The business of interpreting: FAQ 6 – How do I become more professional?

You are an interpreter – you help others get their ideas across to people from other cultures. That’s what you signed up for when you decided to become an interpreter, so what’s all this about also acting as travel agent, accountant, marketer, customer relations manager, bill collector and so on? And how do you get all of that done when you barely have enough time to train and practice, prepare for meetings, travel to the assignment, and interpret?

The answer is to become a professional! “Wait a minute,” you ask, “but isn’t that what I am already? I do the job and get paid, doesn’t that make me a professional?” In a manner of speaking, yes. But let me explain what is understood by professional in the business world.

A professional business is one that has documented processes for all routine tasks. When hiring a new person for a job, is it only HR that does the interviewing, or does the manager who needs the position filled have more weight in the decision? Is it enough simply to fire someone when they do something bad, or does the business have to document it and go through a specific procedure? Do the sales people stick to a script that has been proven to work with previous customers? Are certain days reserved for certain things, such as office meetings on Monday mornings or casual dress days on Fridays? All of this builds routines, expectations, cohesion, and a corporate culture that everyone contributes to.

Having processes – or routines – is not a new idea, though it seems to have finally caught on with the general public outside the office too. You can find bestselling books listing the morning routines of successful professionals, business hacks that other successful professionals have used to up their game, life hacks that make it easier to get things done, and so on.

But what is at the core of these books, and what can these ideas teach us when we want to become successful professional interpreters?

Amateur vs Professional

First let’s take a look at non-professionals. Amateurs do something they like, but they don’t have set processes to cover routine eventualities. In other words, they fly by the seat of their pants– “Oh, that sounds like a good idea, I’ll try it,”-– until the next good idea comes along. Everything is constantly new, and needs to be thought out every time it comes up.

This takes up valuable time and, because there are no rules, amateurs give different responses when the same questions come up over time. Amateurs don’t develop a consistent message, which means they are unable to build trust with clients, and have to keep convincing existing clients that they are the best bet.

That all sounds exhausting! Not only are they doing double work with existing clients, but they use up valuable time and brainpower re-thinking things that should already have been set up as routine.

To bring this to the world of interpreting, do you remember when you were just starting out? Every time you heard the chairman of a meeting say something, you had to think of the right way to say it. You struggled with what to call the meeting, what to call the participants, how to open and close a meeting… By the time you became a more experienced interpreter, you realized that there were set phrases that took care of the routine parts of a speech, which meant that your brain could then focus on the less routine parts that require more creativity.

So let’s look at your business world outside interpreting – the part you haven’t necessarily focused on at all and that takes up far too much of your time. Why not create your own routines and processes? Make up your own rule book of steps to deal with matters that come up repeatedly so you don’t have to waste time and brain power reinventing the wheel.

Let me give you an example from interpreting: glossaries.

They are a valuable tool that shortens meeting preparation time. If they are well organized, you remember that in this organization the “Conseil executif” is called the “Executive Board” and in that organization it is the “Executive Council.” You know what term the negotiators used to refer to a particular phenomenon in the previous round, and even if it isn’t exactly the correct word outside of these negotiations, you won’t have to spend time re-explaining everything to both parties to come up with a new term.

So why not apply this lesson to the non-interpreting tasks you are faced with?

Template it!

Templates are enormously useful, in many different walks of life. If all your glossaries have the same format, you don’t have to think about formatting anymore. If you always do the same thing whenever you accept an assignment, you don’t have to waste time and brainpower thinking about what it is you have to do again.

Areas in our business life that could benefit from routines / templates / processes could include customer relationship management (CRM), social media marketing, sales calls, pricing, manning of meetings, billing, travel.

You could simply set up your own routine, such as always calling the same hotel whenever you go to a specific city – thus building a relationship and earning points with their loyalty programs.

You could set up a billing form on your computer, ready to be completed and sent out as soon as the job is over.

You also have a choice of making up your own system or buying something that has already been set up. For example, you could either buy a more or less expensive CRM program, or else make a simple spreadsheet showing the client’s name, any personal details that you have gathered, when your last contact was, and what your next contact should be about.

The same goes for social media marketing – you may buy a program to help you organize your posts, or simply set up a spreadsheet showing when you want to post what kind of message to which platform.

Another example of a template that could help you with prospects and clients is an FAQ page on your website or computer, to be used whenever you get the same questions from different clients. If the answer is already written out, there is no need to rethink what to say.

And, of course, templates are perfect for pricing.If you’ve done the work of figuring out how much you have to charge to make a living, you have your prices and your arguments all ready to go!

The last example, though it is more of a routine than a template, is to fix a day and time to do whatever it is you have to do. There is a reason why books on successful professionals’ routines (now called “life hacks”) are so popular! Every Friday morning at 9:00 am, it’s billing time. Every last weekend of the month, it’s accounting time. Every evening before you go to bed, it’s time to make your To Do list for the next day, or lay out the outfit you will put on in the morning.

Routines that have the force of rules make things easier for you and for your client. There is no decision to be made on routine matters anymore; you can save your brainpower for the unusual assignments that come your way – and add them to your processes for future reference.

After all, who wants to waste time coming up with new ways of handling routine items when we can spend that time more profitably finding new clients to use our processes on!

Originally published on the blog of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (

One Comment

Comments are closed.