Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Fairest of Them All?; What Does an Agency Look For In an Interpreter?

It is not always the most experienced interpreters that are the most desirable candidates. Common sense dictates that  I would want to hire someone that is a veteran, who can represent us well from the standpoint of accumulated knowledge. Traditionally, the way we have measured that is through certifications, prior experience and recommendations. However, that is only one filter. Some credentialed interpreters may lack other traits to complete assignments successfully.

I typically look for individuals that also have a strong work ethic; that respond to calls on a timely basis and report to work early, not just before the event/trial is about to start.  People that I know we can count on to do whatever research is required and who will share the fruits of their work with a colleague, as needed.  This does not mean that I expect there will be slouchers and that we have to overlook that and coddle them regardless, but for the most part, interpreters are hard workers or they wouldn’t get far in a profession that requires us to be abreast of developments in many industries. Nonetheless, there are some interpreters that are so protective of their glossaries and research that it hinders team work and bears mentioning as a negative.

It is likewise desirable that the person be well-rounded and have other interests besides her work.  That curiosity is indicative of a balanced temperament, a happier disposition that is involved in life, and usually a greater vocabulary.  We all know how addictive it is to run into new words and have to immediately find its equivalent in our language combination. The more interests we have, the more terms we will come across and the more resources we will have to draw from.

Other advantageous traits are flexible personalities that will cooperate and go with the flow if conditions are not the most appealing.  As a company, we discuss working conditions with the client in advance, to forestall surprises.  However, Murphy’s law sometimes strikes in spite of our best efforts.  We may encounter a speaker/witness that is racing along, giving a technical speech that we never got a copy of, equipment may malfunction, the working schedule may vary, the client may decide to record the proceedings on the fly, etc., etc.  I look for interpreters that will be helpful in those circumstances and do their best to get the job done professionally without throwing their hands up in dismay, causing a ruckus.  On the other hand, let me point out that I am not advocating that you should submissively acquiesce to unacceptable working conditions. Obviously, if one is asked to do something that will reflect negatively on performance, I would expect that the agency be apprised immediately of the situation if a staff member is not present at the moment.  If there is no time to do that because action is required, then the client contact must be informed by the interpreters, in a non-adversarial way, of the reason why it is not advisable to work in the manner proposed. 

The Chickens Always Come Home to Roost

Although mentioned later in this article, the ethics of the interpreter is foremost. Your would-be employer will ultimately become aware of them through colleagues and clients, and subsequent dealings, if it is not apparent at the outset. Reputation always has a funny habit of catching up with you. I have been in business for many decades and thankfully I have not been disappointed often.  I firmly believe that what goes around comes around. Nonetheless, it has happened.  I am talking about interpreters who have accepted an assignment and gotten a more lucrative offer and left us high and dry at the last minute. Or interpreters that go behind your back and try to steal your clients. Or those who regularly arrive late or send someone else to cover the job they were supposed to do for you so they can accept another assignment, thinking we will not find out. And then there are those who blithely falsify their credentials to make themselves more attractive, dismissing the possibility that they could ever be found out.  Some of you may shrug your shoulders and say this doesn’t happen in your world but I assure you that it does. You may just not be aware of it. In spite of the fact that it is very short-sighted to engage in those practices because in this digital age where the flow of information is only enhanced with every passing day, these shenanigans come to light much quicker than in years past. In my case at least, such a transgression is a death-knell to any relationship with my company. There is no appeal.

Lastly, once the interpreter has begun to work with us, we always follow up to see if there is a good fit. Does he work well with his colleagues?  Does he display proper etiquette in the booth or at a trial?  Does he/she have the social skills and demeanor necessary to deal appropriately with the client and our staff? Is the candidate up to date with developments in the profession through membership and involvement in trade associations? These are all ongoing questions that continue to augment the candidate’s profile after the initial interview. To add some perspective, click here and scroll to No.4 to read an insightful assessment by Holly Mikkelson regarding the qualities of an interpreter.

I am very keen on hearing comments, either from other agency owners or from the other side of the fence, as to what interpreters consider important when they agree to work with agencies. In addition to the obvious right to be paid on time, which is the duty of any responsible company.

About mariacristinadelavegamusings

Certified SpanishEnglish interpreter by the Administrative Offices of the U.S. Courts, the State of Florida and the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), where I have served on the board of directors, am chair of the Public Relations Committee, and have a column entitled "Getting Down to Business" in Proteus, the association newsletter. I am a member of the American Translators Association (ATA) and have a monthly column named "Interpreters Forum". In addition to the prior two associations, I also belong to AIIC (International Association of Conference Interpreters). I own ProTranslating, Inc., an LSP in Florida. I hold an MBA, which keeps one foot firmly grounded in everyday waking consciousness while the other aggressively seeks unity consciousness...

Posted on August 23, 2011, in Interpreting and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I’m surprised and shocked to hear that an interpreter would send somebody else to an assignment s/he had accepted. I don’t think I would have lasted 5 minutes on the Swedish market doing that!

    • Unfortunately, it happens. Not at the conference level but at legal translation assignments where those who do it think no one will know the better because the law firm client does not know all our interpreters. It doesn’t happen often but it has occurred.

  2. I like this.
    Very insightful and well written.
    Thank you!!

  3. Maria Cristina, very well written. Congratulations on your blog.
    Talking from the interpreter’s point of view, some agencies try to abuse you in many ways: not wanting to pay miles, offering very little pay when you know they are charging the client two or three times the amount, not answering your requests for information on assignments, not giving specific instructions as to what the client wants, etc. Ah, and how can I forget the times when I have been called to interpret and have shown up at assignments where they needed Chinese, Vietnamese and Portuguese and my language is Spanish?

    • Carmen, thank you for your informative comment. A company is only as good as the interpreters that represent it and an interpreter can only prepare and be at her best if she knows what is involved. The schedulers at my company have standing instructions to ask what a case is about, if it’s not apparent from the style or we are not familiar with the type of law that client practices. Whenever the situation warrants it, we request supporting documentation. We can’t do that for every case because we cannot overburden the legal assistants who call us, to provide documents for every case. We also ask how long and how technical the proceeding will be to determine whether advance research needs to be done on specific topics or whether two interpreters should be scheduled instead of one. Another very good question to ask is whether the client is expecting consecutive interpretation on an intermittent basis during an assignment or whether he expects simultaneous interpretation to be rendered throughout the proceeding. In addition to the number of interpreters needed, that would also determine the fact that equipment must also be provided. I hope this was helpful. I think it’s a matter of educating the agencies that do not yet grasp the importance of these issues, as well as the end client.
      I hope to hear from you again!

  4. First, let me say that I love the layout and look of your blog! I’m not a big reader of the blogosphere but yours is getting me in the habit, so thanks for showing the way.

    What an agency looks for in an interpreter is no different from what a court looks for, or any other institution that uses interpreters– this I can say after 20 some-odd years of dealing with freelance interpreters in my official capacity at the SDNY. Skill level is of course important, but attitude also counts for a lot. Most annoying are freelance interpreters who swear they have simultaneous experience and then don’t open their mouths when the judge takes the bench. I have had the experience of being called to a courtroom because someone has noticed an interpreter isn’t interpreting (it’s easy– if the lips aren’t moving, he’s not interpreting ) and when I approach the interpreter to say “You must interpret everything,” the interpreter looks straight at me and says “I am doing it.” The only word for this is chutzpah. It reminds me of the Groucho Marx line, when he says indignantly, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” Many interpreters have apparently spent their careers not being noticed, or interpreting for two-minute adjournments, and they don’t know their own limitations. This is why observation is so important for supervisors. It is also why we desperately need examinations in many languages, because those would weed out the fakers.

    My rule of thumb with court interpreters is that however many years of experience they have, cut the number in half, because half of their cases were probably adjourned.

    Common sense is also something we all look for, and as they tell the juries, it is not so common. Interpreters who are preeners, or act like divas, or hog the mike, or lord it over colleagues, or insist on their full lunch hour even when there are unusual circumstances, or complain about changed schedules, or use the courthouse office as their personal domain, or chat endlessly when staff is trying to work, or are always late submitting their bills, are– surprise, surprise– not among the first we will call. Being cooperative, discreet, punctual and highly skilled is the winning combination.

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