Who should interpreters target as their clients in a world where many want to pay lower fees? Part 1.

July 28, 2014 § 14 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I consider myself very lucky because my job takes me all over the world; this allows me to see many of my friends and colleagues as I visit their towns and countries, and also gives me the opportunity to keep up with the local interpreting and translation issues that are impacting that particular area. It gives me great joy to hear about the personal and professional accomplishments of so many talented friends; and unfortunately, I also get to see the sadness, anger and frustration of so many who are working under conditions that no professional should suffer or tolerate. I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to these horror stories where the main characters are permeated by mediocrity, ignorance and lack of ambition. It was after one of these episodes, not long ago, that I decided to write about this topic in order to identify the problems and propose some solutions that have worked for me and for other colleagues in the past. This topic is broad and will require of several posts. I will address separately on three different posts the situation of court interpreters, community interpreters, including health care interpreters, and conference interpreters.

First I will talk about the court interpreters because they are a large part of the interpreting community in the United States (only second to military interpreters) and they are a growing segment of the profession in many countries around the world. When I think of many of the freelance court interpreters I know, one thing that puzzles me is: how can they be happy and fulfilled working under such conditions? In certain administrative courts they are paid very little money, sometimes they do not get Per Diem when traveling to another location, and on top of that, they are not treated like professionals. They are required to get paperwork stamped and signed by others, sending the message that because they are not trustworthy, somebody else needs to watch what they do; And by the way, if they want to get paid on time they have to be willing to accept a smaller paycheck (there is a pay cut policy in exchange for faster pay). Of course this is an extreme case, and I would have called it the worst if this article had been written before the United Kingdom court interpreter fiasco that insulted capable professional interpreters in their professionalism and in their pockets. Of course you all know what happened over there and we are all familiar with the ever-bigger problems in the British justice system. Enough for now, but I will return to the United Kingdom court interpreter saga later on this post.

If you think that things get better for those interpreters who freelance in the state-level court system of the United States because these are not administrative courts, you have not worked there for at least a decade. At this level, in most states, interpreters make a little more money than those working the immigration court system, but they are still getting a laughable fee for their professional services. This low pay does not feel any better when you combine it with rules and policies designed for laborers and not for a professional service provider. I am talking about agency-controlled state court markets, incomprehensible policies that are keeping good interpreters from making a decent income in civil cases, the “annual payment limit” contained in some states’ independent interpreter contracts, the “even distribution” of work policy of other states where good and mediocre interpreters basically get the same amount of work from the state as long as they are state-certified, or the backwards legislation that gives certification and oversight of court interpreters to the state judiciary in a state where this was not the case, and now will pull interpreters down to the same level of the other states where the same party that hires certifies. A move unheard in other professions like lawyers and physicians, but even celebrated by many interpreters in this state. Add to this landscape all the endless and ever-changing micro-management requirements by local courthouses, many other rules that I will just skip for the sake of brevity; and finally, throw in there the agencies that are run by people with no formal education, experience, or practical knowledge of interpreting (as the ones who procure interpreting services for most administrative courts) and pay their interpreters even less money, and you will have the big picture; the same picture I see every time I hear a new story, learn of a new travesty, or witness a horrendous performance.

Dear friends and colleagues, I cannot help it, but it is at about this time that I always wonder why my friend or colleague is still working as a court interpreter under those circumstances! The answer is simple and complex at the same time. Simple because as a freelancer all it takes is a moment of courage when the interpreter decides: Enough! No more. Complex because not everybody is willing or capable of making this decision. Different people, different priorities, different ideas, different set of values, and different goals in life. Although I have belonged to the former group all my life, I understand those who belong in the latter. The thing I cannot understand is why they do not take action and change things for themselves, and maybe for their profession at the local level.

It is possible that many people living under the circumstances described above will not be able, for different reasons, to move on to another type of interpreting assignments, but they can always pick their clients wisely. Let me explain:

One thing I have never understood is why on earth so many of my freelancer colleagues see themselves as court employees. I have heard hundreds of times how they introduce themselves as interpreters for the courts; I have heard them refer to court administrators, court clerks, judges, and staff interpreters as their “boss”! Obviously this immediately tells me that if they see the court, the interpreting agency, or the state judiciary as their employer, they cannot see them for what they really are: their client.

Once the interpreter comes to terms with this issue, and understands that she does not work for anyone but herself, she can focus on picking her clients. She will soon realize that mediocre interpreting agencies, state judiciaries, and even the federal court system are nothing but clients, and clients that pay very little (some of them rarely on time) in exchange for what they expect from the interpreter. They pay low fees for the interpreting service, but many of them want you to do so many other things for the same token fee: these interpreters must prepare endless paperwork, learn (sometimes absurd) court or agency policies that are only applicable to that particular courthouse, translate documents in between hearings, attend (often self-serving) unpaid meetings scheduled by the agency or court administration; and many times they demand, without saying it, exclusivity and they “punish” an interpreter who cancels the assignment for a better paying professional opportunity. Once the interpreter sees them as another client, she will realize that, because of their practices and philosophy, they are not at the top of her client wish list, and she will understand the need to find better clients.

Now the question is: If all interpreting agencies that control the administrative courts, and all state-level court systems are not to be considered as top clients, what else is there? The answer is: The good clients!

All interpreters who want to make a decent living in the legal field need to provide their services to the private bar. It is true that in the United States the states are now observing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and in many cases the states are keeping independent interpreters from working any civil cases unless paid through the courts; but even under these circumstances, there is plenty to do. First, those of you who live in states where independent freelancers coexist with state contractors, and are allowed to provide their services in civil court to those who turn down the court-appointed interpreter and prefer to hire their own, you should enter this field full-blast. The federal system does not provide court appointed interpreters in civil cases, and for those who are federally certified this is another option, in fact, it is a much better option than working criminal cases for the federal court system because the pay is much better.

The main option available to all of those who have a valid certification at some level (state or federal. Private language agency certifications are not considered valid) is to become a legal or “out-of-court” interpreter instead of a court interpreter. Legal interpreters provide their professional services to Law Firms and attorneys for depositions, office interviews, witness preparation, jail visits, expert opinions, expert testimony, transcription and translation services, and even in court at the plaintiff’s or defense’s table. Interpreters negotiate their fee with these attorneys; there are no pre-set limits, no endless meetings, and for the most part, the cases are interesting: there is more variety in civil court; and the cases that you should go after involve enormous amounts of money in damages. These are the type of clients I try to have, and I spoil them, pamper them, and protect them with the best service you can find anywhere. The point is, my court interpreter friends and colleagues, if you don’t want to move to a bigger city, if you don’t want to travel, or to learn a new field, the next time you get angry because of an absurd new rule, because you are not getting paid on time, or because you got tired of being treated like a laborer instead of a professional, stop working for the system, get out there and look for the big clients: the large law firms, the corporate legal departments, and talk to them; sell them your services, and start enjoying your career once again. Who knows? If enough good interpreters leave the system, the system will have to hire mediocre individuals, and sooner or later the government will have to sit down with you and talk fees and other work conditions. This is what is happening in the United Kingdom where a group of courageous, determined, and brave interpreters walked out and never went back. They made history, inspired us all, and showed us that although difficult at the beginning, there is life after the courthouse. I invite you to share with us your opinions and comments, and I ask you to avoid name-calling, specific cases, and arguments defending agencies or the court interpreter wages.

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