Should interpreters work under those conditions?
April 24, 2017 § 6 Comments
Freelance interpreting is a beautiful career but it has its complications. Besides the general complexities of being an interpreter, independent professionals must worry about getting and keeping clients, the administrative aspects of the business, and the market conditions, including competitors, unscrupulous agencies, and ignorant individuals who, knowing little of the profession, try to set the rules we all play by.
We all have our own personal motivations to work as interpreters. All legitimate and many honorable. I am an interpreter for two main reasons: Because I like working in the booth, and because of the freedom, flexibility and income.
In my experience, I have rarely encountered a colleague who hates the profession (although I have met some). Freedom and flexibility are appealing to many; but with the actual decision to take or reject assignments based on content and other factors, or the relentless pursuit of professional good work conditions and a professional fee, many interpreters bulk at confronting the market and demand what they deserve.
For many years I worked as court and conference interpreter simultaneously. I liked the work in court, the cases, the challenges, the drama, and sometimes the outcome of a legal controversy, but it was wearing me out. Many times working in court was depressing, not because of the truculent cases or the human misery you get to see in the courtroom, but because of the conversations among many of my colleagues.
It wasn’t unusual to hear interpreters talk about how they could barely make ends meet, or complain of how little work they were getting from the court. Common topics would include choices between paying the rent or a child’s medical bills. The interpreters who dared to talk about a nice dinner in town or an overseas vacation were met with resentment. It was almost like those with a good income had to keep it secret. It was very uncomfortable.
I do not like to see people suffer, and no doubt these colleagues were in pain. The problem is that it was self-inflicted. Being an interpreter who makes little money is a curable disease. It requires that the interpreter practice and study to improve their rendition, grow their vocabulary, and increase their general knowledge. It also needs a good dosage of courage and determination to go out there and look for good clients. Sitting in the courthouse interpreters’ room complaining of how they are not given more assignments, and settling for the fees (low in my opinion) that the judiciary pays interpreters will never get you ahead of the curve. I never liked it when other interpreters would describe themselves as “we work for the courts”. Unless you are a staff interpreter, the courts are your clients, not your boss. Talking to many colleagues all over the world I can say the same for those who work in healthcare: You will never make a lot of money interpreting in a hospital or clinic. The cure for the disease is one paragraph above.
I respect others’ opinion, and we all know what we want to do with our career and our life, but to me getting to know the market (or markets in many cases) where you work does not mean “learning the limits to what you can request or charge”. To some, interpreters who adapt to their market are doing something good. To me, they are just giving up and convincing themselves this is the best they might do. An interpreter who does not accept irrational work conditions or insultingly low fees is on the right track. Those who demand team interpreting for any assignment that will go over 30 minutes to one hour maximum, or ask for a booth with decent interpreting equipment, or want to get the materials ahead of time so they can study, are doing what professionals do. Interpreters who refuse to work under substandard conditions or don’t dare to charge a high fee for fear that the client will go with somebody else are digging their own graves and hurting the profession.
The interpreter who rejects an assignment because the agency wants him to work alone, or the interpreter who walks away from an offer to do a conference for a miserable fee are doing what should be done. Accepting work without materials because “nobody in my market provides materials ahead of time for this type of assignment” and working solo or without a booth because “If I don’t do it I will go out of business” may be adapting to the market, and to some this may be praiseworthy. To me they just are excuses; a pretext to avoid the constructive and educational confrontation with the agency or direct client. This interpreters do not “adapt” to the market, they shape it, and that is good.
I started this entry by emphasizing that to get what we want we must practice and study. Only good professionals may demand (and enjoy) everything we have discussed here. We must be professionals at the time of our rendition in the booth, courthouse, hospital, or TV network. We must earn the trust and appreciation of our client by becoming reliable problem-solvers who will do anything needed from us as professionals to make the assignment a success. Be flexible as an interpreter. Once, the console failed in the middle of a conference, and instead of suspending the rendition until the tech staff could fix the problem, I jumped right on stage and continued interpreting consecutively until the system was working again. This is what we do. This is the right flexibility the client should expect from us. One time an agency asked me if I could be the driver of some of the foreign visitors I was to interpret for. I immediately refused. Driving is not part of what an interpreter is expected to do as a professional, and neither is to do photocopies, or set up the chairs and tables for the conference.
That we have to get a lot of clients to generate a good income is false. I consider myself a successful interpreter and I probably have fewer clients than many. I am never the first interpreter the agencies most of you are familiar with call, and I don’t want to be. If you are the first name on the list it means you could be undercharging or too willing to accept the agency’s work conditions. I am the last name on the list, and that is good.
Whether it is because the agency could find nobody else, and they are now willing to pay my fee, or because it is a difficult, or high-profile assignment and they need one of the best, even though they know that my services don’t come cheap. Well-run agencies make a great deal of money; hospitals charge more than any other service provider in society; attorneys keep one-third of the money awarded in a case (and interpreter fees do not even come from that slice, they are deducted from the part the plaintiff is to receive).
I know we all have our reasons to do what we do with our careers. I respect everybody’s decisions. All I ask you to do is that the next time you evaluate taking an assignment under less than ideal work conditions, or for a lower fee, before saying yes to the agency or direct client ask yourself if adapting to the market is a good thing, or shaping the market to satisfy your needs is better. I invite you to share your opinions with the rest of us.