That Interpreter should not be here.

August 24, 2015 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Today I want to bring up an issue that definitely happens in the United States and perhaps (to some extent) elsewhere.  A few years ago I was working a conference in a big facility that can hold many conferences simultaneously.  During a break, I ran into a technician I have known for years. He was there working for a different event.  Over a cup of coffee we started a typical conversation, very familiar to those of you who work the conference circuit and from time to time get to see interpreters and tech support that are working another event.  From the conversation, I learned that the conference he was doing required interpretation, and the interpreters working in the Spanish booth were from another country.

According to the technician, the event organizer had brought these two interpreters from South America just for the conference.

Later on, during the lunch break, I decided to go to the other conference room to meet the South American colleagues.  I introduced myself and welcomed them to the United States. One of them told me that this was not the first time they had interpreted a conference in the United States.

More conversation revealed that these two individuals were very capable and knew the profession. I also found out the subject matter of the four-day conference and it was nothing that required of any specialized knowledge or expertise; in other words: It was the type of conference that any top-tier U.S. based conference interpreter can handle.  The only difference: These two colleagues were paid less than half of the prevailing interpreter fee in that part of the United States.  The event organizer got two good interpreters from another country for the fee of one interpreter living in the U.S. and still had money left over.  These colleagues disclosed that they had entered the United States on what they described as a visitor’s visa and that they were going to get paid back home in their own currency.

This made me quite uneasy, because, unless the interpreters were wrong and they really had a work visa, which would make their hiring more costly than retaining American colleagues, they were not supposed to work in this country.

Unfortunately, I have heard that several event organizers may be following this practice in the United States. There are other instances when foreign interpreters have been used for events in the U.S. because they have agreed to work for a lower fee. These interpreters, who many times are very good professionals, will get a paycheck bigger than what they usually get back home, but unfortunately, they could be at risk for potential violations to the United States immigration laws because they have entered the country on a visitor’s visa and they have actually worked without legal authority.  I wonder how many times event organizers tell their clients that those less expensive interpreters they are bringing from abroad may put the event’s reputation in a bad situation because of possible immigration violations.

Many of us have also heard about the very capable interpreters who live on the Mexican side of the border, and are sometimes brought to the United States to interpret events for a lower fee than a domestic colleague. We have heard how they apparently enter the country on their border crosser cards and possibly work without a permit issued by the immigration authorities.

I want to make it clear that I am not talking about the escort, conference, legal or diplomatic interpreters who come into the country to work with businesspeople, diplomats, or other dignitaries from their home country. I have no problem with that because these colleagues are coming to do a job that requires of their expertise and perhaps additional qualifications such as a security clearance, company requirements, or an established relationship with an attorney regarding a case litigated abroad.

I am not accusing anybody of violating the immigration laws of the United States either. It is possible that for some unknown reason, an agency or event organizer decided that it is more cost effective to spend money on attorney’s fees and pay for a work visa for an interpreter who will enter the country to work for less than a week, and will get paid considerably less than a United States-based interpreter. If this is happening in the country, local interpreters and their organizations should bring this up to the entity that is holding the event and to the competent authorities.  In my opinion, it is not right that capable and available local talent be bypassed to save some money, and it is even worse when there are violations of law. It is also wrong for the foreign interpreters, especially if they cannot work in the U.S. They will probably have to work even harder and longer than the local colleagues, as they will need to acquire the cultural context and local nuances that are so important for a quality and successful rendition; and they will have to do it for a low fee and a high legal risk.  I now ask you to share your opinion and comments on this issue, and I think we would like to know if other countries are facing this problem as well.

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§ 7 Responses to That Interpreter should not be here.

  • Thank you for informing us of this. Also, I have a distinct possibility to interpret for a U.S. based non-profit organization in November in Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and Peru, following the speaker/author. Don’t U.S. citizens interpreting abroad (for pay) need to get some sort of work permit from those countries too? Thank you for sharing this post. I (we) don’t want to go to other countries and do the exact same thing that those foreign interpreters might be doing here. Also, our CPA keeps us informed about the tax filings that we need to, and do submit for every single state where we interpret. It’s very disturbing to hear that interpreters are coming to work into this country (or state) without being able to do so legally and/or without paying for the taxes. What a complicated world we live in! Wow. We appreciate you.

  • This happens in the European Union, where interpreters in some countries get paid much less, and are brought to the more expensive countries, such as the UK, and work half the fee. The problem in this case is that it is all perfectly legal!

    • It is true that this is an issue in the EU as well, and not just the UK. Can happen basically every time if one of the languages at the conference or event happens to be the language of a country where interpreters are paid less than in the country where the conference or event is being held. And since it usually only happens on the freelance market, where most interpreters are expected to have a retour – then no one cares. Not that the organizers who go to such measures care about the quality of the interpretation anyway. Which means that the profession continues to suffer.

  • Alex Wieder says:

    Globalization is presented as this super-awesome step that will bring about a utopic world, but it isn’t. From what we’ve all witnessed since the term was coined, it has only served to enrich the lives of a few and impoverish the very people it’s supposed to help. It just sucks.

  • Cristina Helmerichs says:

    what is interesting is that it is not just event planners, this has happened for training seminars with DEA, ICE, TX Land Commission, USDA, DHS…

  • Richard says:

    Interesting issue, and as someone has mentioned, seems to happen both ways, from and to the US and other countries, not necessarily just for cutting costs. I wonder how much cost cutting really is achieved, considering someone has to pay the airplane fares of the tourist-interpreters, or are they expected to walk or donkey-ride from Argentina to Texas. I agree, this deserves further research, even if it’s just out of curiosity, but specially if it’s a new market niche.

    • Alex Wieder says:

      A local interpreter, in the US costs about $1000 per day (not what he gets, but what the agency bills) on average. For a conference you need at least two. A conference lasts about 3 days, so that’s $6000 (not including that if travel’s involved, the interpreter needs to be compensated for 1 or 2 additional days – this is between $2000 and $4000 in addition to the $6000 above).

      If you offer an interpreter from, say, Venezuela, $500 for 3-5 days of work s/he’ll be sitting at the airport before you’re done asking.

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