The biggest danger to the interpreting profession.

June 15, 2015 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreters face many challenges every day; some are professional, some are technical, and some are market-related.  Today we are going to talk about this last category, and we will particularly devote some time to what I consider to be one of the greatest dangers to our profession.

Many times, you have read, heard and complained about the huge bad agencies and the backwards government offices you have encountered during your career. We all know they are there and we should be extremely careful when dealing with them so that our best interests as freelance professionals are protected.

There are other entities in our environment that could be more dangerous because they seemed harmless and deal with many interpreters more often than any other client. I am talking about the small interpreting agencies that exist all over the world in huge numbers. I am referring to those agencies that are individually owned and operate in small markets where so many of our colleagues live and work.

We all heard of the big interpreting agencies, but the truth is that most interpreters do not live in New York City, London, or Chicago. They live in smaller cities and communities where the big agencies rarely take over the market; and they don’t do it because, by their standards, there is not enough money to be made. There are no big conferences, there are no international organizations, and there are no Fortune 500 corporate headquarters.  The void left by these big players is occupied by “mom and pop’s agencies” that find these smaller markets attractive, and free of competition against the big language business organizations.

Although there are some honest businesses owned by people who know and care about the profession, many small interpreting agencies are individually or family owned, often times the company owner knows nothing about interpreting or translating, and is monolingual.  These individuals come from other professional backgrounds such as sales, computer design, or public relations, and they just happened to stumble upon our profession due to marriage or a change of residence to a more linguistically diverse community.  Because of their personal characteristics, and often (but not always) because they are native speakers, they can produce an adequate sales pitch for their not very sophisticated market, and the next thing you know, and without any real knowledge of what we do, they start offering interpreting and translation services and booking interpreters for assignments such as administrative law hearings, medical office visits, and “second-tier” conferences in their own region.  So far it sounds bad, but not horrendous. Allow me to continue.

The reason why the get government offices, medical doctors, and small event planners to hire them is twofold: They have enough knowledge of their market to access the places where these clients look for language services (internet search positioning, chambers of commerce, local fairs, etc.) and they offer translators and interpreters for a lower fee.  This is the sale!

Remember, when they first started their business they knew nothing about our profession. By now they have learned one thing, the only one they ever cared to learn: You can get translators from poor countries, and local interpreting talent (mediocre at best) for rock-bottom prices. Because of their “sales skills” they are able to convince their client, who is eager to find the cheapest service provider ever, that their professional services are provided by “adequate”, “qualified” native-speaker interpreters. The bureaucrat, doctor, or businessperson who is hiring the small interpreting agency, does not know anything about interpreting experience, certifications, degrees, licensing, patents, or any other interpreter credentials, and they are so thrilled to get the interpreter so cheap, that they will believe anything this ignorant will tell them.

Of course, due to the rickety pay, the agency owner will have these (mediocre at best) interpreters working under deplorable conditions such as obsolete equipment, bad interpreter location inside the room, no interpreting booth, and no team interpreting.  Sometimes they will brag to their interpreters that they got them a table-top booth to do their job, and every once in a blue moon they will provide a real technician to be by the interpreter’s side throughout the event.

After the interpreting services are rendered, these agencies will take their sweet long time to pay. Many times a “standard” payment policy will be 90 days, and even then, some of these raiders of our profession will tell the interpreter that “their client has not paid them yet” and will use this as an excuse not to pay the interpreter, who erroneously, will feel sorry for the abusive agency owner, and will gladly agree to wait until the agency gets paid. Never mind the house mortgage payment, the kids’ school tuition, and the family medical expenses. The interpreter will now wait for the “poor agency owner” who will console himself in the meantime with a trip to Hawaii, tickets to an expensive sports event, or at least a fancy dinner.

Dear friends, interpreters will take these terrible assignments, wait forever to get a tiny paycheck, and go back to the same abusive agency owner mainly for two reasons: (1) Because the interpreter is so incompetent, that he knows deep inside that no one else will ever hire him to work, and (2) Because they are so afraid of never working again for this same individual.  Not because they are bad interpreters (although each day they will be worse if they stay with the agency and continue to work under those unprofessional conditions) but because they do not know how to get their own clients; because they believe that the clients belong to the abusive small agency owner, and they cannot take them away.

The thing is, dear colleagues, that it is precisely because of the second reason above that these dangerous agencies exist. They are in business because interpreters are too afraid to go directly to the client and explain that the agency is run by a person who knows very little about interpreting, that the service they have been providing through the agency is second-class because they have been asked to work without any technical and human resources, not because they are second-tier professionals. Many times when these interpreters offer their professional services directly to the client, they find out that the agency was keeping more of the paycheck than they thought, and sometimes the government agency, doctor office, and event organizer will realize that they could even save money when they pay the interpreter his full regular fee.

I know that some of you are thinking: (1) What about interpreter services in other languages different from yours? The agency finds and provides all these “exotic” language interpreters on a regular basis. The answer to that is very simple. Although it is not of your concern because you are an interpreter, you can teach the client how to get other language interpreters. If you have been around for some time, chances are that you will be able to provide a name list to the client, and this will satisfy most of his needs. For the others, you can suggest professional associations’ membership directories such as ATA, IAPTI, AIIC, NAJIT, IMIA, etc. and perhaps for those occasions, the client can reach out to one of the big international language agencies. I see no problem because this would help your client without harming anyone. After all, there is nobody in town who could do the job. (2) What about that contract we signed that states that we cannot even look in the direction of the small agency’s client? Many of these agency owners included this provision to discourage interpreters from talking to clients. The best thing to do is to take the contract to an attorney and ask if the provision is enforceable (not legal). If it is not, you know what to do, and if it is, then you just have to wait for the provision to expire, after all none of them is forever.

I know that my colleagues in the big world capitals have little to do with these “family businesses”, but they have appeared here and there from time to time, so please be very careful, avoid them, and remember, in the big city there is always another way to get work.  The solution is, my friends and colleagues, to reject work from these entities, fight over the market so they cannot keep it or take it away from you, and observing the law, act like a business. You have an advantage: you know your profession.  As you can see, in my opinion we have to separate the big multinational language service providers from these “mom and pop’s” agencies. The big ones meet a market need that we cannot meet individually. Although we have to be firm and careful when negotiating with them, we need them for the big events and conferences.  These small ones, these apparently harmless local business are a real danger to the profession. The good news is that in this case you do not need them. You can fulfill the needs of your market.  I now ask you, the interpreters, to please share with the rest of us your opinion about these small and dangerous agencies that are all over the place.  Please do not reply if you are one of the rare exceptions among this business entities. I already mentioned you as some of the few good guys at the top of the post. And please do not bother to comment if you represent one of these agencies and you want to defend what you do. You have your own forums where you “make your case” all the time.

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§ 12 Responses to The biggest danger to the interpreting profession.

  • Carmen Febres-Cordero says:

    Great article as usual Tony. You make a really good point. Regarding going directly to the client, I contacted the Department of Labor in PA (after hours on the phone) about a company that had been awarded the worker’s comp hearings. It was mediocre, ineffective and cheap, and it was located in the state of California! I stated my case only to be told the government gave the contract to the “best” bidder, that is, the cheapest. I get frustrated by the lack of jobs ( translations being taken to South America were companies can pay $0.02 per word) and interpreting jobs being given to this agencies who are offering a pitiful rate. What can we do?

  • Hi Tony. Thank you for the article. I can think of two small “mom and pop” agencies that were absolutely horrible, and of course, I don’t work for them. Actually, one agency was a “mom” (there was no “pop”) and the other had a “pop” and daughter. Anyway, I do work for three super small family run agencies (under a million dollars a year), and they are absolutely a jewel to work with/for/under -you pick your preposition. They all have idiosyncrasies, of course. These ultra-small company owners ARE professional interpreters too, some of whom hold Ph.D’s, etc. These are amazingly professional top-notch people who pay well, but I know who you are talking about in the article. They should be avoided, yes.

    Carmen above mentioned going to the Dept. of Labor in PA and her experience there. Getting a state-wide workers’ comp or social services contract is a huge undertaking. I hold a MBA from a top university in the United States, so, I know the hundreds of hours of work to “get” one of these contracts; it’s not a phone call or two, it is hundreds of hours of filling out RFPs, providing documentation galore, meetings, getting insurance, paying legal fees, CPA fees, etc. I’m just saying. Take it or leave it. Not all agencies are run by Dr. Evil. I know you know that. Also, if you do get a big contract, prepare yourself to do 90 assignments… PER DAY throughout the state. It’s a lot of work, and you have to do it perfectly every time.

    I currently live literally in the middle of nowhere in the extreme deep South. It’s so remote here that I can literally see the Milky Way Galaxy at night with the naked eye. All that to say… that the huge interpretation companies are alive and well. I get calls to work for them to do depositions all the time (often they have ridiculous requirements that I reject). Also, when I moved to this state, there was a small interpretation company already here, owned by a woman, an interpreter, a very good interpreter. I had a little apprehension in approaching her at first, but as it turned out, she’s awesome, and we work well together on projects, etc. So, I’m trying to say, not all ultra-small agencies are bad. You have to get to know people.

    • Carmen Febres-Cordero says:

      Jose, I wasn’t trying to get the contract or anything like that, I was calling to complain about the company’s performance.

      • Hi Carmen,

        I’m sorry that I did not read your comment carefully enough. I assumed you wished to have worked with the Dept. of Labor directly, rather than through the CA company that you were rightly complaining about. I don’t work for that company, but every now and then I do some Workers’ Comp interpreting for a different company in an Eastern Seaboard state where I used to live, and they are a very small company that treats the interpreters super well, in fact, they are both interpreters, the Ph.D. and his wife. They have the state-wide worker’s comp contract, and it was an enormous amount of work for them to get that contract.

        I also get frustrated for that lack of jobs and ultra-cheap “competition” in S.A. What can we do? you ask. Well, I’m asking the same thing. I don’t know Tony very well, but feel like I do, because he is such a fantastic writer, and I get the idea that he (and I) believe we should constantly improve and develop new relationships with good respectful customers who pay well. I’m trucking along working a lot of different jobs. I’m constantly trying to develop those “direct” clients, but it’s not easy, it is diligent persistent work. A lot of interpreters who meet me for the first time, ask me to work with them as their conference partner and recommend me to their clients. That’s one thing to do, meaning, make the best of every meeting that you have with other interpreters. I’m sure that you do that. Everybody gets sick, takes vacations (except me, it seems), have weddings to attend, etc., therefore, everybody needs a substitute; so, I’ve many times helped colleagues in that sense. OK, just some thoughts. I appreciate your comments, and Tony’s.

  • […] Source: The biggest danger to the interpreting profession. […]

  • terri shaw says:

    I worry about the ethics of contacting the client directly, even if the agency is not good. It seems dishonest. I usually stay away from the bad agencies. I would really hesitate to go behind the back of someone who had hired me. In fact, one client tried to hire me directly because the agency had sent interpreters who did not do good work. I said I had signed a contract, and she said other interpreters had violated the contract. I am not sure what to do.

    • Hi. Yes, of course, we cannot go behind the back of our client (the larger interpretation agency), BUT, we can make contact with a potential direct client, say… “ABC Manufacturing Company” for their upcoming conference on efficiency or whatever, as long as we did not FIRST come in contact with them (ABA Man. Co.) through the language company. You’re doing the right thing, and you will be richly rewarded.

  • elenaruiz2 says:

    Reblogged this on cautivadulce.

  • Zulma says:

    Tony’s article has very important information. And yes there are good small interpreting companies and there are not so good. I work in MN for an agency that is small and to Tony’s article, I could say that its true. It has been a nightmare to try to get paid. I started in March and as of today no payment. Its been a struggle. I’m not going to accept anymore jobs until this gets resolved… and not anymore! Its frustrating.

  • Agata Baczyk says:

    Hi Tony,
    Great article! I agree with you on many aspects of what you are writing about. I do have to say, however, that Jose brings up a very good point. Not all small agencies are bad. I am a Master level interpreter certified in 3 states and I run my own agency as well. I treat my interpreters fairly and with respect. I always pay on time regardless if I collected the pay from my client or not, and trust me, some of them will take months or come up with excuses to not pay! This is a tough business but my idea of operating when I first started was to provide a high quality services. That’s how I run my business. I rather make a smaller profit but hire a top notch interpreter and have my client happy and content with the service. I have worked as an interpreter for years before I opened Legal Interpreters LLC and the understanding of the demands of the profession is crucial to run a successful agency. But its not only the small guys who abuse the industry. Its the big guys too! There are many large companies that provide low quality services and pay their interpreters as little as $15 per hour. I worked for one of them at the very beginning of my interpreting career, years ago, and they didn’t even care to check if I speak any other language but English or if I had any interpreting training or an idea what I need to be doing once at the assignment. The difference between the two is that the large companies might actually have the needed knowledge but they ignore to apply it as they are profit driven while the small ones just lack the knowledge, as you described it above. Anyway, you are making a great point, but that applies across the industry and not only to small “mom and pop’s” places. The key is to train the staff involved in the scheduling process, even when they are not interpreters, if they are smart, intelligent people, they can be taught the ins and outs about the industry, as long as they are trained properly, by an individual who actually knows the profession well and that is what is missing in the big companies. Let me know what you think about that.

  • Here in California, where I am located, most of the small agencies with which I am familiar, as well as our own, are run by professional certified interpreters. Most pay on time, although I recently had an experience in which the owners of a mom and pop agency– both interpreters– realized when I didn’t accept an assignment that they hadn’t paid me for an earlier one. They sent the check off asp, even though I hadn’t mentioned it.
    We have as problems with large out of state agencies– usually from the East Coast which try to undercut the usual rates charged by interpreters. I don’t know if they just don’t know or if they are greedy. When no certified interpreter will take the assignment for their rates they will send a non-certified interpreter and justify it by saying they haven’t been able to find a certified one.
    I have been working with newly state (consortium) certified interpreters to make sure that they will not ever charge under the Court rates, fail to charge mileage where justified or charge under the generally agreed upon rates for depos, translations, Worker’s Comp, etc. I also give them the names of other agencies with assignments which pay the going rates, along with phone numbers, areas covered, etc. That way they won’t undercut the rest of us and will get off to a good start.

  • Isa says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I agree that if you have signed a contract with an agency that you not operate outside of that agreement with their clients. It is frustrating when you know the agency’s “clients” long before they came on the scene.
    The only way around that, in my mind, is to not work for said agency at all.

    Here is my story of the way I conduct business as a sole proprietor.
    I have my own LLC for interpreting and seek smaller clients who do not contract with anyone else. I never charge my current clients a dime. I specialize in medical interpreting for workers’ compensation and MVA patients exclusively. Being independent, I have learned how to make a good profit without the need to provide the added fees typically charged by an agency. For these two types of patients I bill the insurers directly. My clients are thrilled to never receive a bill from me. And I can charge the full rate allowed by law (which is high in Oregon). If I work for offices (outside of this arrangement), I do charge for no-shows and cancellations of less than 24 hours, but strategically do not charge my full rate. This is in contrast to most language agencies. I also do not charge a minimum beyond one hour. I’ve heard of some agencies in town requiring, let’s say, a 2 hour minimum for an appointment that is known to last for only one hour or less. Because there is no middle man between my exclusive clients and me I am able to do business this way.

    My clients are extremely happy with the way I conduct myself in the interpreter sessions, the individual and thoughtful service that I provide to them, and the fact that I am available over 95% of the time for the time slots they desire. One of my clients even included me in the gift giving of their regular employees at Christmas time.

    The point to my story is that you can find your niche and truly make it a win win situation for you, your providers, and patients.

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