Letter from the Editor: freelance interpreting

Do you know how much you work? Not just the number of days you bill, but how much of your time is actually dedicated to all things related to work? Let’s look into it.

People often ask me how much I work and the reflex answer is “ around x days per year.” The usual response from a non-interpreter will be “Wow, you’re really lucky to have so much free time!” And I’ll think to myself, “Sure, but I know I am busier than that.” How much busier is the question.

What gets included?

Communicating with colleagues and clients probably takes more time than we suspect. Emails pile up precipitously – questions about availability, requests for a CV, rates and/or airfares, changes of venue and date, queries about language combinations, a request to respond to a survey or questionnaire, etc. Could that amount to a few hours per week? It’s certainly possible and is sure to be more if you are a consultant interpreter or do a lot of networking.

We perform many organisational tasks, ranging from terminology and document management to accounting (in the broadest sense of the word). It always hurts to hear a colleague say she doesn’t know if she was paid for that job you did together 6 months ago. It stings even more to realize that you don’t either! And don’t forget that you have to oversee your office, even if it is just a desk in the corner of the living room. You track work-related expenses and prepare tax forms, make sure dues are paid, and update your calendar. You sometimes decide it’s time to learn how to use new software or web services. All that could add up to a few weeks per year. 

Interpreting is a knowledge-intensive profession that demands a store of information and quick association of ideas and references. That is why we are avid readers. Browsing the morning paper over breakfast may not seem like work but it is – a pleasurable aspect of the job but still a part of it. Another hour per day? Add on more for the books, magazines and blogs you read in your various languages.

Ongoing education is a must in an ever-changing world. You keep your skills honed, delve into developments in the language professions with colleagues, attend the occasional course or conference. Plus you may be active in one or more professional associations – and anyone who has been active in AIIC knows it really is work!

Specific Preparation is another area: reading documents, doing any research you may think is needed for an upcoming conference, compiling a glossary and generally setting the scene for your assignment. Your fee incorporates the time and effort; it’s just that when someone asks how much you work, you don’t remember to factor it in.

A quick estimate for an interpreter working 90 - 100 days per year (the range of average workload reported in AIIC statistical surveys from 2004 to 2008): 1300+ hours annually, depending on clientele (few or many repeat clients), kind of work (technical, general, etc.), languages, continuing education, participation in associations and so on. The figures in the following table are based on no more than an educated guess run by a few colleagues. Perhaps some spend more time on one thing and less on another. Nonetheless, I do think it provides a fair, perhaps even conservative, ballpark figure. After all I didn’t include the gym, yoga or meditation time needed to shed accumulated physical tension and keep your mind alert.

Area of Activity


hr/wk 1

hr/yr 2

A. Work-related activities


  • Exchanges related to work by email, phone, etc.




Office management

  • Accounting, budgeting, billing, taxes, etc.
  • Document and terminology management
  • Learning to use new software and the like




General knowledge & self-improvement

  • Following current events using all media
  • Maintenance/improvement of working languages





  • Participation in professional associations or interest groups
  • Following matters related to the profession (journals, lectures, etc.)
  • Ongoing education (T&I-related, language and business courses)




Subtotal A:




B. Work

Work (90 and 100 days/year)

  • Days remunerated (work + paid travel/rest/briefing days; a day calculated as 7 hours)





Specific preparation

  • Time spent preparing for assignments (calculated as 1 per 4 days remunerated)



Subtotal B:





Total A + B:





In sum, how much you work is greater than number of days you bill. Julia Böhm’s 2007 article Budgeting Time and Costs for Professional Conference Interpreters treats some of these question in greater detail and merits re-reading. 

How much do others work?

I recently read that South Koreans work more than the people of any other OECD country. The current OECD table doesn’t give the figure for 2008, but in 2007 Koreans worked 2,316 hours on average. To put that in perspective, it would mean working 44.5 hours every week of the year!

In 2008, those working in the USA clocked 1,792 hours on average, while the French and Dutch spent 1,542 and 1,389 hours at work respectively. The mean for all OECD countries was 1,766.

Knowing more

It would be interesting to include questions about time spent on various work-related activities in a future AIIC survey. One of you may want to keep a log for a month and write about it for Communicate!. Or someone could take up the matter as a research project (OMG – another request to participate in my inbox). We may find out that the answer to “How much do you work as an interpreter?” is fulltime.

This Issue

Many colleagues engage in a variety of activities beyond interpreting; Miriam Shlesinger is an excellent example. She is also a teacher and a researcher, active in community projects and the former head of the Israel section of Amnesty International. This year she received the Danica Seleskovitch Award in recognition of her contributions to conference interpretation and translation studies. Communicate! is pleased to present her acceptance speech.

In 2009 AIIC established a project on interpreters in conflict zones. In April of this year the group’s efforts bore fruit when 40 members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe signed a declaration calling on “member states to provide better protection for interpreters during and following conflicts.” Eduardo Kahane reports in Conflict zones: the first hurdle.

The AIIC Training Committee has been organising many short courses recently. Handan Bao was in Rome for one of them and has sent us A Tale of Two Pictures: an AIIC Training of Trainers Seminar.

Phil Smith has turned his microphone off and resumed writing – much to our delight. Read about how he learned to declutter his life since he last appeared in these pages: Ordem e progresso.

Have you been called to interpret at a deposition and wondered what to do or to avoid doing? Verónica Pérez Guarnieri is here with some advice in Interpreting Depositions: A Fact Sheet.

Last but not least, Language in the News is back with videos and radio programs by and about interpreters, books translated and sometimes not distributed, and opinions about how new communication technologies are reshaping our gray matter.

Read on!

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@gak1mj.aiic.net or info@dyb1wknk.aiic.net.

1 Time per day x 6 days
2 Time per week x 50
Recommended citation format:
Luigi LUCCARELLI. "Letter from the Editor: freelance interpreting". aiic.co.uk June 16, 2010. Accessed July 2, 2020. <http://aiic.co.uk/p/3467>.