How to make a living as a conference interpreter: Part 2 – Best practice for pro
A detailed look at the business practices of interpreters in an ever-changing conference interpretation market.
- Oliver POSPIECH ,
- Almute LÖBER ,
- Angelika EBERHARDT ,
- Anja RÜTTEN ,
- Julia BÖHM ,
- Klaus ZIEGLER ,
- Angela DROSSER
- Last updated:
In Part 1 we outlined our conclusions on calculation of fees taking into account all types of expenses as a step toward becoming sustainably profitable as self-employed interpreters. Taking those lessons into account, members of the profitability working group and others have been trying out new procedures and calculation methods. Here we'll describe some of them, hoping they may serve as a source of inspiration for others trying to adapt to a diversifying conference interpreting market.
The examples are based on the assumption that a typical freelancer handling all entrepreneurial tasks him‑ or herself needs a turnover of about 80,000 (single) to 100,000 € (family with children) in order to achieve a standard of living comparable to that of other similarly qualified professionals.
Recommended business practices
1. Track time methodically
After tracking time spent on work-related tasks for at least 3 months, several colleagues confirmed that conference interpreters put in a lot of hours - more than we often think. About one third of those hours are spent on “overhead" activities, while job-related or “productive" working hours are evenly divided between indirect tasks (e.g. preparation, travel, etc.) and actual time at the meeting. This balance may shift in favour of “productive" activities for experienced conference interpreters. However, it can also shift toward more “overhead" time due to specific circumstances, e.g. a change of one's professional domicile or office.
Conclusion: Fees must take into account preparation time and overhead. Trying to increase productivity by taking on more work leads to an overload, staying up late to prepare for the next assignment, lack of concentration on the job and/or while driving, and ultimately health problems and burn-out
2. Time track organisational tasks
Colleague A, a consultant Interpreter, took a close look at time dedicated to team/conference organisation. She discovered that there was a huge gap between her educated guess on the time she put into these tasks and reality, which led to the realization that her consulting fees were too low. She decided to track time spent on organisational matters in a detailed fashion and submit the records to the customer.
Conclusion: We tend to underestimate the amount of time we spend on ancillary activities. In addition, we do not sufficiently highlight the value of this work to our clients. We should view this work as a valued-added service that frees clients from doing it themselves. We should invoice this work at fair value.
3. Compare the profitability of assignments
Several colleagues undertook to analyse and compare interpreting assignments with respect to the number of hours put in and respective fees. This exercise provides valuable insight and corrected assumptions. Assignments paid on the low side at first sight can prove to be profitable or at least more profitable than some others, whereas assignments with relatively high fees can prove to be unprofitable. This confirms the hypothesis that one-day assignments are frequently far from being profitable.
Conclusion: Profitability analysis of individual interpreting assignments provides valuable insight on adapting fees to specific conditions or deciding whether a job offer is worth accepting.
4. Compare translation and interpretation
Colleague B used time-tracking to compare the profitability of translation and interpreting.
Conclusion: When all factors are taken into consideration, translation is often more profitable than interpreting. This can also hold true for other secondary activities such as university lecturing and voice-over.
5. Improve your sales pitch
Several colleagues were able to negotiate higher fees, even when clients' purchasing professionals were involved and competitors were quoting lower prices. Some colleagues managed to convince agencies, typically translation agencies for whom interpreting is no more than “windfall business", to use them as consultant interpreters. Clients commended the knowledgeable and resourceful service, which they found to be worth the higher price. This shows that there is a market for high-quality consultant interpreters
Conclusion: It is possible to negotiate proper fees with a professional sales pitch. But remember, learning how to do so takes time, know-how and ongoing effort.
Approaches to fee calculation
6a. 2 days minus 1 does not cut the fee by half
Colleague C submitted a quote for a 2-day meeting and later was told the conference would last just one day. Knowing that 1-day conferences are less profitable, she decided to cut the fee by 1/3 rather than 1/2. The client accepted. Colleague C also later learned that the equipment supplier had done exactly the same.
6b. Identical assignments don't have to cost the same
Colleague E was asked to interpret for three 20-minute guided tours on three consecutive days during a trade fair. Whether it would be one, two or three tours each day was to be determined, but all would be identical. The customer asked for a scalable quote as they could only confirm the number of tours and days about a month in advance.
The offer put the fee for day 1 at roughly 1,000 € and days 2 and 3 for just under 700 (as several languages were required, an organising fee was charged apart). A 30 € discount was offered in the event that days turned out to be short (i.e. max 40 minutes of interpreting). In the end, only day 1 was booked. For analysis, this was broken down by the hour, taking into account travel, waiting, preparation and interpreting time. The result was 90-100 € per hour. Had the customer booked all three full days, it would have been similar; had they booked three half-days, it would have been over 100 €.
Conclusion: It's possible to make customers understand that we put more time and effort into a single day assignment, comparatively speaking, than one of several days (if the subject matter is similar or the same). In fact, customers might even be aware of that from their own experience. Also, it is possible to offer a volume discount.
7. Itemize preparation time
Where she found it justifiable, Colleague D listed prep time as an extra item in a quote, using the “day" as the billing unit (e.g. for a very technical 2-day conference, prep time was billed as one additional day). The fee quoted was at the lower end of the going rate scale, but by adding a day for prep time, she ended up with a total which was, of course, much higher than it would have been if she had invoiced 2 days at the so-called going rate. This approach lends itself to assignments where it is known that prep material will arrive late, on the day or afternoon before the assignment (typical example: German Supervisory Board Meetings). Clients understand that an interpreter who receives 3 PowerPoint files of 40 slides each the afternoon before a meeting will have to reserve that day for preparation.
Colleague E was told by a client seeking a quote that for internal reasons the daily rate could not exceed 600 €. She structured her quote accordingly, with the daily rate for interpreting not exceeding the limit but with prep time shown as a separate item, which was considered acceptable.
Conclusion: There are several ways of structuring a quote in order to take into account both the customer's needs and our own. Ask potential clients about internal constraints, or items that might be difficult to justify to their superiors or accounting department. Then structure your quote in a way that makes sense and is convincing.
8. Raise fees at the turn of the year
Raising fees tends to make us uncomfortable. In addition, it is difficult to introduce a steep increase after not having raised rates for years. It is easier, however, to justify an adjustment for annual inflation at the beginning of the year. The same applies to inflation rates of recent years when submitting a quote for a conference that takes place every three years. In our experience, long-standing customers understand and accept this. Note that annual inflation can vary considerably as seen in these figures for Germany.
- November 2013: 1.337 %
- November 2012: 1.947 %
- November 2011: 2.393 %
- November 2010: 1.518 %
- November 2009: 0.407 %
- November 2008: 1.339 %
- November 2007: 3.298 %
You should compare your current fee to your 2007 fee plus inflation.
Conclusion: It is preferable to increase your fee at regular intervals by adjusting for inflation.
The German profitability working group was created in 2009. Its current members are Julia Böhm, Angela Drösser, Angelika Eberhardt, Almute Löber, Oliver Pospiech, Anja Rütten and Klaus Ziegler. We would be happy to share information and experience with colleagues from other regions, so if you are interested in joining our informal network, just drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org .
 Even with these figures your company is not making any “profit" yet.
Articles published in this section reflect the views of the author(s) and should not be taken to represent the official position of AIIC.