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Keys to a Successful Career – Freelancing in the Language Industry

When we think of success in the Language industry, we often think of individuals like Holly Mikkelson, who not only found success for themselves but taught and mentored many of us to grow within the industry as well. I recently had an opportunity to interview Holly Mikkelson, an esteemed Professor, mentor, colleague and friend. As a professional Translator and Interpreter who has built an impressive career as a freelance interpreter and translator, her answer to what she attributed her success to was enlightening and humbling.

Professional Development

Holly Mikkelson attributes some of her success to her dedication to her professional development, not just her academic schooling, but the many hours of personal study and research she dedicated to each project. She stated that “if I were getting started now, I would not have made it.” This was particularly surprising to me as her education alone seemed to cast a shadow on the preparation I had when I started. She continued, “after MIIS, my consecutive and simultaneous skills were excellent—my consecutive was even stronger than it is now, since I do not use it—… my vocabulary was the problem.”

How did she enhance her own skills?

For each project she worked on, she was able to share a long list of tools and resources she credited for the success and quality of her work. She laughed as she shared how at the start of her career she prepared for translating and interpreting in the legal setting by ordering textbooks and dictionaries from suppliers who often questioned what need she could possibly have for those materials. She also fondly shared how a Caterpillar Inc. product manual in English & Spanish played an instrumental role in her ability to provide quality translations for one of her clients. However, she stated that “those were different times, and everything is different now.”

What does she recommend now?

According to Mikkelson, “a lot has changed since I would order those books… there are a lot of resources on the internet.” She recommended taking college courses for other professions (i.e. paralegal courses), watching trials on YouTube, and visiting the web pages of court administrations, hospitals, etc. in search for glossaries and other resources. She stated, “a lot of students [like medical or law school students] post videos on YouTube.”

“Luck”

When asked if she could attribute her success to one thing, what would it be, Mikkelson responded, “luck.” But what is “luck” and where do you get it? Despite all her preparation, she believes that the primary key to her success was “being in the right place at the right time… knowing the right person.” Throughout her career, many, if not all, of the major leaps came about because she met the right person or was recommended by a dear colleague at the onset of a new project. For example, she attributes her opportunity to work for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) as a freelancer to the recommendation of one of her colleagues who had recently secured a staff position.

Is networking & building a professional network as important today?

According to Mikkelson, “yes, it is just as important, if not more, as when I got started.” Building a network of acquaintances is key to getting an opportunity to demonstrate your skills and knowledge. Although building a professional network can seem time-consuming and may not reap many fruits at the onset of a career as a freelancer, over time, it can produce results with very little effort on the freelancer’s part. Today, many, if not all, of Mikkelson’s work opportunities came through referrals. In fact, during the interview, Mikkelson shared that despite her lack of efforts to actively seek out new projects after retiring from her position as a full-time professor, her network is such that she is “even busier than before.”

What do you attribute for your success in the language industry? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Special thanks to Holly Mikkelson for agreeing to the interview and sharing her insights.

Holly Mikkelson, Professor Emerita of Translation and Interpretation, was a member of the faculty at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS), either as an adjunct or full-time, from 1976 to 2019. Her main areas of specialization are Spanish/English legal translation and court interpreting, though she has taught general classes in both translation and interpreting. She is certified as an interpreter in California and federal courts. She is also certified as a translator by the American Translators Association (ATA).

Mikkelson created the acclaimed Acebo training manuals for court interpreters. She is the sole author of Introduction to Court Interpreting (Routledge, 2016) and a co-author of Fundamentals of Court Interpretation: Theory, policy and practice (Carolina Academic Press, 2012). She co-edited The Routledge Handbook of Interpreting with Professor Renée Jourdenais in 2015. Her articles have appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals. She has also served as a consultant on court interpreter training and testing, and has testified as an expert witness on court interpreter standards of practice

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Errors & Omissions Insurance – Freelancing in the Language Industry

Any business that provides a good or service is responsible for the quality of said good or service in accordance with the terms of the contract, quote, and/or scope of work.

As freelance language professionals, whether we have our business registered as a legal entity or not, we are operating as a business. As such, some of our clients, agencies or other, may have certain expectations and may hold us liable when those expectations are not met. In fact, if you carefully review your contracts with said clients, you may find that some will explicitly require that you have insurance that provides liability coverage. Many of our colleagues who freelance in the language industry, however, choose not to purchase an Errors and Omissions Insurance Policy, leading us to question if we really need coverage.

What is Errors and Omissions Insurance?

It is professional liability insurance that protects businesses from claims related to negligence or inadequate work.[i] In the Language Industry, this type of insurance protects business owners (for registered businesses or sole proprietorships) from claims related to adverse outcomes that could result from errors in the delivery of service (i.e. errors in the translation or interpretation).

What is the cost of Errors and Omissions Insurance?

Like most insurance policies, Errors and Omissions Insurance usually provides coverage up to a specified amount. Usually there is a set amount of liability coverage per occurrence and an annual aggregate limit, plus a deductible. The annual or monthly premium will usually change depending on the amount of coverage (including the annual aggregate) and the deductible. For example:

Professional Liability

(ERRORS AND OMISSIONS)
$ 270 Annual

Quote #11746388
Liability Coverage
  • $250,000 – Per Occurrence
  • $250,000 – Annual Aggregate
  • $1,000 – Deductible

Professional Liability

(ERRORS AND OMISSIONS)
$ 416 Annual

Quote #11746391
Liability Coverage
  • $500,000 – Per Occurrence
  • $500,000 – Annual Aggregate
  • $500 – Deductible

Professional Liability

(ERRORS AND OMISSIONS)
$ 270 Annual

Quote #12013086
Liability Coverage
  • $1,000,000 – Per Occurrence
  • $1,000,000 – Annual Aggregate
  • $0 – Deductible

Quotes obtained October 2018 at www.insureon.com

Some contracts will indicate the amount of coverage required. For example:

Obtain a Professional Business Liability insurance policy, including coverage, with limits in an amount not less than $2,000,000.00 per occurrence for each such policy.

However, some clients may simply indicate in a contract, purchase order, or scope of work that the contractor shall comply with their standard posted requirements. For example:

Professional Liability
$1,000,000 – Per Occurrence /Incident/Claim
$500,000 – Annual Aggregate
$500 – Deductible

Is Errors & Omissions Insurance required for freelance interpreters or translators?

As previously stated, some clients may explicitly require errors and omissions insurance in their contract or policies. For example:

Professional liability insurance policy required whenever service provider is required to be certified, licensed or registered by a regulatory entity and/or where the provider’s error in judgment, in planning, design, etc. could result in economic loss to XXXXXXXX. XXXXXXXXX may require provider or consultant to provide proof of coverage for up to three (3) years after the completion of a project.

However, some clients may not explicitly require such insurance or may waive this requirement or free language professionals of such liability.

It is important to review all contracts, purchase orders, and/or statements of work carefully, as well as all related and applicable policies and standards when working with any organization to fully understand their insurance and coverage requirements. However, even when our clients do not explicitly require Errors and Omissions Insurance, as business owners, we may choose to secure a policy that provides some coverage, even if minimal, to protect us against claims. As a business owner, you should carefully consider the likelihood of a claim being made against you and the risk of the same. To do so, consider the legal implications a mistranslation or misinterpretation could have, which will depend on the type of content you are interpreting/translating, who your clients are, and what their own expectations and safeguards may be. Hiring a legal advisor to review your contracts/orders and help you weigh your risk is also a good idea.

[i] https://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/errors-omissions-insurance.asp

Please share your experiences related Errors and Omissions Insurance in the comments below.

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Planning for Tax Season – Freelancing in the Language Industry

One thing I never considered as I started my career as a freelance interpreter and translator was taxes. Here are a couple of tips I wish someone had shared with me as I started my freelancing career.

Consult with an Accountant or Tax Expert

And do it early in your first year as a freelancer, maybe even while still considering the possibility. I have usually prepared and filed my own taxes, with the exception of a few years where life changes pushed me to consult with a professional. Becoming a freelance interpreter was one of those times. However, had I consulted with a tax expert or accountant at the start of my freelancing career, filing taxes my first year with self-employed income would have been a lot easier.

Track your Expenses

When you consult with an accountant or tax expert, be sure to ask about deductible expenses. It is important to keep track of non-reimbursable mileage and other business expenses (like CAT tool licensing fees and steno pad purchase receipts). When talking to your accountant or tax expert, be sure to mention all programs, services, and goods that you will be using for your freelancing business and ask questions about receipts, mileage, and other proof and records you may need to maintain.

Track your Revenue

It is also important to keep track of how much you are earning. You may be working for one or multiple clients (agencies, organizations, etc.) who should provide you with a 1099 accounting for everything they paid you during the year. However, it is important to keep your own records and compare them against the 1099 provided to you by your client(s).

As you get started, tracking all of your revenue and expenses may be easy, however, as your freelancing business grows, you may need to invest in a program that can help you. There are a number of options for small business and the self-employed. Some have free versions with limited functionality and others even incorporate tax preparation software. It is important to look at the various options and find the one that best fits your needs. As far as pricing, there are many options for less than $10 a month. If there is a particular tool, software, or program you like or would recommend to your fellow interpreters and translators, please share in the comment section below.

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Marketing Your Services – Freelancing in the Language Industry

Once preliminary financial matters are in order (such as Setting your Rate and Planning for Tax Season), some freelance interpreters report that getting assignments can be difficult. Here are a couple of tips about how to market your services as a freelance interpreter. They have been organized from most effective to least effective based on my personal experience.

Solicit Referrals

Many of us heard about the language industry from a third party, be it the academic institution that trained us, a colleague or friend, a business associate, or current or former employer. Regardless of how you heard about the industry, chances are that the person or institution you heard it from either has a need or knows who has a need for interpreters. In my experience, this is the best way to start marketing your services, by reaching out to your network and asking to be introduced to potential clients (Language Services Companies, courts, institutions, organizations, etc.). Even if you are referred to an organization that cannot contract you directly, they will be able to provide you with information about who provides the service to them and maybe even refer you to that organization.

TIP: If you have any existing clients who are looking for additional resources, try recommending some of your colleagues who you know will provide great service. They may refer you in return to some of their clients as well, especially when they are unable to accept a project.

Get Certified

Although not all domains of language services require certification, obtaining it could help you market your services. Many prospective clients look at registries and membership lists for certifying bodies such as CCHI, ATA, NBCMI, RID, BEI, State Court Certification registries, etc. to find qualified/certified language professionals.

TIP: Many language professionals choose to keep their contact information private on these sites, however, if you are looking for new opportunities, you may want to ensure your email address and phone number are accessible to potential clients.

Post your Resume

I have found that the next source of job opportunities has come from forums and job search engines where I have posted my resume. Although finding a project or opportunity by searching on these forums and sites may not be as productive, devoting a few minutes to setting-up and maintaining your online profiles and resumes may prove more fruitful than expected. Language services needs are often time sensitive and prospective clients do not always have enough time to post projects and solicit bids, instead, they go to forums and job posting sites in search of existing resumes.

TIP: A few sites that have provided me with opportunities include: LinkedIn, Indeed, ProZ. Although these practices have helped me market my freelancing language support services, you may find that interpreters in your area are more successful using other platforms, forums, and/or strategies. If you have found something that works for you, please share in the comments below.

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Setting Your Rate – Freelancing in the Language Industry

Whether you are new to the industry as a whole or simply new to an area, one of the most challenging tasks is setting your rate(s). Most of us can agree that if your rate is too high, no one will hire you, and if it is too low, not only will you be taken advantage of, but you will be doing the industry a disservice. So, what rate should you set? The answer to this question, like many others in our industry, is that it depends on the context—both literally and figuratively. Here are several questions you should ask yourself or others before setting your rates:

1. What service are you providing?

Whether you are a translator, editor, proofreader, community interpreter, medical interpreter, legal interpreter, conference interpreter, sign language interpreter, or offer any other language service, the specific service provided will affect how much you can and should charge. Your working language(s) will also have an effect on your rates.

2. What is the level of technicality?

Regardless of the service you provide, the level of technicality or specialization will affect how much clients are willing to pay. Take for example simultaneous interpreting or a document translation, the budget for a high-stakes event or document that is about a very specialized topic, let’s say pharmaceuticals, will be greater than that for a low-stakes general informational document or community event.

3. What is your level of experience and reputation?

Some agencies, companies, or organizations like to use the people they trust. For this reason, some language professionals who are well known for their quality, customer service, punctuality, and other positive attributes, are sought out for “special” projects or assignments. It is important to note, however, that understanding the market for the specific service and level of technicality is key to ensuring your rate is not too high that it is unaffordable for your clients, which takes us to the next questions.

4. What are the market maximums and minimums?

You should join local professional organizations and talk to the members or its board and ask for guidance. At a minimum, it may be a good resource to understand how the service is priced in the area (i.e. per word or page, hour or day, etc.). Another great source of information are job postings for staff positions including salary ranges. If they are not available for your specific language combination or service, looking at other similar services can help. Finally, conduct a general web search for qualification requirements and standards in your area. Sometime, along this type of information, you can find information about pay ranges. For example, in the United States, the National Center for State Courts published information related to certification requirements and pay rates (where available) for many of the states that use their exam. Finally, conduct a general research based on the level of technicality by looking at minimum and maximum salary ranges for the specific industry (i.e. healthcare, legal, mechanical engineering, pharmaceuticals, etc.).

5. What is the supply and demand for the area?

One way to assess demand is looking through job postings. Search for postings that are for specific language combinations or specialization, and look for repetition. One posing for a Japanese linguist with legal experience does not dictate demand. You should also look at demographic information in the area. If you are 1 of 2 interpreters within a 20 mile radius that can provide a much needed service, you may be able to charge rates closer to or at the maximum for the specific service you are providing.

6. How much can you afford to accept?

If you are an interpreter, you may take into account whether you will be able to accept multiple assignments in one day. Are assignments available in a centralized area where you can go from one assignment to the next? Are you required to pay for any specialized equipment (i.e. a land-line)? If you are a translator, you may consider whether or not you are able to leverage technology to increase the number of words you can translate in an hour. Do you have to purchase any specialized software or computer programs?

Bottom-line, the “fair” rate depends on a number of factors, and should only be set after a lot of research and careful consideration. If you are having trouble adding up the numbers or have additional advice for a colleague who may be trying to price their service at a fair rate, please comment below.

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How Can I Start My Career as a Freelance Healthcare Interpreter

My career path to becoming a healthcare interpreter was by no means straightforward. At that time, there was no established path. Most professional healthcare interpreters I meet seemed share similar stories about how they started their careers by accident. In a way, I also became a healthcare interpreter by accident.

In spite of the various local and national interpreter organizations and the availability of certification for healthcare interpreters, the path had been largely undefined until the CATIE center at St. Catherine University developed a Healthcare Interpreting Career Lattice (pictured below). Although the lattice was developed for American Sign Language interpreters, all interpreters of signed and spoken languages can use it as a guide to become a healthcare interpreter.

CATIE Center at St. Catherine University. (2015). Healthcare Interpreting Career Lattice. In Interpreting in Healthcare Settings.
Retrieved from http://healthcareinterpreting.org/lattice/

Let’s get started.

Prerequisites to Becoming a Healthcare Interpreter

Beyond your language abilities, ideally, you have:

  • community (non-healthcare) interpreting experience,
  • a college degree (high school diploma or equivalent is the minimum requirement for some opportunities),
  • liability insurance (applicable to self-employed – consult with legal professional for advise),
  • up-to-date inoculation and records,
  • training,
  • background & security checks.

 

Inoculations

Each hospital or healthcare system will have their own requirements. One way to identify the required inoculations is to contact the Human Resources Department for the healthcare system or Language Service Provider you wish to work with. Some of the inoculations I have been asked to maintain as a healthcare interpreter include annual flu shots and TB tests, as well as a current MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) that you may have received as a child.

Remember:

  • Flu shots are administered seasonally and are not available certain times of the year, therefore it is important to plan ahead.
  • If you are allergic to any inoculation, make sure to keep written documentation of your allergy and note that protective equipment may be required for you to access a healthcare facility.

 

Liability Insurance

Liability insurance may be required if you are a freelance interpreters and translators. You should read contracts and policies thoroughly before engaging in a business relationship with any company, system, or organization. If errors and omissions insurance is required, you should expect your premium to be about $500 a year. Read more about errors and omissions insurance HERE.

 

Training

It is imperative that at a minimum you attend a workshop on ethics and standards of practice specific to healthcare, as well as complete the recommended introductory course work, including HIPAA training, which is required for all who work in a healthcare facility. Additionally, I recommend formal or informal training or independent study related to the US healthcare system, anatomy and physiology, and medical terminology in all of your working languages.  You may be able to find workshops bundles, conferences, or online courses that cover many of these topics at once and offer savings.

Tips for Spoken Language Interpreters

If you are a spoken language interpreter, all of the requirements listed will still apply, with minor modifications to the certification requirement. The Certifications listed in the checklist are generalist certifications for ASL interpreters and serve as a means to ensure that candidates have the necessary command of both languages and are familiar with proper interpreting techniques. You may need to demonstrate your language proficiency in your language pair through an assessment or interview, depending on the organization soliciting your services. Furthermore, certification for entry level healthcare/medical interpreters is available through NBCMI or CCHI. The Medical Interpreter Certification: Which Should I Choose? blog will help you choose the right certification for you.

 

Final thoughts

The Career Lattice serves as a wonderful starting place for those new to our profession. I fully support the recommendation to complete all pre-requisites before accepting assignments in the healthcare setting.

If you follow the prerequisite recommendations of the Using the Healthcare Interpreting Career Lattice guide, you will be prepared for your first healthcare interpreting assignment.

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