Hurrah! You’ve finished your healthcare interpreter training and you’re ready to go out and work! Here are some tips to get you started as an on-site interpreter, based on my second time around as a freelance interpreter. (You can read my first New Girl post with more tips here.)
How do I get the work? I’d recommend working with an agency. They do all the leg work, and then pass on the assignments to sub contractors. I think there’s another post to be written about how to tell a good agency from a bad one, but I wouldn’t work with anyone that doesn’t have a good reputation or who tried to get me to lower my rates, or who didn’t pay me on time. Make sure when you apply to the agency, you’re accurately representing your qualifications. If you took a training course for medical interpreters and received a certificate of completion, you’re a trained interpreter, not a certified interpreter. If you’re confused about trained interpreter versus certified interpreter, you can check out this post that also has info about the certifying bodies.
It’s tough to get work if nobody knows you. Join a professional organization and go to their events. Many of them have socials, workshops, and conferences you can attend, and generally membership is really affordable. Many professional associations have an online directory where their members are listed, so people looking for interpreters can find you. It’s also important (and helpful) to know what our national certifying bodies and professional organizations are, and what they do. You can read about them here.
What are the expectations? If you’re working for an agency or directly for a client, here are a few things to make clear up front: Your rates. Do you expect to be reimbursed for things like parking, and paid for your mileage? What is the cancellation policy? If you take an assignment and it gets cancelled the same day or the day before, will you be paid? If you arrive to the assignment and you’re not needed for any reason (the patient speaks English, the patient didn’t show up, the appointment was cancelled), who do you contact? If the job is through an agency, what do you need from the agency to go on the assignment–An ID badge, an form that needs to be signed? You want to make sure you have these things ahead of time. Do you have the information you need for the assignment? The name of the client and contact info for the client. The name of the patient, the address and unit where the patient will be. Don’t assume anyone will give you all this information–Ask.
What do I take with me? In my backpack: Bilingual medical dictionary (in case of no Wifi), water bottle, gum (necessary for post-coffee interpretations), nuts and fruit, portable cell phone charger, lots of pens, notepads, lip balm, hand lotion (all that hand washing in the hospital setting will dry you out!). If I’m going to be out all day, I take my laptop and charger for downtime between assignments. And I always take a PB&J sandwich. It will save you if you’re starving between assignments and don’t have time to sit down and eat. Also it makes me crazy to buy food in the hospital cafeteria.
What do I wear? Some ironed pants (not jeans, please) and a button up shirt should do just fine. Unless they tell you there’s a specific uniform (like khakis and black shirts, for example). Then wear that. Also do your best to wear comfy shoes–There can be a lot of walking and long stretches of standing. I also take a cardigan with me–I find hospitals and clinics to be freezing. Don’t forget your ID badge. I wrote about this is a previous post, but it bears repeating, as I’ve seen not everyone got the memo: Save your going out clothes for going out, and your weekend clothes for the weekend. I have seen other freelance interpreters in all kinds of jeans, flip flops, hoodies, and general poor grooming. Please stop. Many people still think the interpreter is just some person randomly pulled off the street who happens to speak another language. Unprofessional dress does not help our cause.
How do I prepare? Always prepare before an assignment, even it’s to read some general information in one language. If you’re scheduled to interpret for the diabetes educator, then watch a video online about diabetes. Medlineplus.gov has great patient information videos you can look at on a variety of health topics. Another great way to prepare is by looking up intake forms online. So if you’re going to interpret at the pediatrics clinic, you could Google pediatrics medical history forms, or developmental milestones for children, and you’ll find a ton of terminology and content that will come up in the visit. At the risk of sounding like a really old person: When I started interpreting, we didn’t have access to all this information online. In my day, we had to ask the nurse if she could give us an extra intake form to take home and study, or we had to swipe patient information brochures from the waiting room. Take advantage of internet access. Everything you need is there. Look for information that patients will get, because that’s what you’ll be interpreting.
If you’re just starting out, you might like this post on must-know terminology that will get you through the basics. If you’re not sure how to expect an outpatient visit to go, you can read this post that will walk you through it.
And remember to introduce yourself to everyone, and smile. Even when others aren’t smiling. Maybe especially when others aren’t smiling. If you’re wondering about what a telephonic interpreter’s experience is like, you can read this great post from a guest blogger.
Finally, if you’re looking ahead to certification, I’ve written a lot about preparing for the written and oral exams. I’d recommend starting here, with an overview of the written exam.
I invite you to ask questions or share your tips for starting out in the comments!