It is the mediocre who disrespect the interpreter.

May 22, 2017 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

A few weeks ago I read a comment by a colleague who had just finished a very important high-profile interpreting assignment. He stated that when the event ended the main speaker thanked the interpreters for their job in the booth. Rightly so, my colleague was very happy and appreciative of the kind gesture.

His comment brought back many personal experiences of instances when speakers and organizers recognized the interpreter team by either praising a job well done, or by thanking us for our dedication and professionalism. At this moment it hit me: With some exceptions, the most important, famous, admired speakers are always kind and appreciative. It is common to be recognized at the end of a hard session. Many commend us for our rendition, others ask for a round of applause for the interpreters. I have been to some events where we have been asked to come out of the booth to be seen and recognized by the audience. It is all about respect, but it is also about education and awareness of the importance of a good interpretation.

These movers and shakers know that without proper interpretation their words would lose their thunder in a foreign language. They know that communication is essential, and our work is key to reach everyone in every culture and language.

For this reason high-profile conference interpreters are always welcome at the auditorium, conference room, and international organization where their services will be needed. From the moment we arrive we are treated with deference and respect, not because of who we are, but because of what we do. Everybody is on board, they all know that we provide a relevant professional service.

Speakers and organizers know and understand the complexity of what we do, so it is just natural we get a breakroom to relax every now and then, that they expect us to work in teams of two and three; that we get paid for travel days, and that we get a compensation appropriate to the service we provide.

As I was thinking of these circumstances, my mind drifted to the way healthcare and court interpreters are treated most of the time.  Despite being an essential component to the healthcare system, or a key element to an administration of justice equal for all, doctors, nurses, judges, attorneys and support staff often view interpreters as an inconvenience instead of an asset. They are perceived by many in these areas as outsiders instead of as part of the team. Many resent them and believe that we are overpaid, after all, all we do is talk.

Although some may be motivated by who knows what reason, I think that most of their attitude and policies come from ignorance. Unlike so many people we deal with in conference interpreting, many are not well traveled and lack a sense of international community. A medical diploma or law degree guarantee no worldly view of affairs. To put it simply, they just cannot understand why people do not speak their language, and they attribute their lack of native language skills to being intellectually inferior. They believe that everybody should learn their language and consider translation and interpreting services as a waste of resources and losing the national identity. It is for these reasons, and not necessarily because they dislike the interpreter, after all interpreters speak their language, that they consider our presence annoying and our service a threat to the status quo.

I do not like this, but I can understand why these individuals do not want to treat us with the dignity and respect we are treated at the conference level. The lack of respect and demeaning practices towards interpreters I cannot justify or understand, are those perpetrated by the people in the multinational language agencies who hire unqualified people, pay disgustingly low professional fees, and treat interpreters as laborers instead of professionals.

It is the way interpreters are treated by these entities that greatly contrasts with the dignified treatment we experience in a conference they were not involved.  It is these transnational entities, who are on a crusade to destroy our profession and turn it into an “industry” that wants to get us to work the booth, courtroom and hospital like an assembly line.

They know of the complexity and professional nature of our work, they understand how exhausting our craft is, they know of the fact that we sell our time. Yet, they want to pay the lowest fees, who want to take up to three months before they pay us, the ones who do not want to a second interpreter, refuse to pay for travel days, and rarely share the assignment relevant materials. These are the people who demand you call when you get to the assignment and let them know when you leave.

These are the “experts” who distrust us so much they double-check with their client to make sure we really worked for as long as we told them, and treat us like little children by telling us what to wear, where to sit, what to eat, and who to talk to. They know you, they have worked with you in the past, and at the least they researched you before they contacted you for a job. It is not about you, it is about their perception of the profession. To them, in their mythical theory of the “interpreting industry” we are laborers on an assembly line. This serves them better. Once they dehumanize us by turning us into their “industry’s” pawns, they can disrespect us, insult us, and abuse us as interpreters. This or course, only if we let them.

I now ask you to share with the rest of us your thoughts about this important issue.

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§ 10 Responses to It is the mediocre who disrespect the interpreter.

  • Jan says:

    Yes, it definitely feels good to be recognized for a job well done. We’ve worked hard to get to where we are. and we continue to study whenever we have a big assignment. Thanks for talking about this topic.

  • Haytham Ibrahim says:

    I don’t know who you are or where you are, but I’ll find you and I’ll take my imaginary hat off for you in response to this analysis of the miserable life and humiliating treatment interpreters live and face everywhere.

  • Carol A Calvo-Cota says:

    rpstranslations.com

  • Olga Furmanowska says:

    For me, the proper recognition of the key value of interpreter’s job depends also on a client cultural background and values. I have worked with many business clients who show a lot of respect and admiration toward our profession and our job, and always praise a interpreter for the job well done. These happen to be a well educated people with a very broad cultural background. On the other hand, the ones who treat me as a labor in an assembly line, who are rude and disrespectful, happen to be people with money but without any kind of proper education or cultural sensibility, mostly very ignorant. So yes, I’m definitely with you on that topic: the lack of recognition and respect for our profession usually comes out of the ignorance and also out of the willingness to make us feel bad in order to get us to lower ours fees.

  • I believe that the downgrading of our profession and the contempt in which we are largely held in the UK is the direct result of the Ministry of Justice privatising court interpreting and allowing it to be so badly paid that it works out at less than the “living wage” that is the legal minimum payable to full-time workers. The calibre of professional interpreters has dropped and I dare to say that it is much harder now to control terrorism in the UK because no really competent interpreter will work for the rates now paid by the police and courts. There is even a backlash on private interpreting and conference interpreting. I have twice been asked to interpret simultaneously (with and without equipment) ON MY OWN for eight hours recently.

  • Joke Nuytten says:

    Excellent article. So very true. One of the reasons I do not work for agencies.

  • Milena Calderari-Waldron says:

    Interpreters’ pay highly correlates with the social status and political power of the end users. In other words, court and healthcare interpreters rendering services to “those dirty immigrants” are treated and paid accordingly. [sigh]

  • James says:

    Thanks for another good blog post, Tony!
    To illustrate this contrast, here is a personal anecdote: Last year I interpreted for a event with scientists, business leaders, cabinet ministers, and heads of state discussing energy policy. We were treated with respect, paid well, including extra pay for recording or streaming our interpreting, given good working conditions, had expert technicians to handle the equipment, etc. We fulfilled our end of the bargain by performing with poise and aplomb while thousands in the audience depended on our rendition of the dialogue. All of this was understood as a given, no questions asked, in a professional manner.
    The next week, at a personal injury deposition, the plaintiff’s attorney derided the defendant and his own client and stated, “these companies get by hiring people who can’t speak English and then they get hurt on the job and people like him (pointing to me, the interpreter) are getting rich of it!” I was offended and I told him so. I said that the week before I had interpreted for the president of Mexico and that we interpreters provide this service for the sake of communication whether it is for a foreign dignitary or an injured worker. I also commented on the irony of a personal injury attorney suggesting that we get rich off of injured workers. Throughout the deposition he made disparaging remarks about his own client, a poor immigrant who obviously had not been properly prepared to testify. Whenever he didn’t like her testimony, he would groan and complain about her “ignorance” — even though he was the one representing her and who should have helped her prepare. He even said, “She would say yes to anything. You could ask her if she was from Mars and she would say yes.” He continued to make childish remarks without even asking to go off the record. Unfortunately, I think the court reporter probably left this out of the record instead of letting his asinine behavior show in the transcript.
    The defense attorney is a good client. We talked about it later and I told him that if it happens again, I may be forced to walk out.
    What a contrast.
    Unfortunately, this is common in healthcare and legal settings and we have to deal with ignorant clients, but it is even worse when language companies act this way.

  • Yes, rudeness is common wherever interpreters are used, no matter how prestigious the setting. The ONLY time in the UK that I have ever been acknowledged, let alone complimented, on my performance, was for Budget Rentacar (always use them!) and that was ten years ago! The chair mentioned the interpreters by name and thanked them. On the other hand, at the highly prestigious COP 22 Climate Change Conference in Morocco we were treated rudely and not treated with the slightest consideration. “Noblesse oblige” has nothing to do with the prestige of the occasion and everything to do with the politeness of the organisers of the conference.

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