Freelance or Staff Interpreter?

I know that many interpreters prefer the freelance world, and there are many successful freelancers working here in Arizona. This is my story and why I now have the second longest tenure as a staff court interpreter here in the state court in Phoenix.

I didn’t know that I wanted to be an interpreter or translator when I started my master’s degree in Spanish way back in 1985. My undergraduate liberal-arts degree was in anthropology, language and culture. I spent six months on foreign study, living in Madrid and Nerja, Spain. It was the best experience of my life, and I’m sure it’s what set me down my life’s path.

I wanted to improve my Spanish after graduation in the U.S., so I began my master’s degree. I didn’t have a firm career plan; my idea was to just keep going to school, maybe teach Spanish someday. It was a coincidence that I took a translation course in the Translation Certificate program at Arizona State University and really liked it. To complete the certificate course, I had to do an internship. My thesis advisor suggested I apply at the Superior Court of Arizona interpreter’s office in Maricopa County. This is how I learned about the career of court interpreting. I had no idea it existed. Another coincidence (or maybe not) is that at the same time, I was completing my master’s thesis: a translation of several short stories by Mexican author Amparo Davila and the theoretical discussion of the process and challenges and difficulties of translating fiction.

Once I graduated and had worked as a freelance contractor for eighteen months to get the required experience for the office to hire me full time, I started my job as a Spanish Court Interpreter in the same office where I did my internship. And here I am, more than thirty-two years later, still a staff court interpreter and still happy, satisfied, and fulfilled by my job. Incidentally, I did teach Spanish part time as a second gig at the community-college level for about six years. This made me all the more certain that I was in the right profession, interpreting.

I’ve seen lots of changes over the decades, here at the court as well as in the profession. There have been many changes in terminology (never stop researching and learning new terms or new ways to say them) and especially in technology (all for the better!). But the work itself is mostly the same. Interpreting in multiple settings: in criminal trial court for defendants, victims, witnesses, and next of kin; in juvenile delinquency and dependency matters for juveniles and their parents, caretakers, and guardians; probate court; family court; and civil court. For many years I also transcribed and translated forensic transcripts of police interviews of defendants and witnesses. Working in a variety of different court settings and proceedings and now having the chance to work at home part of the time doing virtual hearings means that the job is never boring. I have never felt burned out, although the job can be challenging and exhausting at times. Good sleep and exercise help a lot!

I’ve seen tons of people come and go after working here in this office while gaining the valuable training and job experience. Some have gotten coveted federal court-interpreter positions, but many now work as freelancers. I qualified to retire from my job years ago and could have become a freelancer, too. But I like the stability of a full-time job and a great pension and benefits. I’ve never been tempted by the life of a freelancer and the ability to make your own schedule and earn what seems like a lot more money. I consider the paid health benefits, paid leave and vacation time, and the matching pension contributions to be worth way more. I’m looking toward retirement soon and collecting that great pension. Like anyplace else, we’ve had some ups and downs over the years. But I have to say that this is a very good place to work. Interpreters are mostly appreciated and valued by everyone from the public to attorneys, court staff, judges, and administration. There’s a lot to be said for public service in a government job that never closes or shuts down and almost never lays anyone off. After more than thirty-four years working as a court interpreter, I still enjoy getting up every day and coming to work, and I still enjoy the work and the challenge.


Jennifer Hammond grew up in Michigan and went to Kalamazoo College where she did her junior-year foreign study in Spain. She moved to Arizona and received the Master of Arts in Spanish and the translation certificate from ASU. She has been accredited/certified in translation from Spanish to English by the ATA since 1993 and received the Arizona Supreme Court Interpreter credential in 2018. In addition to spending time with family and granddaughters, she enjoys cooking, reading, travel, and being a group fitness instructor for fitness classes at the YMCA. She lives in Glendale, Arizona, with her dogs. E-mail Jennifer at interprejen16@gmail.com.

Main photo (cropped) by Wasif Malik at flickr, under CC BY 2.0. Body photo from Wikimedia Commons, “Flying High” (cropped), by Craig Sunter, under CC BY 2.0.

20 thoughts on “Freelance or Staff Interpreter?”

  1. Alina Salvat says:

    What a wonderful story Jennifer. I will try to remember this story on days when I feel beyond frustrated while doing my job as an Interpreter (Spanish) here in Iowa.

    1. Jennifer Hammond says:

      Thank you and ánimo!

      Jennifer

  2. I prefer to freelance court interpreting assignments and set’ my hours, but I appreciate your insight. There is nothing like doing what you love, on that, we agree.

    1. Jennifer Hammond says:

      Thanks.
      Jennifer

  3. Vicki Bermudez says:

    I’ve enjoyed working as both a staff interpreter and freelancer, and there are benefits to both, as you say! As a freelance interpreter I worked closely with a certain agency, but was still free to accept other assignments. I have many colleagues that have preferred to work on their own, because they can set their own rates, but it was very beneficial to me, Working for an agency has the benefit of steady work, and sometimes offers other benefits. For example, at one point, with that agency, I was able to do some protocol training of other staff interpreters. This agency even offered some benefits that ordinarily would be unheard-of for an agency to do. I would encourage other interpreters, both judiciary and healthcare, to consider if it might work or them also!

  4. Edith Oliva says:

    Very nice story. Congratulations on your long and enjoyable career! You story is an inspiration to others to pursue their dreams.

    1. Jennifer Hammond says:

      Thank you!
      Jennifer

  5. Isabel Maria Montanez says:

    Thank you, Ms. Hammond, for all your hard work and appreciation towards the Spanish language. I loved your story and inspired me to continue working towards my legal interpreting certification.

    1. Jennifer Hammond says:

      Thanks and I wish you good luck in getting your certification.

      Jennifer

  6. Marisol Cornielle says:

    I do both…I have been staffed for yours full time between the city and state in NYC and have recently started freelancing because I am almost an empty nester, so I use my free time to transcribe and translate audios and screen calls for attorneys after my regular working hours…Yearly slary will look nice this year. I love the interpreting world, it can be so versatile…Best of luck in your retirement and may you enjoy the fruit of your labor a hundred percent!

    1. Jennifer Hammond says:

      Thanks!

      Jennifer

    2. Jennifer Hammond says:

      Thanks!
      Jennifer

  7. Dennise A Serrano says:

    This is what I call perfect timing. I am currently at a cross-roads between freelancing or becoming staff (hopefully in a near future). I see benefits to both and all the experiences and insight is welcome. Thank you for sharing your experience!

    1. Jennifer Hammond says:

      I wish you good luck in your future and decision. You’re very welcome!

      Jennifer

  8. Lionel Bajana says:

    Thank you for sharing your story Ms. Hammond. I recently retired from the NYS courts in NYC. I had never worked as a freelancer, but now I am able to do so, not everyday of course, I choose my days. I am able to do this because being a staff interpreter provided me with a pension that allows me to keep doing what I like on my terms.

  9. Jackie Guldris says:

    Thank you Jennifer for that wonderful story. I could certainly relate especially the benefits. There is certainly about a $15-20K added value to the salary with the benefits. When you go on vacation, you still get paid. I love that! I’m going on my 31st year working for the court system, 10 of those were as a freelancer for the courts and I also did other work and the rest as a staff interpreter in South Florida. One of my biggest ongoing challenges [sometimes directly but mostly indirectly] has always been the lack of respect for the profession in this area, since everyone is mostly bilingual, they believe that it is synonymous with being an interpreter, once they try it and stumble upon some false cognates, they think again. I wonder if anyone in other large cities, or even Phoenix, has the same issue. It’s been very tiring, sometimes rewarding, constantly educating people on the profession. On the other hand, what I have loved most about the profession has been the explosion of amazing growth and evolution of the profession throughout those years. For those getting into this profession, I can say, it won’t be as challenging since we now have a plethora of resources and more recognition from all over the world,

    1. Jennifer Hammond says:

      Hi, and thanks Jackie. I think we’ve been pretty lucky here in Phoenix because the bench and the bar in general are very aware of the difference between a bilingual and a certified court interpreter. Even before we had the certification credential available here in Arizona, our office has always maintained high standards in hiring and training interpreters so we do get recognition for our interpreting abilities. I wouldn’t say that almost everyone is bilingual here so I guess we don’t really compare to South Florida.

      Good luck to you!
      Jennifer

  10. Robert Joe Lee says:

    I bet Scott Loos had something to do with your good fortune! How’s he doing? Best wishes.

    1. Jennifer Hammond says:

      You are right! He hired and trained me. He retired a few years ago and as far as I know is doing very well. Thanks.
      Jennifer

  11. Hilda E Shymanik says:

    Hello Jennifer. I was very excited to see that you took Jules’ invitation as an opportunity to write because I love your “writer voice”! I also agree with you completely. I left my staff job at Essex County Superior Court less than a year ago, but if I could find an equivalent opportunity, in IL I would take it without blinking. If I could move the whole Essex building and institution to IL or move my whole family to New Jersey I would never have left. Since I can’t, I am freelancing until such an opportunity comes along.

    I love the “free”(dom) in freelancing. I am a businesswoman. I can sell but the other parts are not my favorite, though. All the admin, bookkeeping parts. They take time that I could use to learn, study, read, practice, research, take classes, etc. I am getting the rhythm of it and loving it but it was a challenge at first. I hope one day to go back to a staff job but for that I may need to move states again or hope for a good opportunity.

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