We are pleased to continue with our series of interviews with SeproTec experts. This time we talk with our Head of Interpreting Department, Isabel Arroyo—so let’s go!

Isabel has been working in the company for almost 12 years and she heads the Public Services Interpreting Department.

- Hi Isabel! Thanks for booking time for us in your busy calendar – we know the last few months have really been busy for you! We would like to get to know you better, so let’s get started! Can you tell us how everything started?

12 years ago, I was hired as a manager when we began the interpreting services project for the National Police. It was the first time that this client had put the management of these services out to tender, and it was pretty chaotic. Back then, many of us entered the Department at the same time and, even though there was a lot of work, we had a great time. We learned an enormous amount. Slowly but surely, we began adding new clients and the Department started to take shape. In 2010, I was appointed coordinator, and since 2012, I’ve been the manager. I’m a Sepro veteran now!

- Did you always know you wanted to work in the industry?

To be honest, this job came up as soon as I finished my degree. Even though I specialized in translation and had always had teaching in mind, when I saw this job offer, I thought it was really attractive. Working in the translation and interpreting sector was always my first choice.

- Can you tell us what your role involves, how it fits into the wider language service industry?

Our job is not a common one in the labor market. Interpreting for the public services is relatively limited, but I have to say we handle some very different kinds of tasks. In my case, I have duties of all kinds, covering the supervision of all tasks concerning the Public Service Interpreting area, including preparing, reviewing, and approving price quotes and reports, supervising the databases, managing the team and the services, organizing training courses, contacting and visiting clients, presenting proposals and following up on quality plans, participating in the preparation of bids, etc. However, this project would not work without the great administrative team behind it, currently more than 40 people (coordinators, account executives, selection specialists and clerks) in the various offices (Las Rozas, Barcelona and Valencia). Every day we have to face a wide variety of challenges. I think that the fact that the team is so diverse (different nationalities, ages, educational backgrounds, etc.) makes it more complete. We learn a lot from one another because everyone contributes something to the service. To complete our tasks, we work closely with other departments such as Human Resources, Administration and Marketing & Sales. It is also very gratifying to know that all our work has a social impact, and that we work with and for people and are often able to come up with solutions for really complex situations.

- What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

The most challenging part of our job is making this sector more professional and making people acknowledge the value provided by interpreters. There is still a lot to do to get there. The first step is to raise awareness among the public institutions of how important it is. We also need to work on qualifications and improve the levels of service in general.

- SeproTec is a leader in translation and interpreting for public services. How is this different from providing services for non-public/ non-institutional clients?

From my standpoint, besides the obvious differences in the way people are hired, salaries and the types of services, one of the key aspects that makes our management different is the immediacy. Our team is operational 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and, generally, we have a two-hour margin from when the request is made to when the interpreter arrives at the site. Also, the range of languages is very wide, and we are obliged to provide a service in any of the official languages and dialects from practically anywhere. Among our latest requests have been languages such as Malayalam, Tibetan, Ilokano and Baluchi. It’s quite a challenge! I always say that our interpreters are true all-rounders because they have to cope with very different situations on a daily basis and do not always have information about the people they are going to assist. For example, often they don’t send us any information on the type of crime or documentation on the cases and so our interpreters might find themselves assisting anyone from a person arrested for petty theft to the parties involved in a complex tax evasion case in the courts.

As a general rule, the main method used is liaison or bilateral interpreting. However, some clients understand the role of the interpreter better than others, so they are not always helpful as regards timing and pauses or just in general. Maybe the ideal solution would be to provide all these services by way of simultaneous interpreting, but in practice this isn’t easy given the budgetary limitations to install technical equipment at every site and the number of professionals available in this discipline.

I feel strongly that much work remains to be done to raise awareness in the public services about the role of the interpreter.

- Do you agree that today’s society can be defined by multiculturalism and multilingualism?

It’s clear that migratory flows are having a very significant influence on the social context and therefore on our work. While, say, 12 years ago, there were a large number of requests for Eastern European languages, over the last few years, the war in Syria and the huge influx of people arriving on the coasts of Southern Europe in small boats have changed the situation. Also, yes, I believe that today’s society is more open to multiculturalism and multilingualism, and that there is a growing number of tools for communicating with people from anywhere in the world, but I also have to say that professionals are still needed to facilitate legal proceedings, as there are still cultural barriers that reduce the effectiveness of communication.

- Now and then we see some articles complaining about the externalization of this service to LSPs, mainly due to a lack of knowledge of their services. Will you please help us understand the difficulties of the service?

Although interpreters who pursue a public service career in many countries are still virtually unknown (sometimes interpreting is barely differentiated from translation), are not covered by specific industry regulations, and often aren’t taken into sufficient consideration, fortunately people are becoming more aware of the problems that this creates and the industry is working to change this situation. To start with, we need to remember that the Translation and Interpreting track at university is relatively new. The profession, however, has always existed. The logical tendency is for this field to become a true profession, and it is inevitable that during that process there will be all kinds of experiences.

For some years now, the Public Administration has been opting to outsource part of the Translation and Interpreting service. There are interpreters in place directly hired by the Administrations. However, because there are very few of them for the huge volume of work, and, therefore, few language combinations are available, and especially because there has been a rise in the number of requests for minority languages, the private sector is increasingly being used to cover the real demand for translation and interpreting services and the specific challenges each situation presents.

During our years of experience in the business, we have found employees in the industry who had never worked legally before joining us. Our interpreters comply with the confidentiality regulations and are hired in accordance with the labor legislation in force in the country or region where the service is performed, so their salaries can vary from one zone to another.

While this is always something that private enterprise has been criticized for, their rates reflect the maximum prices set by the Administrations in their tenders and, unfortunately, the economic situation has not been very favorable over the past few years. People also have a rather mistaken idea of how much the company earns. Many people take the maximum bid price as their point of reference, but you have to remember that a bid must be made and the price must include both the interpreting and the management of the service: the gross salary of the interpreter, Social Security, severance packages, vacations, administrative management, service 24 hours a day/365 days a year, selecting interpreters, travel and per diem costs, management tools, and other general expenses. In short, the profit margin is not nearly as large as it might appear at first glance.

Taking Spain as an example, SeproTec currently works with a monthly average of 1,000 interpreters who provide around 550 interpreting services daily for the courts and police. Approximately 350 of them have a permanent contract and, of these, 230 have a full-time contract.

Regarding our positive experience as interpreting service providers for the Public Administration, we can say that the volume of complaints or incidents reported is minimal compared with the volume of services rendered (less than 0.08% in 2018).

We are committed to defending and respecting our profession, collaborating with the Public Administration in a continuous process of renewal and a search for solutions that fit the needs as they arise. That is why it is crucial for private companies, associations, and the academic and professional fields to work together to strengthen and secure the future of public service interpreting.

- What languages are being demanded? We bet it must be a wide range…

So far this year we have received requests for about 120 different languages.

In the case of Spain for example, the languages most in demand have not changed much over the years: Arabic (33%), English (10%), and Romanian (10%), followed by French, Mandarin Chinese, Georgian, Russian, Urdu, Albanian and German (accounting for 28% between them). This year, for example, there has (fortunately!) only been one request for each of the following languages: Twi, Bissa, Chechnyan, Dyula, Gujarati, Ilokano, Kasonke, Oromo and K’iche’.

- Are we right in imagining that it’s a fast-paced work environment in which one day is never the same as another?

Indeed, one of the major characteristics of this job is that it is impossible to predict with any certainty what we are going to face each day. The only exception is at night when you watch the news or tune into the radio on the way to work in the morning and hear that a criminal group has been arrested, there has been a raid, or several boats have arrived… Then you know exactly what to expect! In general, winter is usually quieter than summer, but it all depends on who our clients are at that moment and on the Department’s specific situation.

- Do you have any amusing anecdotes to share with us?

Lots. I think we could write a book. Apart from some of the interpreters having strange names (as you can imagine, with so many different nationalities), often you don’t know if you’re going to come across a man or a woman on the other end of the phone. For example, when I was starting out, I had to call a person whose name was Issa. I was certain that it would be a woman, but when I met Issa in person, it turned out that he was a man who towered over me.

Civil servants can also create some really unlikely situations, and at times they have asked us for “hands-free” interpreters when they meant to say sign language interpreters, while at other times they don’t know how to specify the language and they ask us for interpreters of Belgian, Nigerian or Shi’ite… They get quite confused!

- And lastly… Imagine one day without: work, internet or phone calls… What would you do for this one day?

I think I’d prefer not to imagine it… It would be chaos!

We are pleased to introduce you to a new series of interviews with SeproTec experts. The first interview in the series is with our Head of Vendor Management, Estrella Ruiz—so let’s go!

Estrella Ruiz, Head of Vendor Management at SeproTec, handles the VM Team, recruiting, and the onboarding of translation providers (vendors). We would like to understand Estrella’s role better, so let’s get started!

- Can you tell us how it all began?

Well, ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by languages, especially English, so it was clear to me that my future professional career would be one related to languages.

First, I studied for a college degree in Tourism and Business Activities. After a few internships and temporary positions in companies within the tourism sector (travel agencies and hotels), I realized this was not really my thing. I started studying for another degree in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Granada in Spain.

What I really wanted was to reach a high level of language proficiency in English. I knew that the best way was moving to an English-speaking country, so I decided to spend my Erasmus year in Swansea (Wales, UK). I loved it there, so much that I stayed there for the next five years.

I joined a Welsh translation company. That is where my professional career in translation started, and where I realized how much I liked the translation industry. My time there was not only crucial for my career development, but also for my personal growth.

Five years later in 2014, I decided it was time to move back to Spain. “It is not the most convenient time!”—everyone was warning me because of the crisis going on in Spain at that time.

I’m so glad I didn’t listen because days after my return I was lucky enough to be invited to an interview at SeproTec and was offered a Vendor Manager position. Almost six years have passed since then… (OMG!)  In my personal life, that was the year I met my current life partner and the father of my little child.

Coming back to Spain was definitely a good decision—or destiny. :)

- Did you always know you wanted to work in the industry?

It would make a good impression if I said it was always my dream to work here, but the honest answer is “no”. The truth is that I didn’t have much of an idea about what working in the translation industry involved until I got my first job in translation in the UK.

It was only then I decided on my career path, and all I know today is what I have been learning—and keep on learning—over the last nine years since I have been working in the sector.

Having said that, I think some translation/language universities lack in providing proper counseling and guidance for students regarding the translation business and the wide range of translation-related professions that they can focus their careers on (Project Coordinator, Vendor Manager, etc.), apart from just being a freelance translator. But I digress—sorry :)

- Can you tell us what your role involves, and how it fits into the wider language service industry?

The industry is extremely varied when it comes to those who we call our ‘resources’. Our resources are made up of linguists, DTP experts, posteditors, developers, localization engineers, subtitlers, transcreators, content writers, copywriters, and voice-over talents. These providers can be freelancers, teams, or companies of varying sizes.

I believe there is a serious lack of awareness regarding the Vendor Manager’s role.

Some people—incorrectly—think that our work is to review résumés and register resources in the database (such an easy job, and boring, by the way). However, vendor management is so much more than a language resource recruiter.

Behind every single resource (out of the six thousand resources available today in SeproTec’s  database), there is a Vendor Manager who: recruited him/her, checked his/her skills and expertise, verified qualifications and certifications, ran a specialized translation test and vetting process according to a particular subject, negotiated rates and collaboration conditions, wrote tens of emails and made phone calls, thought about what projects would suit him/her best, decided on what to do if certain projects are not a good fit, constantly updated, closely monitored and kept track of his/her job evaluations and the quality of the jobs completed, renegotiated rates, ensured they felt comfortable with their workload, addressed any issues that arose and took corrective actions when needed, actively managed our database, kept records up to date, and continuously ensured that our suppliers felt happy working with us, coordinated with other departments (Production, Sales, Administration, Marketing) on benchmarking activities or helping to decide the right pricing structure for a new service, all to maximize efficiency within the company and ensure quality.

In addition, I really enjoy training new colleagues for the job, and helping them understand the importance of the outcome of our jobs within the company. I’m very proud of each and every professional who has worked in or today belongs to this department.

- What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Looking at the big picture. A Vendor Manager’s main role is to ensure that all our project managers have peace of mind because they know that, no matter the demands of the clients (urgent projects, unusual language combination, specific topics, high volumes, etc.), they have access to the most qualified and suitable vendor for that job. When it’s an obscure subject, an unusual language combination, or super tight deadlines, searching for the right supplier may feel like trying to find a needle in a haystack. It is a huge and yet very fulfilling challenge!

Another very challenging VM duty is to grow the active vendors database. The company needs to have a pool of vendors actively cooperating. Project Managers, on the other hand, like all humans, would assign projects to the vendors they know they can trust and who will deliver on time, so they can move on to the next project as quickly as possible. So, here we find a paradoxical situation of two business goals that are opposed to each other. If the company always uses the same vendors, the pool of vendors actively cooperating with the company doesn’t grow. When workload increases and we need to engage more vendors, those vendors not included in the preferred pool might be no longer interested in cooperation, which is a pity.

Big cooperation and coordination efforts between Production and Vendor Management is vital to overcoming such challenges and to consolidating the company’s database.

- We can see your department has an important role, similar to that of purchasing departments. Are your KPIs based merely on cost reduction?

Not at all. Although cost reduction is important, VM KPIs are focused on monitoring quality and expanding and maintaining the supplier database. There are multiple reasons:

If our KPIs were solely based on profitability, we would be giving preference to hiring cheaper vendors and meeting profitability goals over quality assurance. That’s the main one.

However, we should be aware that cheaper rates are not always linked to lower quality, and vice versa, vendors with most expensive rates are not necessary the most qualified ones.

Also, it’s important to mention the existing unfair competition in the industry. Professional freelance translators are sometimes forced to compete against inexperienced students and unskilled vendors who offer ridiculously low rates and manage to enter the market, aided by incompetent translation agencies with no commitment to quality that look for the cheapest option on the market regardless of the quality of the work, and offer the same low rates to end customers.

This situation is quite damaging to us all—professional freelancers, companies and clients alike—and sometimes makes it difficult to identify the actual market rates for a professional, high-quality translation service. But that´s what the VMs are here for!

In summary, although rates are obviously taken into consideration, our main KPIs are related to quality management. While working on improving quality, we reduce costs at the same time by following the right approach when it comes to using the right tools and CAT tool technology, and by reducing risks of potential issues and the associated costs and penalties.

- Is it always a matter of trust, or do you evaluate the translators on a regular basis?

Trust must always be earned. We have rigorous quality control procedures that are well defined and thoroughly implemented.

All our linguists go through a pre-selection and vetting process before they can start collaborating with us. Once pre-selected, potential collaborators go through a probationary period. It is time for them to prove that they are competent and reliable, to win the trust of the Project Managers, and vice versa, by delivering high-quality work and—what is even more important and difficult—consistently maintaining such quality over time. If they pass the trial period with satisfactory results, they receive “Active status” in our database. Their performance and quality are still evaluated and tracked on a regular basis in coordination with our Production and Quality departments.

Our vendors also need to be trained to become familiar with the specific demands and style requirements of our clients. Feedback is therefore quite important, both positive and negative criticism must be conveyed so they can learn. This is a way of learning how a true professional translator reacts as well.

But “translation is not a science but an exact art” (Steiner, 1975) [love it :) ]

As a result, there are frequent disagreements over translation strategies due to differences in style or subjective preferences, where our PMs have the difficult role of serving as mediators so that the most effective solution can be sought.

Also, sometimes, our quality standards are not met. As all humans do, bad choices are made and quality issues may arise.

Each case is thoroughly analyzed and assessed by the PM and—when it is required—it is escalated to the VM team, who applies the most appropriate corrective action depending on the severity of the issue, and ensures that it will never happen again.

Quality is always a must. We and our providers should always remember that the final goal is to keep our customers happy by delivering excellent quality on time.

- You mentioned the famous human factor; how do you find the best service providers?

As I see it, it’s very simple: a translation company cannot exist without linguistic providers. They are  the epicenter of the whole process, and they are our allies in the company’s successful predominance in the translation industry.

However, beyond résumés, credentials and competitive rates, we look for candidates who are honest and authentic.

In addition to technical knowledge, qualifications and translation skills that are constantly evaluated, as explained in the last question, we also very much value the professionalism, responsiveness, communication skills and reliability of our collaborators. We like to work with professionals who are easy to communicate and work with, who pay attention to details, who strictly meet our delivery deadlines and follow our instructions correctly, who are cooperative, motivated to work with us and passionate about what they do.

An important part of a Vendor Manager´s role is to keep such motivation going and make sure our vendors feel happy and comfortable working with us by maintaining strong and positive relationships.

In addition, we deal with vendors from all over the world, and we need to learn that different cultures require different styles of relationship management (localized relationships ;) )

In this sense, Vendor Managers act as an extension of the Human Resources department, as HR experts charged with making connections and building positive relationships with the part of the business that matters most: the people.

- Searching for new resources: when do you come into the picture?

We are continuously expanding the network of translation professionals.

When we receive an order for, let’s say, an unusual language combination, and the resources in our database are limited, then PM might ask us to launch an external search and find suitable linguists— meeting the specific requirements for that particular project. These are what we call “active” searches, which cover our ongoing daily needs.

The VM also works on “potential” searches, which are just as important as the active ones and are based on the company’s future needs and work forecasts.

The company’s needs, customers and customer demands are continuously changing, and a Vendor Manager needs to be familiar with the dynamic character of the translation industry.

We work alongside the Production and Sales teams to identify the company’s future needs for new vendors, i.e. new language combinations, new subject areas, text typologies, new linguistic services, and then ask ourselves: 1) do we have enough linguistic resources in our database to cover these specific needs? 2) at what cost?

Our searches should be proactive and constant, so that we are always ready to respond to any request that comes out of the blue with the most competitive resources.

- We all agree that language resources are the driving force behind every translation company’s success. It’s what we always say when we announce a winner of the “Translator of the Month” event at SeproTec. By the way, it was your department’s idea to implement that plan! That was a great idea!

For me, taking the corresponding corrective actions when quality is not as expected is as important as those taken when quality is outstanding.

Again, here is where the importance of supplier relationship management comes up.

I have developed a deep respect and admiration for translators, and I think we should show our suppliers that we value their work and professionalism and thank them for their dedication to us over the years.

That is the goal behind the “Translator of the Month” event, which at the same time, is a responsibility shared with other departments—such as Administration—by ensuring prompt payments, or PM teams through the friendly and professional communication that they maintain with our resources.

The good news is that we seem to be succeeding in this task, in view of the positive feedback that our collaborators have published in certain popular translation portals, which I find very rewarding.

- What do you like most about working at SeproTec?

No doubt it’s the friendly working environment and the excellent group of very professional people working here.

- And… imagine a day without work, the internet, phone calls… What would you do for this one day?

I can imagine it outside of Madrid, right? So, I would be on some unknown beach on the southern coast. I’d start my day by going for a run early in the morning, joining my family for breakfast, and spending all morning long playing with my child, swimming, and building sandcastles for him to  destroy later. For lunch, I’d have shrimp paella, and a couple of ice-cold beers with my boyfriend, followed by the obligatory “siesta”, of course. In the evening I’d go to the movie theater to see the new “The Lion King” movie—I can’t wait to watch it!. Then we’d watch the sun set somewhere nice by the beach with a huge lemon ice-cream. All with no work, no internet, and no phone. Perfect!
You can tell I need a vacation!

We would certainly sign up for your perfect day! Thank you so much for your time, Estrella. It’s been a pleasure to get to know you better and thank you for doing such a consistently great job!