Here’s a look at over-the-phone interpreting from the perspective of a freelance interpreter working with an agency.
My work as an over-the-phone health care interpreter began several years ago but has expanded considerably since the pandemic restrictions took effect in March 2020. Before the pandemic, I devoted most of my working hours to face-to-face medical interpreting for Italian patients. On a busy day, I would typically help two families as they navigated the U.S. health care system. Since I’ve been working from home due to the pandemic, I’ve found that I can help many more people in a day, and for that I feel privileged.
The work is challenging in ways I hadn’t expected. For those considering working as an over-the-phone interpreter or who are already engaged in this type of work, let’s review some pros and cons.
Of all the gig work available, over-the-phone interpreting is probably one of the most flexible. Language services agencies in the U.S. are recruiting interpreters of all languages paired with English. To qualify, you’ll need to take an evaluation test conducted over the phone or online that will be graded by a bilingual agency representative. The test will feature typical questions or brief conversations you might encounter while interpreting for clients.1
Once you pass the test and sign on with the agency, you’ll need to have a dedicated phone line, a computer with reliable internet coverage, as well as a headset, notepad, pencil, and a quiet room in which to work. The agency will provide information and a training session on how to use their online platform to access their call center.
Calls for your language pair and area of expertise will be routed to the phone number you designate. Your phone will typically display the name of the agency when an interpreting call is coming through. You can log on and off from the call center whenever you choose and block off your schedule according to your availability. You can even work for more than one agency if you can juggle the technology smoothly. You can always work on other projects between calls.
In my experience, I’ve found that there’s no need for invoicing. The agency’s call center keeps track of all the calls and the total duration, and payment is generated automatically. At the end of the pay period, I receive a check (or direct deposit) for the hours I worked. For my own purposes, I keep a record of my phone time each day and check it against the call center log (available on the agency’s website), but I’m happy to let the agency handle all the paperwork. They pay me by the minute for the time I’m actually interpreting on the phone (not for the time I’m logged on the system). There’s no minimum pay. If a situation comes up where I’m put “on hold” during a call while the agency/client checks on something, the agency does pay me for that time.
Calls can last anywhere from one minute to a few hours. (My longest call was 157 minutes.) My guess is that the average call is about
My personal goal for each day I work is to reach 70 minutes of actual interpreting time. It can take anywhere from three to nine (!) hours to achieve this goal. (Perhaps I would be more consistently employed if my language—Italian—were more widely used.) I tend to log on to the call center Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (my time zone). But medical calls come 24 hours a day, seven days a week from all over the world, so agencies need coverage around the clock.
I log on with two different agencies to increase my earning potential. If I take a call with Agency 1 and then Agency 2 needs me and finds my line “busy,” Agency 2 will change my status to “unavailable” and will not send me any more calls until I log back on the system. I learned this the hard way, so now I check my login status frequently throughout the day.
Some agencies route calls to your phone even when you’re not logged on if there aren’t enough interpreters available to handle the call volume. Others will alert you with a text or email that calls are waiting. When you’re hired, you can stipulate the timeframe you’re willing to take these extra calls. Again, I learned this the hard way after being awakened in the middle of the night to interpret for a patient who needed an extra pillow. That 30-seconds jolted both me and my husband into an adrenaline rush and we couldn’t fall back to sleep for the rest of the night!
When you’re logged on, agencies expect you to answer a call within one or two rings. That’s easy to do when I’m at my desk, but it gets more challenging when I’m doing housework. I need to have a phone close by so I can answer quickly and then jog back to my desk and switch to my headset while the coordinator is setting up the call. I’m pretty adept at this maneuver, but I’ve missed many calls by misplacing the phone, pressing the wrong buttons, or waiting until the third ring. After burning an omelet, I learned not to cook anything while logged on to the call center!
Not only am I on a rather short leash when I’m logged on, but if I have any other firm time commitment (webinar, dentist appointment, maintenance worker coming, etc.), I need to log off well in advance so as to not be interpreting on a call and have to bow out in the middle. I usually allow 30 minutes as a buffer in those circumstances.
Topics and Terminology
The bulk of my calls are for medical providers and their patients. They run the gamut from appointment scheduling to x-ray consultations. I get a lot of speech, occupational, and physical therapy sessions. Nurses call from the patient’s bedside when administering pain medications or when doctors are making rounds or need to review informed consent forms. I’m called upon to explain the preparations before surgery or to go over discharge instructions. Visiting nurses call with questionnaires to determine if a patient is eligible for home health care. Staff from the emergency department or recovery room call and have me interpret the questions they ask to determine if a patient is “oriented.” (These questions include: “Do you know where you are?” “What year is it?” or “What season is it?”)
The non-medical calls I receive tend to be for all types of customer service desks: banks, credit cards, airports, employee hotlines, hotels, and insurance companies. I get an occasional legal call for hearings with workers’ compensation judges.
I never know what the next call will be, which I find exciting and stimulating. I stay close to my computer so I can quickly look up new words online. I build glossaries on different topics so I can refer to them the next time a similar call comes through.
Another piece of equipment you’ll need is a paper shredder. Much of the information that’s shared is confidential and needs to be destroyed after the call. Sometimes, by chance, I’ll interpret for the same caller from one day to the next. They’ll recognize my name and voice and expect me to magically pull up their information from the previous call, but I explain that this isn’t possible—for their own good. This detail is something that should be highlighted in a pre-session2, but it’s not always possible to wedge a pre-session into these calls. The interpreter is often conferenced into a call that’s already underway and is expected to seamlessly blend in without missing a beat.
Agencies prefer to hire over-the-phone interpreters who have completed some sort of training.3 (For example, completion of the Bridging the Gap4 program.) For high-volume languages, agencies prefer candidates with over three years of experience paired with training and, ideally, certification. Given that there may not be enough training resources available for rarer languages, agencies may be willing to consider a candidate with volunteer experience.5
When applying to an agency, send a detailed résumé and a copy of your certification(s). This helps the agency determine how best to use your skills. Every year of your tenure with an agency, reach out to the vendor manager and send an updated résumé.
An experienced, reliable, and competent on-demand interpreter will be a natural choice for any scheduled over-the-phone assignments with an agency. The vendor manager will match the skills of an interpreter with the requirements of the client and the nature of the assignment, so the more the manager knows about you the better.
“Calls may be monitored for quality and training purposes.” You may have heard this phrase while waiting on hold for customer service. Over-the-phone interpreters occasionally do get monitored. I’ve done some work as an evaluator where the goal was to provide constructive feedback to the interpreters. Some of the skills evaluators hope the interpreter demonstrates during the call include accuracy, interpreting in the first person, providing clarification (using the third person), effective turn-taking, using the proper formality register consistently, avoiding adding information not said by the callers, using standard grammar, and politeness. For scheduled calls, punctuality is obviously also important.
Client feedback is also shared with the interpreter. Agencies will try to honor the client’s request for a preferred interpreter when calls are scheduled in advance. Some agencies have feedback forms the interpreter can fill out to report positive or negative experiences, which can be very helpful. For example, there was a time when a certain obscene caller kept getting routed to my phone. By reporting him, I got the attention of the agency staff and together I think we’ve managed to discourage his harassment.
A Happy Ending
I want to leave you with this anecdote from a recent call. I was interpreting for a nurse—let’s call her Naomi—who was at the bedside of a patient, whom we’ll call Paola. During the call Paola’s voice was extremely raspy and weak, so it was difficult to understand what she was saying. The first intelligible words I heard (in Italian) were, “It’s time for me to die.” Naomi responded immediately with a caring tone and reassurances that she was there to help Paola feel better. Paola had just come out of the operating room and was waking up from the anesthesia. All this was explained to Paola through me.
I used my most warm and friendly voice to match Naomi’s tone. Paola sounded so despondent, vulnerable, and weak. She was in pain so Naomi increased her intravenous pain medication. When Paola wanted to use the bathroom, Naomi explained that there was a catheter in place.
Paola still sounded miserable and repeated that it was “her time.” I could tell that Paola’s mouth was so dry she could barely speak. When Naomi offered ice chips, Paola didn’t respond. At this point I intervened and explained in English to Naomi, “That’s a cultural thing. Italians are not real fans of ice chips. Do you have one of those little wet sponges on a stick you can use to moisten her lips?” When Naomi offered one, Paola responded favorably.
Eventually, Paola’s voice got clearer and stronger and she uttered more hopeful phrases about “wanting to get better.” It was a remarkable transformation from being “ready to die” to being “ready to live”—and I helped!
- You can practice medical terminology using training videos available on YouTube. Search for “Doctor patient conversation in English” or “Medical Interview.”
- A pre-session is a short explanation of how the interpreting session will work. The interpreter should make it clear that the content will remain confidential and that everything will be interpreted. This is also the time to remind the client to speak in short chunks, allow pauses for interpreting, and that the interpreter will speak in the same person and may intervene when necessary.
- I want to thank Simon Nazir, global resource manager at CETRA Language Solutions, for much of this information about training, recruitment, and evaluations. Simon has more than 10 years of experience in recruitment that includes more than four years in the language industry. In his current role, Simon is responsible for developing sourcing strategies to attract and retain qualified contractors (translators and interpreters) aligned with the company’s strategic objectives, and executing those strategies across the business units. This includes sourcing, vetting, on-boarding, and providing support after activation.
- For more information on the Bridging the Gap program, visit https://bit.ly/bridging-training.
- Training is available through Cross Cultural Communications, which offers a free webinar series entitled The Remote Interpreter, delivered by the authors of the forthcoming textbook of the same name (Danielle Meder and Tatiana Cestari). Visit www.interpretertraining-online.com/tri-webinar-series.
Linda Pollack-Johnson, CT is a freelance translator and interpreter. She is a Core Certification Healthcare Interpreter (Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters). An ATA-certified Italian>English translator, she is a member of ATA’s Italian Language and Medical Divisions. She is also a member of the Delaware Valley Translators Association (an ATA chapter). She has mentored many aspiring translators and interpreters, proctored numerous certification exams, and given many ATA School Outreach presentations. firstname.lastname@example.org