Beware of the bottom feeders of the profession.

May 27, 2014 § 9 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I was contacted by one of my friends not long ago; a colleague interpreter who wanted to share with me an all too familiar story about certain individuals that for years, I have referred to as the bottom feeders of the profession. I had heard similar stories, I am sure that you have heard them as well, and in fact, to illustrate the point, and because this is business, during my own professional career I have encountered some examples of these creatures here and there. It is not my intention to offend anybody, I just want to underline the contrast between these individuals and a good, responsible professional interpreter who understands that this is a business. I will describe the specimen in a moment, but to clearly explain the unique characteristics of these despicable beings, please let me share my friend’s story first:

“Once upon a time there was a penny-pincher language agency that had an event where some of the participants did not speak the native language, so the agency needed to hire interpreters. At the same time that the agency was learning the details of the event, a very good, hard working, and kind interpreter who was loved by her colleagues, admired by her peers, and sought after by her clients, was sitting in front of her computer invoicing some nefarious clients who just could not pay their bills on time because of religious reasons; you see: they were worshippers of the verb procrastination. While she wrestled with the idea of suing them or not, her phone rang. It was the penny-pincher agency. They asked her if she would be willing to provide her interpretation services for the event they just had booked that same morning. They explained that the event would be in a different town, and they offered to pay the same fee the good interpreter was paid on the last time they had retained her services. The good interpreter checked her agenda and noticed that she was available on the requested dates, and since the event that was described to her sounded pretty much like the one she had done for the penny-pincher agency before, she agreed to the same fee plus travel expenses. It was all good, friendly and civilized, so the penny-pincher agency asked the good interpreter for a referral for the second interpreter who would share the booth with the good interpreter. Because the good interpreter did not know the schedule of any other interpreter, she provided three names and contact information of colleagues she had worked with in the past and felt like she could recommend as good professional interpreters who would provide an excellent service. The penny-pincher agency thanked the good interpreter and hung up.

Two days later, while the good interpreter was at her attorney’s office waiting to talk to him about suing some of the members of the procrastination cult, she got a phone call from the penny-pincher agency. She was told that the interpreters she had suggested had been contacted but that they were too expensive. They told her that instead of the colleagues she had recommended they had found this other individual who was willing to work for a much lower fee. The penny-pincher agency said that they would rather hire this person, but they wanted to know first if the good interpreter knew the individual and if this was a person she would feel comfortable with. When the good interpreter heard the name of the less-expensive individual she almost fell to the ground. They were asking her to work with pariah-interpreter, a person who was well-known for charging very little and delivering even less. The good interpreter immediately explained her concerns; she informed the penny-pincher agency that pariah-interpreter was not a conference interpreter; that people like pariah-interpreter puffed-up their credentials by including community interpreting as conference work in their resume. The good interpreter even explained that interpreting at a church meeting or a community center with a microphone on top of a table with no booth, no power point, no presenters or speakers, was an honorable job, but it was light-years away from being conference interpreting. She even conveyed to penny-pincher agency how pariah-interpreter was regarded as a terrible professional by all reputable interpreters, and how she would always work with mediocre people in order to avoid scrutiny by real professional interpreters. The good interpreter even provided the names of other good reliable colleagues who lived in the town where the event was to take place explaining to penny-pincher agency that this way they could save money on travel costs and still get top-quality interpretation. She even brought up the fact that pariah-interpreter would have to travel to the place of the event because she lived in a different state. Penny-pincher agency thanked the good interpreter and hung up. A week later the good interpreter was notified by email that her services for that event were no longer needed. That was it.

Good interpreter was not happy about the whole thing, but after all, a seasoned experienced professional that she was, she knew that these things happen when you get pariah-interpreter and penny-pincher agency together in the same project. Fortunately for her, it turned out that she was retained for another assignment that actually paid better and was on a more interesting subject matter. Because the world of language services is so small and so well-communicated, it wasn’t long before the good interpreter found out that penny-pincher agency had hired pariah-interpreter and one of her peers: earthworm-interpreter to do the job; that they had paid for the services of both of this “exceptional” individuals less than the fee they were going to pay for the good interpreter, and that despite the complaints and bad reviews by the people who attended the event and required of interpretation services, penny-pincher agency was happy with the services of pariah-interpreter and earthworm-interpreter because they met the requirement of having two interpreters in the booth, and sooner or later those attending the events would have to get used to the “natural” limitations of the interpreters who “after all are humans.” So goes the story dear friends and colleagues: penny-pincher agency lived happily and richer but not ever after, only until a conference organizer sued them for hiring the lowest of the low professionals, and took them to the cleaners.   The good interpreter continues to work for a professional fee, takes care of her clients, and she now refuses to waste her valuable time trying to convince the likes of penny-pincher agency that you cannot get wine from a rock. Oh, and pariah-interpreter, earthworm-interpreter and the rest of their clan continue to live happily ever after, as long as your definition of happiness includes working for peanuts, being ignored by all real professional interpreters, and having an empty bank account. The end.”

Of course my friend did not tell me the story this way, but I wanted to have some fun with these despicable characters. These are the bottom feeders in my book. I have discussed them and mentioned them many times in this blog and during my lectures, workshops and presentations; many of you know that they forever have a special place on my “Ten worst” lists, and those of you who know me in person know how I try to interact with them as little as possible.

Let’s make it very clear that I am against working for peanuts, I oppose lowering fees for the sake of getting the client; but I am also a teacher and a colleague, and as many of you know, I spend hours with new and reluctant colleagues trying to explain to them the economics of the profession and the adverse effects of working for rock bottom fees. I would never classify one of these colleagues as a bottom feeder unless he or she earns the title.

I am sure that as you read the story above, you immediately identified the bottom feeders in your environment and made a mental list. That is great. I encourage you to do so, but first look with objectivity at each individual, and then make your decision. It is a detailed process but it is one we all need to do, and we must do it without any emotional consideration. This is a business-related exercise.

Find your pariah-interpreters and translators and ice them. Do not work with them; do not invite them to any professional activities. Remember: They would take any opportunity to associate with you even if it is to have a photo-op or a name association that they will be able to exploit later on. You do not need them; they are not your competition. They do not play in the same league that you do. Their clients are not, and will never be, your clients. You don’t look for a brand new Ferrari in a junk yard. Leave the junk yard to them. If you ignore them they will not hurt you professionally, and hopefully you will soon forget them, but if out of pity or misunderstood “compassion” you continue to look for them, their fame and reputation will stain your name. Beware of the bottom feeders.

I now invite you to share your ideas as to how to shield yourself from these hazardous individuals, and please abstain from comments defending these individuals. This forum will not give them a voice.

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§ 9 Responses to Beware of the bottom feeders of the profession.

  • Hartmut says:

    This is a very different picture from what is happening to ASL interpreters. Yes, there are some “signers”. They are often unpaid anyway, being a child of deaf parents, a sibling, or a mother of a deaf child. Anyone outside these circles, trying to get paid from performing an inferior service, gets quickly identified and ceased to practice the profession, because their incompetence will be identified quickly in the Deaf Community.

    Problem for the ASL interpreters is that they are getting requests from spoken language interpreter agencies, many of them large, These agencies work on a different premise and know absolutely nothing of the Deaf Community and Deaf Culture. This knowledge plays an important role in matching an interpreter to a Deaf consumer. I have received many requests, and I posed to them test questions. NO agency has passed them. Therefore, NO spoken language agency can be qualified to provide an ASL interpreter. They should never dare to provide an interpreter of a language, they absolutely do not know about. They are harming the consumers and the interpreting profession at the same time. WHY MUST THEY NEED TO PROFITEER FROM ASL INTERPRETERS ??? And they do not give back to the Deaf Community at all.

  • David Lauman says:

    Tony, is this fable based on events that have actually occurred? Have you ever known of an instance in which a “penny-pincher” agency got sued for providing interpreters who could not provide an acceptable standard of conference interpreting?

  • marzolian says:

    Tony, great article and advice. The only thing I might do differently in that situation would be, not to go into so much detail about the pariah-interpreter, especially with someone about whom one already has concerns, e.g. penny-pinching agency. Even if what is said is perfectly accurate, words have a way of getting transformed, or firing back. Simply, “I will not work with such person.”

    • Ranganathan says:

      Dear Marzolian
      In the initial stage, when we don’t meet the client face to face we believe them but when you go near we come to know the exact color of the client. By that time we were in half completion of their project work assigned to us and this is the point where most of the translators are trapped. I personally feel, barring a few, the humanity is totally dead and buried in the hearts of the people. That is the end of the story.

  • Michelle says:

    Things are improving, yet very slowly. Thank you for posting your article.

    What is even more egregious is when State courts use individuals who are not certified. What was once meant as an exception in cases where certified interpreters are not available, has become the norm in some States for the sake of “penny pinching”.

    Observing a great interpreter is like watching a great pianist perform at the Kennedy Center, the performer makes it look easy and you only realize how much training it required when you get in front of the piano and try to replicate it.

    Unfortunately, there are not enough “fully trained individuals= piano keys” in the court system to show the incompetence of “community interpreters=non-certified=impostors” (pick your preferred term for them), some people say (whisper) whatever they want pretending to be interpreters and unfortunately there are few fully bilingual people around, if any, to notice.

    Would you trust your life to a doctor who could not pass the Board exams?

    This situation will only change when the penal code includes “interpreting without credentials” under the same section as obtaining money under false pretenses.

  • Ivan says:

    Nice article. However, a good professional should not try to be a good guy ever, by helping a penny pincher agency to get number two interpreter. If a good interpreter has got a reason and motivation to accept the penny pincher agency’s offer for one time thats ok, but helping them with giving out contacts of other good interpeters? They live from this kind of information, and the only way they should get another good interpreter in a boot is if they leave this part of the deal to the first good interpreter. That means that they should pay a double to number one good interpreter and the number one interpreter will bring his “pair”. All invoicing should be done with the number one good interpreter, without any details given to the agency, since they simply do not deserve this piece of information. Number one made several crucial business mistakes typical for our profession. A simply “no” would be enough without giving specific reasons. Instead of that, number one interpreter started to overexplain why the bad interpreter is bad (with a serious lack of self confidence, unfortunately) A bottom feeder agency is a potential danger to all professionals. They absolutely do not care about anything but extra pennies of profit over reputation of good interpreter. The worst thing is that they are absolutely aware that number one is a good interpreter, but they simply want to gain more profit from the project, so, the only reason why they were actually talking to the number one good interpreter, is to get useful information from him/her. It takes years of work for an agency to find good, reliable and affordable team of professionals, in order to go into thade with end cliens. Now, in our profession you just need one or two phone calls to get that valuable information, due to the general lack of self-confidence and any sense for business. “Its not personal. it’s business” Think about that.

  • Ivan says:

    “in order to go into trade…” sorry

  • Mark says:

    If memory serves me correctly, standard 1930s-to-present mafia jargon uses “ice them” to mean “murder them.” Did you perhaps mean something not quite as drastic, such as “cut them out of your network” or “have nothing further to do with them”? There are a lot of options, come to think of it: “drop them like a hot potato” comes to mind, as does “steer clear of them,” avoid them like the plague” and “put as much daylight between you and them as you possibly can.”

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