Releasing the fear of competition

Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.

– Ryunosuke Satoro

Sometimes we may find ourselves wondering: Is that other interpreter or translator in my same language combination my colleague or my competition? Does he want to take my clients away from me? Is she threatening my livelihood by taking jobs that could be mine? Is that other translator saying bad things about my work? If we ever get called to work together, will that other interpreter try to make me look bad?

When we think that way, we see other interpreters and translators as threats and isolate ourselves instead of reaching out to build coalitions that can make us stronger and alliances that can help us grow. The thought process of professional interpreters and translators moves in the opposite direction of competition and mistrust of our peers. Professionals embrace those who join their ranks and uphold the same high standards and principles.

Bonding with your colleagues

When you see architects, lawyers, doctors, engineers, and other professionals getting together and forming partnerships or other joint ventures, do you ever wonder, “Are they not joining forces with their competition?” Chances are they are doing it because professionals don’t see each other as competitors—they see each other as colleagues. Even in those fields where you would expect more competitive attitudes, like in real estate, you find a certain bond that puts collegiality above competition.

Have you ever seen an ad from the National Association of Realtors? “Work with someone you can trust. Work with a REALTOR®” They have branded the designation of “realtor” as a unique credential that must be earned by studying and getting tested, one that requires continuing education and has a code of ethics. You may think of realtors as salespeople, but they think of themselves as professionals.

Defining yourself as a professional

Once you define yourself as a professional, you connect with others who define themselves in the same way and who are aligned with the same values and principles. They are your peers, not your competition. They are the people you can consult, the people you trust to help you on matters related to your professional practice, the people you can ask to take your place if there ever comes a time when you cannot cover an assignment or provide a service to a client. That’s why it never surprises us when our doctor goes on vacation but leaves a colleague in charge of her patients in case of an emergency. They are not in competition with each other and our doctor would never fear her colleague would try to steal her patients away. There are certain principles involved. It’s what professionals do.

Competition is a lonely sport

Interpreters who isolate themselves because they perceive their peers as competition and rivals are missing out on opportunities to learn from their colleagues. Maybe it’s just finding out about a new dictionary that just became available online, or one that’s been available in print for many years but is rare and hard to find. Maybe it’s finding out about a social media study group you can join and where, as a bonus, you can also make new friends who share your fascination with language. Who knows? Those friends may also become your extended family of interpreters and translators.

Isolation can lead to stagnation, which is never a good thing when your working instruments are human languages, because those are always evolving and it is our responsibility to stay abreast of those changes. Taking pride in what you do, not just as a way to earn a living or as a business venture but as a true profession, is the first step away from isolation and towards those coalitions and alliances that I mentioned earlier.

Collaboration is the key to our future

It is in our best interest to reach out to our colleagues, get to know them, and join forces when necessary, always looking out for each other rather than stabbing each other’s backs. Yes, sadly, it happens. It is the most unprofessional thing I can think of. No one can call themselves a professional if they have no personal ethics.

Collaboration is about sharing resources, knowledge, benefits, and responsibilities. Collaboration is a choice to pursue a common goal. As the world continues to evolve into a global village instantaneously reachable no longer by climbing on a steel bird but by simply flipping on a computer screen, collaboration is inexorable. Isolation is untenable.

The future is now. Our fellow interpreters and translators, no matter where we live, are not our competition—they are our colleagues. And each and every one of us is an essential part of a network of practitioners committed to reaching the next level of excellence at every turn, a network of empowered advocates on behalf of our profession everywhere we go.

Embracing unity

If you have been hesitant to reach out to a fellow interpreter or translator because you saw them as your competition, this is the time to let go of that notion and start to build partnerships, alliances, and coalitions with your peers. Remember all those other professionals, the engineers, dentists, accountants, pharmacists, lawyers? Notice how they always appear to the outside world as an internally cohesive group? Let’s follow their example!

The interpreting profession can gain recognition from the people around us much faster if we all work together to educate the public about who we are, what we do, how we do it, and why. We have everything to gain from the aggregate wisdom and experience each one of us contributes to this mix. We are not each other’s competition. We are each other’s allies. We are each other’s teammates. We are each other’s colleagues.

Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in federal, state and immigration courts around the U.S. before taking a full-time job. Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a staff interpreter in April 2002 and retired in 2017. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas, embracing the joys of being a grandmother. She also enjoys volunteering for her professional associations, has been on the SSTI and TAJIT Boards, and is currently on the NAJIT Board of Directors. Contact:

Body photo by Alexander Suhorucov from Pexels

13 thoughts on “Releasing the fear of competition”

  1. Carie Barrett says:

    Janis, your article led me down the path of collective cultures. We know that language and culture are intertwined, and as interpreters we attempt to straddle two languages and cultures, but usually align more with one than another. Users of ASL are a collective culture. Do my cultural values in a space that is using ASL lend me to collaborate more with my ASL teammate? There is also an aspect of gendered differences in the culture that influence my interactions with colleagues of the opposite gender. As I fight against Power, Privilege and Oppression, can I make a difference even among the members of the shared culture, specifically the team I am working with that day? Thank you for provoking these self reflective questions for me.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Hi Carie! I don’t know how my reply to you ended up as a comment (probably because I used my phone instead of my computer.) But here it is again because I don’t want you to miss it: I love how your mind takes you—and all of us—down all these different paths, on such wonderful explorations! I’d definitely say you make a difference every day!

  2. Gabriela Munoz says:

    Janis, this is such a wonderful and important post. It has been my small network of colleagues, both locally and across the country, that has helped me enter the profession, get my credentials, grow as an interpreter, and hold my own as a professional.

    Having this competitive mentality not only harms the individual interpreter, but the profession as a whole. In my experience, entities have been able to use this mentality to benefit themselves by taking advantage of interpreters and chipping away at our professional standards. It’s at the root of almost all of the problems we face: subpar fees for our work, elimination of proper working conditions, government reluctance to impose credentialing requirements, and the inability to organize for important changes.

    We must remember that this mentality is a guaranteed one-way ticket to the bottom of the barrel.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      I’m right there with you, Gabriela. That is why alliances, networks, joint initiatives are so crucial. Never let them split us apart!

    2. Seth Hammock says:

      A competitive mentality does not fit within a professional linguist ideal milieu. One, what exactly are the criteria for competition? The fact that someone is willing to charge less is more akin to competition much in the way poker players compete, or Walmart or Amazon drive prices down for goods. Pricing is not competition in our field, it’s really a result of ignorance. Few linguist I have met truly have the knowledge to understand pricing mechanisms, much less how to apply them to a field as esoteric as interpreting and translation.

      1. JANIS PALMA says:

        Well said, Seth! Thank you!

  3. Janis Palma says:

    Oh, Carie, I love how your mind takes you—and all of us—down all these different paths, on such wonderful explorations! I’d say you make a difference every day!

  4. Maria Baker says:

    Thank you for all the truths you have put in this article! I have to disagree that our colleagues are NOT our competition, as you say. I think we are too scared of the word “competition”. Some interpreters are my competitors, yes, but they are ALSO my colleagues. Competition does not necessarily mean stabbing each other in the back. There is such a thing as a good competitor, which I try to be. Sometimes, we do compete for the same market, and that’s ok. We are also fortunate in the fact that we work in a profession that is expanding, and there is work for all.

    Be a good competitor and a good colleague!

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      I’ve never been able to look at my colleagues as my competition because when I need someone to cover for me, that’s who I’m going to call. And I trust them with my clients like I would hope they’d trust me with theirs. We work in teams when necessary, we get together for breakfast or brunch on weekends, happy hour Friday night. celebrate birthdays and other happy events together, so it’s hard for me to say they are my “competitors” in any sense of the word, Maria. I don’t think it’s a matter of being scared of the word, it’s just a different reality altogether. The way I see it (and, of course, that’s just my point of view) the fact that we share a “job market” does not make us “competitors” by default.

  5. Kenneth Barger says:

    Great piece. Collaboration has been one of the major factors of my success in interpreting. I bet half or more of the work I’ve done over the years came to me from colleagues I have good relationships with. And when I can’t cover an assignment, I almost never respond with a simple “no” or ignore the inquiry–I recommend somebody. I always recommend someone I am certain will do a great job. The client is happy and the colleague is happy. Maybe the colleague does the same for me later on, maybe not. Some do. It has been really powerful for me. Plus it’s just so much more pleasant than being suspicious and leery of others.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      I agree with you 100%, Kenneth! And I’m pretty sure a lot of colleagues do what you do, as well. It is so much more pleasant, indeed!

  6. Such an important issue in our profession, thanks for giving it a spotlight! I was very fortunate to start my work as an interpreter in Tucson, Arizona, where my colleagues were much more collegial than competitive. I was really very lucky to be supported, given advice (also because I am not shy about asking for it), suggestions and much work by my colleagues. Through my work with the NCI and speaking to other interpreters over the years, it really surprised me to learn that not all areas of the country have this great work environment. Maybe it depends on the availability of work? Near the border there was of course MUCH need for interpreters in many settings: education, conferences, immigration and the courts. Here’s a shout-out to all of you in Tucson (in federal court, and freelancers) who have inspired and helped other interpreters such as myself as we were starting and needed boosts of confidence! You know who you are! 🙂 And to any colleagues starting out, I wish you luck in finding colleagues who are generous with their time, knowledge and support of all kinds.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      That’s the spirit, Irene! Kudos to those colleagues who were there for you when you were getting started and may the tradition live on!

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