So You Want to Be the Favorite Freelancer

I’ve been working as a staff interpreter for a long time in various jurisdictions, so I’ve hired freelance interpreters (of languages from Achi to Zuni) hundreds of times—probably thousands. And let’s face it: every court has its favorites. For any language for which a court has multiple options, certain freelancers (or agencies, but that’s another subject) will be the go-to when there’s a big assignment, or a last-minute one, or a vacation to be covered. Well-meaning administrative offices try to encourage or enforce a fair rotation, but there will always be someone who has an extra edge.

A question asked by prospective and working freelance interpreters alike is often: how can I get more work? Or the flip side: is there really enough work for me? So here’s the answer: There may not be enough work for everyone, but there will always be enough work for those who go the extra mile to make working with them a pleasure. So how do you become one of those people? Let’s see:

  1. 1. Be a good interpreter. This probably goes without saying, but I don’t want to be accused of leaving anything out. Know your profession and exercise it well. Practice your vocab. Study topics you don’t know well. Learn to modulate your voice (speed, inflection, volume). Listen to recordings of yourself and work on anything you don’t like about your voice, from hedges to tone. Know how to use your interpreting equipment. Strengthen your short-term memory. Speaking of which …
  2. 2. Don’t annoy the judges. This overlaps with the above, because for the most part, judges just want interpreters to do their jobs well. But the judge has a more global focus on the whole courtroom and case, and wants things go smoothly for everyone. And yes, that means not asking for repetitions. By all means, if you need a repetition, ask for one—but do everything you can to reduce your need for them. (See my post next week for ideas!)
  3. 3. Make the interpreting office staff love you.Obviously, the first way to make yourself disliked is to be a bad interpreter or annoy the judges, but many of the same rules for being a good co-worker/colleague/employee apply to being a good freelancer.
    1. a. Be on time. No, seriously, BE ON TIME. A few minutes once in a while is fine in most courts, but only if you have a reputation for punctuality.
    2. b. Read any instructions you were sent about the assignment, before you get to court. Bonus points if you ask your questions about the assignment beforehand, not when you check in.
    3. c. Every court has its own rules (Go to the interpreting office first or the courtroom? Can you bring water? food? equipment? Does someone need to sign your log? Who gets your voucher, and can you invoice for multiple assignments at the same time?). Of course, you won’t know them all right away; but work hard to learn and remember them, and ask questions about ones you don’t know.
    4. d. Be friendly, but not so much that you’re interrupting administrative work.
    5. e. Don’t take up too much space—literal or figurative. Interpreter offices can be small, cramped, and filled with people. Please don’t bring your entire home office with you or spend all your down time on the phone.
    6. f. Respect the professionals who hired you. For one thing, we can all learn from each other, always. For another, they have mountains of responsibilities and work that have nothing to do with in-court performance, which contractors know nothing about. And third, even if you have disagreements with them, do what you have to do to keep the working relationship running smoothly.
    7. g. Be available and be flexible. Take the hard assignments, the unpleasant ones, the ones at weird times or in places you’d rather not go. If you’re not getting work, there’s nothing wrong with a brief email reminding a court of your availability and willingness to accept assignments.
    8. h. Run your business professionally. Keep your financial records well. Return phone calls and emails. Dress professionally and in line with the court you’re going to. Don’t cancel assignments you’ve accepted unless there’s an emergency.
    9. i. Don’t complain, especially about cancellations and/or not being hired. Believe me, the people cancelling you hate to have to do it! Nearly all of us were freelancers once too. But nothing makes the person hunting for an interpreter want to skip over a phone number more than someone who constantly asks why he/she isn’t getting the plum assignments. (Although the answer most likely has to do with the suggestions above.)

I know the above are difficult to balance and many of them seem terribly unfair.  I’m not claiming otherwise. But if you didn’t know, now you know. If you can balance them all, you will endear yourself to the court and the people you want to hire you. And that means that when they are in a jam and only have time to make one phone call, or they’re trying to decide on the best interpreter for a complicated assignment, your name will be the one that pops into their mind.

Of course, if you don’t want to do the above, there are other avenues. You could branch out into another type of interpreting, or translation, or interpreter training, among others. You could get a staff position, where you’re guaranteed work—and income—every day. But those options, those have their own pros and cons.

One thought on “So You Want to Be the Favorite Freelancer”

  1. Simeamativa Aga says:

    This is worth reading and using for guidance in the Interpreter Freelance work. Thank you for sharing.

    Tiva M. Aga, Samoan Language Registered Interpreter, State of Washington.

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