Interpreting 101

In this post, we intend to sum up the most basic information any interpreting buyer should know before choosing the most suitable type of interpretation for a given event or situation.

  • First things first, what’s the difference between translation and interpretation?

Translation is the rendering of the written word into another language, while interpretation is the oral rendering of one language into another.

  • What are the different interpretation modes?

The two main modes of interpretation are simultaneous and consecutive.

Simultaneous – In this interpreting mode, the speaker and interpreter speak at the same time. It’s common in conferences, where interpreters work inside booths and use special sound equipment. The audience receives the translated speech through headphones.

Consecutive – The interpreter speaks after the speaker concludes his/her thought. This might take a couple of minutes, during which time the interpreter takes notes. There’s no need for extra equipment, as the interpreter is usually by the speaker’s side. This interpreting mode uses a greater amount of time than simultaneous interpretation, because the speaker and interpreter must alternate when speaking.

Here are a few other interpretation modes:

Intermittent – It’s similar to consecutive interpreting, but done sentence by sentence. It’s often used for short meetings.

Whispering – This simultaneous type of interpreting is done for a few participants without the use of equipment. The interpreter is positioned close to the listeners and whispers the translated speech. It’s also known as whispered interpreting or chuchotage.

Accompaniment – It’s used by clients such as tourists, technicians, or foreign visitors during field visits, fairs, and other events in which the interpreter doesn’t have a stationary work location. Depending on the number of participants, mobile equipment for simultaneous interpretation can be used. It’s also known as escort interpreting, though this term is becoming less used.

  • As for the settings, what types of interpreting are the most common?

Conference interpreting – As the name suggests, this interpretation is done during conferences, meetings, summits, and other events with variable audience size. The most used modes are simultaneous and consecutive.

Community interpreting – This type of interpreting is common in countries that have ethnic minorities to enable citizens, immigrants, or refugees who don’t speak the official language to access a wide array of services from healthcare to education and social services. It’s mostly done using consecutive or intermittent interpreting.

  • How many interpreters do I need to hire?

This depends on a number of factors, from the length and type of the event to the number of languages involved. Interpreting work is regulated by widely followed international industry standards. These standards exist to contribute to the success of your event. According to these standards, conference interpreters should always work in pairs for any assignment longer than one hour for simultaneous and two hours for consecutive, taking turns every 20 to 30 minutes. This is important mainly due to the nature of the activity: this mentally exhausting job can only be done with a high quality output for so long. As for community interpreting, there’s usually one interpreter per assignment, who normally gets paid for a minimum of two hours.

  • What costs should I consider when hiring an interpreter?

Depending on the country, the normal fee can be for up to 8 hours per day or it can be charged by the hour. For more accurate information, it’s a good idea to contact local professional associations.

An example we can give you is how interpretation is charged in Brazil, according to the best practices in the market. There’s a daily rate, which is a minimum amount paid for the interpreters to work for up to 6 hours. Additional charges apply at a rate of 25% per hour on top of the normal daily rate, with a maximum of two additional hours per day.

Clients should also bear in mind the rental costs for simultaneous interpretation equipment: booth, equipment for the interpreters, receivers and headsets for the audience, and so on. Your service provider should let you know beforehand who’s responsible for this technical part. While some agencies have their own equipment, other agencies and freelancers hire a third party or may refer you to a company that provides these services.

On a lighter note…

By Alejandro Moreno-Ramos

There’s a lot more to be written about interpreting, but the information you have seen here is a good start. If you’d like to know more specific details about interpreting, feel free to ask. We’ll be pleased to answer to your questions through comments or even whole new posts.

Beware of the translation industry “bottom-feeders”

Last time I checked, we lived in a free-market economy. As freelance translators, we provide services and expect to build a solid reputation and earn enough money to live on through our work. But what happens when we come across “bottom-feeders” who mess everything up?

I am not speaking about the aquatic animal that feeds on the bottom of the ocean, but about translators who choose to accept virtually any price for their services. By doing this, they “earn” their living but affect the whole industry by contributing to the fall of the price for translation services. They also affect quality even if they don’t realize it, because experience, quality, and price are interconnected.

By messing up the variables within the cost-time-quality triangle, they pose a threat not only to themselves (by undermining their own career), but also to the industry as a whole, including translation buyers, who generally try to reduce translation costs. This is a dangerous tactic from the translation client’s point of view: perhaps the cost will be reduced, but will the quality be the same? If so, kudos to you for driving the price down while maintaining quality. Your profit margin will be larger. If the quality isn’t the same, there is the danger of affecting the prospects of your company in the long run due to the questionable quality the “bottom-feeder” delivers.

During my career, I’ve come across many translators who choose to work for half my rates, sometimes for a third or even a fourth of them. So naturally I ask them why they are doing that and how they expect to earn enough money to support themselves. Most of the time, their answers are puzzling and confuse me even more.

Some of them are university graduates trying to break into the industry. With no practical experience in translation, they are willing to accept virtually any rate in order to get a foot in the door.

Others prefer to work in-house for a translation agency that charges, for example, 10 cents per word for translation and offers them a mere 1-1.5 cent for their work. They like the “security” the agency offers and are usually too busy with their “mass production” to think about quality.

Some are trying to establish a freelance career but are not that good at negotiating with clients. They are afraid that, by rejecting a couple of low-paid jobs, they’ll be thrown out of the game.

There are also those who don’t believe in themselves: they think they are not “good enough” (nor will they ever be) to charge a certain amount, so they settle for a much lower price.

I can understand these concerns, but I don’t understand the point. I mean, what’s the point in working their butts off, most likely producing sub-standard texts, and not getting the (financial) credit they deserve?

How do they expect to excel in their work if they believe that there are no alternatives, if they are afraid of taking the next step, if they think they are not good at what they do or they are unable to convey the value of their work to their customers?

In theory, the generally accepted value of any service is based on the illusion of the value of money in a specific region of the world. At least, that’s what a nice political economy professor used to tell us during my freshman year at university.

If we accept this theory, we can charge a dollar per word or a dollar per 1000 words. If I value my own work, if I believe it’s top-notch, I’ll probably go for a dollar per word. If I don’t value my own work, if I am unsure, if I have no alternative, I’ll go for a dollar per 1000 words.

In essence, there are a lot of translators out there who don’t value their work. In fact, there are more than I ever would have imagined. My guess is that the problem of “bottom-feeders” in the translation industry is more of a quality issue: if they think their work lacks the necessary quality, then they’re happy to receive a third of the price of another translator who thinks s/he produces high quality translations and expects to get paid accordingly.

On the other hand, it takes two to tango, so behind most “bottom-feeders” there is usually a “translation company” trying to drive the prices down for its own purposes (usually for a bigger margin). I’ll try to analyze this side of the coin a bit more in an upcoming post.

On a lighter note…

By Alejandro Moreno-Ramos

Defining project specifications

“If you do not invest time to brief your suppliers, there is little chance that you will get what you want or need. It may take only 10 minutes longer than telling your assistant to ‘get this translated,’ but if the right person spends those 10 minutes chatting to the translator (or even the project manager), you will probably save money and stress further down the line.”
– Chris Durban

When discussing quality in translation, I wrote that the product should comply with the client’s instructions. For this to happen, you must communicate your needs properly in the first place. But what needs, exactly? Well, it varies from project to project, but there are several details you should tell your translator.

A fascinating aspect of translation is the possibility of rendering a text in countless “right ways.” The right way for you depends on what you need and how exactly you want it. Don’t expect your translator to rely on assumptions and guess your preferences and needs. Good communication is key.

In November 2010 I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Alan Melby on how to measure translation quality. At that time, he had listed as many as 21 translation project parameters, i.e. specifications that should be given to translators if quality is to be achieved. Together, Durban and Melby chose the top ten items that were included in the publication Translation: Buying a Non-Commodity. Here’s their list, followed by a set of questions/comments I have added:

(1) Audience – Who (ideally) is supposed to read your text? Should the translator have the lay public or specialists in mind? Academics or high-school students?

(2) Purpose – Is your text going to be used in a brochure to persuade someone to do something? Is it for internal communication or for relating to clients/prospects? Do you need just to get the gist of a text or is it for publication? Most of the time the purpose of a text is also linked to its type—see item 5 below.

(3) Deadline – When does the text have to be delivered? If needed, establish partial deliveries up front. Sometimes not only the date counts, but also the time of delivery (in which case, be clear about your time zone).

(4) Price – How much is the translator getting paid? Is the project being paid per source word (volume of the original text) or per target word (volume of the translated text)? Alternatively, is the professional being paid by the hour? (I intend to write about how translators usually calculate their rates.) Also discuss details such as when (upon delivery? a week later? a month later?) and how (via bank transfer? by check? PayPal? Western Union?) this amount is to be paid.

(5) Subject area and type of text – The clearest way of dealing with these specifications is by sending the whole text up front for the translator to analyze. If this is not possible, a sample usually works. Remember that most translators specialize in certain areas, meaning that there are subject areas they don’t feel capable of translating well. For your own good, don’t insist if a professional refuses to take part in a project (refer to item #3 of the American Translators Association Code of Ethics and Professional Practice). As for the text type, is it a letter? A sales agreement? A training video?

(6) Source language and regional variation – Is it written in Canadian or South African English? European or Brazilian Portuguese? Spanish from Chile, Peru, or Venezuela? There may be significant regional differences that interfere with the translator’s understanding and decision making.

(7) Format – First off, inform the translator about the media: is it a written text, an image, a video, or an audio file? Then, is it an editable PDF, DOC, or HTML file? AVI or MPEG video? Also, in what format should the target text be delivered?

(8) Volume – How long is the text? For written texts, it’s generally better to consider the word count. The number of pages doesn’t always help, since there are variables such as number of columns, font size, spacing between lines, etc. As with item 5 above, sending the whole text up front allows for a precise analysis.

(9) Target language and regional variation – Is the text supposed to be read mainly by Brazilians or by Portuguese people? By Mexicans, Spaniards, or Argentines?

(10) Steps to be followed – Is there going to be, for instance, bilingual revision by another professional after the translation proper? What about monolingual revision? Is the text being sent for the translator’s approval after each step or at the end? Who’s taking care of these phases of the project? Also, discuss deadlines for each step.

Sometimes you’ll have to negotiate a few of these items, such as price and the end format, but others are merely facts that need to be communicated—preferably in writing. They’re essential especially when you’re dealing with new service providers. With long-time collaborators who already know what you usually need, make sure to let them know when any of these parameters diverge from the “standard.”

On a lighter note…

By Alejandro Moreno-Ramos