Interview with Freelance Conference Interpreter and Trainer Azucena Bermúdez Pérez

In this interview we feature professional conference interpreter Azucena, who has an impressive CV and brough a fresh perspective to the work of freelancers.

Q: How did you become a conference interpreter?

A: My main presence professional presence online is LinkedIn. It’s a where our work is very niche. So, people might find me in places where they look for a translator, to translate a birth certificate or something like that. But that’s not really what I do. I do conference interpreting at organised conferences, peoople don’t go and find individual interpreters. They find interpreters that organise a conference that that can act as a consultant, as well, and organise a whole team and the technical aspects of it, the simultaneous interpreting, equipment and all of that, or they go through an agency, but clients normally don’t go sourcing individual interpreters, they don’t even look for them. They don’t even know how it works, I’m quite sure it is a complicated thing to get your head around. They normally go to an agency or a consultant interpreter. I used to advertise years ago in the Yellow Pages and I always got calls about translation but never interpreting, people don’t understand the difference.

You have your contacts in LinkedIn and people will know the work that you’ve done, and they find you, and that’s the way I got work as well as networking. So LinkedIn works well for us interpreters. (See Azucena’s LinkedIn profile)

Look, I train interpreters.

I’m training the competition. I don’t mind giving content to an agency that’s going to give me work. I don’t mind them having it in the website, if they have me in their books. And they call me when they have a job. So basically, there’s no problem with with the competition thing, that’s never been a


Q: How did you decide to become an interpreter?

A: Okay, so I moved to Ireland to learn English, because originally I wanted to do journalism. So I left, right after school. After secondary school I took a year out, came here then I decided they will become to two years then came here. Then I went to France for a year to learn. I lived in Paris for a year to learn French, but I never had interpreting in my mind, I didn’t really know about it. So after those two years had already met when I came back, and I ended up living in it. And I ended up actually studying history rather than journalism. By the time I had the marks, but by the time I went back to college, the marks have gone right up, because a lot of people were applying for journalism. And I was left out of the thing. Even though I was a bit too short, and I was living in Ireland as well, which means that English wasn’t, it’s not my mother tongue. So I was discouraged from doing journalism, because people don’t expect you to write well in and language that’s not your mother tongue. I don’t agree. I’ve been here for 30 years I have been writing. But that’s I just left then I decided to study history, which I always loved. But I was living here all of the time. And I was studying history through a Spanish University to I kept my Spanish up. My college students were Spanish. And by living here, I improved my English all the time. Then I decided I taught for a few years taught Spanish as a foreign language, English as a foreign language. I never was never really committed with education in the sense that I never thought, Okay, I’ll go and do a master’s and become a proper daytime secondary school teacher. I like teaching languages in the evenings. And then I always had in my mind to travel to Latin America.

So when I was 29-30, I decided that that was the moment to go and do some development work, voluntary work in Latin America. So at the same time, I wanted to go and do something that would give me a hint as to which way I wanted to go with my professional career. So rather than maybe go and help plant trees, which is completely legitimate, I knew that I wasn’t going to work in agriculture. So I thought I’d find something where I could use my language skills. So I ended up going to Chile as an interpreter that was a volunteer post in a youth development organisation that does environmental work in Chile and other countries. So basically, they do expeditions, environmental work, working with young people, so you had young people doing environmental work and the expedition leaders If you want to hire a core staff that was unpaid, but still was the difference between staff and the people and the young people who attended and for staff, you needed to fill roles like interpreter, medic or paramedic, because we were in remote places in the Andes, so you needed an interpreter to liaise between the expedition and the communities we pass by. And you knew these medics and you have many of the mountain leaders. So anyway, I thought, okay, I speak English and Spanish, I went for the job I got interviewed you had to be, it was a whole process, even though it was volunteering and I went, I went for four months. And I found that I actually could do this. Obviously, it wasn’t simultaneous interpreting. It was consecutive. And it was bilateral. But I felt comfortable moving between languages, I felt comfortable speaking publicly because I was the voice of the expedition, obviously. So I would have done radio interviews, or I would have addressed towns, small towns that we pass by, and we were going to do a project we have to explain what we were. So there might be a public meeting, and I will be interpreting. So when I came back from that, again, I went to the Dominican Republic after that. And again, I was there as a teacher, and development worker, but I was used as an interpreter informally a lot again, because he was a UK agency, but in the Dominican Republic, obviously Spanish is the language. So I was doing a lot of liaise. And so when I came back from that year abroad, I thought, okay, interpreting is where I’m going to go with this. I love history, but I never thought I wanted to teach it. Or I didn’t know how to move forward with that. So I came back to Ireland, I tried to find out if there was such a thing as a masters for conference interpreting. I knew I’d found out there were some in the UK and in Spain. But I was by that time, my home with Bernard I lived here. We’ve been together from the first year I was here. So I tried to run around different universities. And everybody could say no, there’s no such thing in Ireland at all. And then some department in some university said to me, this was about May, they said to me, actually, you know what, in Dublin City University next September, the will be starting the first ever conference interpreting course in Ireland. So it was so well timed. I was so lucky that I came back home in May. And that by September, this course was going to start. I went did a interview and I was accepted in the course. And I was really lucky because the Spanish group was only formed because all three of us applied if one of us hadn’t, it wouldn’t have gone ahead. Well, I did. I did that course. Because he was linked with the university and the university itself Hara an agency for translation and interpretation. They were waiting to see their first cohort graduating. So the minute we did the work in there, called us over interviewed as say, asked once you knew what marks we had, and all of that, and asked, started to give us small little jobs, and a little I got to know other agencies, etc. So that was really lucky. And it was especially lucky because the year after I was asked, Could I teach in the course next year, because there was no no one in that person who was training us had been flying in and out of the UK. And the Spanish group didn’t go ahead in the second year, only the French group did. And the third year they closed down for lack of interest. So I was really lucky that when I was looking for that course, it existed for the time I needed it to exist. Yeah. So then I’ve been working with an interpreter in Ireland ever since.

At one point, I think that countries and members of the European Union had to decide which one was going to be their official language as regards dealings with the European Union. Because for example, Ireland had two Irish and English, I think, and I think the case was the same with Malta or something. I don’t know. This is all what I’ve heard from other colleagues. So nothing that I’ve researched myself. So maybe slightly


Okay, so the thing was that at that point Island decided that the language was going to be Gaelic and not English. So now that the UK is out of the European Union, there’s no contract with official English as an official language in the European Union funnily enough. So I learned that means that the European Union had to provide interpretation into and from Irish and translate the documents into Irish and all of that. So they had to set up then a university in the Gaeltacht, which as you know is the West, you know, the Irish speaking areas in the west of Ireland. So in Galway in the Boren at the beginning they set up masters in conference interpreting mainly in order to train interpreters for the European Union. Eventually it moved to to Galway city for university, but it always had other languages as well. So they obviously because the interpreters will have to also work with French or Spanish or German or whatever. So that course for conference interpreting existed in Ireland, you know after that attempting Dublin City University, Galway started in 2008 2016, I became an external examiner, they asked me to come for the external exams on Atari 2013, I think it was, for a couple of years, I would come for the exams. And then in 2016, a vacancy came up, the girl who was teaching Spanish, the Spanish groups left, I’ve been working there ever since teaching the training conference interpreters for the European Union. Of course, and the great thing about that for me is that it’s in their benefit that I continue to interpret as much as possible. So it’s very flexible. The students are supposed to be doing a full time course, even though they don’t have classes all the time, but they should be practicing. So we can change the classes if necessary. If I suddenly have a conference, so obviously it has to suit everybody. But the great thing is that there’s no many jobs that one time, combined with conference interpreting, because it’s so like, one day, you might not work at all another week, you might have a full week, or you might work on a Sunday evening.

Q: Did you do a lot of remote work through zoom?

A:Yes, I did. That’s all I did for the last two years. So for the first couple of months, like just before about a year or two before that there was talk about remote interpreting up somebody had invented a platform had designed a platform and But in fairness, the interpreting community was very much against it. And, and still, I wished I still would be because the sound quality is really bad. If you don’t have a controlled environment with proper technicians, people connect with very bad sound quality or very bad connectivity, but if the working group was set up to deal with it and see what was happening, but nobody was paying attention and suddenly behind the pandemic hit. And of course, all we got all the time for the first couple of months was job cancellations, people who had booked me provisionally everything was canceled. So for two months, I didn’t know what was happening. Then, little by little, some agencies that are I have not worked with before but who were fast to move to online work started to give me work. So I basically developed a whole new range of clients of agencies and colleagues and platforms has started to mushroom as well. Kudo was designed there was another player from voice boxer and interpret phi an interaction, there’s a whole lot of platforms. They were competing also for big clients like the European Union and the UN and things like that and for the private market. So it was all a few months about training training in the different platforms. Trying to find out who are the new clients what’s happening, the format of the meetings became completely different, people didn’t meet for a whole day because it’s very tiring. But also, they didn’t have to meet for three days because they weren’t travelling to a place. So they didn’t have to pack all their meetings in two to three days. So I suppose for the client, it was nice that they could meet once a week for two hours with our partners, because they didn’t have to travel. But our jobs became to our job to your job. And accordingly the fees went down. Once you prepare for a conference, whether it lasts two hours or a day, the preparation is the same thing. So I might do I might sometimes I’ve done rarely, but sometimes I may have done a job in the morning and a different job in the afternoon. And that’s double the effort for trying to get the same amount of pay really. And look it got us through and it opened a whole new possibility, I was interpreting for Japanese people are meeting people in Latin America so the hours were crazy.

Or I was I had clients that were NGOs from the states meeting planners in Latin me America. Yeah, so the hours for them was late hours for me or you know, but that, of course, opens up the market. But it also opens up the competition, because you’re competing with markets that could charge less. Island is a very expensive country, obviously. But actually, you know, so it basically for a full day’s work it was 50% or 60%, of what we used to get. So, not easy, but at the same time, you’re not incurring expenses like travel. And you know, there’s always hidden expenses, the clients don’t cover the main travel, they do cover and hotels and all of that, but you still, you still have to buy your suits, and you have to park at the airport and eat at the airport. And you know, so anyways, it worked out, there was hardly any expenses for us during the pandemic, like with most people, so it worked out. And now we’re coming out of it. The other end, once we were set, I settled into the online work. I was, of course, meeting colleagues and missing the interaction. But professionally, I knew what I was financially, I knew what to expect. And now we’re coming out the other end. And I’m not going back to the same market I had before I go back to the different market where some of the agencies in Ireland are not around anymore. Or if they are I still to have to hear about them, because they might not be doing remote work. But they might start to come back now with in person meetings. But I had a whole other range of, of clients in Belgium, in Japan in this, of course, I was thinking there, no, I’m not going to be flown to Japan to do a conference. I’m sure there’s someone nearer, I’m not going to be flown to. But some of the work with agencies in Europe are getting the work still online and are getting me to travel and work in Vienna or Frankfurt, or because they would have needed to bring interpreters there anyway, you might, you know, it was always the case being an interpreter.

Q: In terms of the traveling like before the pandemic, etcetera. How much time would you spend travelling? Would you have spent traveling like myself in here, would you say you will spend three months traveling, for example, for work?

A: it’s more number of trips, and the turtle reviewer one day, two days, three days, I might do two trips a month, sometimes three or four, sometimes one or none? An average of two. But that’s not normal. I am in the Irish market. If you are living in Torquay, and you’re looking for an English Spanish interpreter, you don’t think of Ireland you think of Madrid or London? That’s where you go to look for interpreters. Yeah, it just doesn’t occur to you to come to Ireland. So now it seems like it might be more because my my clients are in Belgium in France. And they still it’s as easy for them now that they know me to bring me from here as it is from anywhere else to bring people from other north from Spain or from so. So it seems like I might be traveling a little bit more because my clients are more outside Ireland.

Q: Can you tell me about your voiceover work? Like how did you come across it?

A: Well, it happened because I was always impressed by happened. I would because I do translations. Very few as well. People will contact me and say can you translate this and do the voiceover and they would have never heard me talk. So I could have had a very strong accent or a proper lamb with stuttering, but people think that you can just translate, you can just put the voiceover luckily, I can do that. So and luckily Bernard has good recording equipment. So it was just it was just that kind of video with the influence announcement, I was asked to come to a studio and record it. So that was different. So for Air Lingus and all of that. I will go to a particular studio recorded there. But I’ve had clients asked me to record like tour guiding general background information for a museum when you get put on the headset and it is in different languages. So I would record I would have I did that during the pandemic. For example, I recorded the voice over for explaining the tour of the museum in Spanish for the Derry City Museum for example, or all training, you know, safety training courses or whatever So I have never really, and I’m always saying that I will record my voice properly, send it to agencies and let them have them up in catalogs, so that when people look for a person of a particular age, or female voice or whatever accent, they can, I can come up in their searches. But I never have done that year, I only get a word of mouth. People know you, they know what you did before, and they contact you.

Q: What is the best part of your job?

A: The best part of my job in general is that I have the privilege of really hearing be a big part of different worlds all of the time. Because people, when they communicate through you that of course, there is the clause of confidentiality, which you have to be totally confidential, and they have to trust you. But they have to speak openly, because that’s the only way they can communicate. So the learning then, and by learning I mean, not just hard facts, but just how people work dynamics, how, how religious orders works, when they’re alone, how politicians discuss what they’re going to do, what it how things work, you know, it’s just fascinating, I think, and, and there’s so many worlds out there that suddenly you get a call to work at a meeting of International Association, or European Association or something like that, of funeral directors, you go, wow, okay, I didn’t even know that existed. And then you get to hear all the things that they have to work on and the issues they have, I think that is fascinating. Do you learn so much constantly. Also, it’s not only that you can travel a little bit, actually. And it’s nice that you can travel a little bit, I have some colleagues that are just so burnt out, and they really want to travel less, but that’s the work they do, they get called to travel all the time. And a nice balance is lovely. It’s nice that you have different teams or colleagues, I love the market in Ireland is small, we all we all get on, it’s lovely. There’s no tripping each other up, it’s a nice team feeling. And I think most of the time I’ve, I feel the same when I’m in other markets, I’m sure they have their problems, but I don’t compete with them, I come I come work with them for a couple of days. And I don’t know the dynamics. So it’s lovely. All of that is lovely.

Q: What advice would you give to a new graduate?

A: get good training. Yeah, definitely get training, no one is good at interpreting simultaneously like that, you have to practice first. So make sure you do a course. Or that somebody’s mentoring you or something and that you learn the topology, but also when you finish, if you want to be a freelance interpreter, and that’s the only advice I can go with is you can also go and ask for a job in the institution. So the European officials and then you pervert. But if you’re going to be freelance don’t despair, it takes a while for people to know you and to trust you. But for people to know you want to trust you, you have to be professional, you have to be collegial you have you have to be led by collegiality confidentiality, professionalism, respect, team effort, you have to help your colleagues they’re not your competitors. They’re your team. And, for me, most of the work comes from colleagues, there are some agencies, but it’s actually colleagues, it’s networking. It happens a lot. A lot of colleagues have direct clients and they need to put teams together. So basically, that takes time. Try and join AIIC. You can’t join until you’ve done 150 days work. And there’s a lot of conditions, but you can join, you can join as a pre-candidate, or you can just join at the beginning and just as a newly grad graduate students, and there are activities there that you can partake in. Some of them are only for members, professional members, but there’s loads of things open to the public. I’ve given talks to students about AIIC, if you become if you start to move in those circles, you learn the proper ways, the professional ways to behave as an interpreter, you learn you meet colleagues, you will start networking. And of course you probably have to combine interpreting if you’re doing freelance jobs with other work at the beginning. I know it’s not easy, but maybe private lessons or I used to work in restaurants the weekend or when it was less likely for me To get a conference or then I was teaching or working in Lask in an NGO or working, so basically that happens to everyone it is a word or two are combined with translating or teaching, whatever.

Q: What are the causes that are close to your heart?

A: I’ve always been involved in activism. When I went to Latin America it wasn’t certainly a last minute idea. I was always interested. For example, in Chile, I was a Spanish speaker, interested in Spanish culture. We were following closely what was happening in Latin America, with Pinochet, not on all of them that it was only a child, but I remember being really interested in Chile and what was happening there, and the coup and I was always fascinated by that country, and how that country dealt with it. And I always thought I wanted to go there for fancy for myself. So that’s why I went to Chile. That was the beginning. That was when I was young. And I was really interested in issues like that. And then that interest brought me to learn about other countries and other things. So basically, to me is about social justice. That’s the general thing. And, of course, also environmental justice now, because I don’t think is, I don’t think there’s even a choice. I just think that how can we not be passionate it is what’s happening is horrific, and is real. And I have to remind myself some time it sometimes even that, when you try and do try and get on with your life, what actually what do we have in the future if we don’t know something about it. So it’s just I just tried to keep myself alert and remember what’s happening and try and get involved in in different actions. Before climate became I became really aware of the of the need for to fight climate change, it would have been more than anything, as I was saying, social justice issues, and mostly with a focus on Latin America, just because of the closeness of the cultures, I would have known a lot about that I would have read a lot of books by authors and I would have had contacts and friends. So when I went to Latin America with a very clear idea to learn about an hour, I knew what I wanted to know and when I came back, I ended up actually doing the masters. But also I ended up working in the Latin America solidarity centre, which is an activist group, who works for social justice in Latin America, and Ireland. So I was there for 14 years, and three years as a as a information officer. And then I became director once the director left. So very close connections, met lots of activist Indigenous women, different groups, and that always kept fuel and my passion for it, because you are in this constant conversation with people who are at the forefront of social injustice, the hardest edges of capitalism, and you start to make the connections about with our own lives, and how we can afford to live in welfare states, because somebody else is paying for it, how these wars are provoked, in the edges of the developed work, because we need access to their resources, how everything becomes suddenly clear. And once you see it once, I don’t think you can stop caring about us, because you see everything with different eyes. So to me, as in with interpreting is a constant learning is just that the shift in the way you think, and you see things and once you start questioning how things are presented to you, then you can’t stop caring. How could you if you can, if you can see things in a particular way. I think the most important thing you really said impatient, I think people and not necessary that there are always bad people and good people, obviously, but except for those who have, you know, who are after their own greed and who have greed as a motivation. Most people actually have a good heart. It’s just a lack of analysis and a lack of education and knowledge of what really is happening. I think if people were exposed to certain things, people will react differently. There are always going to be people who try to take advantage of the rest but they’re not but they’re there for a reason because the rest of the people support them to be there. or to be elected or to or that they think is okay. So I think it’s the masters is us it’s all of us who need to become aware of things to media on, you know, social justice, climate justice, human rights, but all politics, poverty alleviation, civil rights is all the one is on the one. I think it’s the one system that’s failing us all, even us in the welfare state.

would you say that volunteer for like an international organization would be actually a good career move for, like someone who’s just graduated as well?

Thing about volunteering is I wouldn’t, I have to say, when I say that I went to Latin America to volunteer, I went because I was benefited from it, I do not believe, I do not believe, of course, I wasn’t going to go because of the way I am, I wouldn’t have gone and benefit from it and damage someone else. Hopefully, I’m gonna contribute something but nobody goes totally just to be a good patient. And if you do that, then it’s not I don’t like it either. Because I think that the solution is not to handout people, things to poor people, or turn a hand or knowledge or to help come and help. You have to question why are we in a position in which you need my help. If if I was robbing you, or my culture, or my country was in robbing you, you might not need my help. If we weren’t taking resources from certain countries, they wouldn’t need us to go on their houses for them, you know, you have to look beyond all of that. So charity for me is not a model, volunteering for me was an active to me what I was going to learn about these countries that I care about, I was going to try and get more of an insight and a better analysis, I was going to improve my interpreting skills, I was going to learn things I will come see what I did with my life. I wasn’t just going there to help someone because I don’t think I think the only way we can help each other is through solidarity. If you have a struggle, I can stand with you and help you with it. But I have no authority to come and tell you what you need or to give you things it puts me in a position of power if I come and give you something. And I don’t believe in that. So charity is not the model. So volunteering, I would advise people to volunteer, if they’re clear that they’re not causing more damage than benefit. And if they’re honest about why they go there. Like I’ve been volunteering a few times, I’ve been woofing (WOOFF Worldwide Volunteering in Organic Farms). And it is for me, it’s been a way of improving my French. Yeah, and it’s clear, and also have a couple of weeks when I’m outside working out in the open. Working. You know, woofing is worldwide working on organic farms. It is a network of people who volunteer on organic farms in exchange for food and accommodation to me, so a great way to spend two weeks on my holidays, getting fitter, getting out and practising my French.

If you are a recently graduated interpreter, there’s plenty of opportunities to volunteer for organizations who have very good causes and need and can’t afford interpreters. It is a great way to gain contracts experience. Like lots of my students go and interpret for Via Campesina, an international movement of persons who have a very politicized and have lots of networks and meetings and they work for food sovereignty. So they need interpreters all of the time. They’re a great source of opportunities for newly graduate expense interpreters to to acquire. So if you’re clear about that, and you clear that you’re not just giving free labor to somebody who doesn’t want to pay you make sure that that the cost is worthy of your time. And if you have your free time, then definitely do that.