The Interpreter as Go-Between: Meet the Fixer
Interpreting and making myriad arrangements for journalists on assignment is a challenging but possibly gratifying job.
The media industry offers roles suited to professional interpreters with a retour, but they hide under another name. This series will discuss the roles that media-savvy interpreters can explore.
Have you noticed how you sometimes read an article, and below the author’s name sometimes a blurb such as “with special thanks to Jane Smith” follows? The object of the author’s gratitude is commonly referred to as a fixer -- perhaps because multilingual useful person was not a viable option.
The role requires fluency in at least two languages and a heavy serving of problem solving-skills. Yet, although the fixer lives in the shadows of big-name journalists, the role is not for the timid. Besides being able to switch into chuchotage (whispering) mode at the drop of a hat, the interpreter venturing down this road has to be ready to work on the go and adapt to clients’ demands.
Even though stating it borders on cliché, there is no typical day in the life of a fixer. What is certain is that he or she will certainly will be required to interpret between two languages most of the day, while making phone calls, sorting out travel arrangements, planning itineraries, fact-checking, putting out metaphorical fires and translating emails could all make up the rest of their working day. During any such contract – which could last anywhere between a day and months – working long or antisocial hours will be the norm.
Whereas traditionally bilingual local journalists and production assistants were hired on as fixers by their foreign counterparts flying into their country, foreign journalists increasingly look towards interpreters to fulfill the role. After all, they’ve realized that linguistic accuracy does matter, and that having a trained interpreter whispering in your ear all day long is far more effective than having someone with a decent but not full command of that native language sputtering in your ear.
Nevertheless, social skills are a must, and not just for helping the client access the sources or get the shots that he or she wants, but because the job will also entail interacting with the client one-on-one. For example, when acting as a fixer, the interpreter will represent their client’s main source of interaction with the local language, culture and people. Your role will be to educate them on how “things are done” in-country, as well as translating cultural aspects that might be hard for them to grasp.
It’s not always easy. Paulo Silveira, a fellow AIIC member who recalls his “one-time experience” as a fixer, explains how cultural differences that were unaccounted for can quickly turn sour:
“It was a week-long project. But then at the end we clashed based on cultural differences. We faced some difficulties, and they were somewhat nervous towards the end; because of typically ‘Brazilian things’ they were not used to.”
Namely, his clean-cut American clients had their feathers ruffled by the Brazilian way of life. Although locals don’t even bat an eye at traffic jams and rescheduled appointments, towards the end of the week the clients were testy, particularly as they drove around the Brazilian port city of Santos late at night trying to pinpoint their hotel. But Paulo came out of it stronger: “I could’ve warned them about it in advance – this is something I learnt from the experience. If I ever do that again [act as a fixer], I will let my client know what could happen.”
When acting as a fixer, the interpreter must also be ready to go beyond their job description towards the realm of managing logistics. Certain clients expect to receive hotel and restaurant recommendations. Others require a more hands-on approach and require indications on how to get to places, detailed schedules, and generally expect the fixer to book and make in-country travel arrangements for them: they have a plan and the fixer is there to make it happen.
Critics of the use of professional interpreters as fixers over journalists have said that “fixing” is all about having the right in-country contacts, but as an experienced fixer myself, I disagree: it’s all about knowing where to get them. Resourcefulness is, after all, part of the job description.
And Ju Apilaporn agrees. Now an AFP journalist based in Bangkok (Thailand) she got her start as a fixer. She also underwent conference interpreter training, and in particular found that the skills she developed in consecutive note-taking came in handy and even impressed her foreign clients who were used to working with plain ol’ journalists.
“My interpreter training really helped me a lot. Especially simultaneous interpreting. Clients were amazed that I could do that! While the clients were holding the interview, I could whisper the interpretation into their ear right away, which saved a lot of time. ‘How can you do that?!’ they’d say. Usually other fixers cannot do that.”
Through Thick and Thin
Interpreters who enjoy variety throughout an assignment and have qualms about being sat in a booth for most of the day, will likely find media work stimulating.
Yet as with any job, it is not without its downsides. If the promise of long hours has not scared you away by now, perhaps the following will:
It can be dangerous.
When we think of interpreters in conflict areas, we are actually thinking about fixers. AIIC has been committed to helping their colleagues in war-torn areas by advocating for their plight worldwide, in collaboration with Red T. The nonprofit has taken great strides to raise awareness concerning the danger interpreters are exposed to on a daily basis, and the same level of risk applies to the work of any fixer-interpreter who ventures into, for example, a violent neighborhood in a typically stable country. In fulfilling this role, it is important to be aware of the risks and to take measures to protect yourself and your client. If you truly believe your life is at risk by going to a certain location, refusing to go there is completely within your rights. Safety first.
Contractual grey zones
The role of a fixer is quite ambiguous and that can lead to a problematic relationship with your client. To avoid this pitfall, make sure you agree on what your duties and role will entail beforehand. Ask as many questions as you can think of: Will you be expected to carry equipment? Do you have to procure transportation? Will you be the sole person responsible for dealing with contingencies in-country? Etc.
Lack of professionalization
There is no fixer union or organization that outlines the role and duties of a fixer. What’s more, nobody is merely a fixer by trade – the nature of the role will have journalists who double as fixers, or interpreters who offer these services as an add-on. As such, this is not a career or a viable long-term job. It also gets lonely: it is challenging to discuss rates or role descriptions with your peers, when you don’t know even who they are because there is no umbrella organization under which to meet.
The advantages, on the other hand, are many. It is an exciting role in which to utilize lesser-used skills for the conference interpreter, such as chuchotage and consecutive note-taking. Daily fixing rates for major publications typically run at about the same price point as local interpreting rates – with the occasional bonus of in-print acknowledgements.
If working as an interpreter-fixer is right up your alley, the best way to break into this role is by being on people’s radars. “Join a local foreign correspondents’ club,” advises Ju, or approach editors and journalists at major newspapers to introduce yourself.
A little bit of luck also helps. Paulo explains how he got his first role “by chance”, simply by being at the right place at the right time.
“I was interpreting at a conference on sugarcane and ethanol production and someone got my contact from this conference, and a couple of months later an American journalist got in touch with me and he explained what he wanted.”
The ‘fixer’ role is sure to keep the interpreter thinking on their feet, developing their sharpness and mental acuity -- essentially issuing a no-boredom guarantee. All in all, fixing is a great role for those who enjoy liaison interpreting, with a twist.
Carla McKirdy is a New York City-based interpreter and AIIC pre-candidate working from Spanish, French, Italian into English and English into Spanish. A former journalist, she enjoys finding new ways for interpreters and the media to work together. You can also find her on Twitter as @CarlaMcKirdy.
Articles published in this section reflect the views of the author(s) and should not be taken to represent the official position of AIIC.