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The Future of (Conference) Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 15, 2016

Today, professional interpreters stand at a crossroads. Behind them, the well-worn paths to professionalism and even regular work seem to be showing signs of wear and tear. …

The same market forces and political motivations that have threatened court interpreting are beginning to affect conference interpreting, too.”

Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence, Routledge, May 2016.


If there is one thing guaranteed to get me out of post-conference work motivation slump, it’s a meaty discussion about interpreting. It seems that, while I was wrestling with the “fun” of fixing the index for my upcoming book, interpreters and interpreting trainers were at the offices of SCIC (the European Commission’s Interpreting Service and Conference Organising service) hearing about the future of the institutional conference interpreting market.

According to the interpreting twitterati, the outlook is not great.  For whatever reason, the demand for institutional interpreting is down. We might not yet be at the point of mass layoffs and empty booths but this definitely isn’t the cosy, secure world many of us were trained for.

In the face of the market shift which seems set to continue, it would be easy to get depressed. Where is the golden ticket to 100 day work years we were all promised? How are we supposed to live lives of multilingual glamour if the biggest single industry player can’t supply us with a conveyer belt of cushy assignments?

Some of us, those sad few who don’t have enough passive languages or who for some reason didn’t catch the first flight to Brussels or Paris, have had to live in a similar reality for a while. If you live and work in the Scottish market, it will take a good chunk of your working life to book the boothdays that a Brussels-based interpreter will pencil in before they have finished their first waffle of the day.

Simple and brutal market realities force you into diversifying, at least for now. My preferred boothmate is also the director of a property rental agency; some Spanish-speaking colleagues of mine also clock-up hours as public service interpreters and teachers. On top of that, unless you feel like relying on agencies, you soon discover that marketing to direct clients and building teams of people to take on jobs together becomes a lifeline. In short, if you want work, you will need to push for it.

Please don’t read this as a case of schadenfreude. No one in this industry actively wants any sector to lose out and, just as we all rallied round those affected by the court interpreting contract in England and Wales, now is the time to work with and for those who will lose out due to the vagaries of the institutional market.

For that reason, this is all about hope. Having met some prospective interpreting clients, I can tell you that the demand is still there, but perhaps not in the markets we thought. I can also tell you that our main competition will not be from cheap labour markets or technological solutions but from the option to have no interpreting at all.

With that in mind, we simply can’t keep selling ourselves using the same straplines as before. “Accuracy, neutrality and confidentiality” might be attractive to diplomats and politicians (many of whom are beginning to think they can muddle through without us anyway) but it doesn’t persuade exporting SMEs, busy event managers, or jet-setting executives.

For such clients, the only compelling reason to hire interpreters is that a multilingual event is more effective, more efficient and, dare I say it, more profitable than a monolingual one. Our goal in that market is not to prove that we are getting every detail across but that we are adding value. In other words, we need to demonstrate the real, tangible return on investment.

The translation industry has shown us the way. There are figures on how much more likely people are to buy a product when the website is in their native language. There are detailed guides on how to approach direct clients and there is even an admission that aiming at the bulk and routine markets is a recipe for commercial disaster.

Might it be time for us to do the same? We have the expert guides: people like Esther Navarro-Hall, Judy & Dagmar Jenner. We have the ability. And now we have the motivation. Instead of shrinking, with creativity and determination, we could actually see the interpreting market explode. Interpreters assemble!

PS. If you would like to find material on how to navigate this difficult season in a single book, including interviews with all three of those experts and many more, you might want to pick up a copy of my upcoming book. Available on pre-order from Amazon US, Amazon UK (and others), and direct from Routledge.