We need to change the classification of interpreting and translation as professions.

April 26, 2016 § 28 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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.

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§ 28 Responses to We need to change the classification of interpreting and translation as professions.

  • mariosphere says:

    The one kernel of truth that held my interest in this diatribe against “part-timers, usurpers, impostors” and other angry words is the paragraph about the BLS definition for translators and interpreters.

    I am all for enhancing wider recognition of our profession (I am a translator) but rallying statements (as I were listening to a speech given by a union leader) are quite distasteful in my view.

    • Mariano Torrespico Ortiz says:

      Mr. Mariosphere,

      Sorry, but you are pretending to miss the point. Unionisation is precisely what interpreters and translators need. I am an interpreter and a translator (30+ yrs.), and nothing that Mr Rosado said is false or angry.

      Perhaps you have been fortunate, and never had a monolingual, Anglo client try to chisel-down your agreed-upon fee, because the “bilingual employee can also do what you do”, which is readily solved by returning the job to the client. The offensiveness is in the “bilingual” employee’s participating in trying to cheat a professional.

      To turn a blind eye upon such crookedness is in bad taste.

  • Dear Colloeague

    I fully endorse your views on our profession. I am a qualified English Spanish Interpreter from a National Tertiary School in Argentina, which by the way, was the only official school running a full career in Interpreting ( four year s training at college level ) The current situation in Argentina is as follows : THE LENGUAS VIVAS SCHOOL where I graduated does no longer run theses courses and students must study at private universities whose level is substantially lower. There are some people offering themselves as Interpreters but the good ones in general have studied abroad . At the ENGLISH STUDIES CENTER, A TERTIARY SCHOOL authorized by the local MINISTRY OF EDUCATION trainees can acquire a solid basis IN iNTERPRETING. Still there are few applicants who meet the groundwork level for a start in the profession . Compounding this situation further, there are many bilinguals, o so they claim to be who think that Interpreting is a mickey mouse job and add to the general confusion.
    I think that what you are doing by speaking plain and simple will do the `profession a lot of good.

  • Mr. Rosado, I am in complete agreement with your article.
    I would add that experienced interpreters and translators should be required, as part of their CIMCE obligations, to provide mentorship, orientation and guidance to new generations of colleagues, as well as provide public service.
    I believe we need to reach out to our respective communities, too, and show our value to society. It is outside the courts (other gov’t. agencies, private/public agencies) where we find the underqualified bilinguals who try to provide language services, and there are legions of them. They outnumber us; we are battling systemic mediocrity. It is the status quo.
    Let’s get out there and show our communities who the REAL Community Interpreters. We can be the leaders in this field.

  • Lucinda Aragon says:

    Well put. I totally agree.

  • Milena Calderari-Waldron says:

    Tony, your colleagues have been busy addressing this very same issue for some time now. The first step is to have a set of job descriptions we can all live with. We are now welcoming endorsements from other T&I professional associations.

    T&I Descriptions
    http://www.najit.org/documents/03082016/T&I%20Descriptions%20-%202016-04-20.pdf

  • Wouter says:

    … “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,” …

    Mr Rosado, they also do not pay their social dues (income tax and social security premium) which gives them another unfair leverage over professionals who got everything properly in place.

    I concur with your very well written thoughts on our profession.

    Wouter,
    Bangkok

  • Mark Willan says:

    In order to get interpreting recognised as a profession, there needs to be work done in terms of standards, ethics, nature of work, continuing professional development and the like. Politics (eg. union -like approach) would be kept well out of it. Compare with Bar associations, for example. They are all about professional standards, education, etc. Politics are kept well out of it (except for internal elections)/

    • Mariano Torrespico Ortiz says:

      Sorry, but you are being unrealistic. A labour union is precisley what interpreters and translators need; y’know, strength in unity. Politics out of interpreting and translating? In the real world, it is brass-knuckle politics when fakes steal jobs and wages from professionals.

      Incidentally, the Bar Association is a labour union of lawyers, despite the word “union” not featuring in the title of the organisation. The professional standards are in place, we need a formal organisation (a national, regional. local T&I union) to enforce the reality of proper qualifications. Politics cannot be “kept out” of the business, because human relations are politics.

  • Sean Stromberg says:

    In Colorado, The Judiciary originally classified court interpreters as being similar to court reporters, but most court reporters are not bilingual.

  • Hartmut says:

    The old DOT by the Dept. of Labor classified interpreters engaged in sign language, such as ASL, to be among the clowns, jugglers and other artists, giving them the same numerical prefix as these. Each occupational title in the DOT carries a 9 or 10-digit number. Why that was so is a mystery, although I have a suspicion. The translators between spoken languages were classified as professionals with a university education and carry numbers corresponding to academicians. Community interpreters were pretty unknown then.

    The profession of interpreting and translating, including those engaged primarily in community settings, has grown since founding of Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) in 1964, which developed a professional code of (ethical) conduct and certification examinations and training programs in nearly all states in this country.. However, only approximately one third of currently working ASL-English interpreters have various kinds of certifications, mostly due to the high demand.for their services. I think, the same can be said for interpreters between spoken languages.

    Now spoken language interpreting agencies have seen monetary lucrativeness in having sign language interpreters in their stalls and are bidding for contracts from government, corporations and health service providers. They lack expertise and knowledge of the Deaf community to place the personnel properly. Some damage from incorrect placements and dissatisfaction of Deaf consumers have occured.

  • Arnaldo says:

    As a professional interpreter with over 20 years of professional experience under my belt, and who isn’t considered “mediocre” by many satisfied clients, I am a bit reluctant in offering my full support to this initiative. You see, although I am fluent in three languages and have a wide cultural background, I lack a college degree. I happen to be a dropout of 2 prestigious (at least at the time) Brazilian federal universities who abandoned his studies to pursue a musical career in the USA. Well, long story short, I ended up in this rewarding field, but at my age, with a family, a full time job as a court interpreter plus freelance conference work on my time off, I’d be hard pressed to find the time and/or motivation to pursue a degree this late in the game, and would certainly not be too pleased if this detail ended up being detrimental to my professional or financial achievements. Professional experience as degree equivalency needs to be more emphasized. I know for a fact that there are other great interpreters who are very much in demand in the same position. Interpreting isn’t like Law or Engineering, it is an art at least as much as it is a profession. A bachelors degree does not equate—or is necessary—to a competent performance, and as such, I don’t think it should be required for professional classification.

    • Mariano Torrespico Ortiz says:

      Yes, Arnaldo, you are precisely the (experienced and knowledgeable) exception who proves the rule; a college degree is the minimal ticket to ride the T&I profession.

      I am a medical and judicial interpreter and translator, and have had to tolerate fake Spainsh interpreters who say “nursa” (nurse|enfermera) and “terapista” (therapist|terapeuta) because they are bilingual amateurs who know themselves to be fake, but happen to have scored a full-time job as “staff interpreters”. These frauds are the measure used by hospitals and other businesses in judging and hiring a professional and then chiseling the fee; this is all about money, about exploiting professionals.

      The suggestion is not that a professional like you, Arnaldo, obtain a pro forma degree, but that we protect our profession from uneducated, untrained thieves. When I have discussed this matter with attorneys, they scoff and dismiss our professionalism as unimportant, until I propose the same to them: Imagine, if failed law students, law-school dropouts, and lawyers denied admission to the bar were allowed to “practice law”. How would that affect your income and the credibility of your profession? Guess the silent reply.

  • Mariano Torrespico Ortiz says:

    Mr Rosado,

    Thank you, very, very much for spelling out the dire exploitation occurring to professional interpreters and translators (medical, judicial, etc.). I especially enjoyed the faithful, true, and accurate descriptions of the amateur thieves who pretend to be professionals.

    In Illinois, the state supreme court have established a data base of certified and registered judicial interpreters, because too many penny-wise attorneys were misrepresenting “bilingual” friends, girlfriends, and employees, as professional, judicial interpreters.

    Yet, Jesus does love the real thing, and, usually, there is a native speaker in the jury who unmasks the fake interpreter — who has been “translating” with the usages “He said” and “She said” — afterwards, the trial is paused until a professional is called in to do the job faithfully, truthfully, accurately, and promptly . . . then there is bad blood between the amateur and the pro, who then is paid late; ni modo.

    In medical interpreting, the situation is slightly better, because medical interpreting requires formal training. In that circumstance, the good work (usually complicated cases, thus complicated interpretation) is given to the freelancer assigned to “do coverage interpretation”, whilst the mediocrities “hang out”. I know this from experience, when a physician asks why the staff are not as proficient as the freelance.

    Never-the-none-the-less, in time, the fakes fade and the work again becomes available to the pros; but a formal organisation, run for and by interpreters and translators, not business-people, is necessary for us to earn a living without having to fight off zombies.

    Count me in for any effort to establish a formal organisation for and by professional interpreters and translators; in my experience, the ATA do not count, because they behave as a private business enterprise who do not guard the business interests of the professional interpreter and translator.

    Keep up the good work. Again, thanks.

  • ISO 113611:2014 addresses community interpreting as a profession, not as an informal practice such as interpreting performed by friends, family members, children, or other persons who do not have the competences and qualifications specified in this International Standard or who do not follow a relevant Code of Ethics.

    http://www.iso.org/iso/catalogue_detail.htm?csnumber=54082

  • MACI admin says:

    Hi Tony,
    Great articles on your blog page. We have linked your page to our website:http://www.macigroup.org/index.php?page=dictionaries&L=ALL.
    Thank you for your dedication.
    MACI administration

  • Interesting article —

    I agree with Mark Willan (“there needs to be work done in terms of standards, ethics, nature of work, continuing professional development and the like”) & josealejandronavarrete (“experienced interpreters and translators should be required, as part of their CIMCE obligations, to provide mentorship, orientation and guidance to new generations of colleagues, as well as provide public service”), like for example AIIC does. It also sounds like there is quite a bit of complaining and you really offer no solutions. As Maribeth Bandas points out, ISO standards for T&I are currently being developed to counter some problems in our industry; and I am working as one of the experts on the Japan side. There are delegations in the US too. Perhaps you may wish to explore this (link below).

    http://www.iso.org/iso/iso_catalogue/catalogue_tc/catalogue_tc_browse.htm?commid=654486

  • Milena Calderari-Waldron says:

    ASTM has recently published the interpreting standard http://www.astm.org/Standards/F2089.htm. Now it is up to all of us to make sure contracts conform to it.
    Certification programs and testing for court and medical interpreters is widespread. So is continuing education to maintain those credentials. Now it is up to all of us to ensure that credentialing becomes mandatory.
    California court interpreters have unionized as state employees
    http://www.calinterpreters.org/
    Washington State’s freelance medical and social services interpreters have unionized as independent contractors http://interpretersunited.wfse.org/
    While still not where we would like it to be, the professionalization of interpreting is well underway. The ball is in our court now.

  • As a university-trained [in Italy] translator and interpreter, who received also a graduate degree in the US, who is one of a handful who passed the conference level test of the State Department in Italian, and has been practicing for the past 25+ years in a variety of fields and settings, I agree with what Tony says and I am aware and grateful for all that has been done and is still being done by AIIC, NAJIT and ISO to better define the role and qualifications required by translators and interpreters.

    I have a couple of comments:

    – Having a clear description of the definition and requirements for an interpreter, is an achievement, considering that no such generally accepted description exists and people still think that translators and interpreters are interchangeable terms, that any interpreter can transcribe, etc.
    We should definitely work every day, every chance we get, in order to make those descriptions known and used.
    However, nobody seems to mention that within the interpreting profession there are different skill sets and different skill levels.
    There are situations where an interpreter performs tasks which could be described as clerical, such as, for instance at a registration desk for a conference. The skill set needed in such situations is very different from those required by the interpreters working at the simultaneous interpretation of the speeches for the same conference, yet, the people working at the registration desk are hired as “interpreters” and can correctly claim on their resume and tax returns that they worked as “interpreters” at that conference.
    I think it is necessary to define and differentiate the various situations where interpretation is necessary, not just the mode or the field: medical interpreting can be done at a medical conference in simultaneous mode, during the medical exam of a patient, in a clinic, in simultaneous mode as well, or while a patient is booking an appointment for a blood test, in simultaneous mode too, if the situation allows it. But the skill set and level required by those three situations, I am sure you all will agree, are extremely different, and it makes sense for them to be paid at different rates.

    – I am a strong supporter of the need for specialized college and graduate education in our professions. I often say that it is not fair to let your first clients and teammates pay for your education, when people advocate the “learn by doing” philosophy. A degree in T&I allows you to train and start working only when you know for sure you are able to provide at least the minimum requirements for a job.
    But requiring at least a college degree [and I would stress in the T&I field]applies to people who are entering the profession. Those who are already in it and who do not have a college degree can be grandfathered in with a peer review process. That should not be too difficult. After all, we never work alone: interpreters have teammates and translators and editors have each other.
    Professional equivalency alone does not say much, as people may claim they worked for 10 years, but we do not know how many assignments, in which field, in which situation, etc. and most of all, we do not know how well they performed. I feel that a peer review process would provide a better alternative.

    Maria Galetta.

    • Mariano Torrespico Ortiz says:

      Dear María,

      Thank you, for the clarification. I agree with you that establishing strata of expertise is a good way to organise ourselves as interpreters and as translators.

  • Thank you for your very well witten article. I couldn’t agree more.

  • J. LeMaster says:

    I just checked the OPM website to see if the US government considered interpreters as clerical employees. There is a classification of people who are primarily clerical workers who occasionally interpret/translate with what looks to me like a very basic level of sophistication. The Information and Arts classification is for those who interpret or translate as the majority of their work duties. That classification includes typists, stenographers, and court reporters. The GS level takes into account the employee’s education, proficiency and other factors. A federal employee with a Master’s degree starts at close to $43K plus benefits. Most interpreting positions I’ve seen advertised start at $20K beyond that. Not a bad compensation package for “clerical work.”

  • Daline tenkeu says:

    I totally agree with and i thereby greet my fellow who brought up such idea. Our profession has to be considered and respected….

  • It seems we need a letter writing campaign or get the National Coalition of Interpreter Associations to formally request reclassification.
    Regardless, the activities of ‘interpreting’ and ‘translating’ are not protected as is ‘practicing law’, or ‘providing therapy’. As non protected activities, unfortunately, anyone who claims to ‘interpret’ or ‘translate’ can do so.

  • Josée de Kwaadsteniet says:

    Thank you very much for this interesting article. Being an interpreter (French) for many years myself now, I totally agree with you. I just read an e-mail from someone still following classes and she mentioned that she had started “a new adventure”, as if she was going on safari…Unbelievable how many think about our profession, where at least I do, not see this profession as “an adventure”, but a profession where you can only be succesfull in after many years of hard study,working and a lot of experience…

  • […] Dear Colleagues: In general, interpreters and translators find it more difficult to set reasonable fees than most professionals.  […]

  • Paloma Cerdán says:

    Everything that is discussed in this article is perfectly reasonable and logical.
    One of the main things that needs to be clarified and people need to understand about the job of interpreters and translators is that not everyone who knows two languages can interpret or translate.
    One of my greatest fears as a Translation and Interpreting students, and I believe it to be the most widespread fear among the rest of my fellow students, is not being able to completely make a living out of this profession. There is a great supply of professional interpreters while the demand for interpreting work is relatively low. If those “impostor” interpreters are added to the equation, the situation becomes even more difficult.
    As potential professional interpreter, I believe we need to stand up for ourselves and protect our profession. Interpreters carry out a very difficult task that is of great importance for the community and we should ask for an appropriate level of respect and professionalism according to it.

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