Precarious, ma non troppo

The multifarious life of a (kind of) freelance conference interpreter.

I was asked to write about my life as a freelance interpreter. But in fact my work-life is sort of halfway between that of a freelance and that of a staff interpreter. This is because I live in Brussels and work almost exclusively for the European institutions based here (the Parliament, the Commission, etc.) 

This was not the way I had expected it to be: After many years of living a truly precarious and varied kind of life, I was almost 40 when I decided to try this profession and, being a lucky sort of person, happened into the excellent training program at Georgetown University in Washington DC. I already had good strong Spanish and Italian (a Masters degree from Harvard in Spanish literature and, later, ten years' living in Rome), but my French was much newer and therefore weaker. In my heart what I most wanted to do afterwards was to go back to Rome and work at the FAO, but the directors of the course wisely counselled me, on the basis of my language strengths and weaknesses, to come first to Brussels and get some working experience here before braving the UN system. The idea was that the UN hires very few interpreters and therefore only the more experienced have a chance, while the European Community uses so many interpreters it is willing to take on beginners. Not to mention the fact that the UN doesn't use Italian and the EEC does. In addition, the Community was just entering accession negotiations with Spain and didn't have enough interpreters with Spanish yet.

So, in the spring of 1976, the ink still wet on my diploma, I set out for Brussels to seek my fortune. As the preceding implies, I knew no-one in Brussels, and had next to no money to tide me over. But I told you I am a lucky sort of person, and everyone here was extremely kind, even the Monsters. I was able to get enough translation work to bridge the gap, and then, after a few months, I was miraculously taken on staff (temporary status) at the Commission. I loved it. I loved the reaffirmation and I loved the stability, which, for the first time in my life, permitted me to indulge all sorts of long-gnawing curiosities like, oh, flying lessons, ancient Latin, serious singing. You know what I mean. Anyway, there I was, and very comfortable too. I put in five years' full-time work, punctuated by frequent tests, until, failing the dreaded concours, I went freelance. I was sorry to lose the security, but at least I wasn't starting again from absolute scratch: By that time I had learned that the grey skies of Brussels weigh much less heavily on the heart if you're earning a good enough living to be able to scoot off to Italy a few times a year. And having been working all that time for them, I was already known to the EEC institutions. This means that if I stayed here in Brussels, I wouldn't have to run around searching for work; the work would pretty much come looking far me. Being a woman of a certain age, not in the least bit business-minded, and certainly not what you'd call a go-getter, I found this situation quite seductive indeed.

It's not that I was less than passionate about this profession; I was and still am proud and delighted to be an interpreter. It satisfies so many of my appetites and abilities - starting with the sheer fun of manipulating language. Interpreting is a bit like a circus act, combining juggling and tightrope and fancy horseback riding plus the odd bit of clowning (off mike please) as well. Then there's the travel. And the money. And the thrill of being able to understand what's on the mind of somebody you know nothing about. And the heart-warming sense of service - knowing they couldn't've done it without your help.

But most of all the colleagues. This is one of the professions, like music, where the people you work with tend to be the ones you choose as companions for your home and social life as well. And for good reasons. This profession seems to attract (and satisfy) a lot of very talented, intuitive people who could otherwise have difficulty finding their niche. Translation and language teaching are also very good professions for us, and many of us do them too, but neither really offers much gratification for the more adventurous sides of our natures. Or the ludic. And we seem to have a bit of an appetite for risk. Another explanation for this family feeling among interpreters is, again like musicians, the intimate nature of our working situation: in the booth, we depend enormously upon one another. We get to feel a bit like war buddies. Enclosed as we are in a small insulated chamber, shoulder to shoulder under the thundering hail of incomprehensible speakers and opaque subject matter, I often get the feeling that my co-pilot and I are navigating a space-ship through perilous infinity, dodging flaming meteors and who-knows-what kind of death-dealing rays. It can be terrifying and exhilarating and it usually ends up forming a very strong bond.

So here I was, freelance and therefore precarious again, ma non troppo. It's very rare that the work in Brussels actually dries up. Most people will tell you it has dwindled drastically since the Good Old Days, and that must be true, but it's still there. Of course there are always problems; due to a variety of vicissitudes (sounds like a geological feature on the moon, doesn't it?) we have negotiated ourselves a series of disappointing Agreements with the European sector over the past 15 years, which have left us with a marked stagnation (at best) of our purchasing power. But we're still better off than most people. And we're still doing a job you can't do well unless you like it. There are problems too, in the industrial relations between the interpreters and the Institutions, but that's true in every line of work. The trend towards privatisation and downsizing is no help either. But all in all there is still plenty of work in Brussels - if you've got the right languages. Between the many international organisations, the European institutions, the various interest groups and lobbying offices, the NGO's, the corporations who have set their up their headquarters here to be close to them, and an active congress industry attracted to Brussels by all the foregoing but also the availability of good interpreters with many languages, you have to be doing something really wrong to fail in Brussels.

And so my life as a freelance is nowhere near as precarious as that of many others. Outside the conference cities (Brussels, Paris, Geneva, etc., where even a not-very-energetic conference interpreter can earn a full head-of-household income) most freelances either have partners who share the financial responsibilities with them, or other economic activities that bring in the rest of what they need. Remember, though, no matter how good it looks from the outside, you'll never get rich by working. This is a craft, not a business. And where you choose to do it is always a trade-off: those who live where they want to and commute to Brussels, complain about the travel. And the lower number of days' work they are offered. Local interpreters who cost less (no travel expenses to reimburse) are hired first and more often, but complain about fatigue from overwork, and the weather. If you don't like where you live, but stay there because the work is there, you tend to work more; both to avoid it and to afford yourself costly consolations.

People say the down-side of being a staff interpreter is overwork and routine, and the up-side of freelance life is the freedom. But just how free are we? Well, we're free to starve, of course. But if you've got a comfortable enough situation or are an excellent manager, you can be free to take off great lumps of time in order to pursue your passions: racing sailboats, exploring volcanoes, welding sculptures, writing cookbooks, whatever. But for the less imaginative, or the less well-organised, freelance life can just boil down to a grotesque scramble to:

  1. get a gig 
  2. study for it 
  3. get to it 
  4. do it 
  5. get back from it 
  6. get paid for it (!) 
  7. get another gig 

And so on and so forth. And all this while juggling baby sitters, travel agents, car repair, bank manager, learning Word Perfect, keeping up your Portuguese, keeping down your weight, remembering tax deadlines, mother's birthdays, doctors' appointments, etc. etc. etc. If you need me to elaborate on any of the above numbers I can, but you'd do well to try and imagine them for yourself. And don't suppose any of them is as simple as that, either: meetings with misleadingly descriptive titles, or consisting entirely of mysterious acronyms, can be held in cunningly concealed venues - assuming the address you've received is legible - and, after suffering all the indignities of appalling travel conditions in life threatening weather you finally arrive, make out where to go, shinny up the rope ladder to a tree-top booth that smells like an ashtray and sways slightly as you enter it, spend the rest of the day fielding loopy throws from speakers of Whatever-as-a-Third-Language in the company of a surly chimpanzee who doesn't do French (or computers, or budgets, or whatever there's most of) and - oh, never mind. My assignment was not to discourage new or aspiring interpreters. It was to help prepare them for this always challenging (even when it's dead boring) profession. And the only thing worse than a boring challenge is no work at all. But usually interpreting is a lot of fun and more than worth it: the satisfaction far outweighs the frustration, and then there's the added value of finding new and entertaining ways to complain.

All right, I'll give you some kindly advice. 

FIRST, guard your health carefully. When you're out of the booth, make sure you get lots of oxygen because you can be sure you're not going to get any while you're In there, I really mean that; I'm convinced that a lot of veteran burn-out is due to oxygen-deprivation on the job. You also might want to look in on a logopède at some time or other, or a voice coach, or somebody who can help you keep your voice well placed, flexible and comfy.

SECOND, if you're going to be a freelance I warmly advise you to take some kind of rudimentary bookkeeping course before it's too late. Taxes are hard to calculate, especially with your friendly VAT mixed in there as well - and many of us pay taxes in several different countries, each with its own endearingly sovereign procedures. Currencies are tricky to convert, especially while you're on the phone deciding whether to accept or not. Records are no fun to keep, particularly if your cat loves to sleep on your piles of papers. Bank statements are arcane to a fault, filing systems turn on you and bite; the whole thing can become quite Kafkaesque if you don't have some kind of accountancy skills to fall back on.

THIRD, remember, your booth-mate is very sensitive to how you feel and what you do. Try not to wear too much perfume or complain too much. We all have sad stories to tell and you might regret opening up somebody else's floodgates. Everyone's life is an uphill struggle and in such close quarters, self discipline is the name of the game.

FOURTH, join AIIC and enjoy it. Participate actively. You need a professional association and it needs you. It won't get better unless you help.

And FIFTH, in that deathless wisdom of my beloved teachers, never forget that in this profession there are no secrets. If one of us knows it, then a whole lot of us know it. And you are no exception, so keep your nose clean.

This being said, my best advice to you is to notice how lucky you have been and take advantage of the infinite opportunities being a freelance interpreter can offer you. See you around!



Recommended citation format:
Susan Jessica NORTH. "Precarious, ma non troppo". aiic-italia.it June 21, 2000. Accessed April 21, 2019. <http://aiic-italia.it/p/213>.