Want to be a successful interpreter? – Don’t skip the business part.

As much of a nerd as we are when it comes to our interpreting skills, most of us suck at our business skills. Interpreters, from what I have observed, are somewhat nerdy. Now before you get your knickers in a twist, know that I say this with the utmost respect, especially since I am an interpreter too. We study, probably more than any other professional. Interpreters are always learning new terms, preparing for interpreting sessions, taking courses to keep their CEU’s up to date, attending professional conferences, and on and on we could go. Who else but a nerd would do these things continually? Next time someone asks me what I do, I shall answer that I am an interpreter nerd.

Those that work for a company, a hospital, for example, have the business part done for them. Someone else handles the invoicing, collection of payments, budgets, payroll, marketing, and the million other tasks associated with running a business. Freelance interpreters, well…, the majority skip this part. The question becomes, why?

There are several reasons why most of us (talking Freelancers here) suck at the business side of interpreting. One reason is simply lack of time. By the time we have prepared for our assignments, figured out the best route to get to wherever, interpreted, and dashed out to the next appointment the day is gone. Even us OPI’s (Over the Phone Interpreters) and VRI (Video Remote Interpreters) find the day has sped by like a rocket ship. By the end of the day, do you feel like invoicing? I don’t.

Another reason for shorting the business side of interpreting is simply lack of knowledge. The interpreters that I have the privilege of knowing are great at what they do –interpreting. Truth be told, I am jealous of some. I listen to them and think to myself; will I ever be that good? You know the ones; every word seems to come to them effortlessly. They captivate the listener with their perfect accent. There is a tone to their voice that screams professional confidence. Meanwhile, back in the barn, there are those of us running marathons throughout our brains trying to find that term we learned years ago that is needed at this very moment. What the hell was that damned term? Two hours after the session has ended that ‘perfect term’ pops into our heads. Ugh! Does this ever happen to you?

Where were we? Oh yea, the business side of interpreting. Many of us don’t have the energy, the money, or the time to add anything else to our plates. I don’t know about you, but at the end of the day, the last thing on my list of fun evening activities is sitting at my computer to generate invoices. Marketing? Who has time for that? I want to get a request –at my fee or higher, accept the offer, interpret, and get paid on time. Sadly, this isn’t reality. When working for ourselves, we must do it all. Or must we?

When I was doing face to face interpreting one of the things that irked my chain was getting done with an interpreting session, checking my messages afterward, and finding out that I had missed an excellent interpreting opportunity because I hadn’t responded fast enough. What the hell! Damn those agencies that send out blast texts and emails to every interpreter and the one with the fastest fingers gets the gig. Can you imagine any other professional, except for interpreters, that would do this? Not me.

How do we get the assignments, invoice the jobs, market ourselves, keep up with continuing education requirements, and among all of this have some kind of life? Most of us don’t. We let one or more areas suffer and, in some way, it hits our pockets. We invoice late or forget to invoice. We don’t follow-up on time with collections, our marketing is non-existence until we are short on gigs, and this vicious cycle continues month in and month out.

We have covered a few of the ‘why’s’ so now let’s look at a few solutions. You, I am sure, can come up with many more. My first question to you and one that I had to answer myself many years ago is why do you think you need to do this alone? Do other professionals handle every single aspect of their business? Some may; however, the majority don’t. Think of a doctor, a sole practitioner. Do you think after a day of seeing patients a doctor sits down to do the billing? Um, don’t think so. Why, then, should we?

Now I want to give you something to think about. What if you contracted out those tasks that you –a) are not good at, b) don’t have time to do, and c) leave you frustrated month after month? Would your life be easier? Could you handle more assignments if all you had to do was show up and interpret?

You don’t have to start like a Fortune 500 company. Start small. Ask yourself what your most significant obstacle. If it is invoicing then have someone handle invoicing for you and get it off of your plate. If you are good with invoicing but suck at marketing, then find someone to handle all of your marketing. You get the idea. Whatever task you are letting slide, have someone else do the job for you.

One area that I think is important to consider outsourcing is acceptance of assignments and fee negotiations. Although over time I figured all of this out, this is one area that I sucked at and to be honest am not that great at today. I detest having to do the back and forth dance, but that is just me. Some love the challenge, and for a person like me, this is a beautiful thing. I can hire one of these ‘lovers of negotiations,’ and before you know it, I am receiving assignments at the fee I want, and under my terms. Even entertainers use an agent to handle all of the negotiations. Why, then, can’t interpreters?

In conclusion, if being a ‘Freelance Interpreter’ is your profession and not a side hobby, it is OK to outsource some or all of those pesky tasks –invoicing, marketing, fee negotiations, collections, and so on. Never forget that you are a business and as such must operate as a business.

Thank you for reading my ramblings, and if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to share with whatever social groups that you participate. And, most importantly, if no one has told you lately that you are appreciated, let me tell you that I wholeheartedly appreciate you. Life is short my friend so smile, laugh, and let others know that they matter.


David Martin Tucker, Certified Spanish Healthcare Interpreter, CHI™, or “Spanish David” as he is known, is a certified healthcare interpreter whose passion for Latin American culture and language is second only to his desire to become a voice for his Spanish speaking clients. Conveying more than words, David’s continuous thirst for knowledge thrusts him into the culture of his clients.
David is an honor’s graduate from the Southern California School of Interpreting’s Medical Interpreter Program and holds bachelor degrees in both Modern Languages (Spanish) and Business from Metropolitan State College of Denver and the University of Southern Indiana respectively. Further lingual & cultural studies focusing on communication, culture, and medical terminology were accomplished at institutions in Colorado, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Guatemala.
A founding member of the El Puente Bilingual Toastmasters in Denver, CO, David is also a proud member of IGA (Interpreters Guild of America), and a former member of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Health Care Patient Advisory Board.

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