Excuse me, interpreting is a professional service. Got it?

March 5, 2015 § 17 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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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§ 17 Responses to Excuse me, interpreting is a professional service. Got it?

    • A Reader says:

      Dear Professional Interpreter,

      I always like reading your pieces – this one was really important for me. I want to become a practicing physician AND a medical interpreter (for 2-3 languages); is it possible to pursue both professional paths or should I pick one over the other? I respect how much time it takes to truly become a skilled interpreter for one language alone; and I respect the time it takes to become a skilled doctor too.

      I LOVE linguistics (not just as a hobby, my ideal working environment is a multilingual environment) and learning foreign languages. I love studying medical science.

      Is it even realistic to keep up with both of these areas professionally and still have time for a family?

      Do I need a reality check?


      A reader of the blog

      • Inge Gomez-Michel says:

        Dear reader,

        My humble recommendation to you would be to become a bilingual or multilingual doctor. You seem to love the medical sciences and as the immigrant community is growing in the US we are in great need of real good bilingual health care providers. We don’t have enough medical interpreters to cover all the medical facilities in the country. Could you settle for that?

      • annieux says:

        Dear A Reader: I recently met such an individual. He was a doctor, practiced for a long time and is now an amazing interpreting and translation teacher as well as a professional. He has the training for both professions, knows 4 languages + and I must admit a true mensch. An answer to your question IMHO is Yes, it’s doable, no reality check necessary.

    • Cynthia Montjoy says:

      Thank you for your insight into the value of this profession. I have been interpreting for over 20 years. One thing I would like to share with all those who are truly professional interpreters (and not just bilinguals) is that if you don’t value your services, no one else will. I have worked for a number of agencies. All of them try to offer the very least, even though an interpreter may be very skilled. What most inerpreters may not understand is that the rate they offer is negotiable. I have litterally laughed at their offer and told them in no uncertain terms that their offer is unacceptable for the level of expertise that I have. I reiterate my experience and tell them that I cannot accept less than XXX. Surprisingly they accept. In reality they know we are worth it, but they hope they can get away with paying less so more goes into their pockets. Without our voice (or hands for sign language) they are nothing. Don’t let them minimize your worth! If you are convinced of it, they will pay.

    • weinterpret says:

      Exactly Cynthia! Most agencies are penny-pinchers, they try to squeeze and squeeze as much as they can from us ” the workers”, to fatten even more their fat pockets. I loose assignments here and there exactly for the same reason. I rather loose them than allow them to get away with murder!!!

  • anh says:

    I am a professional interpreter! There is no doubt, and I enjoy reading your post! There are some amateur interpreters there spoling our profession…However; I enjoy being a medical and legal interpreter.
    Am studying medicine also and wish to be a doctor as well as interpreter. But some times it is very hard to give up the profession one loves to perform – interpretation for all

    Signed me as your faithful reader,

  • André Csihas, FCCI says:

    Dead-on, Tony!

    As we well know, this profession is deceptively easy to some who are under the impression that just because they speak or understand one or more languages, they can interpret or translate those languages as they have some sort of familiarity with them.

    This condition presents itself frequently in those who have ever attended, observed and listened to a hearing or a trial in any of our Justice Centers but realize that they simply aren’t cut out to do that type of work. This is also true in conference interpreting. There are always those interpreter wannabes who haven’t been able to get to that level but want to reap its benefits: It has a smattering of “stolen valor” but played out in the linguistic arena, and in some, with a surly attitude to boot!

    Many show up thinking they can hack it, but very few are chosen.

    As you so well described, perhaps those who are bored and bilingual yearn to do something with their languages but don’t quite realize the knowledge, effort and practice it takes to get it going. As I mentioned in one of my previous contributions to your magnificent blog, speaking the “kitchen” variety of a language is not the same as speaking its educated version and exercising it in the professional world.

    Interpreting is a professional service, indeed.

    The tragedy comes about in part because there will always be someone who’ll do the job for less and therein lies the rub.

    I firmly believe that clients and other entities that benefit from our services, are perfectly aware of our professionalism because they can certainly compare our skills with those of others and I’m sure they can instantly tell who can pass muster and who can’t. In my opinion, if a client can’t appreciate that, they don’t deserve to be our client, nor should we waste our time with them.

    The edge of our linguistic sword must be continually honed in the lull, so that we may be ready to use it in the thick.

    André Csihas, FCCI

  • Hi, Tony. Professional interpreter here. I got a message yesterday asking “can you cover” a medical interpretation assignment, 2 hour minim at….
    wait for it….
    This is typical. I wrote to say sorry, I can’t work for that little pay, and got a message back that it had been covered. So we are up against a wall of ignorance, and an army of willing peons.

  • terri shaw says:

    In the Washington DC area there are some agencies that pay very low fees and are always looking for interpreters at the last minute. I really wonder who works for them. I wonder if these are bilingual people with very little training. I also had the misfortune of working with a very unprofessional “interpreter” who apparently was hired because he had a high security clearance. He did not seem to understand the correct protocol for an interpreter–even tried to participate in the meeting. I was shocked and dismayed and did not know what to do.

    • Inge Gomez-Michel says:

      Hi Terry,
      Nice to hear from you. We took a 3 week course with Harry Obst on consecutive interpreting in the 90s, I think…

      I’ve had the same experience you had over the years and felt the same way…What do you do….? Fortunately the meetings or conferences are short and don’t go on for weeks. I am not the type to complain to the agency or client about my colleagues ever, or tell them directly that what they’re doing is unprofessional… I would never do that.
      But no doubt Terry, it makes it very awkward and “embarrassing” to say the least, working with unprofessional, amateurs interpreters…

    • Jazmin Manjarrez says:

      If you don’t mind me asking….what are the fees in Washington, D.C.? I have been thinking of moving back there as I was raised there, but left many years ago.

  • […] Dear colleagues: 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 everythi…  […]

  • Jazmin Manjarrez says:

    Tony, I totally agree with you. Smart clients can tell the difference. A professional interpreter knows how to manage the encounter and makes it flow smoother. If the interpreter conducts himself in a professional manner, they command more respect. I absolutely deplore interpreters who are in it because “they are bilingual” and oh what fun it would be to be an interpreter. This kind of interpreter is like a virus infecting the profession and confusing the clients. Sadly, agencies are in it for the money, so sending out warm bodies, calling them interpreters, and paying low wages, is exactly what they are looking for to line their own pockets. Educating the client as to the difference between a professional and a non-professional is a never-ending struggle, because they want to get away with paying as little as possible. It’s a Catch-22.

  • Inge Gomez-Michel says:

    I read all your posts Tony and wanted to thank you and encourage you to keep posting, please! Keep raising consciousness and awareness in the interpreting community about what it mean to be a professional interpreter. I was fortunate to have been trained at ISIT (Instituto Superior de Interpretes y Traductores) in Mexico City, in my early 20s. My father suggested this profession for me after I finished high school because she used to admire the president’s great interpreter Italia Morayta (now I’m dating myself.. lol), and he thought that I could do the same…lol.. So he signed me in at ISIT and I never considered any other profession but interpreting. So when I moved here to US I went for court training to UA Summer Institute and I have taken many courses on legal and medical interpreting throughout my career here in the US. My experience is that I have rearly met an interpreter that began as an interpreter like me. And I have met great professional interpreters here in US. Most interpreters here as you said fell into the profession while doing something that had nothing to do with interpreting..But I have met many professional interpreters in Latin America and Europe with an interpreting background. I guess the reason is that the interpreting profession is so new here in this country. When people ask my opinion about doing something else and interpreting I always say, you can’t be a doctor and a lawyer at the same time. Do one or the other…What do you think….? Maybe you can…?

  • Jose Lopez says:

    Ignorance is the enemy if many things, as it is the fertile ground for full-blown lies and half-truths (and the consequences thereof). People in general do not understand what chiropractors, astronauts, composers, interpreters, metallurgits, morticians, etc. do. I only work for clients and others who respect me (consider me worthy), and understand me, PERIOD. Life is too precious to waste time convincing someone that what I do is critical in life and that interpreters have been extremely critical throughout history (for good or bad). Let them suffer the consequences of their ignorance. It takes no genius to realize that if you use a pseudo-interpreter to transfer your words to your defendant, patient, etc., you are risking being accused of ineffective assistance of counsel, medical malpractice, etc., but if people want to be lazy and not take two seconds to contemplate the idiocy of using a mere-bilingual during communication, well…that’s on them. Why should I waste my time trying to educate people. Let the University of Hard Knocks teach them! I do not “waste” my time educating people who chose ignorance –ignorance is chosen, it is not foisted upon– but I do instead what some CEOs do, and that is say a little something through benign influence and persuasion (also known as “power”) to let people realize on their own, the error of their ways and maybe repent (have an about face turn). For example, the other day an attorney told me how at a particular county in the deep South, their courts provide jail trustees (inmates) during court hearings to interpret for his clients. You heard me right. This lazy attorney even used the jail inmate trustee pseudo-interpreter for confidential meetings with a federal case client of his. Did the attorney call me, a Federally Certified Court Interpreter who holds a contract with this district to interpret for his client who was facing a life sentence? Nope. That’s HIS problem. Instead of wasting my time, I just took three seconds to say something like: Oh well, I guess that by now the whole jail knows everything that transpired between you and your client. You should have seen the look on his face. When you plant a little strand of truth RNA like that, it goes wild in the mind of the recipient, and that person comes to his/her own conclusions and just like an RNA virus, it replicates, the person talks to other people, and before you know it, the word spreads. Word of mouth is a powerful thing. The fourth richest billionaire on earth, for example, made his fortune by word of mouth. All you have to say is “ineffective assistance of counsel.” Or “malpractice,” or “the trial court was reversed by the court of appeals.” Enough said.

  • annieux says:

    Great thought provoking article, unfortunately it’s nothing new which means, it indicates that nothing has really improved in the last 20 years. Everybody is out on their own. It would be great if we had a accreditation program that businesses and agencies would recognize. I know that in many countries (especially in Latin America) you need this accreditation to work as an interpreter and translator. Right now there are too many entities that want a piece of the huge pie and are not willing to work as one in favor of all.

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