How to Buy Interpretation Services: Belgian Linguists Publish Public Sector RFP 101

Procurement of Interpretation Services

A coalition of Belgian linguist groups has published a guide to help public bodies that purchase interpretation services improve their tender specifications.

The foundation for the 23-page vade mecum was laid back in October 2021, when Freelance Interpreters United (FIU) and the Belgian Chamber of Translators and Interpreters (CBTI-BKVT) presented a “Charter of Good Practice and Collegiate for Interpreters” at a seminar in Brussels.

“This charter is an important first step towards optimal working conditions, widely supported by our interpreting colleagues and aimed at ensuring a quality service,” CBTI-BKVT wrote in a Facebook post. “Together we can shape our profession.”

The Belgian Quality Translation Association (BQTA) then joined the two groups in putting together the new guide for authors of tender specifications. The manual references the charter as a resource to help set realistic demands for interpretation services.

The vade mecum also defines commonly used industry terms and explains the differences between freelancers and subcontractors. It devotes a number of pages to distinguishing simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, from tech to the number of interpreters needed.

When it comes to tender specifications, the manual recommends using a standardized tender form with clear and complete specifications (e.g., setup, equipment required, as well as including precise information on the number of meetings, dates, venues, and language combinations.

In addition, the guide acknowledges that, in some situations, open-ended questions are appropriate. This allows experienced candidates to describe their own proposals in response to the buyer’s needs.

Tough Decisions

Selection criteria feature heavily in the guide, with the authors touching on qualifications to consider, codes of conduct, and quality management. Interestingly enough, the factors included in economic criteria vary from the standard (solvency) to the more advocacy-oriented (payment terms and remuneration for subcontractors, corporate social responsibility).  

“The role of governments in promoting fair and sustainable business practices should also be highlighted here,” the guide stated. “Providing opportunities for local, self-employed interpreters or SMEs will also strengthen and sustain the much-needed national economic fabric.” 

The vade mecum offers several “alternatives to ‘winner-take-all’ contracts” that alternate among several contractors; using a cascade system (i.e., ranking contractors by score), and dividing a contract into lots to be assigned to one or more contractors.

This last option, also known as a framework agreement, has become increasingly popular among government agencies in a handful of European countries. Results have been mixed.

Interpreters in Finland, for instance, staged a three-minute work stoppage in November 2021 to protest issues that could be tied to framework agreements: interpreters’ limited negotiating power and a perceived hyperfocus on price in the government’s tender process.

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Price should be given a maximum weight of 50% during the evaluation process, according to the vade mecum. The guide recommends paying “particular attention to quality, methodology, approach to technical support, professional experience, useful references, and local anchorage.” 

Moreover, buyers should take into account cost-of-living increases for multi-year contracts and charges for recording interpretation — a new challenge interpreters have faced since remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) became the de facto interpreting mode during pandemic lockdowns.

The guide takes the stance that recording or broadcasting interpretation requires prior consent from the interpreters providing the service.

“The interpreting service is exclusively intended for immediate and direct use by the audience during the interpreting assignment and should be considered a communication aid,” the authors wrote. “In the case where the recording is broadcast or distributed, the market practice is to apply a supplement of at least 30% of the fee.”