10 Lessons From my First Year as a Freelance Sign Language Interpreter
As a recent ITP graduate, Brittany Quickel shares encouraging advice to peers who are entering the world of freelance sign language interpreting.
When I graduated from NTID two years ago, I drove away from the RIT campus for the last time wearing my cap and gown, car windows down, and singing and signing along to Taylor Swift’s song “Twenty-Two”. I felt a huge range of emotions: pride, happiness, relief, fear, uncertainty, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I had been preparing for this moment for my entire high school and college career and now here I was: A graduate, diploma in hand, and one of the newest practitioners to enter the field of sign language interpreting.
I felt ready.
One year later, I realized that in that moment of time, I was as ready as I could have ever been. I was very fortunate to have had many teachers, mentors, and colleagues who shared their words of wisdom with me before I graduated. Their advice still guides me today, and I continue to ask colleagues what they wish they knew when they started their careers as sign language interpreters.
Most recently, I have been surprised to have interpreting students and recent graduates seeking my advice and perspective as a new practitioner! Just as those who came before me shared their advice with me, I hope to repay their generosity by passing along some lessons that I have learned while navigating my first year as a freelance sign language interpreter.
1. Expect the Unexpected
So you expected to be walking into “This, This, and This”, but what you really discovered was “This, That, and What The-” Oh yes, this is an inevitable reality that pops up many times along the course of a sign language interpreter’s career. While it is crucial to try to obtain all pertinent details before every assignment, sometimes this does not always happen. Sometimes, you receive misinformation which causes you to walk into a situation completely unprepared. However, an integral part of freelancing is the ability to be flexible in any given situation, on any given day (and yes, even on those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days). Suppose you are expecting to interpret a training seminar about a topic that you are knowledgeable about, only to walk into the same assignment and realize that the topic is actually completely different than what you had been told. If it is a topic that I didn’t expect but am still able to interpret, then it is business as usual. If I happen to be unqualified for the assignment, then it is also my responsibility to remove myself and inform the hiring entity of the error. While it may be nerve-wracking at times, the ability to remain flexible and calm amidst the chaos of uncertainty will take you very far!
2. Invest in Lifelong Learning
One of the first things I learned when I graduated from my Interpreter Training Program was that I was definitely not done learning, despite being finally finished with school. Completing formal education is only the beginning of a career of lifelong learning and development. This is true for any profession, however as linguistic and cultural mediators, language learning and development will require a continuous effort in every language that we work with: ASL, English, and/or Spanish. There is a limit to how much language learning can be acquired in a classroom, which is why socializing with native speakers of the language is a requirement to develop fluency.
Professional development in our rapidly evolving field of interpreting is also an ongoing endeavor. Staying on top of current trends and best practices is an absolute must for all practitioners. You can do this in a myriad of ways by taking advantage of local workshops in your area and the numerous online resources available to us through the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers (NCIEC), the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, as well as online discussion groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. Also, think about those hypothetical “what if?” dilemmas (á la “Encounters with Reality: 1,001 Interpreter Scenarios” by Brenda Cartwright or any scenarios from your thought-provoking ITP discussions) and engage in Reflective Practice from the very beginning. For a more detailed explanation of Reflective Practice, read Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice.
3. Overcome your Self-Doubt
Thoughts like these may plague your psyche on a daily basis: “Why am I doing this?! This is so hard! I can’t do this! AGH!” It is imperative that you ignore them. Now let me make a clear distinction: self-doubts are very different from self-awareness. Being aware of my tendency to fingerspell a very long word all the way out into no man’s land (an area of skill needing improvement) is very different from beating myself up over that fact and calling myself “the worst interpreter ever” (negative self-talk). We all have our strengths and weaknesses. We can all learn new things and continue to strive to be better than we were yesterday. However, we cannot let our self-doubt hold us back from becoming the best versions of ourselves that we can possibly be.
4. Listen to that Inner Voice that says “You Can Do It!”
You know that random guy in every Adam Sandler movie from the 90’s who swoops in during a desperate time of need and exclaims: “YOU CAN DO IT!” Yeah, listen to that guy, because he is right. You will surprise yourself this year. You will do things that you never thought you were capable of. You will learn, grow, and enjoy many PAHs! In the wise words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
5. Take All Advice with a Grain of Salt.
Lots of people are going to try to give you advice when you are a new sign language interpreter: good, bad, and ugly advice. Sometimes you’ll be able to distinguish between the three, however, take everything that everyone tells you with a grain of salt. Remember that everyone has had their own individual experiences and shares their own unique perspectives on the world that may differ from your own. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide what you want to do and who you want to be. Remember: You are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul!
6. Surround Yourself with People Who Want You to Succeed.
This is crucial. The first year working as a freelance sign language interpreter can be a little isolating for some people, depending upon the nature of your work. Make sure you build your support system comprised of people you trust, who believe in you, and who want you to succeed! These people will help you out when you need it most or when you least expect it! Jean Miller shares some great ideas about how to create your own local support network in her article, #Doable: Creating Safe Spaces for Sign Language Interpreters.
7. Take Good Care of Yourself
I cannot emphasize this enough! Take good care of yourself! Eat food, get enough sleep, drink enough water, find your own ways to relax and de-stress regularly. Freelancing can be a 24/7/365 gig, which is why self-care is of the utmost importance. And don’t be afraid to indulge every once in a while, you deserve it!
Pro Tip: Make yourself a little freelance interpreter survival kit for your car or bag. Janice H. Humphrey includes a great list of essentials in the freelance interpreter bible, “So You Want to be an Interpreter?” Plus, you never know when you or someone you know may be in desperate need of a band aid, tampon, or two Advil.
8. Be Open to Self-Discovery
We are so fortunate and blessed to have chosen a career that teaches us countless lessons not only about the world and its beautiful people, but also teaches us so much about ourselves. As a freelance sign language interpreter, you will learn things you never realized about yourself, and gain a better understanding of what really makes you tick: situations you like/don’t like, love, and maybe even hate. You will learn something about what scares you, befuddles you, and may even find your true passions. As Kahlil Gibran said, you will find that in this year and the many years to come that “the soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.”1 And this kind of self-awareness is a very good thing, my friends.
9. Always Remember Why You Became a Sign Language Interpreter.
I will tell you something that you may already know: This profession is extremely challenging-emotionally, physically, mentally, existentially, and wholeheartedly. You will question your skills, abilities, and you will wonder why on earth you decided to get yourself into this field in the first place. In those moments, remember why you started interpreting. Remember that feeling that burned within your soul that made you say: Whoa. This is it. This is what I want to do with my one precious life.
10. Embrace the Journey
Life is all about the journey. Sometimes, a person’s first year as a freelance sign language interpreter may seem like a never-ending emotional roller coaster, but remember that it is all about the journey, not the destination. Always give thanks to those who have helped you and who continue to guide you along on this path. Never forget who inspired you and who led you to be where you are now: your Deaf/HOH friends and/or family, the Deaf community at large, your teachers, mentors, and fellow peers. Always remember to give back and to pay it forward. Share some insight and encouragement with excited ASL students, volunteer with your local NAD and RID chapters, share resources with your fellow colleagues, and follow up with your teachers and mentors to let them know how you are doing. Embrace the craziness of your first year as a freelance sign language interpreter and have fun!
Questions to Consider:
1. What is the most important lesson that you learned in your first year of freelance interpreting?
2. What is the best advice you would share with an interpreter entering the first year of their freelance career?
3. Did any of the lessons above resonate with you? If so, why?
It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter by Brian Morrison
1 Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. New York: Knopf, 1952.