walk up to you in the hallway? What if you see them in the parking lot afterwards and they have a question about their loved one's case that you are not allowed to answer? These situations can be tough, and there's no one right answer, but we usually use this approach:

  • Avoid being in public places where you could run into one of the parties alone. Ideally, walk with the lawyer/person you interpreted for. If their client comes up to the two of you, then you can certainly interpret.
  • Avoid leaving a hearing right after the LEP or his/her family so you don't put yourself into the situation of being asked a question about the case. Wait a few minutes inside the courtroom if need be. This might be awkward, but it does remove you from a potentially challenging situation.
  • If an LEP comes up to you without his/her attorney and asks a question, excuse yourself as quickly as possible. LEPs usually see you as their ally because you speak their language, but as a court interpreter, you are no one's ally and you must avoid all appearance of conflict of interest. One option is to briefly apologize about not being able to talk, and say that the code of ethics does not allow court interpreters to speak with LEPs on their own because we are neutral parties, and go looking for their attorney as quickly as possible. This is oftentimes quite disappointing for LEPs, but you must stick to the code of ethics. You don't ever want to get into a situation where an LEP says in court: "The interpreter told me...." It happens more often than you would think, so don't put yourself in the situation.
  • If necessary, go to the bathroom. This doesn't sound like a very elegant solution, and people might still want to talk to you inside the bathroom, but being inside a stall is usually a solid bet.
We'd love to hear other possible solutions/thoughts from fellow court interpreters! 

Quick Negotiation Tip: Final Offer

Happy Friday, dear readers! Today's quick negotiating tip comes, as always, from our own practice.

First things first: just like most people, we don't love to negotiate. We could certainly be better at it, and we are working on it. One thing we've learned recently that oftentimes it pays off to never stop negotiating, even if the other person says the famous words of: "This is my final offer." 

A few weeks ago, while negotiating an interpreting contract, the client, in a very friendly conversation, told us a number that she said was going to be her final offer. We've also learned not to say yes or no right away, but to ask the client if we can think about it, which has served us well as a negotiating tactic. We employed it this time, and the client said sure, that we could think about it for a day or two. Then we talked amongst ourselves: she said this was her final offer, right? Does that mean we do not have a choice but to accept it? We mulled this over a bit, and we came to the conclusion that of course we do not have an obligation to accept it. Everything is still negotiable until one party walks away, an outcome you (mostly) want to avoid (unless the terms don't work for you at all). So we decided to gamble (there is always some risk) and decided to counter one more time. We figured that our client could always reject our counteroffer, which would put us back at square one, but we decided we would cross that bridge in due time.

So we sent a friendly and upbeat email saying that we would love to work with them, and even though their offer wasn't the number we were looking for. We stated that we were willing to work with them and offered a more reasonable rate at X. We told them we looked forward to working with them, and lo and behold: they accepted and everyone is happy.

Lesson learned: a final offer is only a final offer if you accept it. It's usually worth negotiating to see what happens. A caveat: if you really need a particular project, this strategy might not worth be the risk. This is a classic risk/reward scenario, and it requires willingness to assume some risk. Happy negotiating! We would love to hear your negotiating tips if you are willing to share them with us and your colleagues.

Interpreting: Online FCICE Prep Course with Ernesto Nino-Murcia

It's that time again: the oral portion of the FCICE (Federal Court Interpreter Certification Exam) is being offered again in mid-2017, and if you are thinking about taking it, you should definitely already be preparing for it. Our friends at MATI (Midwest Association of Interpreters and Translators) have helped eliminate geographical boundaries, which make it much easier and cost-effective to attend these preparation courses, as they are being offered via Facebook Live. Our esteemed colleague and Judy's fellow federally certified interpreter Ernesto Nino-Murcia is not only a fantastic interpreter, but also a great instructor, as we've seen for ourselves during his presentations at several conferences. We've heard nothing but outstanding feedback about the courses he's offering through MATI, and no, we are not getting paid to say this! Here's the link to sign up. Best of luck on the exam and keep us posted.

Here's to a healthy and happy 2017 -- and maybe to passing the FCICE!  

Join the conversation! Commenting is a great way to become part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media is all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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