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  • Yelena McCafferty

The Value Chain

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

What does it take to be a successful professional freelance interpreter? Impartiality, accuracy, correct use of terminology and grammar with delivery in a pleasant voice? In his new book Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding value and delivering excellence, Jonathan Downie questions this widely accepted definition often found in course books, codes of conduct and advocated by practising interpreters themselves. He argues that the standard impression interpreters try to promote almost encourages clients to think of them as dictionaries on legs: impartial, accurate and quick to think on their feet. He further points to the irony that in the current economic climate and technological trends interpreters get frustrated when clients endeavour to replace such walking dictionaries with software.

Downie believes that interpreters should withdraw from this traditional impartial approach and concentrate on adding value to their clients and the profession. This ground-breaking concept lies at the heart of the entire book and makes readers do a certain reality check of where they stand in the changing market and how they can influence the future of interpreting. The idea the author conveys is that a professional interpreter possesses all of the linguistic skills and knowledge that go with it, on the one hand, is a professional practitioner demonstrating to clients what it takes to be one, on the other hand, and yet is a business person with essential commercial skills and tools at the same time.

The book is split into ten chapters, tackling various aspects of the interpreting profession and is complimented by interviews with industry experts, activities suggested for practising individually and in groups as well as pointers for personal development.

Downie introduces the key concept of the book at the very beginning, arguing that as interpreters we need to learn to add value to our clients who, regardless of the assignment, most definitely want to make it a success while we are there to help them achieve this by providing tailor-made services based on their real needs.

The chapter on adding value to the interpreting profession, amongst everything else, mentions the importance of training colleagues by experienced professionals, dismissing the fear that by training new interpreters you may be breeding competition for yourself. To ensure a strong profession, alongside university courses, it’s vital to offer support and mentoring to those who are new to interpreting and guard them from falling into various traps, offering low rates, for example. As to university courses, Downie maintains that apart from the basics such as note-taking, equipment, glossary building, training should cover other practicalities: business and marketing skills which graduates will be in great need of at the start of their career, especially as supply will always outstrip demand.

Continuous professional development makes another highlight of the book and calls for a necessity for continued personal growth, beyond having a Master’s Degree, if we are to turn interpreting into a value-added service. There is so much more to CPD than watching specialist YouTube videos and making terminology lists; CPD activities largely depend on our individual needs and may include networking, voice-coaching or building a better online presence for one’s business profile. The author comes to the conclusion that it is the refusal to grow that leads to market shifts, changes in the perception of the industry and dreaded budget cuts.

One of the areas often overlooked by interpreters in their professional development is branding and PR. Downie stresses the importance of selling interpreting on the basis of value more than necessity or neutrality and introduces a few ideas of how we can be seen to make a difference and remembered as partners who bring value.

Despite the enormous popularity of informal online groups, professional associations still hold a vital place in the industry although their role in the future success of the profession is changing. Downie also convincingly argues that in a globalised world of uncontrolled markets legal protection of interpreters is ill-advised and the most important thing any professional can do to stand up for their professional status is to act professionally.

Very relevant is also the author’s insight into the hierarchy of the interpreting profession and why it tends to be fragmented. However, regardless of whether interpreters work in legal, medical, commercial or conference settings, they can learn lessons from each other, need each other to lobby for their rights and can work with researchers to enrich everyone’s knowledge about interpreting.

Slightly lighter subjects, such as physical fitness and seeing the funny side of interpreting also find their place in this clearly-written book with abundant examples from personal experience.

The book was an absolute delight to read: it’s engaging, forward-looking and, above all, challenging. It may not turn you into a successful interpreter overnight, however, it will introduce you to a concept that may set you on the right track. Now that interpreting finds itself at crossroads, what does the future hold? Is technology going to take over or is it there for us to embrace it? The bottom line is we need to be creative in tackling the challenges we face.

An abridged version of this article first appeared in the May-June 2016 edition of the ITI Bulletin, bi-monthly journal of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

Successful interpreters aren't born overnight.

[Tip: if you need to book a Russian interpreter, contact us via or call 0207 0436940.]



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