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  • One question I am often asked by clients is: "So how do you get your jobs. Do you work for an agency?"
  • One (in my view) very good answer I came across was in last year's Communicate editorial:

Many LSPs mention “our team” (of translators or interpreters), but it’s time wasted to try to find out more, such as who the members of that team are. Others refer to “our network”, vague but rather more honest in my opinion. (Read more)

Do you have any other recommendations for further reading?

asked 16 Feb '12, 19:00

Tanja's gravatar image


edited 16 Feb '12, 19:03

Perhaps, instead of using the term "business model" I should have used the more specific term "organizational structures" (yet, that sounds like some kind of incorporation. I was rather aiming for the various types of (official and semi-official) cooperation).

(16 Feb '12, 23:21) Tanja

It's an interesting question, but I'd say that interpreters have no business model and can't really have any.

Interpreting is a craft. You accept a gig, you prepare for it, you do it, you send an invoice and you move on to the next one.

If you're into business models you need to stop interpreting yourself and start packaging and selling interpreting services above par. Now you can't really do that because interpreting is not sexy. So you somehow need to convince a sizable pool of interpreters to work for you well under market value. Then you can make a buck. Also you'll have to realise that in the eyes of big clients who have financial backing 'interpreting' may not sound like something that's hip enough to buy. And you'll have to conceal the fact that the interpreters on your pool will mostly be inexperienced, or else they would not work for you under market value. So you'll be selling, say, language solutions, a one-stop shop for your every localisation need. You'll have a nice website featuring headset hotties. And you'll understand that quality is the least of your worries when selling interpreting services, because interpreting to most customers is pretty much a one-off requirement and they will not be able to compare performance against some internal benchmark anyway.

That guy who runs this big agency that was recently awarded an exclusive contract to provide all court interpreting in the UK had a business model.

Is that appealing to you? Probably not, because you're an interpreter and you love your job and love to do it well, and you're a craftman, not a businessman, and you better stay clear of business models.

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answered 17 Feb '12, 06:07

Vincent%20Buck's gravatar image

Vincent Buck

edited 17 Feb '12, 06:19

Are we really that different from other professions? Maybe we do have business models but aren't aware of them. Anyway, thanks for the feedback to both of you. I really found your comments very thought provoking (and I like the "craft" thingie).

(17 Feb '12, 08:03) Tanja

As far as I know, there are not many interpreters that use a business model, or that are even aware of what a business model is, or of the differences between the managed services or vendor-driven model, for that matter.

Back in 2007, in Brussels, a TAUS forum was held on localization, translation and the information industry. This Forum was devoted to the critical topic of innovating the translation business model. It might be interesting to read the proceedings of the meetings held during the Forum, if they could be accessed by the general public.

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answered 16 Feb '12, 20:39

Vero's gravatar image


Thank you, I found the link which made me realize that my question was not clear enough. But it is still very interesting. I love the term "infra lingua" for the disintermediation process going on in parts of the translation industry (and I need to read up on Brunswick)

(16 Feb '12, 23:23) Tanja

You also have those of us, consultant-interpreters, individual or in groups, who start “packaging and selling interpreting services above par, and try and convince clients that interpreting is sexy ;-)”

Besides, we don’t even try “to convince a sizable pool of interpreters to work for us under market value”; we pay them what we get from the client and charge a handling fee on top of their honoraria.

This does not leave much of a margin (lo comido por lo servido, as we say in Spain) but

  1. somebody has to do it and it is positive for the profession;
  2. you put up teams of nice people who enjoy working together;
  3. you practice another facet of the profession and take up different challenges; and
  4. you may even enjoy it ;-)

Not much of a business model, however ;-((

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answered 17 Apr '12, 06:54

Danielle's gravatar image


edited 17 Apr '12, 07:30

Vincent%20Buck's gravatar image

Vincent Buck

Thank you for the comment, which is exactly one of the answers I was looking for when I posted the question - and, as I said before, maybe "business model" is a bit of a misnomer:)

For translators, Chris Durban has been able to come up with a very cogent concept in her latest book and I was wondering whether there was something similar in the field of interpretation. It's not about an "evil business outlook" but more about systemic matters - division of labour, roles, self-awareness, ways of investing ourselves and interacting with each other, sources of income etc. - basically cybernetics, how do we "work" as an ecosystem (which is quite a mouthful so I thought "business model" wouldn't put people off that much;)

(17 Apr '12, 07:28) Tanja

In terms of "business models" or - in more neutral words - "Where do we get our work from" maybe interpreters can be broken down into the two following broad groups:

1.) Private market (aka PRIMS under the umbrella of aiic)

2.) Agreement sector (EU, Nato etc.)

Whilst I do not know enough about the latter (apart from the fact that they occasionally recruit freelancers, too) let me just post my preliminary understanding of the private market.

Conference interpreters in the private market have three different sets of potential employers:

1.a Private sector i.e. corporations

1.b Freelance work for governmental organizations and quangos

1.c Intermediated sector (PCOs, technical equipment providers offering one-stop-shop solutions to their clients, language service departments from sector 1.a or 1.b exception: agencies - usually scorned upon due to margin erosion).

How do conference interpreters contact potential employers (1.a-c)?

Either through "internal" (P2P) or "external" marketing (B2B).

"Internal" marketing is, for instance, achieved by building a reputation amongst colleagues. These colleagues either have "direct clients" of their own and bring along a booth mate or they decided to work as "aggregators" i.e. consultant interpreters (some of whom are represented through the recently founded CI group within aiic).

Which aspects may promote your P2P network/help you build a reputation amongst colleagues who will then take you along to their gigs?

  • Respect for aiic's Code of Ethics (the profession is a closely-knit community).
  • People skills / personal style (maybe you just get on very well with senior colleagues who are better established in the market / word of mouth in your peer network. Pros: Stability, benefiting from knowledge and experience built up over many decades, passing on the baton, Cons or, moreover, potential dangers: Group think, perpetuating old power structures, "fossilization" of the profession, unless you are, of course dealing with senior colleagues who are immune to being humoured)
  • Professional skills / Specialization (Skills (e.g. a degree in chemistry or medicine) you may possess due to professional background prior to becoming an interpreter. What is more, Y2K (apologies for acronym city) brought along huge opportunities for the younger generation. Some sociologists have the theory that, for the first time, the wisdom and predominant possession of production resources that used to be the domain of the older generation has become secondary and that it is the younger generation calling the shots / the younger generation that can teach the older generation "new tricks" - things previously unheard of 20 years ago like the internet etc. Then again, the new economy bubble is often attributed to the "young turks"/lack of stability but I guess that is a different topic.

So this is my understanding of the P2P biotope/"internal marketing". What about the world outside?

"External" marketing (B2B) is, for instance, when you market your services directly to the end customer (c.f. 1.a-c). Relevant "tools" are standard marketing stuff:

  • -Cold calls (which, btw. can be illegal in Germany, so you really need to have a clear idea who you may call)
  • -Personal contacts (family and friends working for the end client)
  • -Standard marketing (going to trade shows, attending your target group's conferences, hosting a website, producing flyers, mailings, liaising with PCOs…).

Having said this, almost all interpreters are hybrids (which may be one of the reasons why I find it so difficult to articulate the "business model"), i.e. they belong to different categories at the same time (i.e. some work for the agreement sector as freelancers, some work as consultant interpreters occasionally but get n% of their work through the other channels described above etc.). Also, this mix might change over time - i.e. you may set out as a "rank and file" interpreter and then gravitate towards the Consultant Interpreter Group.

This is just an admittedly haphazard attempt at a rough categorization of interpreters' "business models". Obviously it is only based on my personal experience (which, although over a decade, is clearly extremely limited and I would be more than happy do read different takes on this).

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answered 12 May '12, 15:54

Tanja's gravatar image


edited 14 May '12, 00:50 one word, brilliant, Tanja! I only wish I had been pointed to something like your text, when I started out - well before Y2K ;-) - it would have helped me no end to make sense of what seemed a very complex professional reality, as it revelead itself in dribs and drabs.

Two contributions to the hybridism you so rightly note:

  • the agreement sector does make into your 1b) and 1c), ie outposts and offshoots of organisations who signed agreements with us do recruit outside those agreements :-(... but it is non-agreement work;
  • and big organisations - who recruit FL a lot more than just "occasionally" :-) - other than recruiting from the general FL pool, tend to encourage growing numbers of FL to remain close to their HQs by the sheer number of their potential offers to nearby colleagues, many of whom thus become what I jokingly used to call "permanent free-lance/free-lance permanents" :-).
(12 May '12, 19:55) msr

There hasn't been activity on this question for two years now, so let me add some perspective having looked into this from the perspective of a customer.

A business model not yet discussed here is that of a double-sided marketplace. Lots of freelancer marketplaces exist (e.g., Odesk, Elancer) where suppliers create a profile, name their own price, receive reviews. Customers can browse profiles and contact a supplier directly, and the marketplace usually charges a commission for every consummated transaction.

I've seen this business model applied to the (non-conference) interpretation world here in China with sites like FreeIVA ( and InterpreterSky ( The problems I've seen with this type of business model:

  1. Interpreters may have to pay a subscription fee to join, so they have to decide if the subscription fee will justify the incremental business.
  2. Interpreters may have the opportunity to pay a premium to get listed higher / more prominently on the site. This distorts the customer's search for quality interpreters.
  3. This can foster price competition. On some marketplace, customers create job and interpreters bid on it.
  4. The marketplace operator may charge a high commission, thus making it resemble a traditional agency.
  5. Both the customer and the interpreter may have an incentive to pay directly, so that the customer doesn't pay the marketplace commission.
  6. The websites that I called out have Chinese managers and, well, they also have the web design sensibility that is common in China. This is fine for attracting Chinese customers but not for Westerners.

What is this community's reaction to these types of business models? Is anyone here listed on these sites? What has your experience been?

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answered 19 Jul '14, 23:38

MattConger's gravatar image


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question asked: 16 Feb '12, 19:00

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