Should I become a freelance interpreter or seek out a language agency?

As a language professional, consider the advantages of self-employment and aligning oneself with an agency

Your work style, availability, and career ambitions all factor in. This article is adaptable to translators.

Whether you just became fluent in your second language or have been unofficially interpreting to help other humans out your whole life, by the end of this article you will have a more thorough understanding of which route is the best for your professional interpreter career. As your own boss completing quarterly taxes, making your own daily schedule, or as a valuable member of an agency, the information below will set you up for success. Doing both may be for you if you are looking to dive headfirst and become a full-time professional interpreter.

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What is the difference between a freelance interpreter and an interpreter who works through an agency?

To leverage your options you should first understand your rights. The following information is based in the United States of America.

Keep in mind, being freelance interpreter and working with a language agency is not mutually exclusive. There are many professional interpreters that hold day jobs separate from their language services and those who fill their days with back-to-back interpreting assignments from personal clients and from assignments offered through their agencies.

Interested in becoming a language professional? Click here to view the difference between a translator and an interpreter.

Understand that freelance interpreting is a form of contract work. Thus, freelance interpreters are considered contractors. 

The paperwork

Legally, the paperwork you owe the government is an I-9. A ‘regular job’ (such as an hourly cashier with a set weekly schedule) consists of the W-2 paperwork and your employer calculates/deducts taxes through your paycheck automatically.

As a self-employed freelance interpreter, you will be responsible for filing your own taxes. This is something that needs to be done on a quarterly basis. This is very important and too many contractors realize this too late and end up owing more than their financial situation allows once Big Tax comes down.

If aligned with a language agency, the I-9 will be filed by your agency but you are still responsible for calculating and submitting your own taxes. Think of yourself as a small business with your language capabilities being the service provided.

Setting your own schedule versus ‘reliable’ work

Like any freelance work, being an interpreter by contract does not guarantee a set schedule. But working for an agency does not guarantee a full eight hour shift, either. If reliable work is what you’re looking for, consider becoming an on-staff interpreter employee.

Self-regulated versus borderline employee expectations

Agencies, through your contractual agreement, are able to have a certain level of jurisdiction over your role as an interpreter. Thoroughly read every inch of any offered contract to avoid any potential breaches of agreement. For example, while professional attire is relative to the assignment and person, an agency’s expectations may be more stringent especially if they work with federally funded organizations (think hospitals). What could be a small discrepancy between interpreter and agency could lead to an unlevel relationship.

Remember, as the interpreter, you are in control of the conversation. Just the same, as your own boss, you need to manage yourself professionally with your best interest in mind, however that may be.

Agencies are run by humans and we all have different agendas. If an agency or someone says or does something to undermine you as an interpreter, you have every right to advocate for yourself or patient and remove yourself from the situation.

What is a dual-role employee?

A dual role employee is someone who is capable of two fully independent roles within an organization. A dual-role employee can be a gray area. Especially when rights aren’t respected and proper compensation isn’t given, being a bilingual employee can be a dual-edged sword.


About the Author

A freelance interpreter, previous dual-role employee, the writer of this article has served as an interpretations coordinator and assistant to a nationally accredited interpreter training course.

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