Those blasted retirees!

Should retired staff interpreters keep on working? Let's look at three distinct aspects to the question: legal, ethical and existential.

As an imminent retiree after upwards of thirty years at the UN, I am most interested by the fact that the subject of working as a pensioner has acquired stark actuality. I submit that there are at least three distinct aspects to it that are better discussed separately: legal, ethical and what for want of a better word I’d call existential.

Legal

The first aspect is easily disposed of: At least for the nonce, there are no legal impediments for a retiree to work as much as he likes or can. Whether there ought to be is a matter that falls under the next two aspects.

Ethical

Here, several facts are, I submit, relevant. First and foremost is the existence of a fixed income.

  1. Once past sixty (and for staff recruited after 1 January 1980 or so, past sixty-two), a staff interpreter does not choose to retire: he is most unceremoniously shown the door.
  2. A few - myself included - retire at the P-5 level after thirty years of service, but not many.
  3. Some - again, myself included - benefit from comfortable pensions; others may retire on a couple of thousand euros.
  4. It would be obviously both unfair and ridiculous to assert that anybody who has a pension, no matter how meagre, must stop working.
  5. We would not be talking then about pensions per se, but of pensions over and above a certain threshold.
  6. But then, why should this threshold be limited to income from pensions? Why not lump together fortunate retirees, consorts of wealthy spouses, colleagues who make an extra buck or two on the side as translators or making real- estate deals, etc.?
  7. If (biiiiig if!) the ethical problem is making more money than one presumably “needs” or “deserves” (and I would not presume to tell a colleague how much money he needs, although in a few cases I could definitely come up with a figure on what he realistically deserves), why single out retirees?
  8. As pointed out, retirees from international organisations do not “choose” to have a pension: it is mandatory – and it is not free: it has cost all of us a hefty chunk every single month of every single year of our career.
  9. On the other hand, it is freelancers who can “choose” not to have a pension: There is no reason why they should not have put aside into a pension scheme the same amount of money that organisations withhold from their staff.
  10. When I was a P-3 interpreter all my freelance colleagues my own age were making twice as much as I - whilst working half the time and travelling all over the world. Those who did not plan for the future ought to blame themselves and not their staff colleagues.

Second is the fact that younger people need access to the market. It is not only retirees who prevent younger colleagues from entering the market: Anybody over sixty or sixty-five is effectively working in lieu of a younger colleague.

Third is an interpreter’s contribution to AIIC and the profession. Staff interpreter who have been members of AIIC have contributed a hefty amount to our association, whereas many freelancers have benefited all these years from the working conditions that these staff members who had nothing whatsoever to gain from it, helped negotiate - except that these free riders have not paid a penny. That, I submit, is more than a tad unethical. Yet I do not hear any voices bewailing the fact.

In other words, if it is unethical to work when one does not really need to, then both retirees and non-retirees fall on either side of the divide. If, on the other hand, it is unethical to work past a certain age, then having a pension or not is by the bye.

Existential

And so we come to the existential aspect. Here, each of us has his own story to tell, so let me stick to mine.

As many other retirees (but, indeed, not all older professionals whether benefiting from a pension or not) I feel that I am in the prime of my professional life: Why should I stop setting my feet in a booth while others go on working well into their eighties? I’d love to start teaching. (Is that OK for a retiree? Why? Why not?) How can one effectively teach a metier that one no longer practices? I’d love to do new meetings on new subjects with new colleagues in new markets. Why should I be prevented from it? Many of the colleagues of my generation have a lot to teach younger colleagues. Why should they be deprived of our wisdom? Many of us have a lot to gain from interacting with the youth. Why deprive us of such contacts? Then, I do hope I can still make it to be in the same team with Wadi Keiser. How could I unless both he and I went on working? Last but not least, I hope to be able to help our next negotiation delegation. As a former “one of them”, there are quite a few insights that I could give us.

Even so, it is still a fact that many excellent young colleagues need and deserve a break that is becoming increasingly difficult to find. There are simply so many of us today! I submit, however, that it is the too old and the not too good who should step graciously aside – and they outnumber retirees ten to one! That is something I have no control over, of course, but I do remain keenly aware of the fact that the market is saturated and that young colleagues are the main victims. I do hope that all my other colleagues who can look back on long careers or hefty bank accounts are equally aware.

May I conclude by stating that if AIIC were to decide that its members who benefit from a pension must not work, I’d be the first to disagree with the decision and to abide by it – while all those retirees who never did anything for the association go on working, of course! As would those freelancers who complain so much about retirees but would not think of paying dues.



Sergio Viaggio recently became ex-Chief Interpreter of the United Nations Office at Vienna.

Recommended citation format:
Sergio VIAGGIO. "Those blasted retirees!". aiic.net August 23, 2005. Accessed April 21, 2019. <http://aiic.net/p/1904>.



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Comments 19

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Dominique LEVEILLÉ

   

Sur certains points, Sergio Viaggio enfonce des portes ouvertes; sur d'autres, il tient des propos qui me semblent peu adaptés au contexte actuel.

Il est évident qu'il ne s'agit pas de décider qui doit gagner combien et à quel âge; et sur le plan des principes, comme le soulignent Rosemary Hill et Cicely Hunter, nul ne conteste que les retraités ont "le droit" de travailler. D'autre part, M. Viaggio a bien raison de soulever la question de l'entrée dans la profession pour les jeunes qui sortent des écoles d'interprètes : c'est bien là, en effet, l'un des enjeux essentiels du problème, dès que l'on songe aux intérêts de la profession et non à son propre intérêt… Voilà pour les portes ouvertes.

Ceci dit, si certains principes ne prêtent guère à controverse, on ne peut pas faire abstraction des réalités concrètes de notre époque. La période actuelle se prête mal à un débat désincarné et théorique. Car les faits sont simples : il est aujourd'hui difficile pour un interprète de faire vivre une famille avec son revenu de free-lance, même à Genève (ville en principe favorisée par la présence d'un grand nombre d'institutions spécialisées), même avec une combinaison linguistique réputée bonne... et même si l’interprète en question a passé avec succès le test de recrutement des Nations Unies (pour parer à la remarque un peu fielleuse ajoutée par M. Viaggio à la suite de son article).

Question d'époque, toujours : je ne me reconnais pas du tout dans la comparaison entre le free-lance "cigale" et le permanent "fourmi", qui aurait bien le droit de pousser la chansonnette à son tour lorsque la bise vient. Les réalités évoquées par Sergio Viaggio remontent à une époque que je n'ai pas connue. A l'heure actuelle, les collègues permanents aux Nations Unies gagnent probablement plus que la quasi-totalité des free-lance actifs dans ce secteur. Je travaille depuis quinze ans; j'appartiens à une génération qui n'a jamais connu l'«âge d'or», les longs contrats et les voyages incessants, et j'ai toujours cotisé à une caisse de retraite. En revanche, j'ai entendu des retraités des organisations invoquer leur besoin d'argent pour justifier leur activité de free-lance. Par conséquent, en ce qui me concerne, les arguments de M. Viaggio tombent singulièrement à plat.

Je rejoins entièrement Rosemary Hill (et bien d'autres collègues avec lesquels j'ai eu l'occasion de parler de la question) pour considérer que ce débat devrait tourner autour de la simple (et sans doute désuète) notion de décence. Encore une fois : personne ne nie le droit d'un retraité des Nations Unies de travailler; ce sont souvent d’excellents interprètes, qui ont des combinaisons linguistiques demandées, et que chacun apprécie; mais tout est une question de mesure, et de procédés. Disons les choses clairement : si le propos de M. Viaggio agace quelques-uns d'entre nous, c'est bien parce que certains de ses ex-collègues ont eu des comportements douteux. Que des collègues qui touchent une excellente pension (bien supérieure aux chiffres évoqués par M. Viaggio, qui sur ce point joue un peu les Tartuffe) considèrent normal, au lendemain de leur retraite et alors que chacun sait que le marché de l'emploi n'est pas brillant, d'enchaîner les contrats dans des organisations (en délogeant des collègues free-lance qui n'y sont plus recrutés), et ce en jouant de leurs relations, a quelque chose d'indécent. Et puis, pour dire tout haut ce qui hérisse bon nombre d'entre nous : voir certains retraités (je dis bien certains) ajouter allègrement des langues à leur combinaison ou se découvrir soudain des capacités de travailler dans une nouvelle cabine est un peu énervant. En voir quelques-uns (je souligne : quelques-uns) fouler aux pieds la règle du domicile professionnel est écœurant. Voilà pourquoi le discours un peu flamboyant de M. Viaggio peut agacer. Il ne devrait pas s'en étonner.

Dominique Leveillé

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Iouri OSTROVSKI

   

Apparemment les 30 ans passés à l'ONU t'ont complètement déconnecté de la réalité du marché actuel, Sergio. tu ne te rends pas compte qu'il y a plein jeunes interprètes pour qui 5 ou 6 jours par mois (ce qui équivaut plus ou moins à la retraite de l'ONU - et je ne parle pas de TA retraite qui est de ton propre aveu est très comfortable) serait une manne, et ils n'ont QUE CA comme revenu (ce qui n'est pas un complément comme pour les retraités). D'autre part ton argument comme quoi ils n'ont pas tous une bonne retraite est totalement hors propos car s'ils sont arrivés à l'ONU à 50 ans ils devaient avoir pensé à leur retraite avant et cotiser/économiser par ailleurs comme n'importe quel interprète free-lance.

D'autre part il est évident qu'il est incomparablement plus facile à l'interprète retraité d'accéder à l'embauche par les organisations grâce à ses contacts qu'à un jeune collègue dont l'horison est déjà bouché par les collègues free-lance qui travaillent aux organisations depuis un certain nombre d'années.

L'Union européenne a fait le choix politique de ne pas engager les anciens fonctionnaires (y compris interprètes) pour les raisons de transparence et de l'integrité. Une fois n'est pas coutume, l'Europe a fait un bon choix.

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Rosemary HILL

   

James, you are not wrong, it would certainly help, as it would if some of them - I hasten to add not all! - were to refrain from adding new languages, and indeed new booths, of which no mention was ever made when they worked as permanents, just before, or just after, they retire. However, it would not solve the problem entirely, because the number of retirees now freelancing in the UN system organizations is growing steadily, and with it the difficulties faced by freelance colleagues.

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James CROMPTON

   

I seldom work for the institutions affected by the phenomenon addressed in the article, but often enough to have noticed it and heard some of the arguments about it. Am I wrong to suspect that if only those interpreters the quality of whose work is (still) respected by their colleagues were to reappear in the booth after retirement then the dimensions of the problem would be reduced considerably?

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Sergio VIAGGIO

   

No... I better not reply.

sergio

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Saman Jalal

   

I had no intention of turning this issue into a mud slinging contest. But in view of Mr Viaggio's remarks in response to my comments and those of other colleagues, on the Extranet, to which I have no access, I find myself compelled to set the record straight.

Mr Viaggio accuses me of stabs on his person and not his arguements.That is not true. His views on the position of free lancers, ranging from how much they earn to standards of work, are but a true reflection of his twisted opinion of non-staff interpreters. The icing on the cake is his belatedly seen errata on the number of exams failed by people who are still freelancing. Should I jogg Mr Viaggio's memory about the UN system for joining the service? Maybe not.

Mr Viaggio not only has the audacity to question how much freelancers earned and how much they travelled, but also whether they should or should not have had a pension scheme. Freelancers who are trying to earn a decent living to raise their children and pay their bills are in his eyes "free riders".

He refers to showing respect for others. It would be a good start if he showed some of it himself towards others.

I will not delve into the trivialities of his mathematical reasoning, when responding to other colleagues, since two or three thousand Euros are pittance to him while, to me and to the majority of my colleagues, they make a difference between being able to meet our monthly financial obligations or not.

His explanation of the financial and administrative aspects of staff member compensation smacks of hubris.

This brings me to my final point. Mr viaggio, like our "colleague" Hala Ismaeel, unprovoked, launched an inexcplicable tirade on freelancers. The content of their attack is insignificant because it could not be any further from the truth. The timing, though, is highly controversial. On both occasions, the remarks came not so long before negociations with the Organisations were due to start. The only logical explanation is that there is a deliberate attempt to undermine AIIC's position. And if that was not the intention, it is a wrong signal to the other party to the negociations.

What Mr Viaggio and Ms Ismaeel, through their unscrupulous remarks, have contributed to driving a wedge between freelancers and retirees, who were ready to step into the breach when the Organisations needed their services, on the one hand, and between AIIC and the Organisations, on the other. This must not be allowed to happen.

I also believe that both Mr Viaggio and Ms Ismaeel owe all freelancers a big apology and should have the courage to do so.

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Peter SAND

   

I think basically that the whole point about whether freelancers travel more, have a better life, etc. are totally immaterial.

I would like to know how many organisations take their former employees - to whom they pay a full pension - back on to their payroll even if on a temporary basis. It just isn't done. So at the very least I would expect organisations not to hire their former staff once they retire.

Stands to reason, does it not?

Peter

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Rosemary HILL

   

OK. Then a question - if they had gone through higher education, they would presumably have graduated at around the age of, say, twenty-four? If they joined the UN at forty-five or over, that leaves about twenty years of working life unaccounted for. Would they not have been working somewhere else for at least some of those years? And perhaps saving some of their salary?

I am none too good at maths, but 2000 euros would be about 3200 Swiss francs, would it not? If so, that is roughly the equivalent of five working days in Geneva at freelance category one. I can think of several retirees who work more than that in a month, and of several freelance colleagues who, especially in a slow month, would consider themselves fortunate to do more.

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Sergio VIAGGIO

   

First, let me repeat, since many do not seem to have read my article with due attention, I retired at age 60, at the top, P-5 level, after 31 years of service, and I have kept my domicile in Vienna (the ONE duty station where UN pensions are non-taxable). So I have a VERY GOOD pension, alright?

But unless one retires after age 55 AND after at least 25 years of service AND at least at the P-4 level AND in Vienna, pensions tend to be a pittance (2,000 or 3,000 euros or so in many cases - after taxes and, in some instances, BEFORE taxes).

Now, 10 out of 17 staff interpreters at Vienna joined the Organisation at an age of between 45 and 52. They cannot even HOPE to be able to live on without working past their retirement. The same applies to the majority of the interpreters presently employed by the UN.

So the divide between retirees IN GENERAL and non-retirees is most misleading.

That is my point. Telling someone who has a pension of a couple of thousand euros (and that, in may cases, BEFORE taxes) that they should not go on working, or expecting recruiters not to hire them is at least callous.

sergio

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Peter SAND

   

Cicely Hunter and myself have been following the discussion with great interest. We are both freelance interpreters, one working for the organisations and one not. However, we both feel that as soon as permanents retire, they seem to be back almost the next week, often in the organisations for which they were employed. It is a revolving door syndrome.

Cicely also wants to point out that she wrote an article in the aiic bulletin (September 2004) which had overwhelming support from the majority of Geneva-based freelancers and which addressed these very issues (courteously).

I think that those responsible for recruiting should take freelancers wherever possible and only take retirees when absolutely necessary.

We also think that Saman hit the nail on the head....

Cicely Hunter

Peter Sand

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Rosemary HILL

   

I wish someone else would join in this discussion - it would be a pity to turn it into a ping-pong match between Sergio and myself. However - one or two really final points from me.

Indeed, staff interpreters do have paid vacations etc etc which were part of the contract they signed up for, and to which they were entitled. So was the obligatory pension scheme, to which they were bound to contribute. I rest my case.

Secondly, I do not, personally, have a pension. I did, but pulled out of the scheme. However, I do - and I suspect many people do likewise - save from my salary with every intention of being able to retire in due course without "having" to work in my twilight years.

And to conclude - we seem to have gone slightly off the point [a speciality of mine]. I am not trying to query or complain about the conditions of staff interpreters when they are, or were, staff interpreters. I have had ample opportunity to become one myself, which I turned down for personal reasons which have nothing to do with working conditions. My complaint is that freelance interpreters are now being forced to compete with colleagues who are earning not their basic income but a supplement to the one - adequate or otherwise - that they already have. And compete at a disadvantage in many cases, because they do not usually have the network of contacts within the organizations which some - I agree, not all! - retirees have. I realize this is not going to increase my standing in the local popularity polls, but to me this is unfair, unreasonable, and damaging to the profession, in that it exacerbates the many difficulties already facing younger [and not so young!] freelancers in what I think we all agree is a tight market.

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Sergio VIAGGIO

   

Rosemary is absolutely right on another score: (Young, beginning) saff interpreters who saw their freelance colleagues make more money, travel more and work less (it was indeed true back when I started!) had the choice to become freelancers themselves. My point was not that freelance colleagues had an unfairly better deal. On the contrary, good for them! My point is that whether a staff or a freelance interpreter (whether a retiree or not) makes more or less money should be neither here nor there - unless, of course, a ceiling is instituted across the board.

sergio

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Sergio VIAGGIO

   

Thanks, dear friend, for a weighted and respectful reply. I can agree with almost everything. To wit, that anybody -and not only retirees- who does not really need to work as much as they sometimes do, think of those trying to make it in an ever more unsympathetic market. And to the fact that retirees who invoke financial hardships -whether true or not- are simply puerile: nobody should be asked -or volunteer- to explain why he wishes to make honest money through honest competent work.

My comment about "free-riders", I'm afraid, more or less stands, and it indeed applies to all our colleagues, staff and freelancers. I do find it unethical -I wish I could find a sweeter adjecive- to reap the benefits of aiic's sefforts -or, if you prefer, of the dues paid by others- without chipping in. Moreover, had all -or at least many- of those colleagues belong to the Association, it would have been in a stronger position and, probably, the conditions negotiated would have been better. In the end, colleagues who refuse to collaborate in the collective effort not only are unfairly having their cake and eating it, but, to boot, are somewhat responsible for the cake not beeing as large. Most unethical of all, of course, I find staff interpreters that only think of joining aiic once they see clearly that NOW there is something in it for them. But that is by the bye.

Which leaves my assertion that, whilst staff interpreters cannot choose not to have a pension plan, freelancers do indeed have the choice to have one. This fact is often suspiciously forgotten by many.

That staff interpreters have job security, and paid vacations, and subsidised health insurance, and educaton grants, and home-leave is indeed true. That is part of the contract they sign when they opt for -and succeed at!- becoming staff interpreters. So what? Good for them that it is so!

They are not simply "lucky", they are not born into wealthy staff families, they are not usurping someone else's privileges. Sometimes, some (by far not most) freelance colleagues -one of them is on record right here- seem to think and speak as if there were a class difference between us or, worse, if staff interpreters were simply more cunning than their hardworking colleagues. It only plays into the hands of those who would have us overworked and underpaid.

We are all colleagues, with basically the same rights and obligations trhoughout the profession, regardless of under what administrative arrangements we practise it. And we all should uphold and defend this profession, wherever we are. And we should try and help our yonger scions to make it as we did. Bickering over who works how much with or without a pension or, coming ot think of it),a health plan (what about asking colleagues who are insured to work less?), or in good health (what about asking healthy colleagues who do not have huge medical bills to work less?) is, I think, a waste of time - and anger.

sergio

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Rosemary HILL

   

I am delighted to see that this subject has finally come out of the woodwork. We have needed to discuss it for a long time.

Firstly, Mr Viaggio is right. There are indeed no legal impediments to retirees working as much as they like or want to. Furthermore, as far as I am aware, no-one has ever said there should be. I have discussed this with many, many freelance colleagues, and none of them have ever suggested that there should be a blanket ban on retirees working. What I - and I think many colleagues share my opinion - would like to see is a little more restraint on the part of retirees.

Mr Viaggio makes the point, in referring to freelance interpreters, that "those who did not plan for their future ought to blame themselves and not their staff colleagues". That may be so, but does the same argument not apply the other way around? I have heard retirees say more than once that they would love to stop working but cannot because their children still need educating, their mortgage still needs paying etc. That they need to continue to work for such reasons also suggests to me a slight lack of planning for th future - and if so, should freelance colleagues who also have children, mortgages and so on, indirectly be paying, in loss of contracts, for their lack of foresight?

I have sometimes had the feeling - no doubt erroneous - that there is some resentment felt by certain staff or former staff members that their freelance collagues get paid so well. Mr Viaggo's comment about his freelance colleagues "earning twice as much...whilst working half the time and travelling all over the world" would seem to bear this out. Suffice it to say that they did not enjoy a]the job security or b] the social benefits - education grants, health insurance available to Mr Viaggo and his colleagues while so doing. Swings and roundabouts, I think - and I assume that anyone who became a staff member knew the terms and conditions of their employment and was free to leave it if they then discovered that conditions were better elsewhere.

I am a member of AIIC now; I was not for the first 20 years of my career, but I do not consider myself, or any of my other freelance colleagues, "free-riders". Unless I misunderstand him - and I stand open to correction - Mr Viaggio would appear to be suggesting that a freelance who benefits from AIIC working conditions but doesn't pay AIIC dues, is behaving unethically. While grateful for the conditions my permanent colleagues helped to negotiate, I cannot accept this assertion. And by the way, does it apply to permanent staff who are not members of AIIC but also benefit from those same conditions?

This is not a question of whether or not it is ""unethical to work when you do not really need to". It is a question of what is reasonable and what is not. This is not a problem which affects young interpreters alone. I only know the Geneva market, where I have always worked. I think I can safely say that in some booths there, good freelance colleagues who have twenty years and more in the profession are watching contracts they have done for years being taken from them by retired staff members. Quite a few are now having trouble meeting the number of working days set by the Swiss authorities for renewal of residence permits because of it. It is surely not to be wondered at that people get resentful.

To Mr Viaggio - and all of your former permanent colleagues - just let me say this. We do NOT want you to be banned from working. From the responses to your article, it is clear that people are reading and listening to what you have to say. I think it would be good for the whole profession if we listened to each other a little more often. All I would like to see - and here perhaps recruiters could help us all out! - is retirees employed when no other non-retiree freelance is available - A QUALITE EGALE. If a younger but patently less ompetent interpreter is available then by all means hire the retiree. Again, I speak only for the booth and the market I know; the English booth in Geneva is in desperate need of new, young blood. They will not come, or be able to stay, if employment opportunities are being taken by interpreters who already have an income from their pension - whatever the level of it. That, surely, cannot be good for the profession.

One final comment - I realize some people are going to be offended and annoyed by this. Please don't be. All of us are educated adults - surely we can discuss an issue that is of such importance to our profession without taking umbrage.

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Sergio VIAGGIO

   

I am not going to reply to Mr. Jalal's gratuitous stabs ad hominem. I simply want to state that such comments should not be allowed in our midst: we may disagree as much as we like, but never should we treat each other disrespectully.

sergio

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Saman Jalal

   

Mr Viaggio deserves his retirement well and truly. Not because he has lost his interpretation skills, but because he has lost his marbles.

So now he is one of US having been one of THEM (praise be to Pink Floyd). And now he is offering AIIC - including non-paying members of the profession - his "insight" to help the Cause. So not only an ex-chief interpreter but also a mercenary willing to provide inside information about his former paymasters. Maybe AIIC should pay him to help compliment his meager pension.

As for age, beauty and competence, I was at a total loss.

Can anybody help? Or maybe Mr Viaggio should republish in Spanish to shed more light on his new vision.

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Bertold

   

Dear Sergio,

This argument has filled many a conversation and I had never seen it put in writing anywhere.

Thank you.

Bertold

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Luigi LUCCARELLI

   

For information: Communicate! is always posted on the Extranet 2-3 days before it goes public. This allows us to make a final online check. I had detected the typo you refer to and the correction was in the pipeline when you posted your comment. You beat us to it by a nose!

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Sergio VIAGGIO

   

In a couple of days I'll be a former "one of THEM' (not "then").

Post Scitpum: I neglected to point out that if the vast majority of my free-lance colleagues have remained independent out of choice, quite a few have tried their best at becoming staff interpreters - and failed to pass the exam, sometimes repeatedly.

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