Who are those “top-level” interpreters many agencies refer to?
March 26, 2015 § 16 Comments
I am sure that what I am about to describe has happened to many of you: You get an email from an agency either telling you that they are new to your market and they are looking for “top-level” interpreters in your area, or they address you directly by email to let you know that they have an upcoming project and they would like to have you on board for the event. Both emails end by asking for your resume, fee schedule, and sometimes even references. I have basically received this email, or similar ones, innumerable times during my career. I do not know what you do when you get such a request, but I usually respond to the communication by email. I attach the most recent version of my resume, a boilerplate letter that details my fee schedule, accepted payment options, cancellation fees, and travel expenses requirements; and when the agency asks for references, I just state, in the body of the email, that I will only ask my clients for references when the assignment offer is firm, and in the meantime I suggest they google me under: “Tony Rosado Interpreter” and they will find many pages that talk about me, including professional achievements, publications, interviews, and testimonials. I have found that in most cases, this strategy works. It is common for prospective clients to waive the references requirement after they have googled my name. To me, this is standard practice because I do not like to bother my regular clients unless it is absolutely necessary, and I value my time too much to be happy about spending time collecting reference letters for agencies who have not even extended a solid offer.
Now, what happens after I send the information can be classified in three categories: The exceptionally rare, the exceptionally common, and the deafening silence.
Every once in a while the agency contacts me after I emailed all the information and offers me the job. This is not a common occurrence and sometimes I have to work a little harder to get the fee I command. Things like an explanation of the work I do, sharing my professional experience, and bringing up potential problems that the client had not thought about, will get me the fee requested on my fee schedule. Usually, these agencies turn into regular clients after the first assignment as they are serious about customer service and quality interpreting. Of course, most of our work comes from agencies that already know us, or from those who were referred to us by another client or colleague, but we should never discard unknown agencies who reach us by email, unless the communication sounds like a scam, a pipe dream, or we hear about their bad reputation.
The overwhelming majority of these agencies contact me back to thank me for my quick response, and to tell me that my fee schedule is way above their means. Some of them end the communication after this revelation, and some others let me know that they will keep my information, and when they get an interpreter request for an event that “…requires of someone with my experience and credentials… (they)… will contact me”. That is usually the last I hear from the agency.
The rest of the agencies never get back to me. They simple apply the “silent treatment”. I imagine that their reasons for totally ignoring me have to do with my fee, payment policy, or my travel requirements, but I will never know for sure.
Now, if you are like me, before answering the original email, you do a little research on the agency. I run a search on the web, and when they have a website (it is a bad start when they do not even have one, or the one they have is one of those free websites full of commercial advertisement) I read it very carefully. Although the wording changes from one website to another, all of them promise top-notch, professional and experienced interpreters. This is what gets me thinking. When the agency does not answer back after I send them my resume and fee schedule, or when they respond to let me know I am too expensive for them, I cannot help it but wonder who are they hiring for these assignments? I know many interpreters and I believe that, at least by name, I am aware of practically all of the top-level interpreters in my language combination. Certainly, I know every name in my region; I have to: this is my market and I am trying to provide a professional service. Sometimes I ask around, sometimes the information comes to me without doing a thing, you all know how it is in this profession: information gets around.
For this reason, it puzzles me how these agencies can claim that they provide top-notch, experienced interpreters when, as interpreters, you know all those who would fit the description, and many times even the ones one tier below, and none of them was retained to provide the service. Are these agencies being honest with their customers when they promise the best of the best? I do not know for sure, and I am not accusing anybody. I just wonder who these “top-level, experienced” interpreters are, and where are they finding them. I would love to meet them, get to know them, and ask them how they can make a comfortable living when they provide their services for such lower fees. I just do not understand; even if I were to assume that they are all brand new interpreters just out of school and therefore (although erroneously, as I have discussed it many times before) willing to work for a lower fee, how would they meet the “experienced” part of the offer?
I am extremely confused, but maybe you are not, and for that reason I invite you to tell me who are these top-level, experienced interpreters these agencies are offering to their customers. In the meantime, I will share this post with clients and prospective clients to see if they can help me solve the mystery, and in the process, I will inform them that the “top-level, experienced” interpreters I know are not been retained by these agencies.
As interpreters we want new technology, but we need to be very careful.
March 19, 2015 § 4 Comments
Imagine that you just received a phone call from a very prestigious organization that wants to hire you to interpret a conference in Tokyo next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The subject matter is very interesting and the fee is extraordinaire. For a moment you stop to take it all in, smile, take a deep breath, and then it suddenly hits you: You have to decline the assignment because a few minutes earlier you took another job with your most consistent, best-paying client who retained you to interpret a conference on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of the same week in Chicago. You hang up the phone and wonder why this is happening to you once again. Why do all good assignments have to be so close in time and so far in space from each other? I am sure the scenario sounds familiar to all of you, because at one time or another, we all face these situations and are forced to make choices. It is obvious that you have to fulfill your contractual obligation to the client who has hired you to interpret in Chicago from Tuesday to Thursday. It is also evident that you needed to turn down the Tokyo assignment because it would take you a full day of nothing but traveling to get to Japan from the United States. Even with the time change you do not have that extra day needed to travel, because, assuming that you make it to Tokyo on Friday afternoon, by the time you get from Narita Airport to the conference venue, it will be too late; never mind the fact that you would be exhausted and in no shape to work three full days at the conference without any rest or time to adjust to the time change. The events and places may be different, but until recently, that has been the story of our professional lives. Every time you think of these missed opportunities you fantasize about doing both events.
What if I tell you that you can do both conferences without changing any dates, and therefore, keeping both clients happy and doubling your income? It is possible! In fact, I have done it myself.
On Tuesday morning you wake up in Chicago, go to the event venue and do your job. The same thing happens on Wednesday and Thursday. Then, very early on Friday morning, because of the time change, you either go to a local studio in Chicago, or sit in front of your computer at home, and do a remote interpretation of the event in Tokyo. Afterwards, because you will be exhausted, you go home and rest until the following early morning when you will remotely interpret again. You do the same for three days.
The result of this technological advantage is that you can do something that until recently was impossible. This is a wonderful example of how technology can help the interpreter. You will make twice as much money that week, because you will work two full conferences, you will not have “dead time” while traveling to and from the venue (usually the day before and the day after the event, and sometimes even longer) and you will keep all your clients happy because you took care of them all. Remember, they wanted you to do the job, not just any interpreter. At the same time the client in Tokyo in this case, ends up a winner, because they didn’t just hire the ideal interpreter for the job, they also spent less money to get you. Yes, my friends and colleagues, the organizers will save money because they will not have to pay for your travel expenses and they will not need to pay you a professional fee for the traveling days (usually at least half of your full-day fee). Everybody wins! As interpreters, we love this kind of technology that helps everybody. You make more money because of the two separate assignments that you will cover, and the organizers will save money as I highlighted above.
We as interpreters want new technology in our professional lives. We cannot deny the benefit of having an interpreter providing services in a remote hospital’s emergency room while she is physically hundreds of miles away from the patient. We cannot argue with the advantage of being able to interpret a trade negotiation between two or more parties who are virtually sitting at the same table even though they are physically in another part of the planet. We cannot ignore the positive outcome of a legal investigation when the investigator can interview a witness in a foreign country while the interpreter is here at home saving the client time and money.
That is the bright side of what is happening right now. Unfortunately, there is also a dark side that we as interpreters have to guard against.
It is a reality that this new technology costs money. It is not cheap, and for the most part, the ones who can afford it, at least on a bigger scale, are the huge multinational language service providers who have recognized all the advantages mentioned above, but for whatever reason, instead of fostering a professional environment where my example above can become the rule instead of the exception, they have seen the new technology as a way to increase their earnings by lowering the professional fees they pay to the interpreters.
It is of great concern to see how some professional interpreter organizations have been infiltrated by these multinational language service providers. It is discouraging to look at a conference program and realize how these entities are paying for everything the interpreter will hear or see at the event. These agencies turn into big corporate sponsors and attend the event with a goal of recruiting as many interpreters as possible, for the smallest amount of money that they can convince them to accept. Just a few weeks ago during a panel discussion at an interpreter conference in the United States, the association invited the CEO of one of these multinational language service providers to moderate the debate, and for that matter, to decide what questions were going to be asked. This individual is not even an interpreter. The real tragedy is that this is not an isolated case, there have been other events, and there are others already planned where the gigantic presence of these conglomerates creates, at the very least, the impression that they decide everything that will be happening at the conference.
As professional interpreters we must be vigilant and alert. Some of these corporations are now propagating on the internet a new strategy where these entities are separating themselves from the machine translation “reputation” by making it clear, to those naïve interpreters who want to listen, that the technology they are using is not to replace the human interpreter, that it is to help interpreters do their job; part of the argument states that thanks to this new technology, interpreters will not need to leave home to do their job, that they will not need to “waste” time going to work or waiting, sometimes for a long time, to interpret a case at the hospital or the courtroom. They argue that thanks to this technology, interpreters will only spend a few minutes interpreting, leaving them free to do whatever they want to do with the rest of their time. Of course, you need to dig deeper to see that they are really saying that with the new technology, they will only pay the interpreter for the services rendered by the minute. In other words, their interpretation of the technological developments is that they can save money, but the interpreter is not invited to the party. My example at the beginning of this post is not an option for most of these multinational language service providers. This is what we have to guard against so that we do not end up making money for 20 minutes of interpreting a day.
Obviously, as you all know, these minute-based fees are ridiculously low, and therefore unappealing to good interpreters. The agencies are ready for this contingency as well. After the exodus of good interpreters, they will continue to advertise their services as provided by “top quality interpreters” because they will mask the lack of professional talent with their state-of-the-art technology. That is where we, as the real professional interpreters, need to educate the consumer, our client, so they see the difference between a good professional interpreter and a paraprofessional who is willing to work for a little more than the minimum wage. These “mass-produced” so-called interpreter services will be the equivalent of a hamburger at a fast food restaurant: mass-produced, frozen, tasteless, odorless, and cheap. We all need to point this out to the world, even those of us who never work for these multinational service providers, because unless we do so, they will grow and reproduce, and sooner or later they will show up in your market or field of practice. Remember, they have a right to be in business and make a profit for their shareholders, but we also have a right to fight for our share of the market by giving the necessary tools to the consumers (our clients) so they can decide what kind of a meal they want to serve at their business table. I invite you to share your opinion on this very serious issue with the rest of us.
“Get an interpreter for that hearing, and try to spend as little as possible”.
March 13, 2015 § 6 Comments
Every time I read an article about court interpreting, look at your social media posts, or have a face to face conversation with a court interpreter, I cannot help but notice how the working conditions constantly deteriorate. For some time we have witnessed how the court interpreting system of the United Kingdom was completely destroyed and our colleagues had to courageously fight back so the rest of the world knew what had happened in their country. Time continues to run, and nothing has been done to improve that system now run by an entity whose greatest achievement was to sink the quality of interpreting services to an unimaginable low. We have witnessed the difficult times that our colleagues who want to do court interpreting face in Spain. We have heard many stories of court interpreters around the world having to fight for a professional fee, a professional work environment, and respect to the profession.
The situation in the United States is also very sad. It is true that the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act has left little choice to the states. Now, state-level courts that want to continue to receive federal funds must provide interpreting services to all non-English speakers who need to have access to the justice system. The new demand for court interpreters beyond criminal cases has “inspired” many court administrators and chief judges to act in new and more creative ways to satisfy the requirement of having an interpreter next to the non-English speaker, even when the quality of this professional service is at best doubtful. To this day, there are jurisdictions where the question is: Does a warm body fulfill the legal requirement of providing interpreter services? Sadly, in some cases the answer seems to be “maybe”.
But the state courts want to comply with the federal mandate, and it seems that some of them will stop at nothing in order to achieve their goal. A popular formula was born: “Get an interpreter for that hearing and try to spend as little as possible”. The origin of this strategy is not clear, but it is obvious that this solution was not conceived by an interpreter. This is not even the brainchild of an administrator who at least has a basic knowledge of the interpreting profession; moreover, this doctrine has been embraced by some federal level courts as well. Let me explain.
Some court administrators have implemented a fee reduction. Today, some interpreters get paid less for their travel time to and from the place where they will render professional services; they get a lower fee, less compensation per traveled mile (kilometer elsewhere in the world) no reimbursement for tolls and bridges, and other very crafty ways that some courts have devised to pay less for interpreting services.
Other courts have increased the level of “scrutiny” and now watch over the court interpreters’ shoulder while they are doing their job; not the way a client observes the work of a doctor, a lawyer, or any professional individual, but the way a person watches over the performance of the guys who dry your car when you take it to the car wash. Many times this breathing on your neck type of scrutiny is enforced by adding paperwork and bureaucratic requirements to the fee payment process. To the interpreters, this means more time spent in the payment process, while making the same money than before the new requirements were in place. They are effectively making less money than before.
Of course there are also courts that now pay a lower fee during the contracted time if the interpreter’s lips are not moving: They pay a partial fee for the break time and travel time, even though the interpreters, who sell their time, have allocated those hours, or minutes, to that court as a client. Now some courts are tossing high fives at each other because they paid the interpreter a full fee for 45 minutes of work and a reduced fee for the 15 minutes in between cases when the interpreter did not interpret because the judge had to go to the bathroom.
And there is more: some jurisdictions have removed themselves from the payment process in those cases when, due to a possible conflict of interest, the court assigns a particular case to a private independent defense attorney, who is a member of a panel of lawyers, who can be appointed to these cases in exchange for a fee that is paid by the judiciary. This jurisdictions do not accept the interpreters’ invoices anymore; they now require the panel attorney to process the interpreter’s invoice and payment, generating two very sad effects: (1) Sometimes, the interpreter will have to wait a long time to get paid because their payment processing is not a top priority to the lawyer, and (2) It will help to keep alive the idea that interpreters are second-class officers of the court who do not deserve the court’s trust, because it is clear that these jurisdictions opted for a system where the attorney will need to access the court’s computer system to process interpreters’ payments, which is “preferable” over a system where interpreters would have to be granted that same access to the system. Why? Because it is too much of a risk to take? You can arrive to your own conclusions, but the fact is that this policy is very demeaning.
My friends, when you see and hear about all these policy changes you have to wonder: As these new strategies were discussed and adopted, where were the court staff interpreters, and the judges, and the administrators who know what interpreting is about? And once they were implemented, why did the freelancers continue to work under these terrible conditions? I now invite you to comment on this policy changes, other rules you may have noticed somewhere else, and the reason why these changes are being implemented with so little opposition.