A Pivotal Time of Year

Definition of pivotal[1]
1: of, relating to, or constituting a pivot


Autumn is pivotal because it has a “central role, function, or effect” on the rest of the calendar year. Summer has just ended, the winter months are coming, and squirrels everywhere are going crazy making preparations. For squirrels, the pivot is signaled by cooler temperatures, shorter days, and a rich harvest of acorns falling to the ground like manna from heaven. For translation and interpretation (T&I) professionals, the pivot is signaled by burgeoning investment in machine translation (MT) technology, striking advances in natural language processing (NLP), and the explosion of remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) platforms. So… are you going crazy?

In its verb form, pivot can also mean “to adapt or improve by adjusting or modifying something.”[2] This is the sort of pivot we should all be making right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us the justification, the opportunity, and, in many cases, the time to do so. Consider just four examples.

1) Business practices

There is one thing nobody told me about when I first started as an interpreter: how to be an entrepreneur. Fortunately, we have a lot of colleagues who have very successful careers and are very generous about sharing the keys to that success.

Since interpreting is a second career for me and one that I did not start until I was in my mid-forties, I spent the first two to three years building a professional profile. That meant obtaining certifications and joining and participating in various professional associations. As an independent contractor, it also meant getting up to speed on topics like pricing services, choosing the right tax structure, managing finances as a freelancer, marketing, building and managing a website, effectively using social media, and the list goes on. If any of this sounds new to you, it might be time “to adapt or improve by adjusting or modifying something” – in other words, pivot.

When in-person court appearances were suspended in the early part of the pandemic, COVID-related translation work skyrocketed; attorneys now had to time work on their staggering caseloads, talk to their LEP clients, and review discovery. RSI depositions increased. Businesses used this as an opportunity for team building and self-analysis. In-person conferences practically disappeared, but remote town-hall-style meetings within a business as well as digital meetings with clients abroad soon filled the gap. Businesses were pivoting, and interpreters needed to do the same or risk being left behind.

2) Professional relationships (not just networks)

Call it the golden rule, call it karma, call it what you will, it works! Engaging with people in a friendly, respectful, and meaningful way generally leads to positive outcomes. I would not have had many of the work opportunities that I did without the generosity of colleagues. So when I get good leads, I try to reciprocate with trusted colleagues as much as possible. One practice that distinguishes any good professional: If you’re unavailable or unqualified for the job, help the client find someone who is. That means having solid professional relationships. That way, the client will not just remember you as a good interpreter or translator; they will remember you as a go-to person the next time they need help. The same is true of colleagues. Once you build a reputation of being not only a highly skilled T&I professional but also the kind of person that others want to work with, it’s less difficult to find good jobs.

3) Investing in yourself

When I first started as an interpreter, I had solid language ability. What I needed was an understanding of interpreter best practices and to develop my interpreting skills. The pandemic gave me time to include the theoretical foundations of interpreting and translation practice. I am a technophile, so I was primed for the RSI revolution. More useful to me still was a university course in Spanish grammar and usage. I also enrolled in a graduate course for conference interpreting. Side note: both were online at a university abroad – impossible pre-COVID.

Billionaire Warren Buffett often says “Invest in your own success.”[3]  Spending time adding to your linguistic, practical, entrepreneurial, or technical knowledge and skills are important investments in yourself that will return lifelong dividends.

4) Planning for the future

One key to success is good planning and forethought. Look for areas where the points we have discussed – business practices, relationships, and skill building – intersect. Choose topics that are relevant to your current practice or your future goals: business finances, marketing, interpreting techniques, or new technologies. If you are thoroughly familiar with today’s subject matter, try researching tomorrow’s: cyber security, crypto currency, artificial intelligence, intellectual-property laws. Become a subject-matter expert for the fields in which you want work.

According to one study[4], squirrels often use spatial memory to locate stored food. This means there is a method to the seemingly mad behavior they exhibit when the seasons change. Similarly, by analyzing our business practices, our professional relationships, our professional development, and having a cogent plan for the future, we can ‘adapt, improve, or modify’ ourselves and be well placed to handle whatever changes come our way.

Jason Knapp is a freelance interpreter and translator based in the Louisville metro area.  He is self-taught in Spanish having achieved native-like language mastery through over twenty years of rigorous self-directed study, full-time missionary work in the U.S. and abroad, and continuing professional education and development. He is a state Certified Court Interpreter and a nationally Certified Medical Interpreter. He specializes in the legal, medical, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing fields. He is actively involved in the profession through his role as President of the Kentucky Interpreter and Translator Association (KITA), as well as membership in ATA, IMIA, NAJIT, and AATI (Asociación Argentina de Traductores e Intérpretes). He offers training and consultation for legal and medical interpreters. You can contact him through www.knapplanguageservices.com.

Main photo by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay. Body photo by lumix2004 from Pixabay.

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pivot

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.fool.com/the-ascent/personal-finance/articles/warren-buffetts-5-best-pieces-of-money-advice/

[4] https://r.jordan.im/download/mammals/Animal-Behaviour-1991-Jacobs.pdf

2 thoughts on “A Pivotal Time of Year”

  1. Janis Palma says:

    Great piece, Jason, and great pivoting suggestions! I hope more of our blog readers consider taking a course in grammar (I know that’s one area that can always use a little brush up) or any of the many online courses available today, and I certainly hope everyone is building up those good relationships with their colleagues! No matter which advice they choose to take from everything you suggest, I’m sure they’ll do great. Thanks, Jason!

  2. Marta Roller says:

    Well written Jason! As your colleague, I agree that you practice what you write: your bullet point 2 is what I experience with you when we work together.

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