”Sorry. I do not interpret for free.”

May 8, 2017 § 32 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Recently many interpreters have been asked to provide their services for free. The current refugee situation in Europe, immigration policy of the United States, and other crisis around the world, including the awful repression of the people of Venezuela, have created a wave of foreign language speakers who seek help in countries where their native language is not spoken.

I have heard from colleagues asked to go to an airport to interpret for individuals denied admission into the United States. Others have been asked to provide their services during town hall meetings without pay. Several have received requests to work for free during asylum hearings or medical examinations at refugee camps or religious organizations-run facilities.

When asked to “interpret at no charge for these folks who have gone through so much”, many interpreters feel pressured to provide the service, even when this may represent a financial burden to them. Arguments such as “It will not take long, and it really is nothing to you since you speak the language… please help” are often used to corner professional interpreters into a place where it becomes very difficult to decline.

There are plenty of times when the only one asked to work for free is the interpreter. Many non-for-profit organizations have paid staff, and it is these social workers, physicians, attorneys and others who will assist the foreign language speaker. Everyone is making a living while helping these people in need, but the interpreter! Something is wrong with this picture.

Many of the people who work for these organizations do not see interpreters as professionals. They do not consider what we do as a professional service. They just see it as the acquired knowledge of a language that interpreters speak anyway, and they perceive it as something that should be shared for free. They believe that what doctors, lawyers and social workers do is a professional service and deserves pay. To them, we perform a non-professional, effortless task that should be volunteered.  Even if the interpreters questions this idea, and asks to be paid, the answers go from: “We are non-for-profit and we have no money” to “The entire budget will go to pay for doctors and lawyers, and you know they are expensive. There is no money left for you”. And then they go for the kill by closing the statement with: “but you understand; these are your people. They need your help”.

This is insulting. First, they see us, treat us, and address us as second-class paraprofessional service providers. Then, they claim there is no money when we all know that non-for-profits do not pay taxes because of the service they provide, but they have sources of income. Finally, they think we are not smart enough to see how they are trying to use us by playing the guilt card.

I systematically decline these requests because I consider them insulting and demeaning to the profession. Interpreters are professionals just like the other parties involved, their job is as important and essential as the rest of the professions participating in the program, and we must get paid just like the rest of the professionals.

There are instances when attorneys and other professionals provide the service without payment. The difference is that in some countries, lawyers and other professionals must perform some hours free of charge; sometimes several hours worked pro bono can be credited as part of the continuing education hours to keep a professional license current. Even court and healthcare interpreters receive this benefit sometimes. People see it as working for free, but it is far from it. The first scenario is a legal obligation to keep a professional license valid. The second one is a creative way to lure professionals into providing professional services at no charge for needed continuing education credits and an enhancement of their reputation in their community that will see them as willing participants helping in the middle of a crisis.

According to the American Bar Association, eleven states have implemented rules that permit attorneys who take pro bono cases to earn credit toward mandatory continuing legal education requirements (The states are: Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, Washington State, and Wyoming).

I have no problem with interpreting for free if the interpreter must comply with a compulsory social service, or can benefit by receiving continuing education credit.  When the legislation (or the lack of it) is so interpreters get nothing from their service while the others benefit, then interpreters are treated as sub-professionals and I believe they should say no to all those asking them to work under these disadvantageous conditions.

If these non-for-profit organizations want interpreting services for free, they should lobby their legislative authorities or administrative officials to provide continuing education credits to all interpreters who provide some hours of work for free.

Another possible solution would be to allow interpreters to treat these free professional services as a donation to the non-for-profit organizations, making them tax deductible. This would create an incentive and level the field with all other professionals already getting a paycheck, or continuing education credits.   American legislation does not allow interpreters in the United States to deduct the value of their time or services (IRS Publication 526 for tax year 2016).  An amendment to this legislation would go a long way, and would benefit both, non-for-profit organizations and professional interpreters.

Some of you may disagree with me on this subject. I am asking you to detach your professional business decisions, which we should make with our brain, from your emotional decisions that come from your heart.  We all have causes we care about and we willfully, with no pressure, help in any way we can, including interpreting for free. This is something else, and you should do it when nobody else is making a profit or even an income to get by. It is called fairness. On the other hand, we should protect our profession, and the livelihood of our families by refusing all “volunteer” work where some of the others are getting paid or receiving a benefit we are not. Especially when they insult our intelligence by resorting to the “emotional appeal”.

I sometimes donate my services under the above circumstances,   as long as I may advertise who I am and my services. This way I donate my work, but I am investing in my business by enhancing my client base and professional network.  I now ask you to comment on this issue that seems very popular at this time. The only thing I ask from you is to please abstain from the comments and arguments for working for free that appeal to emotions instead of professional businesses.

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§ 32 Responses to ”Sorry. I do not interpret for free.”

  • Brilliant! Do I have your permission to reproduce this (with credit) on my blog? There is also a worrying trend in interpreting, in that twice recently, I have been asked to interpret simultaneously, whispering (so without equipment) for an entire day on my own! In one case, it was for the World Bank, who could certainly have afforded another interpreter!

  • I agree with you! There is always money in the budget for what is important (hint hint, our services are important). I have done the occasional pro bono job, IF the attorney I was working with was also doing it pro bono, and once I donated back my fee to an organization (but I did get also get a write-off). I totally agree with you about how we should not be pressured to do work for, though. The same happens to my husband, who is a professional musician. The circumstances are different, of course, it’s not posed as a humanitarian thing, but musicians are so often pressured to play for free since they know how (and people fail to recognize and value the work and skill that it takes), and don’t get me started on “exposure!” Anyway, good article.

  • Thank you for this valuable article. If we wish to be respected and seen as professionals, we have to demand it by asking clients if the other professionals are also working for free. We can’t fall for the ’emotional appeal’ of helping ‘our’ people. A great emotional response is ‘These individuals deserve professional services. Hiring volunteers put them at risk.”

  • This is an amazing post! I am so glad you have raised this issue! I make less than the minimum wage, and yet I am asked to provide a variety of services to for-profit corporations and organizations DAILY! I am not sure where people are getting information about me – sometimes I feel like the ownership to me and my time has been sold that I am daily approached with requests to work for free – this is very insulting to my qualifications and experience. I cannot stop repeating that I do not work for free, and yet this has become an all too often seen pattern – it is amazing what the world has come to.

  • A. says:

    Tony, you’ve expressed my thoughts brilliantly. I am currently donating my time as an interpreter because I am (thankfully) in a position where I can afford to do so, but despite that I am thinking about quitting. Some attorneys I work with apparently do not consider me worthy of the same professional courtesies I offer them and their clients; my time is disrespected, my contribution is not seen as “work” and I am treated like a teenage intern they can use for all their whims. The aggravation is becoming too much even with the guilt card at play. I have had the chance of earning business through this collaboration, indeed, but 9 out of 10 times I have to chase after payment. Not worth it at all. Thank you for your article!

  • The “You know the language already” argument is particularly maddening.

    A colleague of mine back in NYC had the perfect answer when a client after receiving the translation of a contract opined that he didn’t think he should have to pay for it bcause “You already know German.” My colleague replied, “You know, you make a point… Next month I think I’ll tell my landlord I shouldn’t have to pay rent since he owns the building. Do you think my landlord will go along with this idea?” The client didn’t respond, but without further ado paid the bill .

  • Rosemary Dann says:

    Well said, Tony. Another irritating ploy they use is to say that they will have paying work for you in the future. That never materializes. We should all ask “Are you being paid?” Put the guilt trip back on them.

  • Sylvia J. Andrade says:

    It depends on the circumstances. I am thinking of offering my services to a group that a daughter, who is a professional clinical psychologist with a doctorate, belongs to. She and all the others, psychologists, medical doctors, attorneys and others are offering their services for free. I obviously could only do it for a limited amount of hours. The attorneys and others are not getting continuing education credits. This basically involves services for immigrants, primarily victims of domestic violence and people in need of political asylum.

  • EJC says:

    I think that as long as we issue a pro-bono invoice that can be provided for tax-deduction purposes, and our other related expenses are covered, we should be able to offer free professional interpreting, like many professionals who volunteer their services for charities and individuals in dire circumstances.

    If the organisation is commercial and stands to profit from our services, that is a completely different affair.

  • Jeffrey says:

    If I am asked to interpret for free, there is a 99.9% chance my answer will be no. Don’t be the only person in the room not being paid.

  • Vladimir Kolteniuk says:

    My position differs from those above as follows: I don’t donate my professional services at all, period, because they are the only services I can sell to make living. If someone wants my help in any other way, like help with a move, heave a few boxes, ladle out some soup in a charity kitchen, you name it – I’d do anything else in my free time, I will. Except professional services, because they are they only … (see above).

  • Agree wholeheartedly! This sort of mentality, of treating professional interpreters as ‘less than’….is the root cause of slaughtering the profession in UK, where I live. The rates officially approved by the government (sliced off immensely by 2 main government approved agencies) are simply unsustainable! It pushed me into decision to leave the profession I love and am extensively experienced at. Especially that any talk of ‘fighting injustice considering interpreter pays in UK’ is just a rattling kettle – gets loud for a moment, goes nowhere after. Interpreters who yell the loudest against those ‘abuses’ – work for 2 chosen government agencies, and complain about pay….Madness!

  • Jeremy williams says:

    Very good subject. I’ll voice my thoughts as a deaf person who appreciates the professional interpreting services. First on pro-bono, depending on the client they are interpreting for and their status, such service could benefit in such ways that not everyone is aware, however such circumstances are very rare, not enough for interpreters in general to wager. But lets use my situation for instance. When my father died I sough a pro bono interpreter, much to my surprise majority said no. However I came across one who I had ties in past and so out of heart they offered their services. I only know of one other interpreter who would do such and because of their willingness they now have a full time fixed job for the time being. We have in home county services where two interpreters are involved daily. And I have these interpreters assigned for each day rather than whoever randomly gets assigned, instead these pro bono interpreters are assigned as clients request. This being said is a win win situation simply being open to pro bono if the situation arises, sure I understand it’s a profession, it’s a job, it’s income, we all have families and so more than once a blue moon doing pro bono, it cost the interpreter and is unfair.

    While businesses who get government subsidies and such there’s no excuses, small business vary, non profit organizations as per to above article explains. I agree and think there need legislations passed that enforces interpreter profession to the same merits as all other professions.

    But in mean time, imagine if we deaf people were blessed enough to be able to read and write and didn’t need interpreters. Then a lot of you would be out a job. But that’s not the case, so I’d rather roll forward and push for a petition to get interpreting profession equal laws to all other professions. We need interpreters, and they need us deaf people so call us allies, we will stand up and fight for you!

  • […] “Sorry I Do Not Interpret For Free” is Tony’s way of discussing Pro Bono work versus agency/business/payor-expected freebie interpreting work…all while attempting to guilt and shame the professional interpreters to “do it for free” out of the kindness of our hearts. […]

  • Very good article, I agree with you.
    But this does not only happen with refugees. In the UK I was often asked by people from my nationality to ‘just help me out as we are homies’ – so translate several pages to EN or go and interpret for free, as I speak the language and I look helpful (and gullible I guess). When I told them I do not work for free and I also have to pay my bills, including the bus tickets to get into the city they suddenly became less friendly…
    Sadly, nowadays this is the trend not only with interpreting but with translation as well. Translate materials for refugees, poor people, etc. Also, quality is getting less important as well – at least according to my experiences.

    (P.S. I hope it is okay that I shared your article on my professional FB page [Pebbles Translations – Zsofia Koszegi-Nagy].)

    • Iza Szczypka says:

      Hi Zsofia,
      Yes, the same situation is often seen in translation. I do quite a lot of medical translation, and in this area most of my clients are either oncologic patients or parents of kids with congenital malformations or other defects, who hope to find treatment abroad and to this end present tons of medical records for translation. Consequently, for about 50% of my time I work with very distressed people who are desperately trying to save lives – of their own or of their loved ones. If I were to yield to their regular requests to perform my work pro bono (and in no time), I wouldn’t earn a cent from medical translation, thus halving my income, not-too-impressive anyway…
      To the author: Like Zsofia, I also hope not to offend by sharing this article at FB with my fellow Polish translators and interpreters – too valuable not to be shared.

  • Teresa Brewer says:

    I can relate to this blog even as a certified
    Sign Language interpreter. We experience
    many of the same issues . We are often disrespected. Very frustrating and demeaning.

  • Brenda Everett says:

    My friend worked at a company that is no longer in business, but they planned a safety meeting for the night shift. Oops, they forgot that they had a deaf person working there. I was asked to come in, interprete for him. 11:30 at night. After signing my wat through a film on safety the even I didn’t understand, we asked if they could run the film again. My friend then watched the film, and then could ask me questions as to what they said.
    When my friend said they should pay me for my time, they can’t do that, I’m not a licensed interpreter. Well excuse me, didn’t know that. I’m still not licensed, and I don’t sign for anyone but myself now.
    They did all get together and give me a gift card for a restaurant for my time. But the company didn’t know that.
    Deaf people, interpreters are still treated as second class citizen. The world needs to change in more ways than one.

  • Yoko Ono says:

    I completely agree with you. Can I share this article on my Linkedin or Facebook page?

  • Brent Lunger says:

    This is an interesting subject. We, as language professionals, are also lovers of languages and almost at times feel as if we could do what we do for free, although in reality, we live in a world that is not free and at times expensive to live. It is a paradox with many facets. Another aspect, as Tony said, is that of respect of others in other disciplines for what we do. We confront a wide range of attitudes on that, from great appreciation to grudging respect and at times, downright disdain or contempt. It’s an interesting subject that should be discussed further.

  • Claudia Iglesias says:

    I’m willing to interpret or translate for free as long as I’m free to decide if I want to do it or not. With no pressures. Asking isn’t a pressure if you’re free to refuse.
    And there will always be someone who is getting paid or taking some advantage indirectly. If it doesn’t bother me and even if I know it, I might be willing to work for free. Working for free with taxes advantages or in exchange of promotion isn’t really “for free”.
    Working for free because you think you can help and that your work is useful for a good cause without expecting anything is really working for free.

  • Thomas Norton says:

    Thank you, Tony. This article is a valuable contribution to our profession.

  • Terri Shaw says:

    As many professionals do, I set a aside a certain amount of time to do pro bono work. In fact, I sometimes assist lawyers who are also working pro bono to help refugees or others under threat during the recent crackdowns against people from other countries. I consider it a constructive way to contribute to society. I do it on my own terms and my own schedule, of course.

  • Jean Bellego says:

    Well said. Thanks!

  • James says:

    You have raised very good points here in the defense of our profession. Over the years, I have done a lot of pro-bono or “low-bono” work out of a sense of solidarity for causes I am believe in, but I have always tried to follow some of the guidelines you have pointed out, insisted on having reasonable working conditions and stressed the value of our profession to those I deal with. I have had gained great experience and made excellent contacts doing this, however I am now much more strict than I once was because the interpreting profession itself is a cause I am passionate about and unfortunately, we continue to fight for the recognition as professionals that so many other careers take for granted.
    In the corporate world, volunteering is part of climbing the corporate ladder. Companies often pay the salaries of personnel while they are “volunteering” for charity and the employees get recognized and promoted for their efforts. As a free-lance interpreters without job benefits, we do not get these perks from donating our services.
    Everyone should be free to choose to volunteer or not without being being guilt-tripped into it and, as you point out, comparisons to other professions that do pro-bono work don’t hold up. Our profession is still plagued by lack of respect, contractors offering low fees and interlopers who are not professional interpreters who undercut us all. This is not as big of a problem for other careers that do pro-bono work such as lawyers and doctors who have well defined certifications in their fields. In our field it is different because of the common misperception that anyone who is bilingual can do this. Many people who have a little talent in languages get into this as a side-line job or they just wing it without the proper training and since the public is not well educated about what it takes to be a serious interpreter, clients usually don’t know the difference between professionals and imposters. We don’t want to contribute to this misperception.
    We should consider these factors when asked to work for free and ask ourselves if it is good for us and for our profession in the long run. Some partnerships with non-profits and pro-bono work can be truly rewarding, while others can be draining.
    One organization I know long relied on volunteers until they decided to add translation and interpreting as a line item in their budget and found that their funders would paid for it, so I think people do find a way to pay for what they value.

  • noraloesener says:

    Will share with my students with credit to you 🙂

  • Thank you, Tony Rosado, for this important piece, and to all the individuals who commented, giving advice and sharing the frustration. I have posted this on my Facebook page.

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