An Ethical Myth: As Interpreters and Translators “We Are Not Allowed to Talk Fees”.

September 10, 2012 § 25 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

For many years I have heard colleagues say that we cannot talk about what we charge. I have seen how a simple question about price can turn the sweetest colleagues into the meanest medieval executioners. The reason for this behavior? Someone told somebody a long time ago that it was illegal to talk about what we charge as professionals.  I must confess that this “ethical principle” (not compiled anywhere by the way) has always bother me, but after seeing how a simple question about fees turns interpreters into the Incredible Hulk, for a long time I kept my mouth shut, I looked the other way.

The thing is, I cannot do it anymore!  The more I teach about interpreter ethics, the more I see how this myth has done a disservice to the profession.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right to free speech to all individuals in this country. It has no limitations except for the ones set by the Court (You cannot scream “Fire!” inside a movie theater) and by the law: civil and criminal liability in cases of libel or slander.  Out of these exceptions, free speech is probably the most cherished human right in the world.

According to the United States Constitution,  Can I go around talking about my interpretation and translation fees with everybody? Yes I can! But, Why did they tell me that it was against the law and that I could lose my court certification if I did?  Because of a misunderstanding.  The law prohibits monopolies, it is illegal to fix prices for goods and services. The market should decide how much my services are worth.  In other words, I can talk about my fees with all my colleagues, clients, relatives, etc., I can even advertise them on line, over the phone, on TV, and the list goes on.  The thing we cannot do is get together and decide on a universal price for a service. Fixing prices is against the law. But, if you just talk about fees, even if more than one interpreter or translator ends up charging exactly the same,  there is nothing to worry about.

Think of it this way: Gas stations sell the same product, they advertise their prices on the road for everybody to see, they are often next to each other, and may times they charge the same price. It is perfectly legal because they have not fixed the price. That is why the guy down the street sells gas for less and maybe for that reason he makes more money.

Next time a colleague asks you how much you charge for a day of conference, per translated word, or I ask you your hourly rate for a deposition, engage in the conversation, there is nothing wrong. You will learn from this experience and so will your colleagues.  We need to know the law to obey it and to exercise our rights.  My question to all of you is: Even if you know that discussing fees is not illegal, Do you feel comfortable doing it?  If you do not, I am curious to read your reasons for not talking price with other colleagues.

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§ 25 Responses to An Ethical Myth: As Interpreters and Translators “We Are Not Allowed to Talk Fees”.

  • Melinda G-H says:

    I agree wholeheartedly, Tony, specially now that we seem to be in a “race to the bottom” as far as interpreter and translator fees are concerned. Do you have any information on the infamous history of why interpreter/translator organizations got selected, out of SO many fields, to be investigated for price fixing? And why AIIC was the only organization that fought that investigation and came out on their feet?

  • Yay! Tony! Way to go. I always knew all you said about price fixing, but trying to explain to interpreters ” because we know it all”, what price fixing really is…well you just don’t. Thanks for your courage to say it in print.

    I fully agree we can and sometimes should talk about prices.

    • Janeth Murillo says:

      Me too! Thank you for daring to speak up, Tony!

      Just yesterday, a company (offices in NY, San Francisco, London…,) sent me an “Independent Contractor Agreement” for me to sign ASAP–part of the contract read: “Contractor agrees not to discuss any negotiated compensation (“NC”) received from the Company with representatives from any organization other than the Company. Any discussion of NC with clients or any other linguists working with the Company is strictly prohibited.”

      How about that!

      • Michelle Gonzales says:

        Wouldn’t this be different though? You are no longer talking about your own rates. You would now be talking about another Company. And, of course, and agency would not want you teling the case manager of the insurance company, which is their client, the rates they end up paying the contracted interpreter with the client knowing how much the agency charges the client. They could lose their client, possibly to you.

        This has nothing to do with the possibility of price fixing, right?

  • Jeff says:

    Yes! I totally agree! Often, new entrepreneurs struggle over what to charge. It is not an issue of setting rates; they just need a general idea to be in the ballpark. I often hear complaints because some interpreters charge such cheap prices hurting the industry. I think it is helpful for everyone when we are all transparent.

  • Recep Kurt says:

    This issue presents an interesting angle, I think. What happens if people don’t talk about fees? A “new guy on the block” would have no idea about what costs what and perhaps would, out of fear of quoting too high a price, quote a price that is below what he might actually deserve for his services. Just a thought

  • Sarai Pahla says:

    I have frequently tried to ask other translators what fees they charge in order to avoid being a “low cost translator who is ruining the industry” and have received very little in terms of input. I eventually decided to search ProZ for people in my area of speciality using my language pairs, and found out that there is enormous variation. I have made my fees as public as possible, but I would love to know why others choose not to discuss their fees – it is interesting that so many people complain but won’t discuss fees openly.

  • Bravissimo! Someone finally said it! As a newbie in the field I never knew why colleagues were so reluctant to tell us their rates – in Missouri the state publishes certified rates charged alongside interpreter names and addresses in the directory. I thought all of the reticence had to do with some old fashioned idea about scrupulousness (like how lawyers historically didn’t advertise) until I heard the AIIC story. Thank you, Tony, for articulating this argument and thank you to the few interpreters that I talked to early on who shared with me so that I could learn what the market was actually like.

  • Heidi C says:

    I agre with you, Tony. Personally, I always make a point of sharing my fees with colleagues. Though there is just one type of case when I don’t: when the person (or agency) hiring you specifically tells you not to say how much you are being paid…

    On the other hand, I also think that the reason why some colleagues get upset or feel unconfortable when talking about rates might be because “it is not polite” to talk about money… Could I be wrong?

    Anyhow, in Linked In, someone recently opened a discussion asking for all interpreters around the world to post their rates. Pretty interesting reading… (thoughh, of course, someone posted saying everyone would get in trouble and go to hell/jail (not sure which)

  • Isabelle Olesen says:

    Interesting discussion.
    I can see two reasons why interpreters would be hesitant to discuss rates (besides the obvious one of the agent contract forbidding us to discuss rates on site with anyone): competition amongst each other (assuming we are asking same-language colleagues) and, most importantly, the ATA anti-trust policy. I don’t disagree with the points of view expressed above, but we can’t discount this anti-trust thingie…. There is a great level of frustration amongst ATA members about this, in my opinion. I think for the most part, we all feel the same way and would like to be able to discuss rates, yet we feel trapped. What are your thoughts on that one?

    My answer to colleagues, to get around all of this is typically to avoid the “I charge” answer but rather to say something like: from what I have observed, most people I talk to charge betwen x and y. Not sure whether this is a good strategy or whether it is OK to do.

  • Charles Ek says:

    “Fixing prices is against the law. But, if you just talk about fees, even if more than one interpreter or translator ends up charging exactly the same, there is nothing to worry about.”

    This free legal advice is worth exactly what is being charged for it.

    May I suggest that those interested take a look at two articles:

    1. “ROUNDTABLE ON INFORMATION EXCHANGES BETWEEN COMPETITORS UNDER COMPETITION LAW
    — Note by the Delegation of the United States —
    http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/international/269282.pdf

    2. “Competitor collaborations: new EU guidelines and
    US law compared” – http://www2.americanbar.org/calendar/business-law-section-2011-spring-meeting/Meeting Materials/1052.pdf

    You might think you’re small fish and not likely to attract the attention of the regulators. Perhaps. But small fish who listen to the other small fish in the school, instead of getting competent legal advice, are easy prey for a motivated regulator, whether here in the U.S. or in the EU or elsewhere. Antitrust law is notoriously difficult to get right, sometimes even for the lawyers who specialize in its practice.

    BTW, the AIIC lost big time at the FTC on the major points in contention. I’ve been unable to find evidence that AIIC appealed the Commission’s final decision and had anything reversed by an appellate court. It’s hard to see how that can be characterized as fighting and coming out on its feet:

    “The International Association of Conference Interpreters and its U.S. Region adopted a comprehensive price-fixing scheme that restrained competition among conference interpreters in the U.S. in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act. We find that AIIC s contacts with the U.S. are related to this cause of action and are sufficient to allow the Commission to exercise specific personal jurisdiction over AIIC. Moreover, we find that respondents provide their members with sufficient pecuniary benefits to bring them within our jurisdiction. We further find that AIIC is not entitled to either the statutory or the non-statutory labor exemption for the conduct we find unlawful and hereby enjoin. The respondents restrictions on all forms of price competition cannot be justified on any grounds, and we condemn these restrictions as per se unlawful. The rules governing certain non-price terms and conditions of employment, business arrangements, and advertising, however, are entitled to an examination under the rule of reason. Because complaint counsel has not carried its burden of proof under the rule of reason, we dismiss the complaint as to those rules. The findings and initial decision of the ALJ are upheld in part and reversed in part, consistent with our opinion and final order.”

    http://www.ftc.gov/os/1997/03/aiicopn.pdf

    • Thank you, Charles. Good data.

      This is how I handle this situation. I am the president of an ATA chapter, and I will not discuss rates with anyone when I am representing ATA. Outside of that, yes, I do. But my favorite approach is to teach people how to calculate what they should be charging rather than what my rates are. There are so many variables that it is not very wise to simply state a fixed price or even a range without some background information.

      Just last week the Florida Chapter was holding an informal meeting and a novice asked about rates. The Treasurer and I stated that as representatives of ATA we could not, but we explained to her how to get to a rate she wanted and how to go about checking what the market could accommodate to reach a final value. Did we discuss rates? YES! Did we discuss dollar amounts? NO! Is that conversation kosher, is it within the constraints of the FTC? I believe it is very much so.

  • Thanks for writing this, Tony. Does it make me uncomfortable talking about what I make? Yes. But worse than feeling uncomfortable is finding out later that the other interpreter you were working with was getting $10 more (or less) per hour for the same exact work. I have a colleague who always mentions how much a given company has paid her in the past for any jobs she refers to me — to tell the truth it’s usually more than I might have originally quoted. It sure takes the guesswork out of that initial quote! I now make it a point to do the same when making referrals.
    My two cents: There is currently a disparity between the dollar amount that our skills SHOULD demand versus what is ACTUALLY paid for them, and the more that we contractors can help each other by talking about rates, the more that gap will begin to close. This isn’t about fixing prices — this is about getting fairly compensated for our services. That can’t happen unless we have an accurate idea of their “market value” to begin with.

  • figthorn says:

    I never thought it was an issue of price fixing or monopolies. I thought it was because translators and interpreters didn’t want to give away what they charged fearing that their competition might charge less and “steal” work from them. A while ago I asked on a translators’ forum what to charge for a videogame translation. When no one replied I thought it was because nobody knew, but then another member advised me not to ask about rates because rates are very personal and translators/interpreters don’t feel comfortable discussing them in public. That was the first time I heard anything like that, but thought it was general practice. I did not necessarily agree, as I’ve also heard from the time I was in school that it was important for translators/interpreters to band together and protect their pricing by not charging too little, but how are we supposed to know what’s too little and what’s a fair price if nobody discusses it?

  • Mary David says:

    Read http://www.atanet.org/chronicle/antitrust_may2005.pdf

    Associations are at particular risk of antitrust violation since they bring together competitors to discuss issues related to their industry. They will often take a unified action to promote the commercial and professional goals of their members. The FTC is concerned that any “unified action” taken by industry competitors will cross the line to become an antitrust violation.

    Note: In 1990, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigated ATA for possible failure to comply with antitrust laws. After two years of investigation and a significant amount of money spent in defending the association—as well as many association members spending time in Washington testifying before the FTC—the investigation was closed with a statement from the FTC that the closure did not mean that a violation had not occurred. The Commission also reserved the “right to take such further action as the public interest may require.”

  • Janeth Murillo says:

    I don’t understand–why do interpreters and translators feel uncomfortable talking about their fees???

    In many instances this information is public knowledge, anyway; how much does an interpreter earn in such and such state? All I have to do is Google it, or contact the interpreters’ program, or visit NCSC; so why the taboo?

    If I am confident in my abilities and qualifications why would it bother me to talk about my fees? As I mentioned before, some of them are already open knowledge!

    I just don’t get it…we live in the 21 First, right?…”Privileged’ people ‘apparently’ do not have the ‘privilege’ (valga la redundancia) of taking a topless sunbath because it gets published…and with today’s tecknology…well…what do you think…it takes just seconds for the whole world to know! And we feel uncomfortable talking about our fees???

    And sometimes we ‘cannot’ talk about them??? Hellooooooo, anybody there listeniiiing?

    Oh, and remember the company I mentioned above? Guess what? No, no, you will not guess….or maybe you will….Anyways, let me tell you something…part of its name is “Perfect”; I do not know about you, but I am confident that once you learn more about it you probably will see that there ain’t nothing ‘perfect’ about it–I have to come visit you again soon with this; have to put the info bien chevere so that you are able to see the whole picture. Talk to you later… In the meantime, let’s dare to do the right thing by all!

    Once upon a time, Paramahansa Yogananda told a disciple this: “Loyalty begins where convenience ends”<<let us be loyal to one another!

    We can do it!

    It is not that hard, ya know!

    All we need to do is exercise inner strength; and if we still have not acquire it, then practice is the best teacher!

  • Yoli Peevey says:

    All these exchanges are very interesting, but even more interesting is that no one so far has mentioned how much he or she charges for simu or consecutive interpretation or per translated word, nor even suggested a “range” of fees within their work area.

  • Great post, Tony! I agree that more openness about rates benefits everyone in the industry. Personally I err on the side of saying “I can’t give you pricing recommendations and I can’t comment on what other people charge, I can only tell you what I charge.” I think (and I’m not an attorney; thank God you are!) that problems arise when people start talking about “what do you think x client will pay?” or worse, “let’s both bid x on a certain project and then split it” or whatever. But I think that objectively stating “my rate is…” is OK.

  • Excellent and very important post, Tony. I am glad you wrote this. Just like my wonderful friend and colleague Corinne, I am all about price transparency, which to me means freely disclosing what I charge (yes, my rates are on my website to give clients the information that they are seeking), but I certainly cannot and will not tell others what to charge. It’s a complex legal subject, and thanks to Mary from the ATA for sharing that perspective.

    And yes, this is one of my favorite topics. It’s very empowering to share information with both clients and colleagues as long as we steer clear of the legal landmines.

    @Yoli: Not too many interpreters share their rates (unfortunately). However, you are more than welcome to look up my rates on our website. Here it is: http://www.twintranslations.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/rates_twintranslations_20121.pdf

  • Interesting blog entry, with interesting responses. Here in South Africa, the South African Translators’ Institute does a yearly rate survey amongst its members (anonymous and aggregated). From the results one can see what the minimum, maximum and average rates for the language pairs under review were for the year of the survey. Since we as translators can’t walk into each other’s ‘shops’ and look at the shelf prices of the goods on offer, it’s quite a safe and useful way of helping regulate prices without encouraging collusion.

  • Very interesting post, Tony. Thanks. I’m very much in favour of transparency, while at the same time recognising that many colleagues have been burnt by antitrust problems in the past and so are hesitant to talk openly about their rates.

    My understanding is that discussing rates charged in the *past*, say in the form of a annual survey as Marienne describes, cannot be considered price-fixing and so does not contravene antitrust regulations. It’s just compiling statistics, basically. And although it won’t tell you exactly what the guy next to you is charging for his services right now, it can still give a very good idea of where rates are going and what people have been charging on a given market, particularly if the exercise is repeated over several years.

    So even if you don’t feel comfortable talking about your current rates, you should at least collaborate with colleagues by sharing information on your past rates. That way you can ensure transparency and cover your back at the same time.

    Just an idea… Thanks again for the post!

    Michelle

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  • Betina Frisone says:

    Through some colleagues’ generous transparency, I learned to price myself. When I first started, I was sorely undervaluing my services, which we all know hurts the market for everyone. Heck, the first thing realtors do is look at comps before establishing what the selling price ought to be for a property. So, how is it fair that we cannot share this information amongst ourselves?

    Tony, I too was a fervent proponent of sharing pricing information, believing that organizations were being overly cautious and/or misunderstood the law… until I learned quite recently that such discussions are per se violations of Section 1 of the Sherman Act (“A per se violation requires no further inquiry into the practice’s actual effect on the market or the intentions of those individuals who engaged in the practice.”). I found this article explains it well : http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/antitrust.

    How to educate on what is fair market value for our services, within the law? I see several options mentioned here that do stay clear of this definition: “Collusive bidding occurs when two or more competitors agree to change the bids they otherwise would offer absent the agreement.” The key, perhaps, is steering clear of comments (which I hear all the time) suggesting or encouraging others to accept or not accept certain terms. Can we get around that, instead, by speaking in hypotheticals? What say the experts?

  • Luigi says:

    I’m coming in very late – years late actually – but I just found this page while searching for something else.

    First – of course people in business can talk. Let’s face it – if you are a business, the US Supreme court has declared you are a person! What you can’t do is collude on setting prices.

    Those who claim that AIIC lost on all major points don’t know much about the case. AIIC fought all the way to the Commission for a simple reason: To maintain its professional standards, working conditions and certain articles of its code of ethics that FTC lawyers claimed were indirect ways of controlling market prices. We argued on the basis of market strength (or effective lack thereof), interpreter health, quality, information to clients and pro-competitive factors in general – and we prevailed. Those who read only the final decision miss that fact because it says nothing about such elements – and something would have been said if the FTC lawyers had prevailed. Moreover the final decision explicitly recognizes the validity of our collective agreements with international organizations – something their lawyers also disputed.

    The battle with the FTC lawyers was won on all points we disputed before their own bosses under the rule of reason. (Note: AIIC did not dispute that price fixing is against the law, which would have been futile as price fixing is a per se violation, only pointing out that it had ceased recommending rates before the investigation had begun.)

    And as Melinda said, we came out on our feet (rather than our knees). In the following years we sponsored research to learn more about working conditions and long-term health – the Workload Study. Later on we started to carry out extensive annual member surveys that include information on rates, which is perfectly legal (we checked with the FTC). We negotiated better agreements. And spurred by what was learned during the case, members started paying closer attention to business practices and what it takes to earn a decent living.

    On a personal note, when I was on the stand, in response to a question from an FTC lawyer I explained that he had not understood the UN rate structure (which includes a tax refund for US taxpayers), undermining his argument that this area also had an indirect effect on market price in the US. The following day his team filed to subpoena 5 years of my tax records. We responded. The Commissioners ruled for us, denying the request of its own staff lawyers. Perhaps a small victory but one I certainly appreciated.

    • Charles Ek says:

      This blog post involves sharing of information about prices. The FTC found that your organization “adopted a comprehensive price-fixing scheme that restrained competition among conference interpreters in the U.S. in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.” The fact that you had abandoned the practice of recommending rates doesn’t change that finding one iota.

      Implicitly characterizing the rest of the issues as not major points was an error, in light of what you have written. I did not take the time to read the whole record in the case.

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