Free-lance Interpreting: The Nitty-Gritty


Kathleen Shelly

Kathleen Shelly is a Delaware translator and interpreter certified by the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts. She has a master’s degree plus doctoral work in Latin American literature from the Ohio State University, and was a college professor for 12 years.  She has been a member of NAJIT since 2005, and currently holds the office of secretary on the board of directors.

As we prepare to soon launch the official blog for the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), I have asked those interested in being part of that blogging team to make guest appearances on my blog to start publishing their views and becoming familiar with the logistics involved in this art form. Kathleen is the first to share her posts from that group. I know you will enjoy her takes- Blogmaster

The following is the first in a series about the practical aspects of being a free-lance interpreter. We will be discussing topics such as car maintenance, managing assignments, record keeping and general protocol. My idea is to help newcomers become acquainted with the nitty-gritty of the profession, and get feedback from those whose experience and knowledge are greater than my own. All comments and ideas are welcome!

About thirteen years ago, I was informed that my state had become a member of the National Center for State Courts, and that an exam for court interpreters was being offered. Trapped in a dead-end job fielding Spanish-language calls at a credit card company, I jumped at the chance, passed the exam and entered the ranks of free-lance interpreters. Work was rather sparse at first; looking back at my records, I see that I made a whopping $4,450.74 my first year. Over time, I developed my business and client-base, and I am now doing a heck of a lot better, although still far from wealthy.

I love my work. Even at its dullest, it beats the 9 to 5 treadmill I had found myself in before. That is not to say there are no drawbacks. There are indeed. Sometimes, as I drive that hundredth mile, I find myself yearning for the security of the staff-interpreter, that lucky soul who enjoys benefits, a short commute, a guaranteed parking space, taxes deducted automatically, etc. Unfortunately, that option is not open to me, but over time I have learned to deal with the exigencies of my trade.

What is a free-lance interpreter? In essence, we are self-employed business persons who must handle our own work schedule, our own taxes, our own benefits, our own marketing, our own record keeping and, just as important as any of these, our own professional development. The money we make must pay not only for the hours we work in court, attorney’s office or medical setting, but also the time we spend attending to business. People who know how much money I make an hour are often shocked and sometimes outraged. They have no idea how much work it has taken to get to this stage in my career, and the ongoing hours of paper work, study and preparation. I have gone through many years of education—high school, college, graduate school, travel abroad to prepare myself for this work. And, since I rarely work eight hours a day, the amount I earn does not even reflect a full day’s pay.

I always feel a little grim when someone says to me, “Well, being a free-lancer must be great! You can name your own hours, work whenever and wherever you want!” Well, yes and no. You can pick and choose assignments as long as you accept the fact that you will make less money if you get too picky. In addition, it is to your advantage to accept certain assignments to get your foot in the door. If an agency calls you repeatedly and you always turn them down, they will eventually stop calling you. I also hate hearing: “Oh, Monday’s a holiday! You won’t have to work!” Unlike a regular employee, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid, period.

So let’s take a look at some of the facets of being a free-lance interpreter. My next entry will be about car maintenance. Gotta go. I have an appointment with the dealership to find out about that pesky engine light that keeps popping on!

In the meantime, I would love to hear  your freelancing stories so please leave your comments below.

Posted on October 9, 2011, in court interpreting, Interpreting, language training, Languages and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. A friend of mine just emailed me one of your articles from a while back. I read that one and a few more. Really enjoy your blog. Thanks.

  2. Leslie Tabarez

    As a fellow freelance interpreter, I agree with you that people have no concept of what it takes to earn a decent living in this field. It almost feels like courts and agencies agree on what days of the week to have an incredible amount of work and what days of the week to rest on, and we have to turn down a lot of work because we are previously booked, only to have our original assignment canceled, leaving us scrambling to re-fill our schedule. We drive incredible distances, have to wait for months to get paid from some jurisdictions and/or agencies, spend hours doing paperwork, spend a ton of money on paper and ink, and other office supplies. When we try to do the right thing by recommending colleagues for an assignment we can’t accept, showing both the agency or jurisdiction that we are team players, as well as helping our colleagues get more work, we often run the risk of not getting called by that agency or jurisdiction again. We are also often judged because of things completely unrelated to what we do as professional interpreters, either because other unprofessional interpreters have preceded us or because the people we work for have certain images in their heads as to what interpreters do, look like, or are worth.

    Well written post. Now that interpreter certification in Delaware has been around for a long period of time, do you see changes in terms of people requesting certified interpreters instead of non-certified interpreters, rates, respect towards interpreters as professionals and other “problem” areas?

  3. After reading this I don’t feel alone anymore. A couple of times I had to wait three months to get paid by a particular county court! What would the clerk who is supposed to process my claim do, if she didn’t get her paycheck for three months, I wonder? And meanwhile I have to scramble to pay my bills. But overall, I have to say that I enjoy the freedom of not having have to report to anyone else and be able to plan my own schedule. Thanks!

    Haliuna Haden

    • Thank you for commenting Haliuna. One of the purposes of our posts is to raise public awareness of the needs of our colleagues and timely payment is certainly at the top of the list, especially during these trying financial times. We look forward to hearing from you again.

  4. Jaime M. de Castellvi

    Speaking of misconceptions about the profession, these days everyone seems to think they can be a court interpreter. The nadir for me was reached not too long ago, when a Spanish-speaking party that I had been interpreting for asked me, after we left the courtroom, what she could do to become a court interpreter, seeing as she had heard we made a lot of money!

  5. Charles Robinson

    Ms. Shelly,
    It was good to see your picture again and read of your
    professional activities.

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