Integrity Languages


Tag Archives: interpreting agencies

Do you need an interpreting agency?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 7, 2020

If you have an international event that is multilingual, you’re going to need to find interpreters – those funny people who sit in boxes and talk or work remotely. That means that your first stop should be an interpreting agency, right?

Interpreting Agencies: useful but not universal

The answer is, maybe. While it can be very tempting to simply contact the first conference interpreting agency that turns up on the Google Search results or pick whichever one seems to have the best name, that isn’t always helpful.

I have written before about the different ways to find interpreters and the differences between agencies and consultants but the most important differences boil down to this:

  • Unless the agency is run by interpreters, they won’t have a personal understanding of what it takes to deliver great interpreting

This can lead to them recruiting the first people who say yes to their emails, picking the cheapest equipment suppliers or simply prioritising margin over results. Sure, I doubt any agency would ever admit to doing that but certainly, you have to have suspicions about any agency that offers “instant quotes”, “5000 interpreters covering every language” or “lingusits available 24/7”.

Put simply, the people who know the best ways to get the best out of interpreting are …. (drumroll for suspense) interpreters. The very best agencies, unless they are run by interpreters, will be specialists in processes, protocols and recruiting, not necessarily in getting precisely the right interpreting you need. Interpreter-run agencies will necessarily know more about how to get the best out of interpreters and can offer a great half-way house.

  • Unless the agency actually attend the events they staff, they don’t know about the specific skills of each interpreter

That might not sound important but it really is. I have some conference interpreter colleagues who I would trust with my life in a technical meeting. I wouldn’t even ask them to do a sales meeting though. I know others who specialise in interpreting tours with verve and pizzazz but you wouldn’t want to let them near accounts.

When you work alongside interpreters, you get to know their skills and abilities. You simply don’t see that at the end of a phone.

  • Agencies excel in meetings where scale matters

Given their expertise in processes and the hundreds of CVs they receive, agencies tend to do great when you need thirty interpreters within 48 hours. They also tend to win contracts where people are buying interpreting in bulk, such as thousands of hours of court interpreting a month or interpreting in hundreds of languages. Consultant interpreters, due to their specialisation and reliance on networks, tend not to scale their teams as quickly. Give them time and they can still find you 20 medical interpreters to cover ten languages for a specialist medical conference. That’s something I have already done personally!

Choose Consultants when Partnership Matters

While interpreting agencies excel at scale, consultant interpreters excel at partnership. When the future of your business is on the line, you really need a consultant interpreter who can build a custom team. When the event going well is the difference between a contract being signed and your turnover taking a dive, you need someone who can work with you, just like consultants do.

If you are buying huge amounts of interpreting, you might need an agency. If your next event is about getting great results due to partnership with an expert, you need a consultant. If you need a consultant interpreter to build you a personalised, custom team of interpreters, drop me an email.

What to look for in interpreting agencies?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 4, 2019

There are times when approaching an interpreting agency will be the best option for your event. They offer convenience, a single point of contact and already have lots of interpreters on their books. But not all interpreting agencies offer good value for money, in fact some have built such a poor reputation that they will struggle to deliver the quality you need. So what should you look for? Here is my list:

  • Good interpreting agencies are members of professional associations

This is similar to one of the most important signs of a good interpreter but it is even more important for agencies. At least in the EU, there are professional associations in most countries that cover interpreting agencies. If they have been accepted for membership, you can at least know that someone is watching their ethics and you have a cheap and effective way to deal with any complaints.

Conversely, if they have no memberships and the only thing they can boast is adherence to some random ISO standard, steer clear! They might be good but it is just as likely that they are a fly-by-night operation whose actual knowledge of the industry and the required standards is very light.

Where there isn’t a relevant local association, check that the agency requires its interpreters to be members of an association or, even better, that they have association member interpreters on staff permanently.

  • Can you contact a named person?

This might seem a little odd but if an agency’s website doesn’t actually contain the names of anyone working for the company, it should be a red flag. For interpreting to work, it takes real teamwork between the client, the person managing the interpreting and the interpreters. If you have no idea who the project manager is or worse, get bundled to a different person each time, there is little chance that the event will go well. Good companies are happy to at least mention some key staff. If they don’t, it might mean that they have high turnover or just shovel every job around.

  • Are they interested in your event?

While it’s good to have systems and automation in place, if you feel that the agency are treating you as just another number, it’s time to look elsewhere. Sadly, this is pretty common with very large agencies who tend not to reward staff for paying particular attention to specific clients, unless that client comes with a huge budget. A good agency, no matter how busy, will show interest in what you want to achieve from your specific event and will build your interpreting team around that. If they seem not to care, take your cash elsewhere.

  • Will they tell you the names of the interpreters?

I know this might be controversial but if an agency cares more about ensuring that their interpreters can’t be poached than they do about clear communication, dump them. If they can’t trust their own interpreters to work professionally and so want to keep everything under wraps, then those interpreters should be nowhere near your international event.

Good agencies are proud of the teams they build and should be happy to tell you just how great those interpreters are. They should also know that great interpreting starts with great communication and sometimes, it’s quicker for the interpreters just to ask you some questions directly.


Ideal interpreting agencies get all these things right. They are members of professional associations, are open about their own staff team and the interpreters they use and they care about your event. To get the right agency, it helps to make all four of those criteria non-negotiable.

But are there more? Which criteria would you add to this list?

5 Big Questions to Ask Your Interpreting Agency

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 17, 2018

If you are buying interpreting, you will spend significant amount of cash on a service that can go wonderfully right … or dreadfully wrong. How can you tell in advance that things will work the way you need them too? While you can’t guarantee that the event will go perfectly, you can ask key questions that can give you a strong indication of what is likely to happen, especially if you are working with an interpreting agency.

As a consultant interpreter and freelance interpreter working for both direct clients and agencies, I thought it was time to give you five key questions that you can use to ensure that you get the best deal possible from your interpreting agency. Here they are:

  1. When will I know the names of the interpreters you have picked?

A bad interpreting agency will do its best to obfuscate any details of the interpreting team. While giving you direct contact with the team might be justified by saying something about secrecy (whose exactly?) or competition, you should seriously consider asking for the names of the interpreters and the city they are based in. Why?

With the names and cities of the interpreters in hand, you can spend five minutes looking them up to check that they have all the qualifications and experience that the agencies say they have. If the agency aren’t going to tell you the team until they arrive at the venue, you have to ask questions about their hiring process and the criteria they are using.

Another reason for knowing the team in advance is that you may need to book hotel rooms for them or check for dietary requirements. While some might argue that you should trust the agency to send you a good team, they really have nothing to hide and you have everything to gain by knowing the team in advance.

  1. What criteria do you use to select interpreters?

The answer to this should be really simple: experience (including their previous working relationship and feedback from clients), referrals from their trusted team of existing interpreters, association membership, qualifications, and availability are the big five.

The reality is that good agencies will default to something like those five. For a bad interpreting agency, it will all come down to who is the cheapest and who they can drag out of bed. In interpreting, cheapest is rarely, if ever, best.

  1. Are you a member of a trade association?

You can safely ignore any wooly reply that includes the letters “ISO”. What you are looking for is membership of a trade body in the languages services industry with a solid set of codes of conduct, not proof that the agency have consistent procedures is. Having great procedures means nothing if the team they send is rubbish!

ITI and ATC are the associations to watch for in the UK; ATA are the go-to in the US and there are similar bodies all over the world. Most countries will have some kind of association that allows interpreting agencies to be members. Don’t be shy about cross-checking their claims with the association itself. All of the big ones have online directories that allow you to check who their members are.

  1. Could you send me the link to your ProZ BlueBoard entry?

This is often country-dependent but many, if not most reputable interpreting agencies will be listed on the Blue Board. This lists what freelancers think of that particular company. A score of 5 indicates that freelancers are happy with them. If they score below 3 or their profile has been disabled or blocked, run away.

Why should you worry about what interpreters think of the agency you have chosen? Agencies with a good reputation tend attract excellent interpreters, who produce great results for you. Agencies with a bad reputation end up with the kinds of “interpreters” who might appear on TV as “fake interpreters”.

It is also worth looking for them on websites that discuss their payment practices and even ones that gather views from former employees. The more you know about the kind of company you are dealing with, the better. Companies with a bad payment history will usually deliver poor results.

  1. Can we arrange a quick Skype chat?

This might seem like an oddball but, in an age where there is a need for a website dedicated to listing people trying to scam, it is important that interpreting buyers take a similar precaution. One simple skype call to check that the agency is who they say they are and to gauge their level of helpfulness and accessibility can mean the difference between a great event and being caught in a scam.