April 26, 2016 § 29 Comments
In general, interpreters and translators find it more difficult to set reasonable fees than most professionals. This is in part because of a new, globalized market, but the main reason for such obstacles has to do with who the individuals providing interpreting and translation services are.
By nature, interpreting and translation have been two of the professions more vulnerable to pretenders and paraprofessionals: the typical “wannabe”. Those individuals who erroneously assume that they can interpret or translate because they speak two or more languages. We are in a profession where real, bona fide professionals have to compete with usurpers and part-timers who view the profession as a hobby, an activity to entertain themselves while their spouses work to provide for their living expenses, and people with no scruples who try to take advantage of the less-sophisticated non-native speakers of society.
Many are able to negotiate and find a way to make a decent living, while trying to survive in this ocean of professionals and impostors. Some even excel and live very comfortable lives full of respect and recognition. Unfortunately, many capable people cannot make it. They succumb to their poor negotiating skills, their internal fears, or they just simply lack the stomach required to go to war on a daily basis. But even those who achieve success in such a competitive field have to face the effects of ignorance, greed, and bad legislation.
All public contracts with the United States government, and many private businesses, follow the same practice: they have to adjust to certain guidelines and rules. One of them is the price that the bidder will charge the governmental or private sector entity requesting the services, and this directly impacts the amount that an individual should earn based on his or her occupation.
The Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) was a publication of the United States Department of Labor which helped government agencies, and private sector employers, to define many different types of work during the 20th. Century. This publication was later replaced by the O*NET system, a digital data base applicable about a decade ago, depending of the type of work, and the business necessity on a case by case basis. Back then, interpreter and translator positions could require a college degree, and for that reason they could command a higher retribution. Since that time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics (OES 273091) based on questionable surveys, has set the bar pretty low as to the mean wages for interpreters and translators. Moreover, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) considers interpreters and translators, including Sign Language interpreters, as “clerical workers” instead of professionals. This classification carries grave consequences, such as the levels of compensation that government contractors can offer to language professionals in all government contracts subject to public auction. Even worse, this is frequently used as an argument by ignorant multinational entities to offer low fees to many colleagues who tragically agree to work for such breadcrumbs, either for lack of negotiating skills or simply out of fear.
Current market conditions have not fatally wounded all real professional interpreters and translators. There are plenty of conference interpreters, basically all of them with some college degree, or many years of professional experience, who have fared quite well in this Darwinian environment because of their negotiating skills and business acumen.
Amending the current U.S. regulations to classify interpreters and translators as professionals instead of clerical help, would be a giant step towards improving the market conditions and giving language professionals the recognition they deserve; and its impact would reach far away, beyond the U.S. borders, because of the major role that the American market plays in both of our professions.
This would allow those contractors bidding for government work a better argument to justify higher fees for interpreters and translators who could be included as professionals on the business plan without questioning the classification. It would also give us additional tools to be used when negotiating with a frugal and reluctant client from the private sector. By their nature, both professions require of individuals who should have some type of college degree at a minimum. A degree in a language-related discipline would be fantastic, but any college degrees could be accepted. Basically, those who graduated from college had to learn how to study and research, and people with higher education are more likely to have more general knowledge, an essential element for interpreters and translators. Following the criteria of the American government, a degree equivalency could also be accepted at a ratio of 2 years of experience for one year of college. This means that those with 8 years of experience could be considered at the same level as a person with a Bachelor’s Degree.
I believe the time is right to make our move, even though we will face strong opposition from all directions.
Many will fight against officially making a college degree or its equivalent (quantified in a minimum years of experience) part of the essential elements of being a professional interpreter or translator.
The first to oppose this change will be the mediocre “interpreters” and “translators” who do not have and never will get a college degree or its equivalency. They will also oppose this changes because they will lose their market advantage over true professionals: Under current conditions, they can offer their questionable services to many clients for a much lower fee than the rest of us. Once the market evens up by requiring a college degree, their clients will opt for a better professional since price will no longer be an issue. The second group that would be against any change is the government. With some exceptions here and there, both, federal and state government officials rejoice when they can hire or contract interpreters and translators as “clerical help” and consequently pay them below a professional wage or fee; and if you do not believe me, I invite you to read any interpreter or translator job description for a government position. You will immediately notice that they require a high school diploma, not a college degree.
Of course, the powerful multinational “language service providers” would fight us to death. Remember, current conditions are the way they are because they have lobbied for them to remain unchanged. After all, their concern and priorities on the “scales of quality” dramatically tilt towards profit. We should expect a good fight from them, after all an “industry” requires of laborers, not professionals. Finally, I also expect opposition from good, professional interpreters and translators who will meet these requirements of formal education or its equivalent, but will feel “bad” for their fellow mediocre or borderline colleagues who they will want to protect. I have a proposal for these valued colleagues:
It is undeniable that, at least at the beginning and until there are enough colleges and universities offering careers in interpreting and translation because more people will be interested as the financial compensation will be at a professional level, true professionals will not be able to cover the huge market demand. It is also true that certain translations will be so minor, and some interpreter assignments so short and uninteresting, that most of us will turn them down as they will not appeal to us from the business perspective. I believe that it is possible, like it already happens in most professions, that these jobs be left to those individuals that could not meet the professional requirements, and without presenting themselves as professional interpreters or translators, would be able to perform minor translations and unsophisticated and less consequential interpreting assignments, perhaps on their own, or maybe under the supervision of a professional interpreter and translator (never a multinational entity or any other agency). By doing this, the market needs would be satisfied, these paraprofessional individuals would be able to make a living by translating birth certificates or interpreting at small claims courts, and the profession would be protected.
I know that to some of you, this sounds complicated and impossible, but it is not. Nothing happens without an effort, and if we want our professions to be respected and recognized, if we want to eliminate the unscrupulous practices of many multinational agencies that are taking advantage of the current system, and if we want more of our colleagues to enjoy better fees and working conditions, we need to start somewhere. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your thoughts and ideas regarding this issue.
April 12, 2016 § Leave a comment
The horrible things that are happening all over the world made me think about the risks that we face as interpreters just by doing our job. It is very true that nobody can claim to be completely safe in today’s violent and fanatical world, but one thing is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and another when your profession takes you to dangerous, or potentially dangerous situations.
Those of us who constantly travel, and are at airports or train stations four or five times a week, live with security checkpoints as part of our daily routine; we are very aware of the potential risks of traveling, and I am not talking about airplane or train accidents. I cannot say that I have never looked at somebody as a suspicious character, or that I have not considered the possibility of something awful happening while I travel or during the events.
Conference and diplomatic interpreters live with this constant danger every time they do their job; and it is not just the times when we interpret for heads of state or religious leaders and we have to remain by their side, it is also when we are working in a booth during a top-executives’ conference, a summit of high-level government officials, or an international organization session. The fact that we have to go through security checkpoints several times a day should tell us something about the risks we take just by doing our job. It is exciting to work with the president of a country, or with the Pope, but at the same time, you cannot avoid looking at your surroundings to see if there is something out of the ordinary going on.
Of course, the most obvious example of interpreters risking their lives and physical integrity is that of the interpreters in conflict zones or providing their services as part of a military mission. As we know, unfortunately, these brave friends and colleagues are at risk even after they are not working any longer, and even after the armed conflict has ended, as is evidenced by all the terrible stories of interpreters killed by the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan while they wait for the western governments to keep a promise to protect them, as they assured them a long time ago.
Not only terrorists and war enemies put interpreters’ lives and physical integrity in danger; court interpreters also face the rage of criminals, and perhaps even terrorists who are trying to make a twisted point through violence. According to the National Center for State Courts in the United States, the number of threats and violent incidents targeting the judiciary has increased dramatically in recent years. At the federal level, the U.S. Marshals Service Center for Judicial Security reports the number of judicial threat investigations has increased from 592 cases in 2003 to 1,258 by the end of 2011. At the state and local levels, the most reliable data comes from studies by the Center for Judicial and Executive Security (CJES). They show that the number of violent incidents in state courthouses has gone up every decade since 1970. I used to do quite a bit of work in court, and there were many times when I had to do a “reality check” and pinch myself to stay aware of the fact that I was sitting next to an alleged murderer. In fact, I was told once by a U.S. Marshal that I should never sit next to the defendant in court; that I should always sit around the corner of the table in case I needed to dock or run, and he told me to always be aware of what is left on top of the table: “… a stapler or a pencil in the hands of a criminal can turn into a murder weapon in a matter of seconds…”
And we are not even talking about dealing with angry family court litigants who had to stand in line for 30 minutes to go through the metal detector in order to gain access to the courtroom.
Then we have the jails and detention centers where incidents of violence are perhaps less common due to the tight security, but together with immigration courts and hospitals, they present another enormous risk to the interpreter: transmission of a contagious disease.
Unlike conference and diplomatic interpreters, healthcare and immigration court interpreters work with clients from all over the world, many of whom just arrived to the United States from countries where certain diseases, already eradicated from the U.S., are still common among the population. The risk of being exposed to TB and other serious health problems is not small in environments where people from everywhere congregate. Some of these “ideal” places are jails and detention centers where court interpreters work, immigration courts where immigration interpreters provide their services, and the clinics, hospitals, and urgent care facilities where healthcare interpreters work right next to people who could be the carriers of a serious health hazard.
So now the question to you all, my dear friends and colleagues is: What do we do then? Do we quit our work? Do we stop traveling? Should we avoid riskier assignments?
Of course, these questions should be individually answered, but so far, the evidence indicates that our collective answer is: No. We must continue doing the work we love and enjoy. We are providers of a professional service that is needed for most human activities. We cannot become the victims by choice. The truth is that many of us do our work in dangerous, or potentially dangerous, situations, but we are not alone. There are great professionals who are trained to protect us. The Secret Service, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals, policemen and Sheriff Deputies, our heroic armed forces, other security guards, and our own common sense, will help us when the time comes to make a decision or take a stand. We just need to be alert.
I congratulate so many of you, friends and colleagues, for your courage and sense of responsibility. Continue doing your job; charge accordingly for your professional services, taking into account the risks you take every time you do your work. The client needs to know this, and has to understand it. It is one of those intangibles that we must include in our fee, not as a separate item, but as part of what you quantify during the process of preparing an estimate. Just like you factor in your professional education and experience. You deserve it. I now ask you to please share with the rest of us your thoughts about the dangers and risks of the profession, and please do me a favor: Do not take any chances, always use your common sense. Stay safe.