Review: 2nd International BDÜ Conference “Interpreting in the Future”

08/10/2012 Leave a comment

Between September 28th and 30th the BDÜ put on an astonishing event full of seminars, speeches, workshops, networking opportunities, as well as a trade exhibition and a job fair for interpreters and translators. Over 1,300 people, both from within and from outside the language mediator business attended the 2nd International Conference „Interpreting in the Future“, held on the premises of the Freie Universität Berlin

This post will give an individual, subjective summary of what I consider important for recent graduates of interpreting or translation studies. This summary is all but extensive and I’d like to encourage all newbies to attend such an event if possible: It is truly worth it.


First of all, what striked me most: Interpreters (as well as translators) are entrepreneurs. Simple as that. Might sound obsolete to some, but it surprised me to see that this very issue was featured several times at high-profile speeches and seminars. We are production site, administration, accounting, marketing, distribution, delivery, quality assurance etc. of one company … in one person. We are entrepreneurs with everything it entails. A recent graduate of interpreting studies should have that very clear. If we do not have the relevant competences, we need to learn them and we need to do so fast. We also need to conduct customer-specific marketing, as well as enhance our skills, and observe the market and its prices, including our own.


Prices, well, Prices are very much linked to the question what my services are worth. Therefore, we need to know what my services are worth, what I am worth, what prices to charge for our services and how this price comes into being. Strangely, for some this seems to be a riddle in the dark. It has, in my opinion, to do with entrepreneur competence maybe, but also with self-assessment and self-esteem. Who wants to translate for 0,02€/word or interpret for 200€/day? Prices of this category won’t enable us to survive, they won’t enable us to live the life that we deserve (economically speaking), and in my view one should be very clear about the following: As recent graduates, as academics, we should strive for the best price possible plus a little something, and also for the best living standard possible. We should aim for the best segment of the market. No more, but most importantly: no less.

Public Service Interpreting

A conclusion not necessarily related to the former focuses on Community Interpeting or Public Services Interpreting. Leaving aside any discussion on terminology and nomenclature, it was interesting to observe a discussion from language mediators and city officials on that very same topic, many language mediators saying they were not able to live from the revenues earned in PSI, although they recognized potential and relevance of this market. At the same time, it was obvious that city officials present were reluctant to hire „professional“ interpreters for their services. As this posts does not intend to open up a can of worms, future posts will be dedicated specifically about PSI and ongoing discussions.

Market development

To older colleagues, the following might sound familiar, whereas to the recent graduate it might not: The market is changing. Conferences get shorter and become increasingly demanding in terms of the specialization featured (and required by the language mediator). Leaving aside the discussion about interpreters being more allrounders or more specialists, this development should be closely observed by any newbie in the professional interpreting world. And if necessary, mindset, price policy or specialization should be adapted accordingly if possible.

For more information on the event, check out:

Interpreter’s Waybread #1

18/09/2012 Leave a comment

This series is set to summarize, channel and spread some words of wisdom and encouragement, but also some instances of humour, for any interpreter, translator or language service provider out there. It’s all about quotes, sentences, remarks, jokes or opinions I have been able to collect in my relatively young career as a freelance interpreter. It’s about things I heard or read which often provided some sort of guidance or help. It’s precisely the latter that every young interpreter will cherish and it’s mainly to those people I dedicate this upcoming series of posts (although even older colleagues might find some interest in it – at least I hope so!).

I’ll call this miniseries Interpreter’s Waybread. Being on a long (interpreting) journey, we tend to turn for help and guidance, mostly in times of exhaustion and desperation. It’s the same on a long hike, when all energy is spent and we turn to our provisions to help us getting back to our feet, and do one more step to where we want to go.

I will leave every quote or sentence uncommented, so that the reader may extract his own conclusions while reading along.

Interpreter’s Waybread #1:

“If you feel small, other people will treat you as a small person” (An older colleauge on the importance of self-esteem in the freelancing world)

Agressive or rude behaviour is nearly always a product of fear. Someone treats you rudely or aggressively, you know they identified you as a person to be afraid of… That’s way better than being sidelined completely(an experienced interpreter during a seminar)

“Courage is found in unlikely places” (from the “Lord of the Rings”)

“We want to massage the their ears a little. We do not want to send them to sleep” (from a former interpreting teacher)

“Forget about interpreting from time to time, but completely. Not doing so will make you lose your mind” (a colleague)

“Chuchotage is fun. One feels part of being in a huge conspiration” (a colleague)

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes” (Oscar Wilde)

The first assignments: sink or swim

08/04/2012 2 comments

After a long professional leave, the Mute Button is back with exploring how the first interpreting assignments really feel.

Well, university and the “real world” are two different pair of shoes. Retrospectively, I have to admit that passing the diploma exams wasn’t such an existential problem as I had believed at that time. Not at all…

In the real interpreting world things obviously work a bit differently. Especially the very first assignment is, from a psychological point of view, no easy task to face: Albeit investing a lot in preparation you have the feeling your audience knows more of the topic than you ever will, you are surrounded by more experienced interpreters and the genuine feeling is that of just turning around, running away and do something else than interpreting. Nervousness increases exponentially and pressure is running high when you realize you are in a booth and there is no point of return from here. Then you switch on the mic and from then on it’s either sink or swim.

Young interpreters, recent graduates, are thrown in at the deep end into the business at full force and speed, with no mercy. They are thrown into a pool of sharks ready to feed on you (at least it felt that way before the very first assignment!). They are told to embark on a dreadful journey to their very own Mount Doom. However, being thrown into the business that way is nothing to whine about. Au contraire, it’s both important and vital. It opens your eyes to how things are and gives you the chance to show what you can do, no matter how “bad” the circumstances are. It’s dreadful, yes, but it’s no reason to turn your back and run away.

On a personal note: I had no preparation material for my very first speech (a very difficult and technical one), had to interpret heavily accented English into German, retrieved the PPT just moments before the speech and was left alone for most of my assignment in the booth. In other words, probably the worst happened to me in the beginning … and I am glad it did. I relied only on my preparation and interpreted as best as I could. And I made it! I survived a challenge far worse than an exam. I swam, because I just had to.

Why is such a situation a good thing? It’s good, because it reveals the importance of being faced with an extreme situation of “now-or-never”, and prevail! It gave me lots of experience and self-esteem for sure. So don’t take this the wrong way when I say: I wish all of you that the worst happens to you too, so that you can face a huge challenge and survive it, gain experience and self-esteem from it and do important and vital first steps as professionals in a real business environment. Be prepared to say farewell to how things were at uni though and expect things to be different in dark business territory. And don’t give up before it really started: “Courage is found in unlikely places”

Wikipedia: a reliable source of information?

09/03/2012 5 comments

Most of us, who recently graduated from uni, praised Wikipedia for its precious service during our uni carrer, especially when time was scarce and we were loaded with projects, deadlines, presentations, interpreting classes etc. Wikipedia seemed to be a quick-fix for all our problems. Presentations were prepared fast and information was collected easily. Silently, we always thanked Wikipedia for the magic it provided so comfortably. At the same time,  we were lured to consult the website over and over again and until it formed an integral part of our uni life. Ok, we were told every now and then to refrain from using Wikipedia as a source of information for our interpreting classes, but come on: Who didn’t check on the website to save some time and nerves?

The thing is: Wikipedia may have helped us at university, but is the platform a valuable and reliable source of information which to consult for the preparation of an interpreting assignment? The answer to that question is: yes and no.

In a professional interpreting context, and I reckon that must be self-explaining, I’d never use Wikipedia for information such as bibliographic information about people, about historic events, political ideologies … for most of the things actually. Why? You never know who is behind the information, if the information is true/accurate/verfied or not. Wikipedia’s open, collaborative approach is generally a good thing, but you can never be sure who is behind the information you find. If you use Wikipedia as source,  always double-check your information!

However, I must admit that I use Wikipedia sometimes when it comes to technical things,although you have to be very careful here, too. Sometimes, people with amazing technical or mechanical knowledge post things about “suspension bridges” or “injection molding” or whatever else. The more they share, the easier it seems to get access to very specific and good information It’s like finding a magic fountain of technical wisdom in a way.

BUT: always double-check!!! Think critically!!! At the end of the day you can never be sure as to where the information comes from. And especially recent graduates should learn to prepare an assignment without Wikipedia and consult other, more reliable sources of information. Getting rid of Wikipedia might be like trying to quit Facebook as it involves a profound change of habits and a lot of self-discipline. It also involves a huge personal effort as “to quit” and “to stay away from something” are two different things.And, alas, Wikipedia is just so god-dammed comfortable. However, leaving Wikipedia behind along with your uni carrer might be the way to go for beginners. See it as part of the transition from student to professional! I mean why go the easy way if it is about a job, paying your rent, your reputation etc. Don’t take any risks! Fast, quick and vast information seems like a comfortable quick-fix … but that doesen’t mean we have to blindly believe it.

8 basic tips for designing your business card

01/03/2012 2 comments

We freelancers are aware of the importance of our business cards. They enable us to engage with colleagues and clients, they offer a first platform for gaining new customers and tell the world literally who we are, what services we offer and what the hell we actually do, etc. However, there are many things you can do wrong with the cards themselves. Especially when just recently graduated from uni and too eager to print them with the intention of casting them over the entire city from an airplane the next day. Then, there is a danger to forget some basics.  Bear the following tips in mind in order not to forget anything important before you print your business card.

1. Be creative

Business cards for freelancers should be as individual as possible. The more of your own personality is entailed in your card, the more likely it might be for a colleague/customer to remember you. But don’t forget: you are selling your language services, but you are also selling yourself. Therefore, your business card should also meet professional standards, as well as being creative. (And that is trickier than it sounds!)

2. Develop a basic concept

Try to come up with a basic concept based on the follwing questions:  How is the card supposed to look? Do I have some sort of corporate design I can include? What colours should predominate? How much textual information do I want to include? Who am I designing the cards for? Which impression do I want to convey?

3. Collect impressions

Try to collect as many business cards as you can, irrespectively from where they come from.  Spread them out in front of you and try to figure out what you like and don’t like about their colour, textual information, format, design, fonts, paper, etc… This will help you to establish some DO’s and DONT’s for your own card.

4. Don’t hurry

The design of your business cards is a time-consuming process. Rome wasn’t built in a day, either! So don’t stress yourself and don’t be too eager to come up with the perfect card on the very same day.

5. Consider feedback

Of course, if you have an idea that you consider the foundation for the most perfect business card the world has ever seen, you don’t want anyone to tell you that the idea is nonsense. But other people’s feedback might just be the thing to get where you want to get. Ask friends, colleagues and people unfamiliar with the interpreting and translation world for their opinion. You might be surprised what they could tell you. The more people take part in this creative process, the more creative ideas are channelled.

6. Less is more

Try to be simplistic with your design. Many people have business cards which are too confusing or too irritating, because they contain too much text, too many colours, etc. Try to convey the maximum information you want with a minimum of visual and textual resources. Think of a good PowerPoint presentation: no fancy images, no disturbing special effects, no overload of textual information. Just plain, simple and short.

7. Stick to conventions

Ask yourself the same questions that you do when you translate culturally-bound terms for example: What conventions are there for business cards in my country? (Yes, business cards are texts, too!).  I learnt, for example, that in Spain it’s might be okay to write “Traductor ES > DE” on your card, whereas in Germany the bracket and language abbreviation might cause some confusion. Don’t forget your “target audience” whilst designing and ask yourself if it might be better to omit certain things.

8. Good investment

Technically, you can create your own business cards in 5min for a bargain. However, business cards are something that you should invest as much financial resources as your budget allows. It hurts at first, but it will pay off! The impression you leave with an individual, creative, professional, well-printed and good-quality card will be better than by a cheap and random card from the web done in haste.

Designing your business cards is a process where you can learn a lot … if you want to! Of course, you need some software to do that: I can recommend Inkscape ( It’s OpenSource and available for both Windows and Mac OS. It’s a bit tricky to master, but there are many tutorials on the web and it shouldn’t scare any translator or interpreter off.

From student to professional: some thoughts on teamwork in the booth

24/02/2012 1 comment

As students, interpreting  was a lonely fight we fought. We were in the booth alone most of the times and were left to our fate during the period we switched on the mic. At times, some of us even wanted to be alone, so that our own anxiety and fear over screwing up wouldn’t be noticed by more people than ourselves, or our teacher if we were less lucky. A colleague in the booth, at times, was maybe seen by some as a disturbance instead of a help. Of course, who wants to make a fool of himself with someone sitting next to him or her? The booth was often the place were we felt most vulnerable and who wants to idly expose that? A colleague in the booth was maybe also seen by some as someone they could release their own frustration on, along the lines of: “I screwed up, because my colleague let me down/didn’t help/couldn’t answer the question I had, etc…”. It all comes down to one’s own fear. Agression or rejection in this sense are just an indication of how afraid someone really is. And let’s be honest: As students, we were all afraid at some point!

I am saying that at university we got to understand what sharing the booth with someone meant. We understood that it can be a vital asset to have someone next to you, someone who helps you and we also learned to cherish and value that. I wished for a stronger focal point on teamwork during the studies actually, because it’s so vital to our work. But what I am also convinced of at the same time is that probably a majority of students preferred to be left alone, preferred to not have to engage in a team for the main reasons above mentioned.

Now why is this important once university is over? When we leave university, we have to make some sort of u-turn on this attitude. We have to be prepared to be in the booth with someone and be tied to this someone for the entire assignment. For good or bad. Interpreting is teamwork. And in the end there is no point in blaming the colleague for own mistakes/failures, etc. A team of interpreters fails or succeeds as a whole, as one team. It’s like having a look at a professional sports team. It’s not the individual that counts, it’s the whole team achieving something (or not).

This is by the way not only the interpreter’s perspective we have to look at here: Your client will not be interested in who did a great job in the booth and who didn’t. The client perceives one booth as one unit. He wouldn’t say: “Interpreter A in the English booth was good and Interpreter B was … well …”. No. He would say : “The whole English Booth was bad.” So whatever happens in the booth, it happens for the interpreters as a team. That’s why teamwork is so important and that’s precisely why graduated students need to be aware of its importance, irrespectively of how much they worked already in a team at uni … or how much they liked it.

‘Kleinunternehmerregelung’ in Germany: To apply or not to apply, that is the question!

21/02/2012 3 comments

In this post I’d like to discuss the Kleinunternehmerregelung in Germany and what implications this rule might have for a freelance translator and interpreter who is about to set up his own business in Germany, although things discussed here are valid for any freelancer-to-be. It is of importance latest when you get our first assignment and you wonder what to do with VAT when you write your first bill. Don’t be scared off by the dusty touch of the topic! Bureaucracy as well as economic aspects are an integral part of the freelancing world – and therefore they might haunt us even when we feel safe reading blogs about interpreting.

The Kleinunternehmerregelung (a typical long, bureaucratic German word, isn’t it?) is an amendment to German tax law. It basically states that freelance entrepreneurs have the option of not taxing their customers. Therefore, they can declare everything on the respective bills as net sums without adding any tax. In other words, the freelance income reamains free from VAT tax. Entrepreneurs can apply this option if they fulfill both the following two requirements:

– maximum turnover generated last year: €17.500
– maximum turnover expected for the current year: €50.000

Newbie freelancers are very unlikely to generate more than that in their first year(s) of work. In other words, they are very likely to fulfill both conditions. Therefore, they can opt for not taxing their services (=applying the Kleinunternehmerregelung) once they have had an assignment and write a bill. Hence, they don’t have to declare the tax on the bill and pass on any VAT to the financial authorities, given that both conditions are not breached, of course.

Reason for opting not to tax: This Kleinunternehmerregelung is feasible in my view, if you run a business that sells material goods to an end user. This excludes the freelance translator or interpreter who generates his turnover exclusively through language services. Applying the rule might also make your everyday freelance life a little easier and less complex concerning bureaucracy etc., as the processes of taxing your customer and declaring VAT to the government are eliminated.

Reason for opting to tax : At first sight, opting for taxing your customers from the very start means more bureaucratic work for you: You need to submit your taxes every month for two years as a starting freelancer in Germany (although that might change). It involves some bureaucratic adventures, such as registering as a freelancer with the authorities, applying for a special tax number (Umsatzsteuer-ID), the actual monthly, web-based declaration of VAT etc. However, if your ultimate goal is to become a freelancer you better get used these bureaucratic necessities as early as possible. It always sounds nice not to charge, pay, declare taxes, etc. but why go the easy way?

The most important reason to actually tax your services has a major benefit for you: If you refuse from applying Kleinunternehmerregelung, you are entitled to recieve a VAT tax refund on items you acquire for your own business. An example: you are a translator and you need to buy software or dictionaries. Previously you declared to tax your services. Hence, you will be refunded the VAT paid on your purchases. Sounds quite simple doesen’t it? This sort of VAT tax that you pay in advance for items necessary for your business is called Vorsteuer. When you submit your tax declaration every month, the amount of VAT you are liable for is substituted by the amount of VAT that you will be refunded (Vorsteuerabzug). 

It’s very important to bear in mind that you are only entitled to a VAT refund on bought items if you don’t apply the Kleinunternehmerregelung. Applying it excludes you from any sort of VAT refund. Also have in mind that the VAT your recieve on top of your services is a tax which you hand over to the government, but which is actually “paid” by the customer with you acting as a mediator. Hence, it’s not you who pays this tax. Therefore, a possible VAT refund sounds quite delightful somehow, doesn’t it?

Now, it’s not possible to switch between opting for or against this rule with every bill that you write. Once you decided to refuse, you are bound to your decision for five years. If you apply the rule and your turnover exceeds the previously mentioned maximum turnover, then you automatically have to pay VAT and fill some Federal German cauldrons, which might hurt (literally) if you, for example, generated much more turnover than you expected due to the fact that you had a major breakthrough on the market.

Now what to do? Obviously it’s your own choice! Read up on the subject and make up your own mind once you decided to set up your freelance business! If you have a lot of investment then it might be feasible not to apply the rule, just for the sake of saving VAT. However, applying the rule may make your entrepreneur’s life a little easier concerning bureaucracy – for a little while at least.

For additional information:

Information from the German Ministry for Economics [in German]

Categories: freelancing Tags: , ,

How is it to join the Dark Side and teach interpreting?

18/02/2012 1 comment

I remember studying hard for my interpreting exams. Entire afternoons sitting in front of my desk, studying, studying, studying. Waking up on the exam day, going through all the horror of the actual exam (plus the post-exam horror!), waiting a lifetime for the marks, then finally passing the exam and … a first job couple of days later!!! And what a job: teaching liasion interpreting at the very same uni! Now, reflecting on the job after one term, how is it actually to join the „Dark Side“?

One of the first hurdles I had to overcome was that I was mentally not very well prepared for this new job. In my mind, I was still a student and suddenly I had a whole bunch of those staring at me and expecting me to conjure up some magic, know everything and give the correct answers straight away. A couple of weeks earlier, it had been me who did the same with my teachers, my own interpreting authorities. I didn’t see myself as an authority at all.

Frankly, I think during the first couple of lectures I lost a bit of credibility in a way, which might have had a cultural cause as well: Not all German students are easy with their teacher being very informal, down-to-earth, internally feeling like belonging to them etc. I thought after a while that something needed to change, that I needed to maintain some sort of distance between me and my students. After a couple of sessions, however, I must admit that I stepped more and more into this role, with all it entails, although at a very slow pace I have to admit.

Another thing that cost me some headache in this sense was conducting and grading exams. When it’s yourself who takes the exam, the grading is the thing you are most afraid of. Literally. But now suddenly it’s you grading students, causing existential anxiety and fear among them. I felt a bit like a Roman emperor deciding on the life of some ill-fated gladiator in that situation, without liking it a bit, because of exactly knowing how the students were feeling. By conducting and grading exams, the end of term, I was confirmed that I still hadn’t fully grown into the teacher’s role. I was almost as afraid to do something wrong as the students.

So what’s the morale? It takes a long while to adapt to such a situation and give intepreting classes to people when you still feel like a student yourself, have some, but very limited professional experience and are only on the verge of conquering the interpreting world. To all people who might be in a simliar situation I have a hands-on advice: Be yourself in front of class, but maintain some sort of „natural distance“ straight from the start between you and your students. Trust me, it’s harder than it sounds, but I think that would be the way to go. Improv skills is another thing that you should definitely have ready in class, but that’s a bit like sitting in the booth struggeling to come up with a solution during simultaneous for example.Be prepared to improvise sometimes, because you will encounter a situation where you are as clueless as your students!

The most positive thing, however, is that it is not only the students who learn. There is something in it for you as well, something which is a valuable resource for any interpreter: Experience! In a lot of ways …

Why another blog on interpreting?

16/02/2012 9 comments

I have long thought to write a blog about what I decided to do as a professional. Now with the last chapters of my thesis and my uni career drawing to a close, I thought it was a fitting time to get started.

In this blog, I will write about interpreting and all aspects it entails, which are many: langauge, language acquisition, the actual process of interpreting, the different types of interpreting, the life of a conference interpreter, freelancing, the resources an interpreter can use for their professional work and so on and so forth. Mainly, I will write entries based on my own experiences, experiences I will draw from my job as teaching fellow for liasion interpreting, but also from my first hands-on experiences related to what I always wanted to become: a professional interpreter.

As my native language is German, it might have been convenient to write this blog in German, which was the initial plan to be entirely honest with you. However, this blog will mainly be written in English, my active foreign language, as I want the number of readers not to be limited to only those who master German. In fact, I have many friends experienced in translation and interpreting which might have some interest in this blog and I would feel utterly ashamed to exclude any of them just because of a language barrier – which is in fact what we translators and interpreters aim to overcome.

The blog’s name is the “mute button”, which is a tiny little button that enables us interpreters during simultaneous interpretation to say what shouldn’t be said openly, to draw energy and refresh the brain or to interact with our colleague. My own experiences in the booth led me to believe that the mute button can actually be an interpreter’s best friend. Well, sometimes, our dearest friends deserve some kind of recognition in my opinion, and as the button is of such a central importance for interpreters, I thought it might be a convenient name for a blog dedicated to interpreting and written from the mind of an interpreter.

I hope you find reading this blog worthwhile and I am looking forward to hearing all your comments and replies to my entries!If you are interested, you can follow the Mute Button blog via RSS feed, Email, Twitter and/or Facebook.

Categories: General