Why conference interpreters do not charge hourly

Why conference interpreters do not charge hourly

Why conference interpreters do not charge hourly

“Could you please send us your hourly rate?”

Way too often I have been asked to provide my per hour rate when applying to an interpreting assignment or when filling in a standardized profile.

We are all so much accustomed to the idea that freelancers charge hourly for their services that it’s the first unit of measure that comes up to everybody’s mind. If you’re reading this, you’re likely to be one of them. And no surprise, because little do people know about our profession; we are still generally referred to as “translators” even when we are in a booth, how could we possibly expect the general public to know what’s behind every single hour of interpreting delivery?

Keep on reading if you want to get to know more about the interpretation industry.

Half days, full days... What does that all mean?

The minimum time span conference interpreters typically refer to when sending a quote is half a day, which generally goes up to 4 hours of service. If the meeting or event is longer, and up to 7-8 hours, they apply a full-day rate. After that, they will start to charge the extra hours according to their overtime rate.

This means that even if your event is going to last one hour, you can expect the quote you’ll receive will be the same as if it was to last 3 hours. The reason is that the work of an interpreter begins way before their mic turns on, or before they show up to your meeting. The minutes and hours your interpreters spend attending your event, be it on site or remotely, are but the tip of the iceberg: what you cannot see is the huge amount of preparation that they need in order to be ready to deliver you the best possible service. And that is exactly why the minimum quote you will receive is the half-day rate, because behind the 30 minutes (or 3 hours) they are going to interpret, there are hours and hours they have spent familiarizing with your topic and your jargon. Who would turn a mic on and start talking about e.g. the intrinsic features of a machine or about the endless nuances and fabrics of the new collection of a textile brand without knowing anything about it before, even in their own native language? Well, just try to imagine how hard it would be for an interpreter to handle all that information in two languages out of the blue.

As my English retour professor used to tell us at university: “Never forget the 5Ps rule: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performances.”

So let’s move on and see how we prevent poor deliveries.

Selfie from the English-Italian booth - A 5-day, intense European Works Council in Madrid

There’s more than meets the eye

Preparation includes all those steps that interpreters take in order to acquire the information they need about the event they are going to mediate. Thanks to preparation, interpreters know what to expect—to a certain extent—and are ready to communicate it properly in the target language. 

Preparation helps interpreters recognize faster both linguistic and cognitive units they hear, so being able to convey the right equivalence for the target audience. It is key to dealing with highly specialized terminology, because it enables interpreters to retrieve the right terms faster; it speeds up the processing of the information shared; and reduces the cognitive overload.

What said above goes beyond mere terminology: equally important is getting to know the event agenda, the list of speakers, and all the reference documents that the delegates will receive. The latter is especially essential, as it will help interpreters focus their preliminary work on what will actually be discussed during the meeting. If you are holding a meeting, any professional interpreters will ask you to provide them with all the material you will be using. They do it because they care about your conference as much as you do, and they want to enable smooth communication, fruitful interaction among the participants—whichever the language each delegate speaks—and the overall success of your event. They do it because the more their preparation and the more precise the preliminary information they receive, the more satisfying and enriching the experience for your participants. So don’t be surprised, and don’t be afraid of any information leak: a professional conference interpreter will treat all documentation with the maximum confidentiality. 

Here is a list of the most useful conference documents an interpreter could need, as mentioned by International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) in their paper Practical guide for professional conference interpreters:

• program or agenda 

• background papers on the subjects and organizations involved 

• documents to be discussed 

• texts of speeches to be delivered 

• PowerPoint presentations and the speakers’ notes 

• multilingual glossaries of the relevant terminology 

• summaries or minutes of previous meetings 

• list of speakers and delegates 

• speakers’ bios

Preparation: you know when it’s there

As an interpreter, I always allocate a sufficient amount of my time to preparing for a conference. I draft my glossaries, I do research on acronyms and check whether they are localized in the other language or not, I check sources, listen to speakers’ previous speeches (where available), I practice a bit more, I write notes on the PowerPoint you provide me with, and so on and so forth.

Here are some real-life scenarios where preparation helped me provide a good service.

  1. “Congratulations! I really enjoyed your interpretation and... wow, you knew exactly what the movie title was in Spain, so everybody was able to catch the cross-reference!” This is what an event organizer told me when he saw me coming out of my booth after a simultaneous interpretation service into Spanish I provided during a film festival. I knew the director’s movies would come up all the time, so one of the multiple things I had done to be prepared for that assignment was printing a paper with all their titles in both languages. The day of the master class I hung it in my booth, so that I could refer to them all the time and have them right. That’s preparation.
Simultaneous interpreting provided during a film festival in Spain - surrounded by glossaries

  1. Acronyms and abbreviations happen to be quite cryptic at times. I remember of a conference where preparatory documents saved my life. There was an acronym that would come up all the time and whose usual meaning did not really make sense in the context (we will call it “ECM” here for confidentiality reasons). If I had not received the meeting documentation from my client and hadn’t prepared beforehand, it would have been really confusing, possibly leading to cognitive overload and hesitant delivery. Was it European Common Market? Or possibly Equity Capital Market? Or maybe an engine control module? No, it was the way that company had named a specific internal program of theirs. I knew it, I immediately understood what procedures they were referring to, and was ready to provide the right Italian acronym to my audience (yes, it had been localized for the Italian subsidiaries). That’s preparation.

  1. Accents can be tricky. Especially when you work with languages that are internationally spoken (as is the case for me with English and Spanish). Having the list of speakers before the event lets us interpreters look for any previous speech delivered by those speakers and available online, if any, so that we can get used to their accent, as well as to other prosodic features. Astonishing how beneficial it is in terms of comprehension and expectations. That’s preparation, too!

So this was the general reason why professional conference interpreters do not charge hourly: preparation in all its forms, many of which I haven’t even mentioned. It goes without saying that flexibility is key for events: there are always last minute changes, small adjustments, and one has to be ready for that. Yet, do you know how simpler it is to make up for unforeseen turns when you have sound foundations?

Now it’s about time to start planning your next multilingual conference: get in touch with me to have all your linguistic needs sorted! You can expect I will ask you to provide me and any interpreters I will hire with as much preliminary information and documentation as possible. But now you know: you and your target audience will thank me for that!

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