In this week’s SlatorPod, we’re joined by Jan Rausch to discuss his experience in the interpreting industry as a freelance conference and business interpreter.
Jan talks about his background in teaching modern languages and how he transitioned to freelance interpreting, where he eased himself into a highly competitive market. He shares the range of scenarios he has worked in; from European Works Councils and clinical trials to sales meetings and political and diplomatic interpreting for German delegations.
Jan discusses the need to multitask and formulate good language that is easy to understand for the listeners when it comes to simultaneous interpreting. He also talks about how the pandemic has impacted interpreting with the explosion of remote and hybrid meetings.
Jan outlines the pros and cons of remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) and the preventative measures interpreters can take to protect their hearing and general health. Jan touches on the challenge of staying fully up to date in one’s native language when living outside the country, especially with social linguistic development.
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Jan unpacks the perception of on-site pricing versus remote interpreting, where clients can sometimes assume RSI is cheaper when, in fact, it can be more demanding for the interpreter. He concludes the podcast with tips for graduates who want to break into institutional or freelance interpreting, particularly when it comes to networking.
Florian: Today we are happy to have Jan Rausch on the pod, so Jan is a successful professional conference and business interpreter for German, English, and French. Today we find you in Manchester, but I assume you travel a lot?
Jan: I am traveling a lot again. As you were saying, I am a freelance interpreter. Conference and business are what I market myself as and my working languages are German, English, and French. With the ABC lettering, German is my native language, so A. English is my B language, so that is the one I can interpret into and out of, but it is not my native and French is my C language, so that is passive, so I only interpret out of French into German and not the other way around. In terms of traveling the whole on-site market has reopened big time for me and for a lot of colleagues as well, so I am recovering from COVID at the moment which I picked up probably on my last job but that is a different story. The last three weeks have been quite travel intense for me, so two different jobs in Scotland and then Germany, Italy, Germany, Italy, again, and then finally coming back. The travel situation at the moment is not straightforward with the airports and staff shortages everywhere, so it is quite tiring when you are used to remote work for the pandemic.
Florian: Let us just go back a little bit in your career, so you worked originally as a teacher of modern languages before you became an interpreter, so what motivated you to make the move from teaching to interpreting?
Jan: The motivation for both jobs for me was my love of languages, so I have always been into foreign languages and when it came to deciding what to do at university, I just went for the two languages I liked and that I knew, English and French. One of the obvious choices was to study for a teaching degree, so that is what I did. Then what made me change careers, to be honest with you, was the frustration of teaching foreign languages after a while. I was teaching in the UK at that time. In an English-speaking country, I find it is much harder to teach foreign languages and motivate learners in a way. I knew that I wanted to do something else and I wanted to do something else with languages where my language skills are much more challenged. In 2009 I stopped teaching. I had been head of the department, so there was a lot of admin work. I did an MA at a local university in interpreting and translating. It was a combined MA which was good because, at the time, I did not know much about interpreting, so with that one-year course, I realized that I much preferred interpreting over translating.
Florian: Why? What made you think this is what you want to pursue?
Jan: I could explain what I dislike about translating or what I like about interpreting. I would rather do the positive aspect, which is what I like about interpreting. It just gives you that extra buzz. When you talk about simultaneous, concentrating on different things at the same time, it is challenging, but that is what makes it enjoyable for me. Not every single moment is enjoyable. It can be stressful at times when you think, what have I got myself in for today? Normally, it is that buzz. You still have to do a lot of admin work as a freelance interpreter. You have to do a lot of terminology work and preparation, but once you are on the job you do not have to motivate yourself. There is no procrastination at all. Once you are in the booth, once you are at a table at a press conference, once you are at a table with some negotiating parties, you cannot just postpone the job. You have to crack on with it and I also like the variety of topics and experiences and people you meet. I think a lot of people will agree with me when I say that in terms of those who are in the translation market, most translators specialize in certain fields because it works better for them and most interpreters do not specialize because there are fewer interpreters and there are fewer occasions where interpreting is needed. If you were to specialize in one field, you would not do a lot of interpreting, you would do a lot of translation or whatever alongside it. Most interpreters are experts in a lot of fields and they can prepare for almost any topic and I like that variety.
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Florian: How did you break into the quite competitive market of freelance interpreting? How did you start from scratch and market yourself to potential clients?
Jan: I did not break into it. Like most people, I eased myself into it and that is probably one of the most difficult things when you establish yourself as a freelance interpreter. It is very unlikely that a lot of people would say, oh, recently qualified MA from there, yes, we will just book them for that conference because there is an element of trust there. They need to know you are good, so it takes quite a while to establish yourself. I was doing a lot of translation at the same time and having worked before I also had some financial backup, so I did not feel any pressure to accept any old job because of the money. Several tricks of breaking into the market eventually are, for one thing, it is pretty obvious, but you need to be good at what you are doing and you need to work hard for that. It is not just your language skills. It is your general knowledge. It is your terminology work for specific topics and the other thing is networking. Apart from marketing yourself in the client-facing respect, as in social media, website, business cards, and so on, what is always more important in conference interpreting circles is finding established colleagues who are prepared to give you a chance, who you will chat to, and who will then say, I cannot do this job, can you do it for me? Or who are putting a team together and then slowly but surely they see that you are quite good and they will recommend you to others. It is all that networking, which these days with online tools available is not so difficult. The other thing that helps is joining professional associations because once you are a member of a professional association, you can network, and you can take part in their training events. After a while, once you have got a certain category within the professional association, you can be listed on the directory and quite a few clients look for interpreters on directories of associations that have a good reputation.
Florian: What are some of your key clients and sectors you work for? You did mention it is quite general. You do not want to specialize in any particular area, but over time, I would assume a few stronger areas have materialized for you.
Jan: That is absolutely true. It is not an industry, it is a scenario type of job. I do a lot with the European Works Council. I am not sure whether everybody is familiar with the European Works Council, so I will quickly elaborate. It is based on two directives from the European Union. The first version and then the more recent version which stipulates that any company or a group of companies that has activities within at least two member states of the European Union with a certain number of employees have to have a European Works Council. This means that employee representation does not only take place on a national level, but also on a European level. These European Works Councils have their own agreements between the employee representatives and the management in different ways. Sometimes they are called a forum, sometimes a European Works Council, but they tend to convene at a plenary meeting at least once a year, often, twice a year. Then reps from the different countries come together with management and also for internal meetings and they all need interpreting. There is a lot of work coming through European Works Councils and a lot of languages are often represented that you do not see in other commercial meetings. Apart from European Works Councils, there is a lot of work in the medical or pharmaceutical field that I do, so clinical trials when they have investigator meetings. When a new clinical trial is being set up, phase three is the last phase before approval of a new drug or product. The clinical staff, so the investigators and the nurses, and so forth, need to be trained in the protocol of the trial. They often come together in one place or sometimes online now and are trained in the procedure of how to administer the clinical trial, how to report adverse events and outcomes, and so forth. Other recurrent events are sales meetings when the sales forces from different countries of an international company come together or when a new product is launched and they are being trained in how to promote or sell the new product. I do that for the ICT sector, automotive, beauty products, and so forth. I also do political or diplomatic interpreting which is accompanying delegations, mostly coming from Germany to the UK. They will travel to Scotland because of renewable energies. Scotland is very big on renewables and we need them now, hydrogen and so forth, so often a small delegation from one of the German federal states would come with some politicians, but also some representatives from business and I would accompany them and see ministers or companies. That is not simultaneous interpreting, that is accompanying the delegation and doing liaison or consecutive interpreting.
Florian: Is it also a bit of advisory work or is it very linguistically focused?
Jan: It is linguistically focused, it is not advisory because it would not be my role to direct the course of the discussion or anything. There can be advisory as in cultural negotiation and explaining things. For instance, a very straightforward example is if you go to Scotland quite often, a German delegation might refer to Scotland as a region and I might advise them that many representatives, certainly from the ruling party SNP, do not like to see Scotland called a region, for them, it is a nation. It is helping things go smoothly, but it is not my role to intervene or alter the message. I think every interpreter would say that you are there to facilitate the communication, not to take over.
Florian: What is the split between simultaneous and consecutive? When we are talking about simultaneous, is it often you work in pairs? Do you do solo? How long can one do solo?
Jan: As a conference interpreter, which is what mainly I would refer to myself as, it is 80% simultaneous, if not more. This might sound surprising for someone who has never done it, simultaneous is easier for me than consecutive because I am so much more used to it. Simultaneous interpreting is listening through earphones and speaking into the microphone in the other language at the same time and also listening to your own output to make sure you are not saying anything that is wrong or that you have finished your sentences and so forth. Simultaneous interpreting cognitively speaking is probably more challenging when you do it for the first time. Simultaneous as a standard should not be carried out by just one interpreter. You can do simultaneous jobs on your own for up to 30 minutes. Then you agree with the client quite clearly that after 30 minutes, or 40 if there is a bit of leeway, it is not possible. It is often required to make that clear to people who try to book you that ask, it is just an hour, can you do it on your own? Or it is just one person listening, can you do it on your own? I know that there are markets where this sometimes happens, but it is not as it should be and it should not be encouraged. It should be discouraged. Normal work is in a pair of two and you take turns every 20 to 30 minutes and if it is challenging work or long days, you could even do it in a team of three.
Florian: When the other person takes over, do you continue to listen or do you take a break?
Jan: You certainly do not just take a break. We can also talk about the difference between online and remote in a second because that is quite different in this respect, but generally speaking, you are there as a backup for starters if your partner’s voice fails or whatever and as someone to help with your terminology or a number or a name and so on. By the same token, you cannot be there a hundred percent of the time. It is okay to say to your partner, I am just going to the toilet or that kind of thing. That is okay and you also have to use that time to recharge your batteries and then relax a bit, so it is a fine line between switching off, which you should not do, and concentrating too much or trying to help your partner too much and then just distracting him or her. In an ideal scenario, we request from organizers and clients that even though there are two of us and we are taking turns, there should be a break every 90 minutes anyway, so you should not need to run away from your partner that much.
Florian: What are some of the general challenges that any simultaneous interpreter needs to overcome and get used to? For you personally, is there anything that you find particularly challenging on the linguistic side when it comes to the speaker?
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Jan: There are many challenges. We are focusing on the simultaneous part here. The main challenge is to combine all these processes in your brain and not mess up. You need to make sure you are listening, you are hearing well, you are processing, you are understanding what is being said and not trying to analyze one little word after another, so it cannot be literal. You need to get the message right. The next challenge is then to formulate good language that is easy to understand and follow for your listeners. Now the other challenge is to listen to yourself and make sure that the language is easy or if the original language is not easy and it is deliberately obscure, you have to do the same because you are trying to sound more or less like the original speaker. Other challenges are having access to relevant documents at the same time and being able to use them without losing focus of the speaker and the main proceedings, so multitasking is something you need to be able to do. You need to be able to have your laptop to hand in an interpreting booth and look things up while you are speaking or while you are interpreting. Sound can obviously sometimes be a challenge and the speed of speakers. If you go into a booth and you look at these consoles that are used, a lot of them have a slow down button and I have no idea why it was ever invented. Sometimes people online send a message to the speaker saying, the speaker is speaking too fast, please ask them to slow down. I am going to stick my head above the parapet here, I think that never works. People might slow down for one second and then go back to their original speed. Some people just speak very fast and you have to find ways of dealing with that. There is also a difference between some people who speak very fast, but make perfect sense and you just have to try and get with the flow. Sometimes you have to work out where the redundancies or the repetitions are that you do not need to repeat or if they are using a long name of an organization and you know the acronym for it, you can use the acronym instead. That is one thing dealing with these fast speakers. It is easier than with the ones who are nervous, who maybe are not presenting in their native tongue, who are speakers of Spanish, but feel they have to present in English so they are reading from a script. These are all challenges that we as interpreters have strategies for that you also learn at university. Another challenge for me is the differences between languages, so a lot of people know that if you have a subordinate clause in German the verb will come at the end and subordinate clauses are normal in most informal speech or in any speech. If you are interpreting from German into English and someone is a good speaker and has some very elaborate sentence structure, you have to wait quite a while to work out what they are saying. You have to anticipate, you have to hedge sometimes, make it open, and just use that decalage. Decalage is the few seconds that you speak after the original message and you might have to play with your decalage a bit like an elastic band to fall behind a bit because you need to wait for the message to be complete and then catch up again and the other way around. If you are interpreting from English into German and you are interpreting long sentences, you need to be aware of what you have just said. Listen to yourself, so you know have I said the verb yet or do I still need to add it at the end? That adverb can sometimes also make a massive difference and if you forget it or if you are not sure whether they said it, it is challenging.
Florian: Do you feel you continue to progress and get better or can you reach a level of mastery that you just stay at?
Jan: You would have to ask my booth partners. I do not know. I am much more confident than I was when I started or the first few years. I have been doing this for almost 12 years now. Whether I will still improve, I would hope so, but I do not know. There is a big discussion in interpreting studies about what is quality in interpreting? How do you assess if someone is a good interpreter or not? You ask different people and they will give you different answers. What I have noticed is I have just become much calmer and I know I have been doing this for a fair few years and if something is challenging, I will still be able to cope and if something is not perfect, then that is just what it is because that is the beauty of interpreting. No single interpreter in the world will ever get everything absolutely right.
Florian: You have lived in Manchester for roughly 20 years, but you are a native speaker of German, so how do you stay fully up to date in your mother tongue?
Jan: The first thing that is required is awareness. There are some people who are not aware of language attrition, where you forget bits about your own language. It is very easy these days to stay up to date with your own language or any language by using all the media that is available. I watch the news in German, I read German newspapers, and so forth, but I also find that it is not just the language itself or the terminology that you need to follow. It is also social linguistic development, so gender-inclusive language. I found that a lot of German speakers who have lived in the UK for a while would not use the inclusive form for male and female, but rather the generic masculine form. When I work with colleagues who are based in Germany I find they do that a lot more or if I watch the news in German, I find that a lot more. It helps me to work with colleagues who are based in Germany or German-speaking countries to keep up with the language. You have to proactively do something about it. It does not just happen.
Florian: Speaking of the pandemic, what do you see as the long-term impact? How has the pandemic changed interpreting and what has stayed the same broadly speaking?
Jan: The process of interpreting itself has absolutely stayed the same. No matter what people say about remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI), it remains unchanged. I firmly believe that. What has changed is the explosion of remote meetings, including interpreted meetings and that is not going to go away. The next element that has developed on the back of this now is hybrid meeting, so hybrid and RSI are going to be two elements that will keep us busy in a positive sense because they will give us work. New types of interpreting or interpreted occasions have arisen that did not happen before. A lot of organizations would not have thought about using interpreting before the whole world of online meetings started happening. It will also keep us busy because there are still challenges and hybrid meetings, in particular, have a lot of pitfalls. When I say hybrid I mean a meeting on-site where some of the speakers are connecting remotely, or a meeting on-site where the interpreters are not on-site but are interpreting from their homes or from a hub, or a meeting where some of the interpreters are there and others are not because it involves a lot more elements that need to be combined. It often involves the combination of the analog sound structure on-site with a normal AV system and the digital sound structure and channels being merged. I have interpreted in hybrid meetings and some have blown me away because they were so perfectly organized and it is beautiful because you can see how happy people are that everybody can do what they want and it works perfectly for everybody. To me, that is democracy and that is how it should be, but I have also interpreted in hybrid meetings where people thought, we will just stick a laptop there and that connection goes there and things go pear-shaped big time and there are settings in between.
Florian: There has been some news last week with the UN and European Union interpreters, but let us not go there. Let us talk about the pros and cons of RSI from your point of view. Technically speaking, how do you feel about doing remote interpreting from your home or maybe from a hub?
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Jan: I do not work for the institution, so all I can say is it is all very regrettable what is happening. It is not a good show, but these occurrences that are hitting the news, for me, should not suggest that RSI is always bad. It has elements that we still need to improve and it has elements that can impact your health, particularly hearing, that must not be forgotten about. It also has positive elements for the amount of work you can provide people with. If we talk about sound there are things every individual interpreter can do to protect their hearing when working remotely. One thing, for instance, is we take turns, so when I am not interpreting and I am working remotely from my home office I will take these [headphones] off and I will switch to a loudspeaker. Normally I would have a hundred percent input just through the earphones. This way I only have 50% and the less you expose your ears to sound, be it toxic sound or other sounds, the better. Then you can protect yourself by using the right technology. For instance, I use a sound limiter at home as well, which allegedly protects me against acoustic shock and it limits the volume, so that is one thing that makes me feel a bit safer. The main thing is the quality of the incoming sound. There is a lot of frustration which is understandable because interpreters and associations and even clients try so much to educate those who are responsible for producing the sound, i.e. mainly the speakers, on what microphone and ethernet connections to use and still a lot of people are just refusing to do it or not getting the message. It produces sound that sometimes cannot be interpreted and then it is very important for us the interpreters to make that clear. We cannot interpret this and sometimes you can interpret it because it still works, but the more you do it, the more damage happens to your hearing, so that is still a big challenge with remote interpreting. Working from home can be good for the interpreters’ health. It is called non-collocated RSI, NCRSI because it allows you to have a healthier lifestyle rather than just traveling. You can decide what to eat at home, you can do your exercise in the evening and you do not need to lose sleep because you are traveling early or you are sleeping in a hotel room and you are not used to it. There are definitely pros and cons and it is just not going to go away.
Working from a hub is another thing. As an interpreter, you could be on-site in a booth for a conference where you are working simultaneously, you could be in your own home office or studio that you have hopefully set up correctly with all the necessary sound insulation precautions and equipment, and so forth. There is another option in between where you could be working at home with your partner because they might come to your house or you go to theirs and then there is the hub. A hub is often in the warehouse of an AV company, a sound or an event company where they have the interpreting booth set up but the event itself is completely elsewhere. They have large screens showing the speakers and they are feeding the sound remotely from the hub to the event and back. That has the advantages of you not working on your own and not being responsible for your own equipment and working often with the traditional hard consoles in the booth and having technicians on-site to support you and without having to travel, in theory, although hubs are not everywhere, so you have to travel to the hub. I am based in Manchester, so the hub I worked in three weeks ago was in Dalgety Bay. It is north of Edinburgh, so that is a good three hours from here. The other one would be down in London and Germany’s probably the country with the highest density of hubs for interpreters. Anybody who suggests that all remote interpreting can be done from hubs is kidding themselves. That is not going to happen, so the whole topic of working from home for simultaneous interpreting is sometimes debated but I think the consensus is now that the pandemic has proven that for a lot of interpreters, if not most interpreters, it works pretty well. It is just not something that should be done all the time and it needs to be done correctly. For instance, you should never, as an interpreter, assume liability for your own connection. That needs to be made clear. If there is a complete power cut in your neighborhood and your connection fails, that is just what it is. You still get paid and your booth partner who is based somewhere else will just take over. It is similar to a flight cancellation for an on-site job.
Florian: Another interesting topic would be pricing on-site and travel versus RSI and how much of a factor is that for clients? They might say if we can do it remotely, why don’t we do it remotely? It is probably going to be cheaper. That would be the assumption from a client’s point of view.
Jan: For a client, they are probably not wrong in saying that it is cheaper for them to use remote interpreters because they are not paying for the travel arrangements or the accommodation. Although, working remotely is more demanding. We are not a regulated profession. We cannot fix prices, which I think is a good thing. Everybody needs to be setting their own fees together with a team that they are working with. By the same token, you have a certain responsibility for not going too cheap and then ruining the market for everybody else. After the pandemic when I did so much online work, I realized that when I went back to on-site work, I need to be a bit more strict with my travel days. I realized I cram so much work into the weeks when I do not travel and now I have started taking jobs again, most places I have to set off the day before. Charging for a travel day is the standard anyway, but sometimes you need to ask yourself, it is a one-day job, I need to travel for it, so I can charge for the project and the travel time, maybe I should use that opportunity to hike my rates up again because going to one place for one day, I have realized I can make more money working from home. The other thing with working from home, if you agree with a client that your job clearly takes one hour, give or take a few minutes, and you have two or three jobs like that, you can do several jobs in a day, but you have to be honest to your client how long you are available for. You should not try to double book. That is a very no-no thing to do. With remote work, you can sometimes do three jobs in a day. For me, that does not mean I lower my fees, it just means that remote can become more profitable for me. Having said that, I do not do the job just for money. I also do it because I enjoy it and I enjoy meeting people that I work for and my colleagues. I do enjoy some of the beautiful sites that the jobs take me to and the location. That is also part of the reason that a lot of interpreters do not want to just work remotely, which is absolutely understandable. Also for some events, it is very important for the delegates or the members of an organization to be there on-site and to have interpreters on-site that do not just sit in the booth but that can help with a little conversation during the break or even over dinner or any of these things that cannot be done remotely.
Florian: What would be your piece of advice for graduate students who are in an MA program or some other program and want to launch a similar career to you?
Jan: It is partially what I said before, networking. You can join an association whilst you are a student. Often you can join as a student member, which is probably free with a lot of associations. With the internet, try and attend as many events as possible. These could be just CPD courses or networking events. Work on your languages too. You have to ask yourself as a conference interpreter, do I want to go for the institutional market or the private market? I work in the private market with a few exceptions, and in the private market, which I would have thought is a bigger market than working for the institutions, you have to have two active languages, so an A and a B or double A if you are bilingual. Some university courses still focus on the EU and the UN a bit too much where the system is you interpret into your A language and only need two, three passive or C languages. More people probably need to be aware that you need to have a good strong B if you want to make it in the private market. You are in a booth where you have to go in both directions between English and German, for instance, and even if you want to go for the institutions, you will probably start out in the private market first. Work on at least two languages, so your native language and one other strong language.
Florian: Should they have a Twitter account? You have @InterRausch and you are very active on Twitter. It is a great account to follow. I encourage everybody to do that. Has that ever helped you on the networking side?
Jan: Yes. Although, I am not sure whether it has ever got me a job because Twitter is made for bubbles. Most of the people I interact with are people who are in the interpreting or languages world, but it definitely helps with finding out about new developments. I am not saying Twitter is mandatory for everybody who works or who graduates, but it is just a simple hashtag, #1nt, which is the official interpreting hashtag. If you are starting out new and you use Twitter and you look for that hashtag once every week or so, you can follow the developments. Not everything that people say on Twitter makes perfect sense and you will see some very contradictory messages, but go for it.