What interpreters should do when asked to charge less for their services.

September 13, 2016 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Lately, it seems to me that there are requests everywhere for interpreters to work for less and even for free. Whether it is the Olympic Games, the political campaign events in the United States, or the community organizers’ voter registration actions.  Everybody seems to want a free ride.  At first impression, it looks like these are worthy causes and we as interpreters should be on board; unfortunately, when you take a second look at the request, you start wondering what is really going on. You see, Olympic Games’ organizers ask us to provide our professional services for free, they tell us it is a righteous idea, it will help to bring people together, and it will contribute to world peace. Then you realize that the physicians, paramedics, attorneys, dietitians, and many other professionals involved with the Olympic movement are not doing their jobs for free, they are getting paid for their professional services.  The same thing happens when you notice that the person asking you to volunteer your interpreting services to a political campaign or to a community organization’s event are paid staffers who do nothing for free. Something is not quite right.

Principled causes and ideas are great and we celebrate their existence, but professional services should always be remunerated, regardless of the virtuous cause they help advance. Otherwise, professionals should only get paid for awful, despicable activities. Under this criteria, healthcare workers should always work for free.

This reminds me of an occasion, many years ago, when a judge asked me to interpret a restraining order application form for free. When I refused stating that I would not do it unless I was paid for the professional service, the judge told me that it would be my fault if I refused and the victim was later harmed by the alleged perpetrator she was seeking protection from. He said that I was greedy.

Despite the fact that this judge was backed by an ignorant selfish interpreter coordinator at that courthouse, I immediately responded that my services were professional, just like the judge’s. I then asked him what kind of moral authority he had to scold me for not working for free while at the same time he was making a pretty fat check for presiding over the hearing. I did not interpret and I never knew what was of that alleged victim that a judge refused to help, because it was up to him to lend her a hand by just approving the payment of my professional interpreting services of the restraining order application.  You see, it is easy to be a Good Samaritan when it is on other people’s dime, it is more difficult when it affects you directly.

It is easy to ask for volunteer work when you are getting paid for asking others. I have nothing against volunteer, charitable work, but it has to be on my terms. I am a professional just like the physician, or the judge of my story, I run my own practice and I have to generate an income to cover expenses and to live the way I want to live; in my particular case, I work hard and provide an excellent professional service to be able to live my lifestyle.

As professionals, we must never lower a fee to give someone a break because they are poor, needy, or just need a break to get back on their feet.  You see, the day you agree to reduce your fee to a client, regardless of the motivation behind your decision, will be the last time you were able to charge your regular fee. From that point on, because everything gets to everybody’s ears in this world, all clients will always ask why you are charging them a full fee when you charged a lower amount to another client.  It is a dead end with no return.  It is a terrible business decision. I think you are starting to see why a lawyer or a doctor ask you to lower your fee for their “needy client or patient” while at the same time they charge them their regular fee.  When someone asks you to provide a professional service for free or at a reduced fee they are belittling the profession; they are automatically placing you in a separate category from the one where doctors, engineers and accountants are.  To lower your fee is a disgrace.

People, clients included should know that they will always be able to find someone else willing to work for a lower fee, but you are not that person. Your services are of the highest quality and that goes hand in hand with a robust fee.  On the other hand, because we should have a spirit of social empathy and solidarity, we must provide certain services pro bono.

Please pay close attention to what I am about to say:  As a professional, I am who decides when to volunteer my services, I decide the causes that are worthy of my time and effort. Professional interpreters should set aside a time for these free services, buy it should be at a time and place you decide; that way you can set the time aside when it does not interfere with your professional practice or your personal life.  You should designate, let’s say, the first Saturday of the month from 8 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon to assist anyone who needs your services for free, and you should do it at a church, community center, or similar venue. During that time, chosen by you, you will interpret legal, healthcare, school or any other community situations that those attending the facility during the previously set hours many need. Once the time is up, and at any other time, you will only see full-fee paying clients.  This is very different from living at the mercy of others who may want you to provide free or discounted professional services at times when you should be taking care of your professional obligations towards your paying clients.  This will immediately put you on the driver’s seat and will make it clear to everyone that you charge for your services, and sometimes, when the cause is righteous, and on your terms, you provide services free of charge. By doing so, you are not lowering the professional standards, you are not harming your own practice, and you are not insulting the profession.

Next time that you are asked to lower your fees or to work for free because the client deserves a break, stand firm on your regular fees, and if you decide that you want to provide a service for free, not discounted, then let that person know the terms of your pro bono services.  I ask you to please share your thoughts on this very delicate issue that is vital to us as individuals trying to make a living, and to the profession at large.

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§ 12 Responses to What interpreters should do when asked to charge less for their services.

  • It should be remembered that the Olympic Games, for all the hype, is a COMMERCIAL VENTURE and even the “games makers” should not be asked to work for free. The idea of “volunteer” interpreters etc. was first introduced at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, I know, I was there and I was one of the few interpreters who was actually paid for my work, as I was only working for the EBU. At the time, interpreters were asked to give up SIX WEEKS of their lives (three weeks’ training and three weeks at the event) and work for free! A few interpreted on TV for various foreign athletes who were being interviewed and the results were appalling and totally incomprehensible.

  • Marj says:

    I use a standard implied in your post: if other professionals are volunteering and the cause is important to me, I may volunteer, but if others are being paid, I refuse, even if I value the cause. I’m an interpreter, my husband is a musician-two professions that are constantly asked to render services for free. One has to be strong! Oh, and what a jerk that judge was!!!!

  • hcazes says:

    I agree completely with you Tony, and appreciate that you brought about this topic that frecuently comes up in different fora.

    There is a big trend of asking translators and interpreters to volunteer their services for charitable causes and NGOs.

    It is important to stress, as you have said, that not because it is for a charitable cause, an NGO, or an indigent person, it should automatically be concluded that everybody works for free for them, and that the professional is a cruel materialistic and insensitive person who is horrible in daring try to ask for payment for the service rendered.

    I agree that each person individually should decide when to do volunteer work and for whom. You may decide to give a discounted fee, or even offer your services for free.

    But I have a recommendation. It is always a good idea to let the recipient of your volunteer services the value of your work.

    I usually give an invoice, where I mark what I would have charged, giving them a discount % (which could go up to 100%). This serves two purposes:
    First, as I said, they will know and appreciate the value of the service (sometimes they really have no idea).
    Second, you could actually write it off as a donation (for which they can give you a receipt that you could even use as a tax deduction)

  • Helena says:

    Bravo! My two thumbs up for you Tony! I have been preaching exactly the same to my fellow Cantonese/Mandarin professional interpreters!

  • I fully endorse your idea of letting customers know that you are a proven professional and what you are charging for your services corresponds to the value of the experience and capacity that you have to accurately interpret/translate their proposals.
    I have seen requests from large companies asking for “Interpreters with intermediate knowledge” of the target language to assist in important projects; can you imagine the results of that intermediate interpreting job will be? On the other hand, I’ve seldom seen a serious company or client asking for rebates or free services for their requests; this tells you that they understand the importance of their projects
    Too many cheap-unexperienced interpreter-translators have appeared in the scenario in the last few years, and this gives customers the idea that prices can be as low as those that these invaders propose. Thanks for raising the issue!!

  • Kevis says:

    I give it up to your thought…but just partly, cuz there are several questions we need to answer: 1. First n utmost, whats in it – the event/assignment for us?; 2. Whos the client?; 3. How frequent we’ll deal?; 4. What event?; & 5. How significant is it? The bottom line: Respect needs to be earned. Relations, kept. Hence, rewards, poured in. All the best to you, fellow! Kevis, Fulbright.

  • I fully agree. Another version of this is people who ask for a quote with the only intention to ask you to lower your rates. I have already refused that saying that I provided quality work and there was no way I should sell off.

  • Dwight says:

    Wonderful article Tony.

    As an ASL interpreter, we are lucky enough to have the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandate our services in many areas.

    I see ASL Interpreters frequently asked to donate their services to a “Charitable cause”, when in fact the ADA requires them to provide services (The Boy Scouts of America was one good example until a few years ago when federal funding was pulled).

    I liked hcazes’ comment about deduction the discount. I do something similar when I do a full donation of my time and interpreting – I have the organization actually pay me in full, and then I don’t the money back to them. This way it is fully tax deductible if they are a 501(c)(3) organization. And, if they are not a tax deductible charitable organization, I would never consider discounting or donating my work.

    I do have a different rate if one of my Deaf consumers needs me for a function where they have to pay out of pocket because it is not mandated, but I do not consider that a discount – it is just a different rate.

  • Vorya Dastyar says:

    Hi. I can’t agree more. I think each and every one of us translators and interpreters need to know where we are standing, and do our best not to let any one downplay us and our profession. working for free damages our profession; We should not do that on anyone’s terms.

  • Monkey Magic says:

    I have often thought that the reason sign language interpreters are expected to offer free or discounted work, or are criticised for being ‘expensive’ (rather than cost effective), is as a result of our association with a disability, services for which often fall into the voluntary sector. Disability too is often seen as expensive or not worthy of an equal service and really, this attitude towards us as providers, comes from people really not valuing people with disabilities. This I have witnessed when interpreting when hearing people start holding their own conversations while I’m voice-over the Deaf person; this just tells me that they think that someone that can’t physically use their voice has nothing valuable to say, and you might just as well use someone with a sign language qualification in lieu of someone trained, qualified and registered to interpret for all the worth that a Deaf person has to say. I wonder if spoken language interpreters experience this too or is it something that occurs because of perceptions about disability and it’s worth?

    • edithcuth says:

      I work in the UK as a spoken lang interpreter and I’ve found a similar attitude to what you describe here – in my case, the underlying reason being xenophobia rather than ableism.

  • Mariano Torrespio Ortiz says:

    A punch to the mouth is never friendly. When asked to charge less for professional-interpreter services, I immediately ask the attorney: “How much of a discount do you want?” That question squelches some of the nastiness of being disrespected in public, and replaces the onus of such chicanery upon “the client attorney”; all performed in the LEP’s presence. With that insult (more work for fewer dollars), the attorney signals the end of that business relationship. Usually, such a deliberately offensive request is a long-gestating consequence of the office politics of the Spanglish-speaking staff of the attorney, for whom interpreting is, indeed, “just talking”. In the event, weeks later, after the law firm has employed every discounted-price “interpreter and interpretress” who is a friend and relative of the Spanglish staff, the law firm re-calls the professional interpreter when a lawsuit requires a faithful, true, and accurate interpretation. Never-the-none-the-less, that business relationship is moribund — like a marriage after domestic violence — perpetually soured by such contempt, ’til the interpreter ignores telephone calls from that dead-end client. A punch to the mouth is never friendly.

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