Should interpreters work under those conditions?

April 24, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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.

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§ 6 Responses to Should interpreters work under those conditions?

  • As usual, very well said Mr. Rosado and thank you. I have been an active judiciary interpreter for the Italian language since 2003.

    Even though I could have never raised a family, by being a free-lance interpreter, I take my job very seriously, and every assignment counts among my priorities. I often make a point to obtain the complaint at least a day before trial, so to read it well, get the names, addresses, the issue, the litigants claim, etc… The prep/research work helps tremendously in order to do a well done job, accurate and stress free. The omnipresent possibility of errors, in our profession cannot be taken lightly.

    Even though, I do not get calls for many federal, criminal cases, with my language combination, there is little need for interpreting services, I often make the time and spend extra hours in the courthouse, after my case, so to observe trials, hearings, with or without interpretation. I learned a lot throughout the years, in just listening without the pressure of giving an accurate rendition.
    As I age, I can feel the difference in my memory retention, hearing ability with background noise or distractions, and the quality of reactivity of my muscle tongue, and oral apparatus, in the simultaneous mode rendition.
    I believe we need a better working conditions for interpreters, in court and elsewhere. And we, the professional, need to improve the way we communicate/educate this need by reading, studying, daily and prior the assignment.

    Thank you to all professionals who strive to make interpreting service well considered by their clients. Work well done ennobles a person, when I know I do the best job possible I feel true to myself, while making positive the experience of this unique service, hence improving my working conditions.

  • Goli Khatibloo says:

    Mr. Rosado, your article reflects my sentiments and ideas exactly! I am a Farsi interpreter in California and encounter the interpreters who lower the value and dignity of our profession by accepting substandard rates on a regular basis. Like you, I am probably not the first interpreter that agencies call because they know I am not cheap! But I would rather be on the more expensive side than devalue myself and the work I do. Thank you very much for expressing your thoughts; I hope this will prompt others to rethink their standards.

  • Jose R Sanmartin says:

    Thank you Rosado, you are a breathof fesh air for the profession.

  • Tony, as usual, you hit this nail on the head. I must add my name to the bottom the lists when it comes to the agencies in my state. As well as the lists of most Courts, sadly.

    It makes no sense. Federal Courts call State certified people and State Courts call untrained bilingual people. Administrators look good because they are saving money (due process is not part of their equations,) and all monolingual attorneys, judges, and staff feel good because there’s a warm body speaking a foreign language next to all defendants, who might or might not be able to understand what is being said, might or might not be listening to a faithful and complete interpretation of the proceedings, but why be pessimistic? If they didn’t understand, surely they would say something… Right?

    Conference work is taken by people charging $50.00/hr. and jury trials in State and Federal Courts are done solo, and all those guys are on cloud number nine!! Making tons of money (compared to the $10.00/hr they were making just last month working in a factory, selling something or flipping burgers. All of these practices are not only unethical, they hurt our profession and lower the work conditions for everyone.

    And don’t get me started with the interpreters in Healthcare. Who decided that they should be paid peanuts – and why on Earth do they accept them? Because “everyone else does.” Period.

    The only places you will never find those guys, are: Attending regional, national or international conferences, webinars or any other class to hone their skills. They are “the nice ones.” They never bother the courts’ staff or conference coordinators by asking for prep material, visit defendants in jail to read AND explain plea agreements, for the attorneys. They drive people around, go shopping for clothes for defendants (I have actually witnessed this,) and chit-chat with them, addressing them by their first names, during every recess.

    Granted, when I started practicing, more than 30 years ago, I didn’t know the ropes either; I have committed my fair share of cardinal sins as well, but I have been very fortunate.

    While it is true that three decades ago the only school (in the West coast) where interpreters were trained was in Monterey, CA and we did not have the Internet, cell phones or any of the tools available today, I learned a lot from my dear colleagues. Throughout the years, many of them became my best teachers, mentors, and friends.

    So many of them opened doors for me and always encouraged me to improve my skills, support my colleagues and our profession and educate as many new members of our profession as possible… as well as every member of the Bench and the Bar, conference coordinator, doctor, administrator, and car salesman who would listen!

    It is a lot of work, but fighting to improve the work conditions for all of us is the right thing to do. Raising our voices to demand what is fair has gotten plenty of us “blacklisted.” Some people might label us as “disruptors,” “not nice,” even “arrogant” (or a Prima Donna, if you are a woman,) but every profession needs leaders and leaders are never afraid of making noise. You are one of them, and for that, I am grateful.

  • Alina Salvat says:

    You are, as always, right on target Tony. Interpreting is an honorable profession. That said, we are all independent business owners and must be acutely aware of the metrics of our business’ or we WILL go out of business. Thus, as you have said, we must require appropriate compensation levels. What do I mean? Well, if after deducting the parking expense (especially in Philadelphia), gas and lunch, if there is only a net $5 – $10 for the day is that really appropriate compensation? Having lived most of my adult life in the Mid Atlantic/Northeast region of the country I can unequivocally state “no”. Again, as you state, it is incumbent upon us to secure the appropriate level of compensation.

  • Reading you all, the situation is fairly the same in Europe as to working conditions it is just the same. An example of perfect globalisation.. As to payment Germany, one of the exceptions,is better of. It is time the universities would focus their studies now on better working conditions and how to improve self-confidence of courtinterpreters, both major factors for quality.
    Thank you for this great analysis.

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