Excuse me, interpreting is a professional service. Got it?
March 5, 2015 § 17 Comments
My work takes me to many different places, and my determination to stay on top of everything that happens in the world of interpreting and translating motivates me to read everything I can if it involves our profession. Traveling, talking to friends and colleagues, reading what many of you post on social media, and my own professional experience, keep me aware of some of the most important things that are happening out there; unfortunately, an issue that never seems to go away is the client-interpreter relationship and how so many colleagues give in to the clients’ conditions, even when they are wrong and unfair.
Some of us have spent years fighting for the “professionalization” of our craft; for interpreting services to be recognized for what they are: a professional service provided by a professional: the interpreter. For too long we have rejected all efforts by others to classify us as non-professionals, suggesting that bilingualism and a high school diploma are sufficient credentials to be regarded as a professional interpreter. Every day we are involved in a constant struggle against those who pretend to pay a lower rate and offer substandard working conditions under the rationale that, although a difficult job, interpreting is not a professional activity and should not be compared to the medical or legal practice.
It is a time-consuming, energy-draining effort, but we are winning the battle. The bad news is that we should be way ahead of the place where we find ourselves as a profession right at this moment, but for the interpreters who give in and happily welcome already discredited working conditions and obscenely low fees. This is, my dear colleagues, the biggest obstacle we have to confront all the time. The reality is that some of our very own colleagues have turned into the worst enemies of our profession.
I have heard statements from some colleagues such as: “…(the agency) pays very low rates to the interpreter, but their clients are high-end, so I love working for them…” or this one: “…Yes, they pay a miserable rate, but at least they give me work when I need it…” and how about this: “…yes, they (the agency) pay very little and it always takes a long time to get the check, but (the person who books the assignments) is such a wonderful lady, so I work for them all the time…”
I am sure that you are shocked but not surprised. We have seen this everywhere, again and again.
When I read the statements above, and many other similar remarks, it is clear to me that not all interpreters are the same. I am not talking about good or bad interpreters, I am not referring to rookies or veterans either. I am talking about professional interpreters and their nemesis: the paraprofessional.
Everywhere, and certainly in every field of interpreting (with the exception of military interpreting because of its very specific characteristics as a profession) we find dedicated, devoted, responsible individuals who make a living from interpreting. Sometimes they will have a formal education, some others may have an empirical formation, but they all have this in common: Their income derives from the practice of their profession. Some may decide to look for an employment position in the government, an international organization, or a private company; others may opt for the freedom of action offered by an independent practice as a freelancer. It does not matter, they all approach their job as a profession, provide a professional service, and demand fees and conditions consistent with a professional service.
Then we have a second group: the bilingual individual who knows the basic aspects of the profession, in many cases formally educated and well-traveled, who never really wanted to be an interpreter, but “landed” in the profession. Many of the members of this second group, but not all, approach interpreting as a pastime, oftentimes they are not the main source of income in their household, and the money they make from interpreting is spending money that they use to buy shoes, clothes, or the latest technology gadget. This men and women find in the world of interpreting nothing other than an antidote to their boredom. In many cases becoming an interpreter was suggested to them by somebody else who saw how bored they were. These are the former housewives and househusbands who got tired of watching TV at home and decided to do something with their time. Making money is not one of their priorities, staying busy is their main goal. The interpreters in this group have no intention to study or practice to move up in the profession. They just want to keep a cozy place where to spend their free time. This is the group that I call the paraprofessionals.
But not all of the paraprofessionals fit the description above. There are some who really need to work to support themselves and their families, they found interpreting “by accident” and to them, a low fee for their interpreting services, regardless of how low it is, will always be better than the minimal wage job they were doing before they realized that they could make money from being bilingual. These individuals will never consider themselves professionals and their strategy and approach to all assignments will be that of a laborer. A depressing thought is that even some people with academic credentials will gravitate to this group instead of acting as one of the professionals because of fear. There are afraid of being blacklisted by the draconian entity whom they get most of their work from because they think that working every day, even when you work for breadcrumbs, is better that working less, even when you make more.
It is this group of paraprofessionals who accept rock bottom fees and work under deplorable conditions (solo interpreting, no equipment, no travel time, etc.) that will continue to undermine our accomplishments as a profession. There is no easy solution to the present predicament because the goals of the groups are so far apart. While the professional interpreters want to be treated like the professionals they are, the paraprofessionals are willing to accept any conditions as long as they keep busy; some of them just to have something to do, others because they think they are making good money. All I can suggest, and continue to do myself, is to educate the client about the difference between the services by a professional and the interpreting that a paraprofessional does.
You will never convince all clients, but the good ones, those that you want to keep, will understand sooner or later, and they will bid farewell to the paraprofessional group. We should also try to convince the “hobby-interpreters” that they are hurting the profession and they should act more professionally (good luck with that because there is no incentive for them to reject the sorry conditions they are accepting right now) and will definitely need to spend time with the “accidental-interpreters” and the “fearful-interpreters” until we convince them that it is in their best interest to professionalize their service and appearance. Because there are incentives for this group to change, some of them will eventually cross the lines and enter the world of professionals. The main thing is, for us, the professional interpreters, to never give up or give in. To continue to forge ahead for the recognition of our profession, and for the betterment of the working conditions of all professional interpreters. Remember: There will always be good and bad clients; we just need to look for the good ones and be treated like professionals.
I now invite you to share any ideas or thoughts about other options to end, or at least diminish, this practice of accepting any of these nefarious assignments.
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