Alert: They are interpreting illegally outside their country.

February 6, 2019 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

During my career I have experienced first-hand situations when people who live outside the United States interpret at the same convention center where I am working another event. I am not talking about diplomatic interpreters who travel with their national delegation to the United States, nor I am referring to the personal or company interpreters who travel to the States with a CEO to negotiate a deal. I am talking about foreign nationals brought to the United States to interpret a conference because their professional fees are lower than customarily fees charged by interpreters who live in the United States. One time I ran into some interpreters from a South American country at a convention center’s cafeteria. They were nice, experienced, and they did not live in the United States. After the usual small talk, I asked them how difficult was to get a visa to come to interpret in the United States, one of them dodged the question and the other one told me she didn’t know because she already had a visa she was granted when she took her children to Disneyworld. Just a few weeks after that episode, I got a phone call from a colleague who wanted to let me know that he was working at a venue in the mid-west where they were using other interpreters brought from abroad for the conference. He explained these foreign colleagues were having a hard time with the cultural references, and apparently had entered the country on tourist visas.

In this globalized economy, some agencies are hiring foreign interpreters, who live outside the United States, because they come from economic systems where a sub-par professional fee in the U.S. looks attractive to them. I have heard of interpreters brought to work in conferences and other events for extremely low fees and under conditions no American interpreter would go for: Two or even three interpreters in the same hotel room, no Per Diem or pay for travel days, often working solo, for very long hours without enough breaks, and without a booth.

The worst part of this scenario is that many of these foreign colleagues are very good interpreters who come to the United States to hurt the market by working for that pay and under those conditions, and they do not see how they impact the profession. Multinational and small-peanuts agencies love these interpreters because they just buy them the cheapest plane tickets, put them all in a budget hotel or motel, and pay them for a five-day conference a sum of money that would only cover the professional fees of local interpreters’ one or two days of work. Sometimes the agency’s client suggests interpreters be brought from abroad to abate costs; they even argue these colleagues’ renditions are even better because they “speak the same language the audience speaks, with all of its expressions, and dialects, unlike American resident interpreters who many times speak with a different accent because they do not come from the attendees’ country.” It is true that many of these foreign interpreters are very good and experienced; it is also true that, in my case, their Spanish accent and some regional expressions may be more familiar to their audience full of fellow countrymen; however, it is also likely that these interpreters may have a difficult time when interpreting references to local politics, sports, places, and general culture used by the speakers; what we call “Americana”. I would argue that professional interpreters, by living in the United States, are exposed to all language variations in their language combination because, unlike most foreign interpreters, they routinely work with multinational audiences. I also believe that it is more important to understand what the speaker is saying, after all that is why those in attendance traveled to the United States for. A rendition that puts the entire message in context, and is transmitted to the target language with all cultural equivalencies is a more desired outcome than listening to a rendition from someone who sounds like you, but does not get the cultural subtleities, not because she is a bad interpreter, but because she does not live in the country.

But there is a bigger problem: Most of these interpreters brought from abroad are in the country without a work visa.  Entering the United States on a visa waiver or a tourist visa does not give them legal authority to work in the U.S.

This is a serious matter: Whether they know it or not, the moment these interpreters step into the booth, or utter the first syllable of their rendition, they are out of status, and they are subject to removal from the United States. The moment the agency, event organizer, university, business or organization brings one interpreter to the country they are subject to a fine. Not to mention reactions to the illegal hiring of foreigners to the detriment of American professionals in the court of public opinion.

If these interpreters are really the best for the conference topic, agencies and organizers may hire them and bring them to the United States, but they would have to do it legally, through a work visa application; and depending on the visa needed, there are complex and lengthy legal steps to be followed before the Department of Labor (DOL), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Department of State (DOS) at the American embassy or consulate at the interpreter country of residence, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the port of entry. The process is lengthy and it requires of an immigration attorney. Dear colleagues, if the event requires the expertise and skill of the foreign interpreter, agencies and organizers will cover the costly process. If they were only retaining interpreters from outside the United States to save money, the visa process’ length and cost will make it more expensive than hiring top-notch interpreters living in the United States. (https://www.uscis.gov/working-united-states/temporary-nonimmigrant-workers)

These interpreters, even if they worked illegally in the United States, must pay U.S. federal income tax for the work performed within U.S. territory. An exception exists for certain amounts earned by foreign nationals not living in the U.S.; Under this exception, compensation for services performed in the U.S. is not considered U.S. source income if these conditions are satisfied: (a) The service must be performed by a nonresident taxpayer temporarily present in the U.S. for a period of 90 days or less; (b) The total compensation for these services does not exceed $3,000.00 USD; The services must be performed as an employee of or under contract (in the case of a self-employed contractor) with one of the following: A nonresident individual, foreign partnership or foreign corporation not engaged in a trade or business in the U.S., a foreign office or foreign branch of a U.S. resident, U.S. partnership, or U.S. corporation.

Always remember this, educate your clients, the agencies you work for, and if you are getting nowhere, when you see interpreters who do not live in the United States working an event, and believe me, you will know because of the cultural nuances, consider reporting the incident to the immigration authorities.

This is not an issue exclusively found in the United States, it happens all over the world, especially in first world countries of Asia and Western Europe. It also happens next door: Again, American agencies in their tireless quest to make money and destroy the profession, take American interpreters to work in Mexico, and if they are United States citizens, they take them with no visa. I have seen phone books, publications, and websites advertising interpreters from the United States for conferences, industrial plant visits, and depositions in Mexico. Among the most popular arguments to lure event organizers, businesses, or Law Offices in the U.S., they assure them that American interpreters are more familiar with their lifestyle, that they are certified by this or that U.S. government agency, and they even imply that somehow Mexican interpreters are less capable or professional than their U.S. counterparts.

This is total nonsense. Mexican interpreters are as good as Americans, interpreters living in Mexico possess American certifications, and there are probably more interpreters in Mexico with a college degree in translation or interpretation than those we have in the States. Let’s face it, the only reason these agencies want to promote American interpreters is because when a lawyer, company or event organizer hires the interpreting team in Mexico they do not need the agency; they make no money. Unless you travel as part of a diplomatic delegation, a business mission, international organization, or you are an employee of a firm that takes you to Mexico to exclusively interpret for the company you work for; If you are an interpreter living in the United States and you take an assignment to interpret for a deposition, industrial plant inspection, or other job, unless you are a Mexican citizen, or you have legal authority to work in Mexico, you will be breaking the law and are subject to deportation. It does not matter that you speak Spanish, you must be allowed to work in Mexico. (Art. 52 y sigs. Ley de Migración. D.O. 25/5/20111 https://cis.org/sites/cis.org/files/Ley-de-Migracion.pdf) There are fiscal obligations for those working as interpreters in Mexico, even if they had no authority to work.

Because often the agency’s client or the interpreters do not know they are breaking the law, you should educate them so they hire local talent. Please remember, this is a collective effort, we must try to bring up fees and working conditions in every country according to this economic reality and possibilities. This will never be achieved by killing foreign markets with illegally obtained, procured, or provided professional services at sub-par conditions. You probably noticed that I skirted around VRI services. Although it could be as harmful as in-person interpreting services when left in the hands of unscrupulous multinational agencies, that is an entirely different matter that requires more research and study of legal theories and legislation. I now invite your comments on this very important issue.

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§ 7 Responses to Alert: They are interpreting illegally outside their country.

  • Eye opening, Tony. Thanks for touching upon this topic.

  • So does this get reported? If the organizing perpetrators pay some fat fines, maybe the practice will be discouraged.

  • Jean Bellego says:

    So true, Tony.
    Thank you for advocating for are cause.
    Best regards!

  • Interesting article about a problem in the interpreting world which grows with increasing globalisation. However, the industry has many grey areas. Does a conference organiser apply for a working permit for a professional guest speaker presenting (again a fee) at his/her conference? Does the onsite management of a conference require a permit?
    Luckily with Remote Simultaneous Interpreting the problem of working permit does not arise, since the interpreters provide their service in their home country and not in the country where the event takes place.
    More and more event organisers become aware of this advantage, on top of it they save transfer and accommodation expenses by not having to fly in the interpreters. Furthermore, lower total costs lead to higher demand, i.e. more work for interpreters.

    • Dear Kim, thank you for your comments. The visa requirement for a speaker or others depends on many things and it varies from country to country. In the U.S. a visa is necessary in certain situations. As far as Remote Simultaneous Interpreting, you make a good point for the visa requirements, but in many cases, an interpretation from another country does not eliminate fiscal obligations in the country where the event was held. RSI does little to address the cultural differences and problems with the rendition when using interpreters who are not familiar with the culture and lifestyle of the country where the event takes place. On top of that, if the motivation for retaining the services of interpreters abroad is quality, knowledge of a particular subject, experience, etc., you are right. If the motivation is to pay less for the service because the interpreters live in a country with a lower cost of leaving, then the “solution” is unacceptable. It adversely impacts our professional market and harms the profession. The only valid cost-saving argument for RSI is the money organizers save on interpreters’ travel expenses (pay for travel days, airfare, hotel, ground transportation, and Per Diem)

  • Linda Fuentes Rosner says:

    Thank you Professor, for a fascinating read. When I lived in Spain, trying to obtain a work permit was almost an exercise in futility. I certainly understand that any country, including the US of course, wants its citizens to practice their professions and reap the benefits first. It’s not because we hold any animosity towards foreign workers but rather our primary responsibility is to our own citizens, just as their countries’ commitment must be to their citizens. I appreciate your observation about foreign interpreters who work for lower remuneration undercutting our livelihood. May I share your article? Educating the agencies and lawyers is a very necessary first step in solving the problem.

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