Letter from the Editor: freelance interpreting

Murky concepts of business overpower clear thinking in this business-dominated world. No, I'm not about to rant about blind faith in the rationality of markets; rather let's try to apply a smidgeon of rationality to the business of making a living as a freelance interpreter.

Value your work

I've found that we interpreters commonly fudge when asked about fees.

  • "The going rate is..."
  • "We usually charge..." (when there is no we)
  • "Well, the UN these days..."
  • "I hope my rate doesn't seem too high, but..."

Inhibited, many long for someone to tell them what to say. I recall a colleague once telling me that she found it hard to quote the rate she wanted because she found it difficult to say out loud that she was worth that much!

I think a newer generation may not share that degree of shyness. And I hope that we are getting past the outworn concept of a rate. Why would one be enough for the variety of work that comes our way? And in high season, when absolutely everyone wants to meet at the same time, shouldn't the law of supply and demand work in our favor?

So, here's some advice on how to answer the next time you're asked what you charge: "That depends on several factors. May I ask a few questions?"

I, for one, am convinced that interpreters are paid too little, and suspect that we may be one of the most poorly remunerated groups by level of education and expertise. Let's take a quick look at what goes into making an interpreter; a lot of value is created along the way.

These days the road to a career in translation and interpreting passes through school. To put it simply, we spend years studying, acquiring extreme competence in languages, general and specialised knowledge, and job-specific skills (some would call that an investment that should produce a just return). Most interpreters have at least one MA degree. As a reference: less than 9% of the population of the United States has attained that level of education.1

There are other intangible elements that deserve a place in the equation. Interpreters don't stop with an MA; the level of expertise demanded in professional practice is eventually much higher than that we possess upon graduation. We continue to learn, to expand our knowledge, to hone our skills. How else would we prepare for the diversity of situations we will encounter?

Moreover, professionals internalize a code of ethical behavior, producing benefits for the users of our services that often go unnoticed. In addition to confidentiality, we follow rules on integrity and collegiality (team work is essential), as well as stipulations on working conditions that underlie quality.

In simple terms - expertise, knowledge and professionalism add value. They are at the heart of what we offer clients and must be figured into fees alongside hours worked, subject matter, preparation time and the like.

Know your expenses

In a similar fashion, a down-to-earth understanding of expenses is invaluable. Start with the most disagreeable: taxes. Sounds frightening, but freelancers are better off knowing what is required. Hire a professional to help if need be.

In fact, hiring a competent professional is an excellent way to learn.  Ask enough questions and you'll find out what expenses you can claim as deductions. These may include (depending on where you are based) things like office rent (even if your office is a desk in your sitting/dining room), books and periodicals, a refresher course, professional dues, transportation, and even the fees you are paying your tax advisor or accountant to tell you all this.

Don't forget future expenses. You may retire - or take a sabbatical - some day and savings will come in handy.

The other advantage of understanding your expenses is that you'll become better at budgeting - essential for a freelancer. And let's face it: controlling what you spend is easier than predicting what you will earn.

Further reading

Two years ago we published Julia Böhm's excellent Budgeting Time and Costs for Professional Conference Interpreters. Let Julia take your through what goes into a job, including the hard-to-quantify intangible cost components like ongoing terminology management or reading the press.

Our VEGA group has posted a wealth of information for newcomers. You may want to consult Tips for beginners, Job offer checklist for beginners and The successful conference interpreter's checklist.

AIIC's Practical Guide for Professional Conference Interpreters is a treasure-trove of information, taking you from an option through completion of an assignment. It's long but you can download it in either Word or PDF format (look in the right-hand column).

Other sources provide good information on freelancing in general. A beginner's guide to freelancing (by self-declared beginner Phil Gyford) will help you examine all the different functions you must perform in your single job as a freelancer.

Full-time freelancing: 10 things learned in 180 days and 10 more things in 360 days (Cameron Moll) offers a very readable personal take on freelancing.

This issue

Who are the 2800+ members of AIIC? To uncover a few of the faces, Communicate! is pleased to introduce a new series of interviews: Interpreter Voices. Our first conversation is with Xiaojing (Lynette) Shi, who discusses her first steps in the profession, what she finds most fulfilling, public perception, and more.

"Interpreters love glossaries... but we need them to be more than a list of hard-to-navigate terms; we want them to work for us and not make us work for them." How do you manage that? Read Mary Fons i Fleming's Do Your Glossaries Excel?

The word fluency can ring empty at times, especially when followed by the words in just six weeks. Clare Donovan says that she realized that it had taken her "considerably longer to learn my C language and that, having battled with German for thirty years, I was still not comfortable with the Austrian brand of that language." Read her review of a German refresher course: Taking "C" seriously in Vienna.

"For reasons beyond fathoming my family is convinced my job is a sinecure - or to put it in their racy idiom 'a complete doss'." You'll recognise the voice of Phil Smith. Read more about his personal quest for Respect.

Is the good work of interpreters ever recognised? What do Anfillo, Bung and Hoti have in common? Will learning a language contribute to healthy senior years? Find a few answers - or at least places to look for them - in Language in the News.

Articles reflect the views of the author(s) and should not be taken to represent the official position of AIIC.

Communicate! invites submission of articles from members and non-members alike. Please contact l.luccarelli@nkyydkpj1fh.aiic.net or info@s2abh.aiic.net .

1 "Educational attainment in the United States." Wikipedia.

Recommended citation format:
Luigi LUCCARELLI. "Letter from the Editor: freelance interpreting". aiic.co.uk September 16, 2009. Accessed May 29, 2020. <http://aiic.co.uk/p/3320>.