Diversification in the language industry

I don’t think I am a great interpreter. I never trained as one and, like many of my colleagues, ended up in the profession accidentally by sitting to a three hour test. Sadly, most of my learning happened on the job and on the run. I no longer do much interpreting but when I did, from the get-go I used to receive some unexpectedly positive feedback from clients. It ranged from ‘excellent’ to ‘the best interpreter we’ve ever worked with’ and led to more confusion in my already confused head. How could it be? Was I really that good? What were the other interpreters like then?  Luckily, I had enough sense and received enough professional training in other contexts to fill these “excellent interpreter” shoes eventually. But my journey was unnecessarily stressful and shaky. As they say, no one has died in the process. I’m here not only to tell the tale but also explain how I turned it into a great business idea. There are four essential ingredients to it: find a problem that enough people find frustrating, develop a solution to it, package it and promote it, preferably with the help of industry friends and colleagues. Here is the story of how I did it.

The problem

My hands-on experience as an interpreter taught me when it comes to interpreting, you’re simply forced to think on your feet and make it up as you go along. A door opens, you get pushed in and you’re expected to perform and guide other participants through the language maze. There are many schools of thought, styles and methods of how to deliver interpreting services but in most instances, the interpreter is the only person that understands the goings on. Everyone relies on him or her to help people understand each other but also to shape the communication, putting them in charge of the discourse. Clients often feel out of depth and is it any wonder? With an incoherent range of approaches, there are gaps, risks and many inconsistencies in how interpreting services are delivered and received. If the interpreters can’t get it right, what hope do the clients have? Somehow, as soon as language and culture come into play, standard professional exchanges seem to become unclear and disorganised. Over the years, I have watched experienced doctors, lawyers, judges, physiotherapists, nurses, accountants and policemen lose their cool and go into a chaotic spin. In those instances, I simply had to take charge and put everyone at ease – and in their place – to ensure that communication via interpreter happened the way it should, seamlessly and logically. 

One of cardinal rules of interpreting is for the interpreter never to offer cultural advice, especially when it’s unsolicited. That’s the theory. In practice, many interpreters are asked and expected to provide insights into their clients’ culture, traditions, norms and behaviours that fall well outside of their brief. It is difficult to separate the linguistic and cultural components of the interpreter’s job. Are we truly just a conduit to verbal communication, or is it also our duty to minimise cultural faux-pas and disasters? And what is communication anyway? Surely, not just the oral component of it. What about body language, tone of voice, facial expressions? And how many interpreters can resist stepping in when they can clearly see that it’s not the language that’s contributing to the communication barrier but something in the cultural approach of one or more participants that can easily be explained and solved instantaneously?

Many professional interpreters simply make it a rule never to express their personal opinions on anything, including culture and language. They subscribe to the view that they’ve been hired to assist with the linguistic facilitation of a dialogue by parties who do not speak the same language, and nothing else. They consider cultural brokerage and advocacy a mine field, and one that they prefer to stay well away from. Others simply use their professional judgement to decide if and when they might interfere with the discourse. Another school of thought, especially prevalent in the community interpreting domain, says that it’s the interpreter’s duty of care to step in and assist in the capacity of a cultural broker when needed. With millions of dollars spent on interpreting in Australia, this is a pretty cloudy picture, wouldn’t you agree? I thought so too but felt powerless in changing it for a long time, other than making sure that I do a good job. I kept notes of all the challenges I faced, hoping that one day I can use this anecdotal evidence somehow. I didn’t know it at the time, but the idea of developing a training package out of my experience was germinating all along.

The solution

Turning my knowledge and frustration into a business idea took some time and, again, happened by accident. I was asked to participate in an interpreting role play back in 2004 by a colleague of mine, Sarina Phan, who developed a training module with VTPU (Victorian Transcultural Psychiatry Unit), designed for clinicians working with interpreters. This was my first opportunity to show professional clients how to work with interpreters, something I was simply dying to do. Around the same time, I was approached by Ljubica Petrov, from the Centre of Cultural Diversity in Ageing and asked to deliver a number of diversity training sessions at aged care facilities across Victoria on CCDA’s behalf. This led to a long term relationship with Mayfield Education, where I delivered cultural diversity workshops for their Certificate IV in Aged Care and Patient Services. At this stage, I was also burning out from doing up to 8 hours of interpreting and travelling per day, and felt that sharing my knowledge with others might be a better use of my skills and resources. I had lots to say but rather than complain, I wanted to use my energy towards creating something positive. As my translation and interpreting business was growing, I increasingly began presenting at conferences, running ad hoc workshops for clients and colleagues and so I decided that I would like to include training in my suite of services on an on-going basis.

The package

My market research indicated that there were many providers of How to Work with Interpreters, Cultural Diversity and Cultural Competency training packages. I looked at the competition, their pricing and course structure to see if there were any gaps. What did I have that the others didn’t? What did I know that was new, fresh and interesting? Can working with interpreters, diversity and cultural competency be combined? Did I really have something unique to say? Where could I acquire clients? How could they benefit from my experience? My head was buzzing. 

Prior to setting up a translation business, I worked for a local council, an ethnic community organisation and as a bi-lingual educator at the Cancer Council of Victoria. I had a pretty good understanding of how local councils and not-for-profit organisations worked, and thought they’d be a good place to start. I was right. At this time, Hobsons Bay City Council was tendering their cross cultural training out and we convinced them to give us a go and present one free session. I spent countless hours thinking, preparing and analysing their local statistics and needs. I knew that to succeed, I had to present something that was just outstanding: interesting, relevant and informative. The purpose was to help people do their jobs better. Having sat through many conferences, workshops and training sessions I knew I had to make it engaging and fun. Nothing worse than yet another boring presentation. So what did I do? I made the session about me. Yes, the humble me. A migrant woman who came to Australia with no English, no education, no money and no idea and turned her life around. Instead of talking about diversity, I showed them diversity. I started believing my own publicity and celebrating my own success. Well, everybody could relate to that and the feedback I received was phenomenal and surprising even to myself. And people talked, shared and laughed. I was learning and very much enjoying the ride, too. When it came to bidding for the contract, though, I wasn’t so sure that I’d get it. I redesigned the original session and took all the suggestions of improvement on board. To the tender presentation, I came with a box of little cakes that I bought from various bakeries around Melbourne: Chinese, Greek, Italian, Polish and Vietnamese. Again, I wanted to show diversity to the tender panel. Talking about it wasn’t enough. They got it. I was ecstatic when we won the tender. Since then, I delivered nearly thirty sessions to the Hobsons Bay staff and management, always with great feedback. 

I faced another challenge in 2010, designing and delivering over twenty Cross-cultural Awareness and Language Services Training sessions to the NSW Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care. These were full day events, rolled out across the entire state between 2010 and 2012. Some workshops attracted over 50 people per session and were hard but rewarding work. I travelled to the furthest corners of NSW and met some incredible knowledge hungry people. These workshops are still running in the metropolitan ADHC regions.

The promotion

In any industry, you have to have a keen eye on opportunities and grab them as they arise. Once you have paid your dues, I believe it is your duty to mentor others, help improve the standing of the profession and share your knowledge. This is one example of how you can turn technical knowledge into a packaged service that benefits others. One important thing I found through the process was that people were happy to promote and endorse me, and also give me opportunities and constructive feedback. In my journey, I came across many people, mostly women, who’d go out of their way to give me a chance. They must have seen something in me that I didn’t and I very quickly learned to say yes to everything that was thrown my way. In my business, I have always subscribed to the idea that you say yes first, then work out how to deliver it, within reason of course. The fact that other successful people believed in me when I didn’t helped me to build confidence and trust in my own abilities. In highly competitive and volatile markets you just have to look out for openings and see problems as challenges, not obstacles. If a door closes, you get through the window!