Conference Interpreting Cannot Be Charged by The Hour.
March 22, 2022 § 15 Comments
We are constantly showered with comments and opinions on the way conference interpreters should charge for their services. Even though this is an issue settled long ago, some newcomers to the world of conference interpreting, mainly distance interpreting platforms and language agencies, are attempting to drop our professional business model and replace it with something that works for them, not the client or the interpreter.
Freelance professional conference interpreters have always charged by the day, but in the last two years, agencies and others who come from the world of community interpreting are trying to impose their system and offer to pay by the hour.
Court interpreters, healthcare interpreters, social services interpreters, and all other community interpreters are paid by the hour. That is a different business model that does not work for conference interpreting because the interpreting service is very different.
All community interpreters do a very important and difficult job; they work under conditions no conference interpreter would ever agree to, like noisy courtrooms, small confined areas in hospitals, and some clients who do not know, understand, or appreciate their work.
These is all true and admirable; however, community interpreters do the same type of work every day, often they even do the same repeatedly. Because of the repetitious nature of the task, and the similarities of all the assignments, they usually need little preparation. Court and healthcare interpreters often show up to courthouses and hospitals without even knowing what they will interpret that day. You arrive to court and then you know if your first assignment of the day is a divorce hearing, a felony arraignment, or a sentencing hearing. You do the job, and then you are assigned to another interpretation task. Yes, there are complicated cases and situations, and responsible interpreters try to learn the details of the assignment; yes, there is specialized terminology and procedures, but once you know them, by study or by repetition, all new cases will be an opportunity to apply what you already know.
But conference interpreter is different every day. Interpreters study, research, and practice for every assignment. Yesterday’s assignment was on mining, tomorrow’s will be on agriculture, and next week it will involve international trade. In average, conference interpreters prepare for two to two and a half days for each day they spend in the booth. Unlike community interpreting assignments, they face a very knowledgeable audience in a room where, even after all their study and preparation, they know the topic the least.
Community interpreting assignments that require little or no preparation can be paid by the hour with a minimum fee system. Often interpreters do not even work because court cases get dismissed, continued or settled, and patients do not show up for a doctor’s appointment. A guaranteed two-to-four-hour minimum fee seems like a fair agreement when interpreters set aside their time for an assignment that required no advanced preparation and did not happen.
Conference interpreters always work. Their conferences do not get canceled or postponed. Conference interpreters save a day for a client knowing they must prepare and work, even for distance interpreted events.
The community interpreting business model of charging by the hour with a minimum guaranteed works for court, healthcare and other similar assignments, but it is not a valid business model for conference interpreting.
With the arrival of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) many language agencies around for many years making their living in court and healthcare interpreting saw an opportunity to expand into a field new to them. Even those who claim they were always offering conference interpreting services, in reality were providing community interpreting with portable equipment or a table top. They imposed their community interpreting business model to conference interpreting and that did not work.
RSI also brought many court and healthcare interpreters to conference interpreting. These interpreters, used to charge by the hour, saw nothing abnormal when their known business model was offered to them in the world of conference interpreting. Some platforms saw this and followed by applying this impossible model to conference work performed by these community interpreters.
It must be understood that conference interpreting cannot be paid by the hour as determined by a business model that does not consider the reality of conference work. Veteran conference interpreters, and new colleagues who know and understand the profession, reject this model as it fosters complacency and lack of preparation to make a living on such unrealistic terms. Some will tell you that conference and community interpreting are not that different. The ones making that argument are usually community interpreters or agencies/platforms seeking a higher profit in conference interpreting, not the best human talent.
We often hear interpreters need to adapt to the changing times. That is true and expected; however, adapting to the new reality means mastering distance and hybrid conference interpreting instead of demanding in-person interpreting for all events. It does not mean accepting a new business model that does not consider the services rendered by a conference interpreter, imposed by business entities who want to expand beyond the world of community interpreting.