The new government could help interpreters in the U.S.

January 20, 2017 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

“We are sorry, but we will not be needing your services after all. We decided to hire some interpreters from the country of the people attending the conference…”  Does this message sound familiar? How about this: “…They decided not to retain me because they found somebody less expensive in South America.” (It could be Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe).

Every interpreter in the United States (and other countries) has been part of this situation too many times in their career. The reality is that many agencies and event organizers are trying to save a buck, and with globalization, it is now very easy to hire a team of interpreters in a foreign country, offer to pay them in U.S. dollars (or euros), and bring them to interpret an event in the United States (or Western Europe) for very little money, compared to what professional interpreters typically make in that market. The foreign interpreters may be excellent, good, or bad; most likely, they will not be acquainted with the local culture, geography, current events, humor, and idiomatic expressions of the place where they are going to interpret, but they will save the agency a lot of money. To them, the little money they will get paid, and the second rate accommodations provided by the promoter of the event will be acceptable because they will be earning more money (and in hard currency) than their typical fees in their home market. The result is not good for the American-based interpreters who cannot afford to work for so little just because of the cost of living and doing business in the United States. I believe that it is not the best possible outcome for the audience either because the foreign-based interpreters (even some of the best) will not be able to understand and therefore interpret all the nuances of the speaker’s presentation just because they do not live in the United States.  Every U.S. interpreter has had this experience when working with a colleague who comes from a different culture, and we have also suffered the painful, stressful situations when we do not get a geographic site, local celebrity’s name, or regional expression because we do not live in the country.

The only one who relatively wins in this situation is the agency or event promoter; and I say relatively wins because they will eventually suffer the impact of this culture-deprived renditions.

To complete the sad picture I have just described, we have the case of those “less expensive” video remote interpreters who provide services for events held within the United States from abroad, and the telephonic interpreting services agencies that have moved a big chunk of their business to foreign countries with little overhead, lax legislation, and much lower salaries. The result: a good number of U.S. based experienced conference interpreters, willing to do video remote interpreting for a fee set by the American market, and many telephonic interpreters, including many who are just entering that market often encouraged by the same agencies alien to the profession but part of the “industry”, will lose their jobs or find little work because the bulk of the interpreting services to American clients are now provided from calling centers in Asia and Central America, and quite a few agencies look for video remote conference interpreters abroad without even looking for them in the United States.

This week a new president takes the oath of office in the United States, and a very prominent part of his agenda deals with protecting American jobs. This is where we can take advantage of the current mood in Washington, D.C., and demand that the new government keeps its promises to the interpreters and translators in the United States.

A new tougher immigration policy will benefit U.S. interpreters if we move our chess pieces wisely.  We must demand Congress, The White House, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security to enforce the labor laws of the United States. You see, most foreign interpreters brought by the agencies enter the United States on a tourist/ visitor visa without ever disclosing the fact that they will work in the U.S.

Working with a visitor’s visa is against the law; misrepresenting your purpose to enter the United States is cause for denial of admissibility and in some instances it could be a crime. Agencies that bring foreign interpreters this way are also breaking the law and should be investigated and fined by the federal government. If the law is properly enforced to protect American workers (that is: all of us) the agencies would need to file a work visa petition with an immigration service center, show a business necessity to bring that individual to do the job, demonstrate that there are no United States citizen or lawful permanent resident interpreters in the United States who are willing and able to perform the service the agency needs in exchange for the prevailing wage or fee for that service in that part of the United States. If the petition is approved, the foreign interpreter would need to attend an interview with a consular agent at the U.S. embassy in his country, and demonstrate that he is qualified to do the job, that he will go back to his country after the assignment is over, and that he has no criminal record anywhere in the world, including any past affiliation to terrorist groups or prior immigration violations in the United States such as deportations, overstays, or having worked without legal authority. Only then, and not a minute earlier, these people could enter the U.S. to work as interpreters for that conference. As you can imagine, this takes time, costs money, and often requires of the services of an immigration attorney. You see, dear friends and colleagues, all of a sudden the U.S. based conference interpreter got a lot cheaper than the foreigner, even if the agency needs to pay market fees in America.  This is our chance to end the “interpreter smuggling” that is happening right now in the United States. Of course, this does not cover foreign interpreters who come as part of the team of a foreign diplomat, head of state, dignitary, or celebrity. Those interpreters will enter the country with their client and for a specific mission that requires of them personally based on other characteristics. They will be paid in their home countries for a service that would not be performed by anyone else, American or foreigner. Even though it has been treated as one and the same, it is very different to enter the United States as the interpreter of the president of Argentina, and enter the country to interpret a conference at the Honolulu Convention Center.

The new government advocates a policy that keeps jobs in the States and will likely sanction those businesses who move abroad and try to sell goods and services back to the American consumer. There is no question that all these interpreting agencies that have moved abroad will qualify for sanctions as long as they provide their services to people in the United States. I believe that the fines and the cost of litigation to keep their facilities abroad selling their services in the United States will be more expensive than closing shop in Costa Rica or India and moving the telephonic interpreting center to Arizona or California.

I understand that this entry may not be very popular with many of my friends and colleagues abroad, but I ask you to please pause and examine your market structure so you can strive for better and more professional conditions in your own countries.  I also believe that much of what I say here can be applied, and in fact has already been implemented in some countries. Only when these conditions even up across the markets we will be able to universally enjoy the advantages of globalization.

You see, dear friends and colleagues in the United States, there is plenty we can do to protect the profession and advance our working conditions under the philosophy of the new administration.  I now ask you to share your comments with the rest of us, and I beg you to please limit your participation to the issues subject matter of this blog, and refrain from politically charged comments either for or against the new government.

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§ 12 Responses to The new government could help interpreters in the U.S.

  • Kathleen Morris says:

    I agree 100 per cent with Tony’s opinion on the way these matters SHOULD be handled. Being a realist, however, I don’t see any of these reforms taking place anytime soon. Unfortunately, Congress and the departments and agencies mentioned in his blog, will likely not practice what they preach, under any administration, Trump’s included.

    Long held vested business interests, and the lobbyists who help to ensure cheap foreign labor for world corporations (of which many agencies form part), plus the interests of those responsible for multinational trade agreements, do not make these proposals very likely to be implemented in any foreseeable future.

    I would love to be proven wrong about this; sadly, I don’t think I will be, Trump’s and Congress’ immigration policies notwithstanding.

  • From your lips to God’s ears, Tony. I am more inclined to agree with Kathleen’s assertions of what it is about to happen in the years to come.

    We will see what it is in store for us in the profession.

  • Unfortunately neither party has been enforcing labor laws at all. Since Uber won the class action suit against them, it’s clear that we’re in a post-job Uber economy where anything goes.

  • Incredible reasoning, but… let’s wait and see!

  • I hope for the best for our colleagues

  • I recently talked to a Deportation Officer and he told me that they will definitely go after the employers who hire undocumented workers. They will fine them heavily. I recently heard General Kelly in Honduras when he was head of the Southern Command. They used a local (Tegucigalpa) interpreter of questionable quality. Also, the event organizers here in the USA should not bring foreign interpreters to do our job here, like you explain is happening. Let’s fight that.

    • Kathleen Morris says:

      The only effective way to fight it is to lobby for national laws that mandate minimum certification standards in the U.S. for conference interpreters who work stateside (such as AIIC or Federal Court certification). Currently, anyone who speaks a second language and touts themselves as “qualified” or “experienced” can be hired as a conference interpreter, at rock botton rates, especially if he or she agrees to work without a partner.

      That is the reality. Absent such a law, domestic and multinational agencies will continue to flout immigration law with impunity, with absolutely no sanctions.

  • We have the same problem over here, except that, being members of the EU, it is perfectly legal to hire an inferior local interpreter because they are cheaper than “imported” ones. The people who hire interpreters are also becoming more and more unreasonable. Recently, a job was advertised on ProZ for a French-English-French simultaneous interpreter in Vienna. I applied and found that the hirer was a new Spanish agency. Suddenly, the venue was changed from Vienna to some remote, snow-bound Austrian location in the Tyrol. In February, and with the Italian avalanche/earthquake not that far away! And for one day! The agency is new, and did not answer my demand for two days’ accommodation as it would be impossible to leave the same night. I do not know who they used in the end. Similarly, I have been asked to interpret simultaneous alone for three hours in another language, the agency claims that the client will not pay for two interpreters! The agency is equally ignorant about simultaneous interpreter and has no idea that equipment is required! That is another problem that you have not addressed, the fact that a lot of agencies are asked to find simultaneous interpreters but have no idea about simultaneous interpreting and the equipment they need.

  • Jill Ananyi says:

    One thing that you are missing here is that almost all of the “jobs” you are talking about here are not considered real jobs by most politicians (or government entities), since we are independent contractors and paid on 1099s. No one has to check any database to see if a contract worker is legal to work here.

    While people may voice support for using U.S.-based interpreters in the United States, our plight is not something that is catching any politician’s ear, nor is it likely to unless we are reclassified as employees. The Freelancers Union in New York is currently working toward that end and has successfully lobbied to get a law here in New York that will help freelancers collect from deadbeat clients.

    • Dear Jill, thank you for your comment. You are right. The task won’t be easy; however, many of our colleagues would hate the idea of being considered employees. Foreign physicians, attorneys, and other professionals are precluded from working in the United States. That is the gang most freelancers would want to join, not the ranks of the employee interpreters.

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