We should act more like professionals and less like merchants.

April 29, 2019 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Interpreters are constantly fighting to be recognized as a profession, to be respected by their clients, and to be treated and remunerated as providers of a specialized service that requires a strong academic background. Although most interpreters strive to be viewed as fellow professionals of physicians, engineers, attorneys and accountants, many colleagues, including freelance interpreters, behave more like a tradesperson than a professional.

Because of poor legislation, pervasive ignorance, and a myth that any bilingual can interpret, the idea that professional interpreting services can be provided by a commercial agency has been accepted, or at least tolerated, around the world. Professional services have been bought and sold like commodities by businesspeople foreign to interpreting, stingy government agencies, and unscrupulous interpreters willing to sell out their profession to make a quick buck.

A world where physicians provide their services through a commercial agency’s model is unimaginable. Attorneys’ Bars around the world would oppose, and destroy, any efforts to sell legal representation by agencies where a high school teenager, calling herself a project manager, were to assign lawyers to their clients on an availability basis, without considering quality or experience to decide on the attorney who gets the case. Interpreters see this happening every day and do nothing about it. Not even freelancers question this commercial model; they join these merchants and help to undermine their own profession.

I am not naïve. Multinational interpreting agencies are powerful, greedy organizations willing to fight for what they consider their “industry” to the end. They launch advertising campaigns, misinformation efforts to convince potential customers (they do not have clients) that hiring an interpreter is very difficult; that it can only be done through an agency. They spend time and money convincing freelance interpreters they are their allies; they procure them work, deal with the customer, and pay them a fare “rate” (they do not pay professional fees) after taking the portion of the paycheck they have morally earned. Interesting that agencies never disclose interpreters what they charge their customers, and force freelancers to remain silent when approached by one of the customers about their professional fees or availability.

We will not get rid of these agencies, but I know that interpreters will only be viewed as professionals when they act the part. I also know that some, few, are managed by good people.

There are many colleagues around the world who work as I do. We operate as a doctor’s office or a law office work. When contacted by a client about an assignment that will require the services of interpreters in five languages, I provide my client with the name and contact information of trusted colleagues with the experience and language combination needed for the assignment. If the potential project involves languages commonly used in my part of the world, or several interpreters in my own language combination, I even forward the inquiry to my trusted colleagues, my allies. My client takes it from there and individually negotiates the fee. I also suggest, and sometimes forward, the request to a trusted equipment/technical support provider. The client negotiates costs directly with them. It is like going to a building where many physicians have their offices, all independent, but all trusted colleagues; they suggest one of their colleagues depending on the field of specialization needed by the patient, but each doctor negotiates and sends a separate bill. These professional alliances, professional groups, are a network of professionals who know each other’s quality of work, ethical values, and language combinations. The client has to pay the professional interpreters individually, but he need not look for interpreters with the right experience, language pairs, or availability. That is all done by the interpreter who the client contacted first. That interpreter is the point of contact who suggests colleagues she will vouch for, and she is moved by no other interest but her client’s satisfaction. She will not subcontract the other interpreters, she will not charge them a commission or referral fee, she will only do what all physicians do when you go to their office and they suggest you see the dentist downstairs or the eye doctor next door.

There will be instances when you cannot help the client. There are languages you never work with. Sometimes doctors cannot recommend a colleague because they have no proctologist in the building. That does not mean that the professional network they offer to their patients has no value.

My good clients love this option. They understand it is difficult to get quality in all booths. They trust me and know that I would not jeopardize my reputation by referring them to a mediocre interpreter. They know I suggest nobody services because they are cheap. They also trust my judgement and experience a lot more than they trust a young monolingual person with no practical or theoretical knowledge of the profession, who calls himself “project manager” and has met none of the interpreters he will line up for a job. Clients know that project managers abide by company rules and guidelines which include: profit at all costs. They know their professional pool is limited because they can only provide interpreters willing to work with the agency in exchange for lower fees, inadequate working conditions, and disrespectful treatment.  This professional network model operates as a virtual office where my trusted colleagues are all over the world. It has no time or space limitations.

Interpreters who want to grow and expand to a larger scale should do it, but they should do it as law firms do. Incorporate as a professional corporation or a limited liability corporation, not a commercial enterprise like agencies do. These solutions will let you work as formal partners or shareholders and protect from liability without giving up your professional identity. We need not look or operate like an agency. They are not us.

They want to commoditize our profession and turn it into an industry. They are outsiders with a different set and scale of values. We are professionals. We should act as such. I know many of you are already doing what I described. I also know many colleagues will dismiss these ideas and even defend the agency commercial model. I am aware professional associations are guided by board members who own agencies, and as we have seen, even board members refuse to recuse themselves from voting in association matters when there is a conflict of interest between interpreters and agencies. Finally, I know some interpreters are not ready to freelance, they fear they cannot get clients outside the agency world, or they are content with little money. There, stay with the agencies, that is what you like and deserve.  I now invite you to share your thoughts on this critical issue for our recognition as professional service providers.

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§ 6 Responses to We should act more like professionals and less like merchants.

  • Armando Ezquerra Hasbun says:

    Wonderful insightful food for thought once again Tony! Thank you for helping us see, think, and hopefully, act accordingly!

  • Doralisa Smart says:

    I am in total agreement with your comments. At this moment, I’m out of the country with only my cellular phone and my own digits to type and to somewhat coherently enter my opinion.

    I have waited long for another interpreter to so accurately describe why I do not work through agencies; and why I do not discuss my rates, nor who my clients are.

    A few months ago, during a chat with a few other colleagues, I rather mildly stated that we should not call ourselves professionals when in fact some of us practice our services as if our work were a trade. The reaction/attack following my comment was sufficient to dissuade me from further comment.

    The last time I agreed to do someone a favor and take a late moment assignment, it turned into a disagreeable moment. I was even told that in the future I would not be able to request assignments from their business– although I had not requested that specific assignment and would never solicit to be included in their roster of interpreters willing to report availability.

    It is probable that a more extensive opinion on your other points come from me in a few more weeks, if the topic is yet relevant. Thank you for so clearly explaining what professionalism means to a professional.

  • Sarinya Wood says:

    Very good article. I am one who is doing what you shared your views on. Many thanks.

  • Dr. Souza says:

    What I’m hearing you say in this article is that interpreters should incorporate so that they are not seen as a mere ‘freelancer’ or ‘contractor’ which these days means you will get the short end of the straw. What do you say to those that enjoy working at hospitals or the courts, which do not do direct hires?

    • Many state court systems and hospitals provide interpreting services through agencies. Interpreters can do the same as professionals without incorporating. Attorneys do it everyday as part of CJA. Mere freelancers and contractors are fine. They just need to get away from the agency model. Think more like a professional and less like a merchant. Professions have plenty of solo practitioners and they do not behave like an agency.

  • Rebecca Abrahamson says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I worked freelance when I lived overseas, but since relocating back to the US, have not been able to retain my clients due to restrictions of payment on their end (grants not allowing contracting a translator who does not reside in the country). I have been researching how to break into this profession here in exactly the way you describe. If there are any resources you can point me to that would aid me in this search, it would be greatly appreciated.

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