Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Grey Market

In my last post I said I'd write something about the grey market in conference interpreting (CI), because it attracts and provides work for Native Interpreters. Let's start at the beginning.

I began in CI in Canada in 1970. By that time , almost all of it was being done in simultaneous interpreting (SI). I'd had some experience at consecutive interpreting and I'd heard some SI, but I'd never done it. Nevertheless, I approached a reputable translation agency in Montreal and asked them to give me a chance. They put me in an SI booth and played me a 15-minute tape as a test. It was such an ordeal that I still remember what the speech was about. They knew at once that I was inexperienced – I was 'jerky', as they put it – but they happened to need an interpreter so badly that they gave me an assignment. It was really not a job for a beginner: a three-day university conference on the History of Music. Fortunately I had a week to prepare.

At the conference, I fell in with a highly qualified and experienced Expert Interpreter. Her principal qualification was that she had been admitted as a Member to the Geneva-based International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC for short, from its name in French). She was a Senior Interpreter who organised teams, and a talent spotter. I must have acquitted myself quite well, because she straight away offered me more work. I continued to work with her and for her for nearly 20 years. (I retired from CI in 1989 because of ill health.)

Now I come to the commercial side of it. The Montreal agency paid me 80 Canadian dollars a day, knowing that with my lack of experience I would be happy to earn it (remember those were 1970 dollars); the AIIC lady offered me three times that rate, the same rate as she offered to all the members of her teams. (It was AIIC policy that all the members of a team be paid the same.)

Thus, at the very start, I experienced two freelance CI markets. One was the upscale Expert Interpreter market. I call it the AIIC market, because in those days AIIC fixed the rates for it and was capable of blackballing interpreters who didn't respect them. It was a price maintenance practice that has since been made illegal in Canada and the European Union by competition legislation, though there continue to be other factors that keep the rates high. The other was a market that admitted unqualified and less experienced interpreters and paid them roughly half the AIIC rate: the grey market, as the AIIC interpreters called it. Nevertheless, having worked in both, I can say that there were some very competent interpreters on the grey market, and if they weren't at least minimally capable they didn't last long. They included many part-timers; and even Expert Interpreters when they couldn't find enough work at their own level.

In my view the grey market was bound to exist because of the high cost of Expert Interpreters and because there was at times a shortage of them. When I retired in 1989, the Expert Interpreters were already charging $600 a day. Furthermore, the AIIC working guidelines required two, and in Canada even three, interpreters for each team (each booth, in professional jargon), with a booth for each language involved. Work it out for a meeting with, say, three languages. And that's not counting the cost of the equipment and technicians needed for SI. Large meetings, governments and rich organisations could bear it; however, there were many small, cash-strapped organisations that couldn't although they needed interpreters. NGOs, student bodies and neighbourhood associations were good examples. I phrase all this in the past tense because I've long since retired, but I've no reason to think the picture has changed much.

So the grey market flourished. There was one grey market agency in Montreal, founded by a trade union official, which was so successful in the 1980s that its owners sold out after a few years and retired to Chile. I readily confess I occasionally worked for them for $250 a day, and so did some of my students on my recommendation. It was a good way for students to get on-the-job practice and gain confidence in what was reputed to be a difficult market to break into.

International Association of Conference Interpreters.

Brian Harris. The need for several standards of conference interpretation. (Paper to the 1st International Congress on the Assessment of Quality in Conference Interpreting, Almuñecar, Spain, April 2001). In Ángela Collados Aís et al. (eds.), La evaluación de la calidad en interpretación: docencia y profesión, Granada, Comares, 2003, vol.2, pp.3-16.


  1. A bi-level market is and has been a reality on most markets I think. My only problem with that is that (as I suspect you touched upon in your presentation in Granada) the so called grey market is used by agents as an excuse for not applying any standards at all. Working conditions and quality should still be respected. I'm not very familiar with the Australian NAATI accreditation system but they seem to have different levels of conference interpreting as well.
    In community interpreting it's already a race to the bottom (I just read a blog post from a Swedish colleague who risk paying damages of 150 euros to the agent since she had to cancel a mission due to her son being ill and it was not a last minute cancellation) I believe the only way of changing that is fighting for and upholding standards in other areas as well as community interpreting of course.

  2. I was talking only about conference interpreters (CI) and what I experienced in Canada. Outside of government organisations, CI is a competitive, free-market, unregulated business, so it's possible there are some profiteering or incompetent suppliers. Caveat emptor. The Canadian CI clientele has high expectations, at least as regards the two official languages, English and French. As I said, grey market CI didn't last long if they weren't minimally competent.

    The Australian NAATI (National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters) has quite a refined classification of interpreters, but effectively only one level for Conference Interpreters. There's also a Senior Conference Interpreter category, but it's based on "extensive experience and leadership," so it's for team leaders and organisers; they aren't necessarily better interpreters. The level immediately below Conference Interpreter is Professional Interpreter, "capable of interpreting across a wide range of subjects involving dialogues at specialist consultations" but apparently not fit for or interested in conferences. See

    The point of my Almuñécar paper was that not all meetings need the smooth, impeccable interpreting that's required for, say, the United Nations and is so very costly. I was told I was courageous for suggesting it. Everybody else there took it for granted that there was only one standard.

  3. Outside of government organisations,CI is a competitive,free-market,unregulated business.It is important to remember that your translation is carried out by a human who is constrained by time and capacity

  4. Thank you for the clarification about the limited reach of NAATI. But at least they do have categories that allow for different levels of interpretation skills.