A client’s message on hiring interpreters abroad

October 6, 2021 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I am about to share a personal experience with a client that, in my opinion, has value. I understand what you are about to read may upset some of you. I do not write it to offend anybody. I just ask you to read the post until the end, and reflect on the words of this client who should remain anonymous although he knows of this article.

During one of the in-person interpretation jobs I have done during the pandemic I had the opportunity to meet a very interesting individual who is now my client. It all started with an email asking for my availability for an in-person conference after indoor activities, observing all public health security measures, were allowed again. We exchanged a few emails, signed a contract and two weeks later I was at the venue some five hours before the event.

As soon as I arrived, I noticed the portable booths were not installed in a place convenient to the interpreters so I approached the person who seemed in charge of preparations. I explained we needed to move the booths and asked them to do so. I was told they would do it as there was plenty of time before the public arrived, but they needed the “go ahead” from their boss due in the building any minute. I waited for about fifteen minutes before the boss arrived.

He immediately approved the change and asked me if we could spend a few minutes talking about my services. We moved to an adjacent room and over a cup of coffee we talked for over an hour. He told me they had held two events remotely in the past twelve months and they were excited to be back face to face. I asked if they had interpretation for those two events and he explained they had hired a company to interpret, but he was not sure he wanted to continue working with this business, so he went shopping for interpreting services and found me. I listen to what he had to say about his company and his expectations for the interpreter team; next, instead of wasting his valuable time teaching him we are interpreters, not translators, or explaining to him why interpreting is so difficult (I have never met a lawyer or a physician who explains how tough Constitutional Law is, or how sophisticated is human physiology), I asked a lot of questions to have a better picture of their needs and that way decide how to support their events better.

He shared that the interpretation had been average but not what they expected. He told me at some point the interpreters seemed confused and the audience complained about sound quality and rendition. He told me who he hired and he also said the interpreters were working from abroad. He was surprised the interpreter team was not based in the United States. I explained how many agencies and platforms are using interpreters based somewhere else as this reduces their costs and increase their profit. I told him we had the same problem before the pandemic as some agencies would bring interpreters from overseas, often without getting a work visa, arriving in the country on a tourist/business visitor visa (B1/B2) or as part of a Visa Waiver Program (VWPP) if they were from a country covered by it. When entering the country, they would not disclose the purpose of their visit to the authorities. These interpreters would work for a lower fee, stay two or three in the same hotel room, and work under conditions American interpreters would not accept. I told him how these interpreters, many more of them now, hired by direct clients, language services agencies, or remote interpretation platforms (through their chosen business model to appear as if they were independent from the hiring entity) are now doing distance interpreting from developing markets, working for fees lower than interpreters in developed markets, and under conditions inacceptable in Western Europe and the United States such as longer hours, interpreting solo, working without previous dry runs, and with no legal protections.

The client, a top-level executive of a major corporation, paused for a minute and added: “You know, I am in a business where many follow the same practice. They hire people who are in the United States without a legal immigration status, pay them little, and offer them zero benefits. It is illegal, but they do it anyway because it is profitable. They argue Americans would not do farm, construction, or hospitality work, and they are right. Nobody in their right mind would work under such conditions. They take advantage of these immigrants because they know they need the money to send back home…”

I was about to agree with his words when he continued speaking: “…I see the same thing now. These interpreters don’t come to our country. They remain in Latin America or Eastern Europe, but they are treated the same, and for the same reasons. That is wrong. I am glad I had this chat with you because from now on we will only hire interpreters who live in the United States. That is what we do with our employees, everybody needs to have papers to work here…”

I told him I have nothing against my colleagues abroad, I explained many are excellent interpreters, and I have no problem working remotely with them as long as they do not accept lower fees or sub-standard working conditions by Western World standards. I finished my conversation telling him I hoped he would be happy with the interpretation service we were about to provide, and asked him to please hire me time and again for in-person and distance events where only U.S. based interpreters, or interpreters abroad working for the same pay and conditions as those in the country would work.  

That evening after the event, I thought of my new client’s words. I was happy he understood our situation as interpreters in the industrialized world, and I reflected on how I had never seen what he just showed me: Those who hire interpreters abroad do it because our colleagues agree to take little money and poor work conditions with no benefits or legal protection. These industrialized world direct clients, agencies and platforms are hiring people who could not work in the United States or Western Europe if the events were held in-person, because when working remotely they can get away with their practice of paying low fees, offering remote solo assignments, asking interpreters to work many hours remotely, not paying royalties when profiting from recorded interpretations of events, and providing no legal protection if a work-related injury occurs, such as temporary or permanent disability due to acoustic shock for example. All of our colleagues in these countries, many first-class interpreters, need the money, more so now because of the pandemic, and those hiring them are maximizing their profits by taking advantage of such circumstances. When questioned about these practices, some of these entities argue that a lower fee may not be considered appropriate in the U.S. or Western Europe, but in the countries where these interpreters live it is good income. “It is good for them.” That explanation is demeaning as it is telling our colleagues: “We know you know we dine at Three-Michelin Star restaurants, but McDonald’s is good enough for you.”      Conference interpreters and those community interpreters in unregulated fields are at a higher risk of this exploitation than community interpreters who require a certification or license to work like court and healthcare interpreters. My client made me think and notice certain things I had not paid attention to before, such as the permanent recruitment campaign by some of these entities in the developing world while nobody is doing a thing to stop it. In my case, I got two benefits from my conversation with this client: I now explain to clients, colleagues and students the ugly side of these practices, and I got a solid, good new client who has hired me on another two occasions after that first event. I now ask you to share your thoughts, and please do not send comments defending the agencies or platforms. Unlike most interpreters, they have their own media outlets to do so.

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§ 8 Responses to A client’s message on hiring interpreters abroad

  • Mila Baker says:

    As usual, you are making me reflect and think again about all my working conditions and terms for clients. As I heard earlier in a panel, we are the ones who, in a way, educate the market. The thoughts you have written inspire me to make appropriate demands on fees and working conditions, and learn to say no and let go of clients that will not meet these requirements. I hope I can be a positive influence in the market and improve things for myself and my colleagues.

  • Nanyi Mateo says:

    Hi, Tony.

    I actually was a bit concerned about what you were going to write here, but it’s a relief to know that you understand the situation from both ends and not just blame remote interpreters or remote interpretation per se.

    As a remote interpreter myself, I do think these agencies resort to denigratory practices against remote interpreters as if we don’t deserve to be well paid (even if we are excellent at what we do) while they make the most profit out of us.

    A lot of the time, these remote interpreters have no clue as to what type of business they are in. They just know it pays them more than any other job in their country so they would basically accept anything out of necessity but many of them don’t know how big the business of interpretation is and they are ignorant to many of the ethical and professional practices involved with it. It’s just ”a side gig” that pays well.

    On the other hand, you have people like me who have some knowledge about the business of interpreting and you start to feel stuck because of this ”glass ceiling” for remote interpreters. Some U.S. agencies have emailed me to hire me, and as soon as they know that I’m not in the U.S., they say, ”please contact us when you are in the U.S.” or ”we don’t hire people overseas”. So, it’s like being between a rock and a hard place.

    Since we’re in a free market, it’s nearly impossible to stop these agencies from hiring overseas interpreters and paying them peanuts, but as professionals, we can at least raise awareness among our colleagues about the importance of professional interpretation and professional rates.

    On another note, I feel like remote interpretation is vastly misunderstood by other interpreters, medical providers, and patients (or at least this has been my experience). I don’t think remote interpretation is a subset of in-person interpretation. I think it’s a semi-specialization with specific needs/skills that need to be studied and met.

    • Dear Nanyi, thank you for your comments. Although it is a free market, there are plenty of direct clients who care about their reputation and once they know of this exploitation they abstain from contracting those agencies. I am a conference interpreter. I have never worked as a healthcare interpreter so I cannot say for sure in your field, but as a conference interpreter, there comes a time in your career you must move to a place where things are happening if you want to advance. I agree distance interpreting is a different modality. Good luck!

  • Victoria Kennedy says:

    So enlightening, Tony, something everyone should hear. Thanks for sharing.

  • Ekaterina Shutova says:

    I have been on both sides: I have seen people fly in interpreters from Moscow because even with the airfare it was cheaper than to pay the local Geneva rate. But I myself travelled across continents and overseas because the client felt comfortable with a particular set of interpreters or because I was the closest accredited interpreter. It had nothing to do with the fees or working conditions.

    • Ekaterina, thank you for your comments. You are right when you say sometimes interpreters are brought from overseas because of who they are and the quality they provide. That is a different set of circumstances. The interpreters you refer to, including you and me, enter the foreign country with authorization to work the event, not as tourists (B1/B2 visa holders in the U.S.). The problem I brought up here, and my client was referring to, is the other situation you mentioned; and by the way, interpreters harm the profession when they agree to low fees and substandard conditions, but the main culprits are those who hire them.

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