The Language Services Agencies: Are they good for you?

July 29, 2013 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I wanted to write about language service providers for some time, but it wasn’t until this morning when a colleague shared his story with me that I finally decided to sit down and do it.  An interpreter was hired by an agency to provide his professional services for a 2-hour administrative court hearing.  Phone calls and e-mails were exchanged, a fee was agreed upon, and the interpreter received the necessary materials and information from the agency representative; there was even an automated confirmation telephone call three days prior to the event. Everything looked normal.  On the afternoon before the scheduled event, the interpreter received an automated e-mail informing him that the hearing had been cancelled.  Because the notice was received less than 24 hours before the scheduled start of the assignment, this interpreter prepared and sent an invoice to the agency for his 2-hour fee.  Of course, he had been offered another assignment that he turned down, because he was already booked, just the day before he received the cancellation notice. Sounds familiar right?  I think there may be an unwritten “universal law” that says that every time an interpreter gets a job he will get one or more offers for the same day afterwards. I know you all know what I am talking about.  Let’s get back to our story.  Of course, my colleague was not thrilled since he was only going to make the equivalent to a two-hour job and he couldn’t get any other assignment for that day, but that is the “price” of doing business. This is the risk we all take when we chose the freedom of working as a freelancer.   To his surprise, and mine when I heard the story, the agency representative contacted him right away to let him know that he was not going to be paid anything because the assignment had not taken place.  The “less than 24 hour notice” of cancellation didn’t mean anything to them.  Of course he will fight this battle and already started the process by going to a collections agency, but it made me remember another event that happened to me some months ago.

A colleague and I worked an event for an agency we had worked for before; they have had all of our information, including fee schedules, for years.  We did the event, our performance was great, the agency’s client was very satisfied, and everything went as expected by the agency.  I sent my invoice later on that same week, and life continued. About 2 or 3 weeks later I got an e-mail from a representative of the interpretation agency. I was a little surprised as I did not recognized her name, but the real surprise came when I read the text of the mail.  This is what she wrote:

“Dear Mr. Rosado: We received your invoice… for processing. Thank you.  After reviewing the invoice it came to our attention that you had made a mistake.  The total for your invoice is the equivalent to 16 hours of work. The event was 8 hours long (each day)… but you worked 4 hours each day and Mr. (my colleague’s name) worked the other 4.  …Therefore, I ask you to please file an amended invoice reflecting the hours you actually worked…”

After I recovered from an anger attack, I wrote her back, copying her boss, explaining her how we work and how we bill, and eventually I got an apology letter and a check for the right amount.  There had been no mistake in this case. She turned out to be a new employee and It was all due to her ignorance of the profession.

I have had these annoying experiences with agencies, but for the most I’ve had a good career as far as my dealings with interpretation and translation agencies.  Of course I know this is what many of you have experienced, so I will try to explain why these entities act this way, and I am going to share with you my solution to the “bad agency syndrome.”

(1)    First: Not all agencies are created equal.  There are agencies that you want to work for because they are good and professional. They are usually the ones with the best clients, the more relevant events. I am referring to the premier conference interpreting agencies that operate nationwide and worldwide. They offer the whole package to their client: the best equipment, the most comfortable booths, all-star technicians, and the best interpreters.  They work with you, pay on time, pay well, and treat you like a professional.

(2)    A different type of agency, also big (sometimes huge) and universal, is the one that provides telephonic services or in-person services at administrative federal courts.  They have a lot of work; some of them trade in the stock market, and offer an average to below-average interpretation service to their client.  They are popular and well liked by their clients because they provide the service at a moderate price, can offer the volume and variety of languages that nobody else can.  They usually have administrative support staff that deals with the interpreters, pay very little, and don’t pay as quickly as the industry’s average.  Their interpreters tend to be of a less-than average professional quality, very new to the profession, and in some cases they even work from outside the United States.

(3)    Then you have the mid-size agencies who work regional or local markets. These agencies handle many events, some of them are conferences, others are not but they still call them conferences.  These agencies also provide other services at the regional level such as medical interpreting, out-of-court legal interpreting, and in some markets even in-court interpreting services.  These agencies aren’t big corporations; they are often a small firm or even a family business. This is the group where you must be very careful because there are some excellent agencies that provide the same or almost the same services that the big ones offer, including equipment and the highest quality interpreters (because for many reasons, the good ones are not always busy working with the big corporate agencies) but you also have many mediocre agencies that are this size. The problem is that they offer poor equipment, no equipment, low-level technicians, no technicians, and, for the most part, interpreters that don’t belong in the “A” list.  They are usually staffed by poorly- paid employees with little experience, deal with clients that some times are not reliable, pay very low interpreter fees, don’t always pay on time, tend to ignore invoices for minimum guaranteed interpreter time or cancellation fees, and sometimes just don’t pay the interpreter.  They often work with interpreters with no academic or professional training, and are very defensive when asked about their practices.

(4)    Finally we have the small interpretation services provider. These are agencies that operate at the local level; many of them owned by an individual who sometimes is an interpreter, translator, or a relative of one of them. Many of them do business from their living rooms, have a mailing address at the UPS Store, and “train” their own interpreters because they cannot afford higher quality professionals due to the pay they offer or the type of assignments they hire their interpreters for.  Sometimes they offer equipment, usually portable, work “desk-top” community events they refer to as “conferences,”  contract with local medical facilities and administrative law attorneys, pay less than anybody else (with the exception of some of the telephonic agencies above) and treat their interpreters like journeymen instead of professionals.

I have heard many of my colleagues when they complain about these agencies.  My solution, not to eliminate all possible problems, because that can’t happen, but to prevent most of them and mitigate the nefarious effects is as follows:

Try to work for the first group I mentioned. There will be times when a mistake will occur, like in my story above, but they are few and can be promptly fixed.  Sometimes you may need to better yourself to get to those jobs; if that is the case, go do it!  This comparative essay should be your motivation to do it.  You should also work for the first ones I mentioned under number 3.  They are often as good as group one, only smaller. The main problem you will encounter in this group is that they will have less events and therefore you will have more competition among the top-quality interpreters who will try to get these assignments.  Stay away from the second group I mentioned under number 3. Do not let them sell you the “lemon car.” But…if for some reason you said “yes” to one of their assignments, put everything in writing, save all communications, and be ready to take them to the collections agency or before a judge if needed.

I would stay away from the agencies mentioned in number 2.  However, if you have to work for them, negotiate a better rate than the one they will offer, and I mean a BETTER rate, not another $20.00 per hour.  In all likelihood they will not hire you, but if for some reason they ever do, you will not be hurting yourself or the profession by accepting peanuts for professional work.

Avoid the ones in group 4 like the plague.  Conditions in this group of agencies will never get better and on top of giving away your work in exchange for almost nothing, you will be hurting your reputation every time you work for one of them.  Stop before your professional name is beyond repair.

Remember, there are excellent agencies out there but you need to do your homework and you need to learn how to say no. One of the most popular comments of many interpreters is: “They are too big, I hate them but I have to do what they want, even if I know it is little money, even if I know they don’t treat me right. I need the money. I can’t quit.” My answer to this dilemma is clear:  Don’t work for them. I don’t care how big and powerful they are.  You have a way to change what they pay you: stop returning their calls and emails. The moment you do this they are out of your life. No more suffering. No more humiliation. They are gone.  The best part: Now you will have no choice but to become a better interpreter or translator so you can be hired by better agencies, directly by your clients, or you will have the freedom to start your own business. Let your refusal to work for them be your motivation to improve.  You will face hard times for a short period of time, but it will not take you long to start making a better income because you will discover that when you are used to work for peanuts and you decide to stop, any decent interpretation job will provide you a better income.

The cure to the “bad agency syndrome” is very simple; it is like smoking: It is harmful, just quit!

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§ 11 Responses to The Language Services Agencies: Are they good for you?

  • Bill King says:

    Welcome to the non payment club. I recently drove to a nearly 4 hour round trip assignment (Workman’s Comp). Upon arriving at the doctor, the agency called me and notified me that the patient would not be there. He of course would not pay me because the Insurance company would not pay him. He is not an ATA member but states he is a member on his website. I reported this to ATA.

  • Eunaude says:

    I’ve had some good and bad experiences with agencies and I try to stick to the ones that treat me well. Would you care to provide a list of agencies in the first category? I’m not a Spanish language interpreter though; my languages are French and Haitian-Creole. Thank you for your article.

  • What about interpreters who, just three or four days before an event, cancelled an assignment (agreed upon with exchanges of emails and phone calls) from a Language Service Agency, because he or she had an offer that lasted a week or two, which is, of course, longer than one day or two days. PLEASE COMMENT!

  • Doris Ganser says:

    Suntorn Siyarngnork: There isn’t much you can do financially. It’s buyer (LSP) beware! You scramble to find another interpreter — always have a standby at least in the back of your mind in case things go wrong. It helps to pay and treat interpreters and translators well over the years. S/he goes into the database with “NEVER USE AGAIN”. No matter how good s/he is, s/he joins local Interpreter X and his colleague who went to a Chicago lawfirm 25 years ago and told them they could work directly much much cheaper so that the LSP (friendly ATA conference acquaintance), whom we had helped out by recommending X, lost the job after a day of work in a 4-week project. The Chicago LSP and we whispered to others over the years that X should never be called again or trusted, and it was with some satisfaction to discover X one day working as a night clerk at German function held at a no longer particularly high-class hotel. Not being able to provide a local interpreter for X’s language, for which he had been one of the few locally for many years, hurt us occasionally but we believe his indiscretion hurt him more. Our database probably contains less than 10 who are so marked after decades in the business, which indicates that the majority of interpreters are honest and professional. Sorry you had that experience!

  • Rithy says:

    What a well-written and an informative blog I enjoyed reading it. I only have had bad experience with individual owned agencies and big over-the-phone companies. They promise great hourly rate but they never pay and sometimes they just blatantly ignore my bills altogether. I do, however, have great experience with number 3, medium size agencies, they pay on time (majority of the time but they pay) they answer your questions, and they treat you with respect. I have work with some of them for over 20 years. I cannot common on your number 1 group because I’ve never had the opportunity to work for them but if you would like to refer me, I’ll be more than happy to interpret for them:)

    Thank you,
    Rithy Lim, Cambodian/Khmer Interpreter

  • Language enthusiasts frequently arrived at a range of making their passion his or her career. Aside from being authors, loudspeakers, research graduates yet another stream which finds large amount of potential has been a translator or interpreter.

  • Erik Gibson says:

    Few people are as trusted as interpreters and translators. Whatever the job is do it as well as you can. If you don’t know what is going on or you need time to look up a term, ask a question to clarify or look up the word. While you may look less competent than you would like it is better than making things up when you don’t really understand. This trust extends itself to your relationship with translation agencies. If you have been hired to represent an agency do not give the client your business card and tell them to call you directly next time. Cheating your clients will earn you more money in the short run but will kill your career in the long run. Nothing will hurt your career as badly as a former client saying to a present one, Who do you have translating your Thai? I’d stay away from her. I’ve worked with her and she can’t be trusted. Conversely, no advertising is as effective as a present client saying something like this to a potential client, You need a Portuguese interpreter? Oh, I have someone great who takes care of that for me. Let me get you his contact information.

  • When I was studying Interpreting Spoken Language in college, our instructor told the class, “In this business, reputation is everything.” That’s a verbatim quote that I still remember more than 10 years later.
    No one needs a reputation for stealing from their clients.

  • Bill King says:

    All one can do is stick to those he has had a good experience with. We do need a focal point where issues such as a cancellation 2 minutes before entering a doctor’s office for a an assignment is cancelled and in spite of a nearly 4 hour drive, no payment is made. That in my book is highway robbery. The agency claimed it would not be paid. This was a Workman’ s Comp case. We all know the government pays. This is just greed and fraud.

    Bill King – Interpreter

  • Nora says:

    Thank you for the tips. They are very useful. I’m having a hard time with freelancing and staying busy enough. I hope to open my own agency soon.

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