Where work comes from – Setton & Dawrant

The following is taken, without permission, from Chapter 11 of Robin Setton & Andrew Dawrant’s wonderful book, Conference Interpreting – A complete course. Please go and buy the whole thing that I might be forgiven for using this extract here!

Introduction to professional practice

11.2.1 Where does work come from? 

When we work in routine, straightforward meetings for direct clients who under-stand our needs, no intermediary between interpreter(s) and client or user may be necessary. But in practice, on the private market today (outside AIIC’s ‘Agreement Sector’) interpreting services are increasingly intermediated. Organizing inter-pretation for complex multilingual events, in particular, requires an intermediate planning and coordinating function between the individual interpreters and the meeting organizer. A risk of intermediation is that if the interpreters are cut off from the organizer, the working conditions needed for quality may not be com-municated or guaranteed: the less direct the link between those with interpreting competence and the users of the service, the higher the risk of things going wrong. Some commercial intermediaries, including professional conference organizers (PCOs) and occasionally, translation agencies, are competent in managing inter-preted events, understand the interdependence between conditions and quality, and play a useful role as a bridge; but others can be incompetent, rapacious or ob-structive, acting more like a barrier. The profession has therefore always fought to preserve direct contact between interpreters and clients/users. This is accomplished when the intermediary is a qualified professional interpreter, or a consultancy run by one or more such colleagues, with the necessary negotiating, organizing, interpersonal and business skills (see below). The contract plays a key role, whether or not there is intermediation; and when there is, is especially important to ensure its transparency. There are a number of standard model contracts, some of which are approved by AIIC for its mem-bers, that can be adapted with addition of clauses such as disclaimers (see below

Freelance conference interpreters will receive offers of work from a number of different kinds of parties. It is important to understand the differences between them. Consultant interpreters 

A consultant interpreter is a professional interpreter who offers a value-added service, either directly to a primary conference organizer or via a PCO2/event planner, by acting as a general contractor managing all aspects of the interpreta-tion service for an event. AIIC publishes a list of vetted consultant interpreters who “have the task of ensuring a high-quality service adapted to the client’s needs while obtaining optimum working conditions for the interpreters at every conference”.3 Some consultant interpreters work as individuals or as part of a network, but an increasing number are set up and operate as a small business, with partners, staff, an office and a brand. The consultant interpreter handles all of the client-facing, organizational and transactional aspects of the service, such as: determining interpretation require-ments in consultation with the client; customer education; preparing detailed quo-tations and service agreements; recruiting teams of qualified interpreters, taking into account language combinations, experience, subject affinities and domiciles; either providing or liaising on technical equipment and set-up; obtaining docu-ments for preparation and forwarding these to the interpreters; communicating information to all parties; coordinating the service on site, either in person or through an appointed team leader; ensuring that the interpreters have what they need to perform quality work and that the interpretation service is organized op-timally in the interests of the client; dealing with last-minute changes, requests and emergencies; processing invoicing and payment; inviting and providing feedback, conducting debriefings, etc. Consultant interpreters are paid for this service either by charging a transpar-ent ‘organizing fee’ to the conference organizer/PCO (the traditional practice in AIIC’s European heartland) or by marking up the fees they quote to the end user, in line with general subcontracting practice in the event industry; or a combina-tion of both. For a freelance interpreter on the private market, assignments that come through a good consultant interpreter are likely to be the most trouble-free: ‘transaction costs’ will be as close to zero as they will ever get on the private market, and working conditions are most likely to be the best attainable for a given meeting or event. Colleagues 

Freelance interpreters may also receive offers of work from other freelancers who have their own direct clients. In some markets this may be the primary source of work for freelancers, who may form informal alliances with a group of peers. In this ecosystem, each freelancer has a number of direct clients for whom they provide interpretation from time to time. Interpreter A, upon receiving an as-signment from her own direct client, will recruit Interpreter B and C to work with her. Down the road, when Interpreter B gets an assignment from her own direct client, she will then recruit Interpreter A to ‘repay’ the previous assign-ment. Essentially, each freelance interpreter in the informal alliance takes turns playing the role of ‘consultant interpreter’; some are better at this than others. Often, freelance-recruiters are not compensated, or only minimally, for the work they put into handling the organizational and transactional aspects of the service. Their reward is the goodwill they generate with the colleagues they recruit and the tacit understanding that those colleagues will in turn recruit them for future assignments (the retour d’ascenseur’). This system works best in a local market with simple bilingual interpretation requirements (one room, one booth, two languages), especially with repeat clients who are used to working with interpreters. But most freelance-recruiters would be hard-pressed to organize multi-language, multi-venue interpretation for large, complex events, especially when it involves recruiting interpreters from overseas. This will require more sophisticated management skills, organization, infrastructure, and a considerable investment of time and resources, and is thus best left to experienced consultant interpreters. (It is hard to pinpoint at what precise point a freelance interpreter who recruits colleagues for assignments becomes a consult-ant interpreter, but this is how consultant interpreters usually get started, working their way up from organizing for small, local affairs to more complex events with other languages.) Agencies 

`Agencies’ refers here to all non-interpreter third parties, i.e. all intermediaries other than professional consultant interpreters and freelance-recruiters. These may be translation agencies, event planners, public relations firms, hotels and meeting venues, equipment rental companies, etc. This is the most variable, unpredictable category of intermediary, with the highest risk of problems with working condi-tions and other unpleasant surprises. Agencies market the same kind of ‘package service’ as consultant interpreters, but with no guarantee of professionalism. The four most common problems that arise when working through agencies are:

– failure to ensure or even request proper working conditions (.g. team strength, booth location); 

– poor access to documents, presentations, speakers, information; 

– unqualified ‘interpreters’ included on the team; 

– late payment (often on the excuse that ‘our client has not paid us yet’, which is both unverifiable and irrelevant), or non-payment in the event that the service is cancelled, postponed or curtailed. 

This is not to say that all agencies are bad. There are some that are familiar with and subscribe to the professional  tenets of conference interpreting and can act as an efficient and transparent facilitator. But these are a minority. It is best to exercise caution, and be sure to sign a detailed written contract (see below). Direct clients 

Individual freelance interpreters may also receive offers of work from direct clients, i.e. actual end users who require interpretation for an upcoming event. In this case, the interpreter may act as freelance-recruiter/consultant interpreter; or, if not comfortable playing this role, may pass on the request to a more experienced colleague on the understanding that s/he will be included on the team recruited. Beginners can expect that it will take time to build up a roster of direct cli-ents on the private market, especially in mature markets with well-established providers. Some markets, such as Japan, are very highly intermediated, with little work coming to interpreters from direct clients. In other markets, freelancers with entrepreneurial personalities and a well-developed network may end up working primarily with direct clients. This will require a whole set of skills in event and assignment management (see ‘consultant interpreter’ above) and standard document forms(guidelines for organizers, tips for speakers, standard service agreements, invoice forms, etc.). Working directly for clients saves intermediary fees, but may make signifi-cantly more demands on your time than when assignments are (professionally and competently) intermediated and all you need to do is ‘prepare and perform’. Transaction costs are especially high when dealing with short, non-recurring assignments: one can easily spend the equivalent of two working days handling all the pert-assignment aspects of just a one-day engagement. Make sure you take this into account when thinking about fees. Since essentially the same amount of work goes into organizing a one-day vs. a five-day assignment, longer assignments are more economical, but on the private market are relatively few and far between. Co-opetition: managing business relationships with collaborators-cum-competitors 

Freelance interpreters on the private market compete for work opportunities. Their rivals include both other freelancers and agencies. However, because interpreting is teamwork and it is often intermediated, they may often find themselves collaborating with these same ‘rivals’ on one assignment while competing against them for another. This situation can be described as ‘co-opetition’. In such an environment, it is important to manage business relationships carefully and ethically. In particular, should you accept to be recruited by one of your ‘competitors’ for an assignment, you must work under that competitor’s ‘brand’ for that assignment and not interfere in your competitor’s business relationship. If you are not prepared to do so, you should refuse the assignment. To this end, all freelance interpreters on the private market must understand an unwritten convention that has largely contributed to the orderly and congenial functioning of this small international profession over the years, according to which certain norms of ‘ownership’ are understood to apply to clients and assignments. In all cases where you are not working with your own direct client, the client and the assignment are understood to be ‘owned’ by whoever recruited you, be it a consultant interpreter, a freelance-recruiter, or an agency. This means that there is a clear division of labour: you are responsible only for preparing and performing, and the recruiter is responsible for all ‘client-facing’ aspects of the engagement. All peri-assignment matters will be taken care of by the recruiter, through whom any questions or issues should be channelled. The most serious violation of this ‘norm of ownership’ would be poaching a client away from your recruiter. If you accept to be recruited for an assignment by any recruiter (consultant interpreter, freelance-recruiter, or agency), you must also accept that both that assignment and all subsequent assignments flowing out of that assignment ‘belong’ to that same recruiter. If you do a good job and there is positive feedback on your performance, the recruiter will hire you for the next assignment (subject, of course, to your availability). But under no circumstances should you be in contact with the client directly about future assignments. Always refer inquiries back to the recruiter who gave you the assignment. Your integrity will be appreciated, and will be rewarded with trust, and more offers of work from that recruiter in the future. A seeming ‘grey area (at least in the minds of some freelancers) exists when it comes to third parties you may encounter on site at the meeting. What should you do if a delegate from an outside organization, not the meeting organizer, ap-proaches you on site, compliments you on your interpreting performance, and asks for your business card with the intention of hiring you or recommending you for future assignments? The conservative and indeed default answer would be to do the same as in the above case: thank them for the compliment, and refer them to the recruiter who sent you; again, you can expect that the recruiter will appreciate your integrity and will assign you to whatever meetings arise from the referral, subject to your availability. Indeed, on some markets, such as Japan, it is common for freelance interpreters to be issued business cards by the agencies that recruit them, displaying their names but the contact details of the agency. But should you feel, as do some freelance interpreters with a strong sense of entitlement, that you yourself should have ‘ownership’ of all third-party inquiries and offers of work arising as a result of your performance on an assignment that came to you through the intermediation of a recruiter, be aware that the situation involves a conflict between your interests and the interests of the recruiter. If that is your position, it is only fair that you should make it clear to the recruiter in ad-vance. Few, if any, recruiters will be happy with the idea of freelance interpreters promoting their own services to potential direct clients encountered at recruiter-intermediated meetings. So check the recruiter’s policy ahead of time; if you don’t like it, then don’t take assignments through that recruiter. As a rule, then, only hand out personal business cards and contact details at assignments that you organize for your own direct clients. In all other cases, refer inquiries to the person who recruited you. Finally, today the whole concept of contacts and networking has become more complex with the advent of social media. As a general principle, do not proactively invite the (prospective) client to link to you; if you receive an invitation from the client to link to them, think twice before accepting. If you do accept, keep a record of the history of this relationship, so that if it results in an offer of work three years down the road, you will remember to refer it to the appropriate recruiter.