I was inspired to write this entry by the call for a meeting of the NY Interpreters Forum.
Note: My use of the word ‘agency’ here refers to any entity or company that maintains a roster of interpreters, hires them as independent contractors, and coordinates assignments.
I have been a freelance ASL/English interpreter for the past 15 years. Fourteen of those were spent in one community, the same one I was a member of while going through interpreter training, mentoring, and developing my professional career. Through networking and a combination of having had part-time staff positions, on-going college and university work, and being a graduate student myself, I managed to avoid working for those “bad agencies” for the most part.
When I moved back to my childhood home of New York City last summer, I had to update my resume and get my NYC hustle on. This also provided me the opportunity to re-evaluate and update my business practices, establish my minimum standards, and develop a networking strategy. Much to my dismay, I found it challenging to afford to live by my principles. Separating the wheat from the chaff was a matter of trial and error. I tried to “change” some agencies and spent many hours kvetching and ranting about what they were not and should be doing. I drove myself (and most likely my husband, family and friends) insane. Once I firmly decided to choose happiness and only work for people I like, I used my free time not working for those “bad agencies” to go to yoga, catch up with my family, paint, and refine my frugality. I refocused my energy onto what I have the power to control. I sought out positive agencies, and redirected my energies to working with them. These are places who want to meet me, in person or via videochat, before sending me out on assignments. Some places have given me assessment exercises or asked for samples of my work. I am always happy to comply with these requests to conform with quality control. I find that my relationship with these agencies are exponentially more satisfying.
Friends and family have suggested that I start my own agency, but I don’t have the patience for that. I want to work for as few agencies or schools as possible so I can spend as little time as I can on administration. I just want to interpret. I want to work with trustworthy entities who vet assignments, communicate job details clearly, and pay in a timely manner. I love going to new places and translating ASL to English and back and forth again. I just want an effective and efficient way to managed my correspondence, confirmations, calendar, and invoicing so I can focus my time and attention on improving my interpreting skills.
There are some wonderful agencies who contribute to making interpreting a satisfying career. I believe the way to deal with the “bad agency problem” is to support the ones who are doing the right things.
The following is what I’ve learned over the years as a freelancer, and more specifically in the past year after moving into a new community.
1. Know who you’re signing up with.
It is all too often that we are asked about our availability for assignments before we have a working relationship with an agency. The “For Interpreters” section of many agency websites don’t list information about working with them, but are rather a template for us to fill out our contact information and register with them. How do I know if I want to register with you before I know anything about you?
Here are some examples of the kind of info I want to see on an agency website before registering with them:
2. Only work for people you like.
Just as cultivating relationships with positive people creates more satisfying friendships, the same is true for agencies. There are good people out there, it just might take a little more energy to find them.
Consider how far you are willing to travel to work with better people. If you’re based in NYC, it might be worth a trip to DC or Rochester every once in a while if there is a multi-day event being coordinated by an agency you like.
Be willing to not work for people, despite the volume of their assignments. In this way you are voting for your favorite agencies with your actions.
Knowing that you’re living and working by your principles can be a motivation to be extra frugal or budget conscious, and therefore better able to be more selective about who you work for.
Sometimes you have to make some compromises and settle for the lesser of several evils. Consider your “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Interpreter Needs.” Establish your priorities and minimum standards and articulate them clearly.
Sometimes I’d rather leave my schedule open to be able to take last minute work from agencies I like, than book myself in advance with agencies I’d rather not be working for. It’s a gamble but I’m happier in the long run.
3. What’s your “Value Add?”
Develop your portfolio. Invest in a website. Be able to justify your rates and policies with your resume and samples of your work. I sometimes hire interpreters myself, why should I hire you? Be able to articulate your skill set beyond having a certification and years of experience. Offer up a few of your credentials when accepting work for the first time with new people. Even though we are not often asked, act as if they care about that info and there are places that do. Eventually people who don’t mention credentials, or something special about their skill set, will appear to be the odd ones out.
4. Diversify your career options.
Invest in professional development that is beyond just providing interpretations; it could be something related to interpreting or be another field entirely. Create options for yourself so you don’t feel beholden to work for people you don’t like. Interpreting is also seasonal. It can be a challenge to balance our finances to support ourselves during the off season. Having other marketable skills can lessen this stress.
5. Positively reinforce good agencies and actions.
Be sure that the only emails you send to agencies aren’t just negative and complaining. Balance out some of the constructive criticism with some gratitude and appreciation. Say “Please” and “Thank You” and maintain a positive rapport. If you feel the need to write an angry email, get a second opinion on the content and don’t be tempted to hit “send” too soon. Thank agencies for the good work they do provide and acknowledge when your needs are being met.
I believe that as individual interpreters are required to have, agencies should have a certification. Creating business and industry standards that parallel interpreter practitioner standards can go a long way towards improving the delivery, effectiveness and accuracy of interpreting services. But in the mean time, while you’re waiting for someone else to change, like the familiar adage goes, you be the change you want to see and raise your own professional standards.