I haven’t assessed in years and most of the time, I won’t. There are a myriad of reasons behind why I won’t. First, I don’t think assessments are helpful. As a working professional, there should be no lack of knowledge about my work in the community. References from clients and teams should prove to vouch for my skills. They also provide more context into my strengths and perhaps areas I am actively working to improve in a collaborative way.
Two, they’re most often used as a bargaining chip when at the negotiation table. While I am never at a loss for angles when negotiating, having been in the business for almost a decade – it’s an advantage that an agency is afforded simply by saying “It’s what we do”. This is the single biggest reason why I won’t asses or sit for an interpreting exam. Either you’re interested in working with me or you’re not. My interpreting for a 3 minute video from 1973 of Ethel meeting with her tax accountant tells you almost nothing about my work. It will however tell you that I am bored out of my mind and don’t think your business practices make any sense.
Now, don’t get me wrong – assessments for new interpreters can certainly show a few things. Can you just dive into a message and play? Whats your vocabulary like? It won’t show much of your process because when you’re a new interpreter you’re still playing with pacing. The nerves surrounding the unknown of what happens in that room, having never done an assessment will cause you to rush, to panic and to be hypercritical of your own work. I’ve never once met a recent graduate or senior who has done an assessment and not immediately wanted to crawl into a hole and die. That’s what agencies do. They don’t prep you or show you what it looks like, it’s just a standard process to figure out how many dimes you’re worth.
I started this series and this blog in an effort to push back against a system that is designed to handicap interpreters from the moment their careers begin. So, how can you avoid assessing even as a new grad?
Carry A Strong Resume
Your resume should be so polished and so interesting that people want to read it again. I think many of us get caught up in the idea that it needs to be just work titles and important sounding words. In my opinion, a resumé is a story. You can work everyday to make that story more round and interesting even when what you’re doing isn’t paid. You never have to divulge the status of the work you’ve done. My resumé leads with “experience” because that’s what I gained. Pro bono or not, I gained experience in every position I practiced in.
Update your resumé often and don’t discount the small stuff. I’ve worked with agencies who were more interested in my AA work than lectures I had worked into English for PhDs. The AA work wasn’t even paid, I was just playing around with what my brain could do in a domain surrounding addiction. The experience I earned there greatly contributed to work I would do later with that agency in a rehab they had a long standing contract with. Had I discounted it as just volunteer work or removed it, I might not have been offered the same opportunities. I am sure my rate would have been lower. Point is, the year I did AA for free turned into years of paid AA and drug addiction meetings, for a rate $3 higher than other agencies in the area.
Use Your Portfolio
I think the single most under rated tool we can use in this field is our portfolio. It truly baffles me that programs don’t have classes in compiling one. They’re incredibly easy to make and you get to play around with color, aesthetic, etc… to really sell who you are as a practitioner. When I’ve used my portfolio ahead of an agency meeting, I’ve signed on with them much quicker and in a few cases – haven’t met with them at all.
Portfolios do more for you than an assessment ever could. It shows that you know how to dress for the job, can function in your role comfortably and the work itself. It’s a great glimpse into your process, especially when you’re making a repair. I cannot think of a better way to avoid sitting through the agency testing process. Some agencies won’t accept a portfolio as a replacement for an assessment, usually for bureaucratic reasons. Those agencies usually have no idea what sign language even is or they want to use the assessment process for negotiation power. Just remember in those scenarios, they’ve seen your portfolio and you know what you’re worth. Letting an agency gaslight you into believing you’re not is a waste of everyone’s time and energy.
Get Referred In!
Referring in is my favorite way to sign with new agencies and now the primary way I sign on with anyone. The process is fairly simple. I tell my colleagues I’m looking to partner with new agencies. When they get queried for a last minute gig that the agency is scrambling to fill, they send my name as an option. When the agency reaches out, I do my best to work it into my schedule. This works especially well for teamed gigs as they know I’ll be supported by a trusted colleague if necessary.
Having the client return great feedback is always a real seller so I make sure I mention that it’s my first gig with the agency and I’m looking forward to partnering with them. I’ve often told clients that the agency is getting familiar with my work and my portfolio as a way to solicit feedback to an agency representative without outright asking for it.
The added benefit of this process is that I can always join their roster at a higher rate. Typically the combination of saving them with a client and the fact that I’ve already done work with them allows me to enter negotiations in a better place. I never encourage my colleagues to be exploitive when agencies are over a barrel but you can certainly use a slightly more level playing field and this is one option in which you have a bit more leverage.
I personally would love to see assessments done with in the next few years. Live supported work and team feedback is always the best indicator of an interpreters practice in my opinion. As an industry however, it is up to us to create those changes. We need to become a more portfolio forward profession and encourage one another in finding work through referrals. When agencies can find the balance that we ourselves do as practitioners, we’ll see an improvement in practice overall.