WinnieHehHere at the Glendon MCI, our students have all received the results from their year-end exams. In some cases, the news was good. In others, not so much. In short, this is a time when all our students will be looking at themselves in the mirror, and trying to figure out their next steps.

Some of our students are facing the pain and uncertainty that comes with an unexpected outcome. In past blog posts, here, here and here, I’ve done my best to help people in this position gain some perspective. But this week, I want to encourage all my students to look at their situation differently. To start thinking creatively about their future.

To help you do just that, I want to introduce you to someone.

Winnie Heh is Vice-President of Transformation at Language Line Solutions, one of the world’s largest providers of Over-the-Phone Interpreting (OPI). Language Line Solutions offers more than 200 languages to clients in 18 time zones. In her current role, Winnie is responsible for the implementation of Language Line Services state-of-the-art technology platform, Olympus. But in her 25 years with the company, Winnie has been involved in a wide range of activities — interpreter recruiting, testing, training, product development, market development, and sales management, to name but a few.

She’s an interpreter who made the leap to the business world. I think that her example shows where thinking outside the box can take you, and I wanted to know more about her career trajectory. Here’s the transcript of a recent conversation I had with Winnie.


GullonWaterAC: Greetings, Winnie, from cool and cloudy Toronto! Thanks for making time for this short interview.

WH: Hello, Andrew, from sunny Monterey. It’s my pleasure. I’m always glad to be able to reach out to up-and-coming language professionals.

AC: You trained as a conference interpreter initially. Where did you receive this training? What did you think of the experience?

WH: I received my conference interpreting training from the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS).  Prior to my graduate studies, I worked on a part-time basis as an escort interpreter for international programs sponsored by the Taiwanese government.  My training at MIIS strengthened my core interpreting skills and impressed upon me the highest standards of professionalism.

AC: Conference interpreting was not the only skill set you had under your belt. What was the other, and how did you come to marry the two?

WH: I took some detours in the process of discovering my career path.  I started out obtaining an AA degree in Accounting and Statistics, followed by a BA degree in English Literature and two years of work as an English instructor at my alma mater, Soochow University in Taiwan.  A Training Manager position was offered to me by the newly formed AT&T Language Line Services when I graduated from MIIS.  I accepted the position with the intention of staying for two years to learn how a major American corporation works.  Little did I know that I would stay for 25 years.  Shortly after joining AT&T Language Line Services, I realized that I had the best of both worlds, working in the language sector while using my business and leadership skills to build a business.  Over the last 25 years, I have had the privilege of acting as the “Interpreter” between the business and the language side of the business world, educating investors, clients, vendors, Language Line internal colleagues and interpreters.

[tweet_box design=”default”]@WinnieHeh: Interpreters have to read a daily a day, a weekly a week & a monthly a month.[/tweet_box]

AC: You have been very successful as a businesswoman within the language industry. What do you think has contributed to your success?

GullsOnRocksWH: There are a few philosophies that have allowed me to get where I am in my career.

  • I believe first and foremost that you have to treat people the way you want to be treated.
  • Listening is paramount.  You have to understand in order to be understood.  Interpreter training is probably the only academic program that teaches you how to listen, to listen for and to present the essence of the communication.  We are trained to cut through the superficial and reach understanding of the fundamental.  My ability to truly understand points of view and to articulate my views accurately and succinctly have proven to be a key ingredient in my leadership capability.  Everyone, regardless of position, age, and gender, wants to be seen and heard.  Once they understand you are truly listening to them, they are already in your corner.  I am in meetings all day long with internal and external customers.  After 25 years in business, I am still amazed by how people do not listen.  In my experience, only 10% of the participants in a discussion are truly listening.  Is it any wonder how conflicts pop up every which way we look?  Interpreting students should not under estimate this transferrable skill.
  • You have to be a life-long learner. Professor Edith Lynch who taught me public speaking at MIIS impressed upon us that to be an effective interpreter, we have to read a daily a day, a weekly a week and a monthly a month.  This ties in with another of my philosophies:  Never ever consider yourself having paid your dues because when you do, you stop learning.  You have to prove yourself every day.  This is another transferrable skill that interpreting students bring to the professional world.
  • When the going gets tough, focus your energy on what you can do to move forward rather than allowing worrying and resentment occupy you.  During your career, you will hit rough patches.  I know I have.  You can’t always control when and how it happens, but you do choose how you face them.  Get active.  Do something about it.  I always remember these two sayings:  “Resentment is like letting another person live in your heart, rent free.”  “Worrying is like sitting on a rocking chair.   You rock back and forth, but you don’t get anywhere.”
[tweet_box design=”default”]@WinnieHeh: If you don’t manage it, somebody else will. You may not like the outcome.[/tweet_box]

AC: Often, language professionals don’t think of themselves as business people. Why do you think that is?

SealsOnRocksWH: The desire to focus solely on the art of the trade rather than the business aspects of the trade is not an isolated phenomenon for the language professionals.  We have all seen doctors who choose to affiliate themselves with hospitals rather than manage a private practice.  There are pros and cons in each approach.  You have to choose what is right for you.  In my case, I ultimately entered into the business world by accident rather than by design.  Initially, I “escaped” the business world by pursuing a degree in English Literature after graduating top of the class in my accounting studies, very much to the dismay of my teachers and parents.  My youthful self did not want to be “in the business of counting money.”  In my mind, all I wanted was to teach and interpret.  I did not want to deal with the business/financial aspects of life.  Now with some life experience behind me, I realize that no matter what profession you enter into you have no choice but to deal with the economic aspect of your professional life.  It is empowering to manage it rather than hiding your head in the sand. If you don’t manage it, somebody else will do it for you and you may not like the outcome.

AC: What do you think training programs could do get future language professionals thinking like business people?

WH: In addition to training students on the core competencies of interpreters, the training programs should help prepare students to manage their career path for the lifetime of their career in the field.  The model I would propose is the “product mix” model that Product/Marketing experts use when they manage a product or service. Some call this the 4Ps.

Product:  What are the features and benefits of the product or service?

Pricing:  How would you charge for the product or service?

Promotion:  How would you promote the product or service?

Place (channel):  What will you use to be your sales channels?

This approach implies that every student would take control of their career planning and make the pledge to themselves that they will take concrete actions to reinvent themselves along the way.  No product/service can stay unchanged and thrive over a long period of time.  These 4 elements will evolve by internal and external factors.  Guaranteed.

SailboatsIn addition, I think training programs should help expand the view on career options.  Medical schools produce medical professionals covering a great variety of positions in the medical “eco-system.”  Can you imagine if every medical student wanted to be a brain surgeon?  Training programs for interpreters seem, to date, to gear towards preparing them to become conference interpreters.  There are many professional options in this $30 Billion language industry worldwide.  There are many meaningful and rewarding career options besides conference interpreting.  To ensure sustainability of our profession, we need to attract talents into our training programs as well as producing graduates with a greater variety of  skills and interests.

AC: What advice would you have for a new language professional who is just starting out? And who wants to be entrepreneurial?

WH: Truly understand your market:  Entrepreneurs fail because their solutions are wrong or the timing of introducing their solutions is wrong.  To be successful, the tendency of having “a solution looking for a problem” needs to be vigilantly guarded against.  Always start with the definition of the market and the needs of the market.  And be honest with yourself as to whether your product/service is truly relevant to the market.  If the answer is no, have the confidence that with your education and drive, you will find a way to modify your product/service and make it relevant.

AC: Thank you very much, Winnie, for sharing your story and your advice!

WH: You’re welcome, Andrew. Any time.


The lesson that I draw from Winnie’s experience is this. The unique juxtaposition of two seemingly disparate skill sets took her to unconventional, but exciting places.

Her training as an interpreter gave her intimate knowledge of a service that few business people understand, and her background in accounting gave her insight into the business world that few interpreters possess. The two areas of know-how proved to be a powerful springboard. It allowed her to launch a fulfilling career that even she would have had difficulty imagining when she was an interpreter trainee.

So ask yourself some questions. Besides interpreting, what experience or skill or attribute do you have tucked in your back pocket? In what way might your very own constellation of abilities allow you to seize opportunities in a way that no one else can?

If you have thoughts on a career path that is outside the box, leave me a note in the comments field below.


6 responses to “How do you plan your own unique career path?”

  1. Nicholas says:

    Hi Andrew, thanks for this interesting perspective just as we are graduating from the MCI.
    At one point I had hoped to use my knowledge of interpreting at MAG’s court interpretation unit, which would have been an excellent fit for my knowledge, interests, skills and experience. With a very small list of applicants, I felt hopeful, but in the end I never got an interview and they gave the position to a non-interpreter.
    So I guess the lesson is that even if you’re willing and able and well suited for another position, it doesn’t mean your particular skillset will be recognized and valued. This article is a good reminder that we should still be open to branching out.

    • Andrew Clifford says:

      My first reaction, Nicholas, would be to say, “don’t give up”. Sometimes it’s a matter of throwing the spaghetti against the wall until it sticks. (When I was looking for the funding to start the MCI, I got at least nine “No’s” before I finally got a “Yes”.)

      I don’t know your situation, but sometimes I think we interpreters don’t know enough about how to speak the language of decision makers in the public and private spheres. Whereas we interpreters tend to sell ourselves in terms of our languages, and our knowledge of our professional activities, what we actually need to do is “translate” that into terms like “risk management”, “program sustainability”, “reaching program objectives” or even “profitability” (in the private sector).

      When we tell non-interpreters what we can do for them, in their terms, it’s easier for them to understand our value.

      • Winnie Heh says:


        Your point of “translating” what we bring to the table for the decision-makers is right on target. We care about the art of our trade, but the doctors don’t, the judges don’t, the administrators don’t and the list goes on and on. This is where our academic training as translators and interpreters benefit us. Who else are better at “transalting/interpreting” than us? We have disciplined our minds to translate/interpret in the booth, at the podium, at the desk. Let’s do so when we chart the course of our career as well. Nicholas, don’t give up.

        Winnie Heh

        • Andrew Clifford says:

          Thanks for sharing your input, Winnie. Even though interpreters are language professionals, I think we don’t always do a good job of speaking our clients’ language, so to speak. But surely we can master it just the same as we would the specific terminology for a given assignment! As you said in the interview, the trick is figuring out what our clients need, and then matching that need to our skill sets.

  2. Ahmed Towman says:

    Thank you for this brilliant post. I’m quite confident that a lot of unique interpreters are drawn back by their ignorance of how to market themselves properly.

    I have one could interpreters in a certain region elevate the status of the profession? Unfortunately, what I consider the most prestigous occupation has terribly deteriorated due to the ignorance of both providers and receivers of services!

    I don’t intend to complicate the problem, but even the trials to professionalize the occupation and set standards have not been quite effective..

    • Andrew Clifford says:

      Thanks for your note, Ahmed. Yes, I think that most markets around the world are facing the challenges that you mention. Clients have a very poor understanding of interpreting, wrongly assuming that anyone can do it and looking for the cheapest bid. This then leads to a race to the bottom, both in terms of price and of quality.

      There is no short-term solution. However, interpreters can band together to make a difference. Here in my part of the world, the Ontario Council on Community Interpreting has just announced the creation of a new accreditation system for community interpreters. Also, the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario has created two new categories for certification, community interpreter and medical interpreter.

      It is measures like these that, over the long term, will change our profession.

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