From gown to booth: turning your degree into a job pt 1

Hurdle n°1: “experience required”

You have passed all your exams, you have donned the gown and hood of your university, you have received your degree and you are now officially qualified to work as an interpreter. But how to make the transition from qualified interpreter to working interpreter?

Well, here are a few thoughts drawn for personal experience, as a lecturer and as a freelance interpreter.

First hard fact to get to grips with: in this highly competitive, niche market, a proper qualification is indispensable, but it won’t necessarily be enough to open the doors of professional booths for you. Why ? Because however hard you have worked at your degree, what your potential employer/client will see, first and foremost, is your lack of experience. It is risky to place an inexperienced professional in a position of responsibility – and when you are in a booth, once the microphone is on, what you say is what goes, accurate or not. It takes a lot of skills and experience to be able to repair seamlessly something incorrect when you’re interpreting simultaneously. This brings us back to the first hurdle: experience, or lack thereof.

Now how can you overcome this catch-twenty-two situation?

There is a solution: volunteering. But – and this “but” needs to come in right away – let’s be clear on the meaning of volunteering: you should never, ever accept to do a job for free when it could and should be paid. In other words, you should only volunteer your professional services as an interpreter within a certain framework: for instance, with reputable charities who don’t have the funds to pay for interpreting for all their meetings (which means that if you do a good job, when they have a session for which funds are available for interpreting, they’re likely to call you). So think Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontière, or organisations like ICV Volunteers. It’s also worth looking into events like the Caux Conferences, the European Social Forum or think-tanks with a social focus and an international dimension. These organisations need interpreters, but don’t have a big enough budget – so they will often provide you with accommodation, and maybe pay for your transport. But they will only take on serious applicants !
So be honest and humble, and adopt a professional attitude. Just because it’s unpaid work for a charity doesn’t mean that you should take it lightly. So don’t lie on your skills, or on your qualifications – if you’ve never sat in a booth, you shouldn’t claim you can do sim. And if you trained and still struggled through exams, you should probably be spending more time practicing before you claim to be able to volunteer for conference interpreting. It’s in your interest too:  volunteering your services and not delivering will reflect badly on your professional ethos and you won’t get called back of offered any paid job. Small market, small world – you have to be reliable and competent from day 1.

Fanny Chouc
Freelance interpreter and French Teaching Fellow at Heriot-Watt University