Pitfalls of Working as an Interpreter in the Modern Reality, or What it Takes to Get a Good Interpreter Job

Did you know that interpreting is quite an old profession? In the olden times interpreters usually served as advisors for their wealthy ( usually noble) clients. The surge of interpreting dates back to the end of the First World War, when consecutive interpreting mode became a necessity for the Paris Peace Conference ( 1919-1920).

It was the first time when English was spoken on the same official level as French ( the most widely used European language of diplomatic negotiations in the XVIII century). The Paris Peace Conference was a landmark event not only for the stabilization of international relations in the post-war world, but also for the introduction of main principles and guidelines of consecutive interpreting, which formed a new profession-an interpreter.

Obviously, the high social status of an interpreter is water under the bridge, because nowadays efficient communication professionals face lots of misconceptions and, sometimes, disregard or even disrespect.

Sadly, an average person doesn’t think of an act of interpreting as of a highly intelligent and brain-demanding job. Contrary to popular belief, being advanced or native in two or more languages will not automatically make you a good interpreter. It takes a variety of skills, hours of professional training and extensive experience in multiple settings.

Aside from an extensive vocabulary of terms in a particular industry, there are other must-have skills which a good interpreter must have:
• quick reaction when switching between languages
• reliable and trained short-term memory
• exceptional note taking skills
• excellent sound articulation
• “an open ear” for the clients’ accents, articulation errors and dialects
• good communication skills
• resilience to constant stress
• well developed problem solving skills

Mind you that if we were to discuss the prerequisites for becoming a great conference interpreter, the list would easily triple in length.

Interpreters are the main pillars of linguistic interaction between LEP clients and service providers, without us no effective communication would be possible, yet we are often overlooked or treated as “talking heads” from the computer screen ( remote interpreting services have become the most widespread way of “connecting people” due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and might remain the predominant form of interpreting in the nearest future).

These days hospitals and social services rely more and more on the OPI and VRI forms of interpreting provided by big language corporations.

The language access for the LEP patients is provided under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Immigration in the world has been constantly increasing, meaning more demand for the skilled interpreters of multiple language, especially in the United States—a major monolingual country where it’s not common to speak two or more languages. In fact, only about 15-20% of Americans consider themselves bilingual, compared to 56% of Europeans ( survey held by the European Commission in 2006). While as little as 20% of American students learn another language in primary and secondary school, 92% of their European counterparts do it (Pew Research Center). That is why an interpreter will always have a job in the United States. But will they be offered fair employment opportunities? That is the question…

These past few years one could have noticed a crucial shift in the language job market. Big corporations merge with smaller language companies, potentially struggling with finding enough direct clients. What does it mean for an average interpreter in search of a job?
Well, to begin with, it, almost always, means a decreased pay rate per hour for interpreting services. Lots of ex-employees of such corporations complain on “call- center” ethics with regards to poor work conditions:

An Anonymous Certified Medical Interpreter from San Francisco, CA wrote an advice to the management of his current employer: “We are not robots. Don’t treat us like robots. We are micromanaged without any rewards”Another Former Interpreter from Houston, TX pointed out that their company is suffering from zero transparency while offering minimum pay and benefits: “Your talk about patients and providers being the highest priority, is hollow. Your clear highest priority is paying interpreters as little as possible in favor of managers and execs while working to remove all possible interpreter daily “human time” to squeeze those extra pennies from your worst paid, worst treated employees. Stop it.”

Reading more and more honest reviews (and I believe that if a person took time to write a long and detailed feedback, you can be sure they fell exploited or even abused by former employer), makes me wonder if we, interpreters looking for meaningful employment, could be more informed about “red flags” or “fishy” companies to look out for in the ocean of job opportunities. Let’s go over them to stay cautious in our job search.

Red Flag #1: “ You want the moon? Just say the word, and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down” ( It’s a Wonderful Life)

The “fairy tale” job offer could allure you with all types of “treats”, so you would put your guard down. Have you been literally bombarded with the promises of exclusive benefits, good hourly rates and what not in the very first email? Oh, you haven’t even

applied for the job, the recruiter has reached out to you first? If you think it’s too good to be true, you are, most likely, right. Just think about: if a company is in a never ending pursuit of new employees, where did the previous interpreters go? A company with reasonable management would only have a need for more staff if they were expanding. A constant flow of employees should be a warning signal to you.

Red Flag #2: “A man’s alter ego is nothing more than his favorite image of himself” (Catch Me If You Can)

The “dramatic” job offer is a little bit of a stage performance. At first, it seems worth your time and effort. You get through rounds of tests and evaluations. You get a new test every week ( hiring “performances” like that could last up to a month or longer), you feel fully invested in the process. And suddenly, the recruiter takes a pause. Your self-esteem is about to get a hit, tension is rising…Next thing you know, they call you again and congratulate you on being one of a few best candidates they have narrowed down to. You feel so esthetic! You want this job more than ever! Click. The trap has closed. Be aware of a recruiter who has outstanding psychological skills of playing hard to get. Now, you feel privileged that they chose you over dozens of others ( even though you might have been their best bet from the very beginning or one of three candidates), and you can easily overlook details of the job offer, and regret it afterwards.

Red Flag # 3: “We’re on the brick of adventure, children. Don’t spoil it with too many questions” ( Mary Poppins)

There are not enough exclamation marks to underline the importance of asking questions regarding the job offer, the company structure, the corporate ethics and principles, etc. The recruiter gave you an overview of the benefits included with the position, do follow up with an email next day to make sure you understood everything right and, more importantly, the HR didn’t try to take you for a ride with promising a higher pay rate or more PTOs than stipulated in the company documentation.
Remember: a written email weighs more than a phone call if things get ugly enough to address them to the lawyer.

Red Flag # 4: “You should never believe a thing simply because you want to believe it”  (Game of Thrones)

Pay attention to the way an HR conducts your job interview, precisely try “reading between the lines” and be able to interpret their body language and nonverbal cues. Quick tips: looking down or to the sides, excessive touching of the eyes, nose, or mouth, gaze avoidance, restless foot or leg movements, frequent body posture changes are all indicators of dishonesty and attempts to cover up the truth.

Let’s imagine, you were reached out for the position of a medical interpreter but the recruiter spends the better part of the interview asking in which other settings you worked before and asking for more details. It’s very probable that you will interpret for various settings including court proceedings or real estate meetings. You passed your language proficiency test with flying colors, but an HR seems to neglect that information-be ready to say goodbye to your hopes of a higher pay rate based on your experience or continuous education. In general, listen to your gut. It’s not a joke. Your intuition will tell you if there is something wrong with the company ethics or employees’ treatment. Save your time and efforts, pass by a company that treats its potential employees as liabilities.

Red Flag #5: “Oh yes, the past can hurt. But you can either run from it, or learn from it”  (The Lion King)

My piece of advice is simple: reach out to former employees asking for their feedback on work conditions, company’s culture, management style. It’s easy to do on LinkedIn: enter the company name and filter the search results by “worked there”. Be ready to process ambiguous feedback, but these valuable insights on your potential employer, whether positive, negative or neutral, may help you to better see the “full picture” in advance). Another good strategy is to take time to read reviews on the company on job searching websites and analyze them thoroughly before you accept or reject a job offer. You deserve to understand your perspectives with the company. At the end of the day, you must be comfortable with your job choice. Don’t be discouraged by the rejection. If it didn’t open, it wasn’t your door! Make sure you don’t start seeing yourself through the eyes of those who don’t value you. know your worth even if they don’t.

If you are an interpreter who is eager to join the group for Interpreters Justice, please send me an email to forinterpretersjustice@gmail.com

or click the button below. 

Sincerely yours,

Olena Hart