Interpreters who follow these principles protect their market and earn higher fees.

May 4, 2020 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Just like many people around the world, I am one of those individuals who watch a lot of movies, feel they are amateur movie critics, and always watch the Academy Awards Ceremony on television. Unlike most them, for professional reasons, I am usually on the road on Oscar night. This means sometimes I get to watch the ceremony when people are sleeping, and on the local TV broadcast of the country where I am working. Because the show is in English, TV stations in non-English speaking countries use simultaneous interpreting services (that is great for the locals, but a little uncomfortable to those of us who try to hear the original sound feed, partly covered by the interpreters’ voices).

Occasionally, when I watch the Oscars in a Spanish-speaking country, I do what we all do when we know the two languages used on the screen: I compare the source to the rendition. Most interpreters are very good, but as a spectator, you miss quite a bit of the ceremony’s flavor.

This year I watched the Oscars while working in a foreign country. I looked for the original English broadcast on cable or satellite TV, but my hotel only offered the simultaneously interpreted voiceover broadcast by a local network. I paid attention to both, the rendition and the original speeches in the background. No doubt the interpreters were experienced professionals, their interpretation was spot on, until it was not anymore. The interpreters remained silent during many of the political and current affairs’ remarks by hosts and award recipients. First, I thought it concerned censorship by the local authorities, but after a while it became evident that they were not interpreting those exchanges because they did not fully know what was being said. The Spanish-speaking audience did not get the full Oscar experience because some astute, sharp criticism and very good jokes were left out.

I immediately thought of the globalized interpreting market and how cheap agencies have taken away assignments from local, excellent interpreters in the United States and Western Europe, choosing experienced and way less expensive interpreters from developing economies.

I have discussed this issue with potential clients in developed nations and the comment is always the same: “…but these interpreters (from developing countries) are really good and they work for a fraction of the money you charge…” This is my cue to bring up to the client my competitive advantage.

I take this opportunity to explain the importance of having an interpreter with the right acculturation in the booth so communication may flow between speaker and audience. I make them see the value of making sure their message comes across by eliminating any informational voids and misunderstandings not attributable to a bad interpretation of what was said, but to a poor command of the speaker’s culture and its equivalences in the target language of that specific audience. You cannot communicate if you limit what a speaker may say or do. Analogies, jokes, pop culture, politics, and country-specific rules of etiquette are essential to a successful event. Sometimes I present the testimony of the technicians who work with interpreters all the time, and even without speaking the languages in the booth, they can tell if a joke or a cultural remark got lost in the interpretation.

This is something all interpreters in developed economies must emphasize. We have to drive home that a person who does not live in a country lacks many elements needed for an accurate rendition. No academic degree can replace this immersion.

A proactive strategy is essential to protect your market, more so at this time when many are promoting and using remote interpreting services. You need to drive this point home as it is your leverage. Unlike in-person interpreting when agencies, colleges, or corporations bring interpreters from developing countries to the West to save money in professional fees, and you have the law to protect you from foreigners working illegally as interpreters in a foreign country, and you should immediately go to the authorities without hesitation so violators are sanctioned and removed (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2019/02/06/alert-they-are-interpreting-illegally-outside-their-country/) this is your main line of defense in conference remote interpreting. Healthcare and legal interpreters have other defenses against telephonic, RSI, and VRI interpreting such as the certification or licensing requirement to interpret in such fields. State court interpreters in the United States can even use this argument against remote services by interpreters certified by another state. Interpreters in developing countries could argue the same when protecting their market from foreign interpreters.

The second principle interpreters need to enforce benefits us all, regardless of our country of residence.

Agencies are constantly looking for cheap interpreting services. To find them, they usually look south. Conference interpreters with similar skills and experience in Latin America will get paid about eighty percent less than their counterparts in the United States. Africa, many places in Asia, and certain countries in Eastern Europe are in a similar situation. If you stop and think about it, it is a bad situation for all interpreters; it is unfair to interpreters in developed economies, and it is insulting to our colleagues in the developing world. Let me explain.

When asked, agencies defend the microscopic amounts they pay in poorer countries with two arguments: Cost of living is lower, so interpreters in a country south of the equator do not have the same expenses as their colleagues in a rich country. The second argument is that their lifestyle is different, so an amount that looks low in the West, is actually pretty good, or at least good enough in an underdeveloped nation.

These arguments do not pass muster. That the electric bill is cheaper in a specific country has nothing to do with the professional service provided by the interpreter. Same work and same quality must get same pay.

Frankly, to say that a certain fee is “good enough” for somebody because of where they live is insulting. When clients or agencies offer a low fee to an interpreter in a developing country, what they are really telling them is “you are not sophisticated enough to appreciate a different standard of living, so this will make you happy.  A steak is too good for you, have a burger. Caviar is not for you, have a bowl of beans.”

Many colleagues in these countries agree to such discriminatory practices, and work for less than peanuts, because they are afraid there will be no work. This is a misunderstanding. If they do not take the assignment. Who will do it? Even if they are paid the same fee as an interpreter from the U.S. or Western Europe, it is way more expensive to fly another interpreter from abroad. Remember: same work must get same pay. It is your market, not the agencies’. Reclaim it!

Interpreters will not get paid the same in South America and the United States. These are two markets; two economies. Our goal should always be to get the highest fee a particular market can afford. If you get paid that way, you will be in good shape, even if the amount is considerably less than Western European fees. This goes both ways. If South American interpreters work a local event in their country, they will make less money than American interpreters working a local event back in their country. American interpreters working a local event in South America will get less that their usual fee back home. The reason: The client is in the poorer economy. That is what they can afford.

But if interpreters from an emerging economy work an event in the United States or Western Europe, in-person with the appropriate work visa, or remotely from their home country, they must get paid what American interpreters make for that work. To determine professional fees in a particular market, the interpreters’ country of residence is irrelevant. What matters is the country where the client is located. It is the client who will spend the money.

The task is difficult, and it will take time for you to accomplish it. Remember: to protect our market, we must use our competitive advantage by emphasizing the huge void in communication caused by interpreters who lack acculturation. To make sure we get paid what we deserve, we must quote our fees according to the client’s country of residence, not the interpreters’. I now invite you share your ideas as to how we can achieve these two goals.

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§ One Response to Interpreters who follow these principles protect their market and earn higher fees.

  • Franco Gamero says:

    Good observation. When it comes to jokes and slang, even the best interpreters falter.
    In one award show, may be the academy awards, the presenter was a black comedian. His jokes were told freely using the black slang and accent. I personally didn’t understand some of them. But the funny thing was that Lindsey Vonn, present with her black boyfriend, laughed at the jokes. But it was obvious she didn’t understand them. I thought this was ironic.
    Maybe this is the case of the interpreters you heard.
    I don’t know if you remember when Obama used the pig/lipstick refrain which has to be translated using the monkey as the animal. You can only imagine the repercussions. Plus the current use of new and old expressions in political jokes would make it very difficult. i.e., throw somebody under the bus. Thank you.

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