Our current market and the fearful interpreter.

April 19, 2021 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The post-Covid interpreting market looks very different from what we knew before 2020. Distance interpreting brought in globalization at an unprecedented pace, and with that a new set of rules that for now look like the Wild West. Much remains to be done, and many things will happen before the market settles down and we have a clear view and understanding of a more permanent, stable workplace; but for now, misrepresentations, ignorance, and opportunism, coexist with professionalism, quality, and experience.

The impact of false advertisement and entry of inexperienced individuals has been such, that even well-established working relations between professional interpreters and long-time clients have been affected to a degree.

My professional practice is now strong and steady, but in the last twelve months I experienced first-hand, three times, what this chaos and confusion can do to my business.

First, I was contacted by a long-time client to let me know that the annual assignment I have been doing for seven years was no more. When I asked if the event had been cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic, I was told the conference would be held on line, but it would be interpreted by other interpreters from a developing country charging less than half of my fee. The client told me that to them costs were THE priority, and no argument about quality, experience, cultural knowledge would make them change their minds. I understood. I had lost my first long-term client to a group of inexpensive interpreters with (in the words of the client) had zero experience in these events, but were “enthusiastic, energetic, and cheap.”

Several months later, I was asked by another client who has worked with me for over fifteen years to interpret a one-day event. It was a distance interpreting assignment on a topic I have interpreted often before. The event took place without incident and I invoiced my client. To my surprise, this client’s accounting department contacted me a few weeks later asking me to explain and justify the fee I had charged. The invoice was straight forward; in fact, it was identical to many other invoices I had submitted for similar services. It was a full-day fee. Nothing else. I replied to the accountants, and two weeks later I was contacted by my client. I was told my service rendered on that date did not justify a full-day fee because there was a 2-hour intermission after the first 2 hours and before the final two. I explained that such a service is a full-day because the interpreter is dedicating the full day to the event, including interpreting when the event goes over the first two hours. I also reminded them they had paid this way for years without ever questioning the charge, and the contract obligated them to pay for a full-day of work. The client listened carefully to my arguments and replied that they appreciated my services, but other interpreters who they had been hiring for other language combinations, all court or healthcare interpreters, were charging them by the hour, and they did not charge for the hours in between. We had a good conversation about conference interpreting, quality of the service, and meeting their needs. At the end of a long conversation, we agreed to continue our professional relationship as always, but the client express their hesitancy about replacing their other language combinations court and healthcare interpreters with conference interpreters in the immediate future.  I did not lose the client, but it was clear they were moving away from conference interpreters in other less-commonly used languages.

My third experience concerned another very good client that comes with less frequency, but always with multi-day, high-profile assignments. This client sent me an email asking for my availability for a multi-day assignment. After I replied telling them I was available, they responded by asking me if I would do the assignment for a full-day fee about twenty percent below what I usually charge. My answer was no. I got another email a few days later asking me if I was still available, and willing to work for a full-day fee about fifteen percent below my normal fee. I said no again. A few weeks went by and I received a third email informing me that if I was still available, they had “found the funds” to pay me my usual full-day fee. I was available (the assignment was months later in the year) so I agreed to do the job. After signing the contract, I wondered what had happened, and it came to my knowledge from other sources (in the world of interpreting we discover everything sooner or later) that they had “auditioned” other interpreters willing to work for the lower fee, but the client was not satisfied with their performance. I was fortunate the client was looking for quality and they valued my services, even though they hesitated for a moment as they were tricked by the social media mirage we see every day.

These episodes make me wonder what is going on that interpreters will accept worse conditions than the ones offered 20 or 30 years ago. I believe it is fear:

Interpreters fear the client. Instead of starting a negotiation from a place of power, knowing the service they offer has quality, they fear clients will never call them again if they raise any issue. Interpreters fear saying no to a shrinking fee because they think all the work will go to those diving to the bottom, instead of shedding those clients and focusing on quality-seeking organizations. Interpreters fear saying no to long RSI hours because they think the platform will never call them again. They agree to these market-devastating conditions instead of considering taking the client to another platform or even staying with the same one, but working directly for the client without an agency-like platform in the middle. They are equally afraid of charging full fees for RSI cancellations; afraid of asking for team interpreting on depositions and other legal community interpreting events; they will not dare to charge overtime, or a higher fee for complex assignments that require many days of preparation, because they do not understand they do not need the agency if they go to the client directly: There can be interpretation without the agencies, but there cannot be interpretation without interpreters.

Even when there is a contract, interpreters are afraid of charging full-day fees when retained to interpret a few hours throughout the day, and they are afraid to stand up for their rights when the client cuts their fee after the service was rendered as I did in my examples above. Many interpreters sacrifice quality, and put their reputation at risk, hurting their opportunities in the future because they are afraid the client, and more frequently the agency, will be upset if they keep asking for materials, programs, and the name of their boothmates. They do not dare to raise their fees when everything else is going up, including their cost of doing business. Some colleagues willingly take low-paying jobs to post their assignments on social media, and keep quiet on the fee issue because they are ashamed to admit they worked for peanuts, instead of having the courage to denounce the job offer. When offered a rock-bottom fee or despicable working conditions, interpreters must turn down the agency or de-facto-agency platform and, unless contractually impaired, contact the client directly, offer their services and eliminate the middle man. When harassed by a platform or agency for not agreeing to draconian terms, interpreters should move on and look for a better option. There are thousands of agencies, and many interpreting-dedicated platforms that basically do the same. Yes, you may lose clients, as I lost one of three, but you will keep, and find better ones; clients that will let you provide a quality service, protect your health, and develop your reputation and brand for a better future. Let’s get rid of the fear and face the Wild West with courage, determination, and convinced that, unlike agencies, we are an essential part of the process. I now invite you to share with the rest of us how you have protected your market and reputation.

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§ 10 Responses to Our current market and the fearful interpreter.

  • María Baker says:

    The fear is real. You are spot on. I am also afraid of what you and other colleagues would say about some of the fees that I accept, but the truth is I find the fees fair for the interpreter that I am. When I am at your level of expertise and quality, I will charge accordingly. As you said, different clients are looking for different things. I haven’t lost current clients, but I have lost opportunities with potential clients because they did not accept my fees. I hear you loud and clear…

  • Gabriela says:

    Dear Tony,

    Thank so much for this reminder. This dilemma is one I confront regularly. Whenever I get an offer like this, if it’s an assignment that looks like it should be offered to someone beyond my current skillset, I’ll ask myself why they are approaching me? Inevitably, the answer is because someone with the right experiences and credentials are not going to accept the terms they’re offering. That gives me the push to turn it down. I find that by sticking to assignments where I’m confident that I have the skills, credentials, and experience to justify my terms and conditions, I normally get the assignment on my terms, a happy repeat client, and work that makes me proud.

    Sometimes, it temporarily hurts to turn down the work, but I find reassurance in the long term strategy. I would much rather dedicate that time to building my skills and preparing for additional credentialing that will allow me to take on those assignments and command the proper fees for them than to set the bar low, not just for my future self, but for the profession, and have a harder time asking for the payment professional interpreters deserve.

  • Veronica Barzelatto says:

    Dear Tony,

    I am glad you posted this because it is true, RSI is more taxing stressful and costly, than traditional simultaneous interpretation. By now most organizations that have always hired conference interpreters have realized this and are paying full day fees for half the time they used to pay in a physical booth with your team mate or mates next to you.

    I am sure that some agencies not run by interpreters, thought: “Oh, they’ll be working from home and less hours so we can pay less and save clients money”. Well clients are already saving on airfare, hotels and per diem. Whereas interpreters have had to upgrade their hardware to have more RAM memory capacity, connect to the ethernet when wi-if is no longer sufficient for the new platforms they are working on.

    I may have lost a few opportunities by rejecting assignments that did not pay enough and offered the same arguments as you. Probably not as eloquently as you, but so be it.

    One new client offered an even lower rate than they had originally paid for another assignment (and that had been at the bottom of my scale, with the stipulation that if satisfied, they would agree to my regular rate in the future. I like the person I deal with there, because of their honesty and forthright manner, we have agreed that when they can afford to pay my rates, they will call on me. That remains to be seen, but I do not feel badly about this because, it is part of a fundamental belief I have. If a client does not care that his message be partly or “sort of” conveyed, they do not deserve the best quality interpretation.

    To be clear, all of us will make mistakes, we are human, but how often, is another matter. Is necessary degree of comprehension there or is the interpreter just translating words without truly understanding the meaning? All the things we know, right? Not always and this should be explained slowly and in detail to the client, who does not really understand what our work entails. If then they would still prefer the cheaper option, that is what they deserve.

    Enough said, I have to go into one of my RSI jobs and just to repeat, that I am glad you posted this.


    • Veronica, thank you for your comments and for sharing your personal experience. You are right, most organizations and responsible clients in the private sector are adjust to the new reality in order to convey the message and keep the good interpreters. You hit the nail in the head when you said: “If a client does not care that his message be partly or “sort of” conveyed, they do not deserve the best quality interpretation.”

  • Maribel says:

    When those stupid customers come back to you (after trying those “new and cheap” interpreters), you should charge them double

    • Maribel, thank you for your comment. I think you should assess the benefits of taking the client back. It is important to clean up our portfolio and continue to work with those who value quality, respect our work, and pay a professional fee.

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