Many years ago, during another lifetime, I worked with scaffolds on exterior building maintenance in New York City. After attending rigging school, I worked in safety and trained others to work carefully high up above the streets. Afterward, I used that knowledge to create a safety program for my own painting company.
Later, I changed careers. I had no idea the hard work required to become a medical interpreter, studying every evening and taking courses, both locally and online. It was notably challenging to develop the skill of simultaneous interpretation. You can imagine how happy I was to become a certified healthcare interpreter. This means that I have reached the minimum skill level required for that standard.
Since Spanish is one of the most spoken languages in the United States apart from English, the law of supply and demand makes it very difficult to attract a premium market as a healthcare interpreter.
Stumbling upon a niche premium market
A number of years ago, I received a phone call from a construction company. They wanted to know if I could interpret for a 40 hour OSHA class. Having worked in construction and safety, I was familiar with this world, so I said yes. Since I didn’t know how to price it and no one was available to assist me, I decided to charge my standard healthcare interpreting fee multiplied by 40 hours.
The knee-jerk response by the company was sticker shock. I was told that it would continue making calls. I explained if they accepted the job the next day, a late fee of 20% would be imposed due to the difficulty in rearranging my assignments. That same day at 4:45 p.m., he called me back and accepted the terms.
I was curious why he chose us, since he thought our price was exorbitant. He explained that he had gotten lists of interpreters from Google, the ATA and Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters. Almost everyone he contacted were either legal interpreters, medical interpreters, or out of business. Ethically, they did not feel qualified to interpret for an OSHA safety class regarding hazardous waste.
Once he realized how specialized this specific interpreting assignment was, my prices were viewed as a true value. Although I had a background and was familiar with the industry, I still spent many hours preparing for this assignment, studying and cramming terminology.
As time went by, I realized that I had sufficient experience in safety to go back to school and take the courses necessary in order to become an authorized trainer myself. By law, a ten hour class with an interpreter must be 20 hours. A 30 hour class must be 60. It takes at least twice the time to relay the information when using an interpreter. This means that in a ten hour class a company would have to pay a trainer for 20 hours and the interpreter 20 hours. It also means an extra ten hours per employee of lost production time for the company.
Although I might charge what some would consider a premium, for teaching in Spanish, a ten hour class is ten hours and no interpreter is needed. This works out to be a huge value to the customer.
Little did I know that the experience gained so many years ago, would serve as an area of expertise today. I truly believe that more of us can do this. Before becoming a translator or interpreter, did you gain experience in some other industry? Perhaps there is a way to market that unique knowledge? Can you fill a particular niche? I was fortunate to stumble upon mine, but perhaps reading this experience can spark an idea for you.
Jeff Alfonso is co-owner of Alfonso Interpreting & Transporting, Inc. in Greenville, South Carolina. He is a certified healthcare interpreter in Spanish and English, and an authorized OSHA safety trainer. Connect with him: Blog, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn.