INTERPRETING QUOTES AND RATES EXPLAINED: THERE'S MORE THAN MEETS THE EYES
I’m going to rip the band-aid off from the very beginning: (good) interpreters don’t come cheap.
I am perfectly aware that a quote for an interpreting assignment might raise a few eyebrows, and this is why I decided to explain all the elements that might not transpire but that contribute to interpreters adding value to the event and charging accordingly in order to provide a professional and high-quality interpreting service: some are quite straightforward, some are less so.
First things first
Let’s start with a few preliminary considerations: not all interpreters charge the same. There are several factors that influence the starting price point for interpreting services – the most common are language combinations, i.e. depending on the “rarity” of the languages involved, and location: not all markets are created equal and the cost of an Italian interpreter varies depending on whether you are in London, Paris or Geneva.
Another big differentiating factor for the rate you will be charged is the interpreting type and modality required: a quote for interpreting at an NHS appointment is not the same as that for a two-day conference, and in some markets services like consecutive or simultaneous interpreting are priced differently.
These are the main factors that can dictate the starting price of the interpretation service, but what justifies interpreters asking up to £1600 for a day’s work?
If I have to be honest, interpreters aren’t the best marketers of their own services – sometimes we just provide the client with a very general quote and we leave it up to them to either take or leave it, without taking the time to explain the value our service will provide to their hybrid event or B2B meeting.
Value is the keyword here – interpreting, in fact, it's not a cost: it’s an investment.
So what are you exactly investing in and what are the ‘hidden’ items contained in a quote for professional interpreting services?
Although language skills are often and widely looked down upon and disregarded as ‘easily learned’, interpreting is a craft in its own rights and it’s classified as a highly-skilled — and straining — profession.
Becoming an interpreter is a long journey that starts with learning at least two languages at a high level of proficiency (if you’re familiar with the EU language framework, usually at least C1): in order to do this, interpreting students undergo intensive language courses and spend time abroad to improve their skills as well as to get to know the culture of the language they are learning. Interpreting is now taught at university level with specialised degrees, so the new generation of interpreters (starting from the early 2000s) will have to have completed at least a BA and an MA in order to enter the market, effectively going through a minimum of 4 years of graduate studies. Interpreters are trained in many different techniques — liaison interpreting, consecutive interpreting and simultaneous interpreting all require different mnemonic, multitasking and public speaking skills, and cannot be improvised.
If you’ve read some of my other blog posts you’ll know I like to compare the interpreting profession to the medical one, as I find them extremely alike: surgeons operate on people, interpreters operate on speeches, sentences, and words.
Everyone can suture a wound — trained surgeons, who have spent countless hours in the lab perfecting their technique and know how to make the most out of the tools at their disposal, will do it beautifully and as painlessly as possible, maybe even without leaving a scar at all. But sure, everyone with a needle and some thread can patch it up — I’ll leave it up to you to judge the differences between the two results. The same can be said for interpreters: everyone knowing two languages can ‘wing it’, but the final result might be far from ideal, or professional.
Targeted preparation and study time
This is what probably impacts interpreting rates the most. The rule of thumb is that the length of the preparation needed to study for an assignment is equal to the duration of the assignment itself: one day to prepare for a 1-day conference, half a day to prepare for an online hybrid event lasting 4 hours. Some assignments actually take longer to prepare, especially if the subject matter is technical. This is also why some interpreters add a surcharge if the client doesn’t send any reference documentation, as it then takes longer to find terminology resources and preparation material based only on a general topic.
The interpreting preparation process and the impact of assignment preparation on the quality of the service provided have already been discussed and analysed in depth in a previous post, but it remains easy to understand one thing: the interpreter doesn’t just show up and enters the boot — for every day worked, there has been one spent preparing and studying which has to be compensated and this is reflected in the rates charged.
Technical software and ad-hoc platforms
Interpreting might be a craft that requires in-depth knowledge, specialist training, creativity, problem-solving, public speaking skills and countless hours of practice which, despite their best efforts, machines still can’t replicate, but that doesn’t mean the modern interpreter is excused from using dedicated equipment and specialist software, which in turn require extra training and continuous upskilling.
The meteoric rise of RSI (remote simultaneous interpreting) and the proliferation of ever more CAI (computer-assisted interpreting) tools have introduced a whole host of new tools in the day-to-day routine of interpreters, who have had to invest in professional AV equipment to provide a quality service. A fully equipped RSI station may include:
At least extra device and/or multiple screens to juggle the interpreting platform and other event-related documents
At least one ISO-compliant professional USB microphone complete with boom arm and shock-absorption to provide pristine and reliable sound
A cabled optic fibre connection, often with a second backup internet connection to prevent going offline should one provider experience issues
At least one ISO-compliant set of headphones or headset with minimum features with it comes to impedance, sensitivity and sound quality
A volume limiter to protect their hearing due to the unreliable nature of broadcasted audio
An audio mixer or external console to juggle multiple sound sources and inputs
An HD camera for high-quality video streaming
A UPS (uninterrupted power supply) device to prevent being disconnected in case of power outages or blackouts
Amongst the software routinely used by interpreters to maximise preparation time we can cite glossary building tools like InterpretBank, Interpreter’s help or Flashterms, along with some first instances of AI applied to interpreting, with software able to recognise spoken figures and numbers to help with accuracy.
If they’re providing translation services for virtual events or online meeting, interpreters need to be able to navigate the platform, ensuring smooth transitions during change-overs in order to avoid confusion and that the audience misses out on content because of a technical issue. The pandemic has contributed to the proliferation of such platforms and there are now more than we can count, each with its particular set of setups, buttons, specification and layout.
Cultural sensitivity and mediation
Culture awareness is part and parcel of the interpreting profession: the best interpreters don’t deal in languages only — they will offer an invaluable cultural mediation service by conveying the meaning and not the manner in which the original was expressed, in order to culturally adapt it and prevent lost-in-translation situations which could prove costly for businesses, both financially and in terms of image. On top of this, during breaks, interpreters act as a point of reference for foreign delegates and they also vehicle useful feedback for the event organisers, enabling them to improve guest experience and keep everyone happy.
Why can't you do it cheaper?
As interpreters we don’t really have a choice: lowering our rates would start a vicious circle. If we are paid less, we need to find more work to earn a living, and having to work more translates into less time for each assignment, which inevitably means having to start cutting corners somewhere. As we still have to show up for the assignment, the only thing we would be able to cut corners on is preparation, and in the words of Benjamin Franklin: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.