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.
Paid by the hour should include,
The actual interpretation, hours,
The preparation time, (2.5 days = 20 business hours),
The pre-session time, setup, etc.,
Travel time, if any,
Plus the customary,
Transportation, room & board, if any.
The preparation time, as you well know, is essential and might take a long time. In a conference I gave in Brazil, knowing the difficulty of the subject, I took the initiative and showed my whole presentation to the interpreter, even helping with the correct and accepted translations. It took a long time and he greatly appreciated it. The organizers noticed this and took note.
Dear Franco, thank you for your your comments. Conference interpreting has never been paid by the hour. Only community interpreters charge by the hour because their business model allows it.
I must admit that when you talked about the repetitive nature of healthcare interpreting, I got a little angry. But I had to be honest with myself and admit that this is often the case. I prepare A LOT more for any event that involves simultaneous interpreting.
I think a distinction can be made between interpreting at conferences (they are bigger, longer events) and simultaneous interpreting for smaller events, like webinars. Even if I do prepare (I have a separate fee for this), I don’t feel comfortable charging half a day for an hour of interpreting. I think there is some room for adapting for these smaller events. I do share your opinion when it comes to half-day and full-day rates. It made me reflect on my current fee structure and how maybe I should… Restructure it.
Dear Maria, thank you for your comments. I am glad you got to reflect on your current fee structure, and I understand what you say. While conference interpreting follows a per day fee structure, other types of community interpreting can continue with a per-hour business plan where interpreters decide the value of their time.
Thank you very much indeed for sharing this important issue about interpreting. I would appreciate to receive more inputs on the matter when it is possible.
Maputo – Mozambique
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Thank you so much for this important post. Last fall, I began my Masters in Conference Interpretation for the very reasons you highlighted in order to transition from community to conference work. One worry that does stick with me is whether the by-the-day business model will be around after graduation, given the push of certain actors to move to a per hour model. Only time will tell, but my hope is that my freshman colleagues and I will join veterans in defending this model.
For what it’s worth, the per hour model wasn’t even working for me in court interpreting, given how quickly a “short hearing/deposition” could turn into an all-day or multi-day affair. It made it nearly impossible for me to have a somewhat stable work week and coordinate team interpreting for longer assignments, which is a battle in its own right in the legal field. Eventually, I moved to half-day/full-day for private clients, using the Federal court payment model as my precedent. Some clients grumbled when I made the switch, but most ended up realizing that this benefited both of us: while I got professional peace of mind, they no longer had to deal with cases being drawn out weeks or even months because the interpreter had to leave. It may cost the client a little more in the short-term, but it’s a long-term win-win.
Dear Gabriela, thank you for your comments. You make a good point regarding legal, and some court, interpreting instances, but in reality, most assignments are repetitive and short, and most interpreters will not encounter the cases you refer to; only a minority of legal interpreters handle such portfolio. For these reasons, a per-hour business model, with good fees and other safeguards such as minimum guaranteed pay, cancellation policy, etc. can work for community interpreting.
As far as conference interpreting, do not worry, the business model is alive and well. Agencies and platforms acting as agencies target community interpreters who agree to do conference work. You are studying precisely to avoid that labor market. Thank you for reading the blog.
I absolutely see your point. With all those safeguards in place, the per hour model can work very well for a good chunk of court interpreting work that is super repetitive and less likely to throw these logistical curveballs. And thank you for your reassurance regarding the conference interpreting market. It’s always great to hear from a veteran.
You are welcome!
Tony, your points are well taken. Here’s the thing though: if I use your reasoning (2 to 2-1/2 days of prep for every day in the booth) I can make more in court or a deposition m. What financial incentive do I have to pursue conference interpreting?
Incidentally, mid-pandemic I changed my fee structure to hourly, half-day, and full-day fees, along with conditions. As you say, when doing conferences, I adhere to the full-day/half-day model. A hybrid pricing model has given me more bargaining power with prospective clients. I think both community and conference interpreters have things to learn from each other. Thank you for your instructive and thought-provoking blog posts.
Dear Jason, thank you for your comments. I am glad to see you found a business model that suits you for the different work you do. In my experience, the economic incentive to do conference interpreting is the remuneration. While conference interpreting clients (corporations and international organizations) pay high fees for consistent work, most law offices offer a lower fee, and those who pay fees comparable to conference work, do not offer assignments that often. You are right, we all have to learn from our colleagues.
I guess my question is “Do conference interpreters really make more?” If it takes you two hours of prep for every hour of performance, it is close to what many court interpreters make. I would believe that interesting topics, the opportunity to travel, and the chance to be where new and exciting things are happening are all strong incentives to be a conference interpreter. But I’m still not convinced that the pay alone sets conference interpreting apart from other interpreting settings.
Dear Jason. Most conference assignments are 3-4 hours and they pay full day fees. I am glad you make a higher income than conference interpreters. In my experience you would be an exceptional case and for that I congratulate you. I appreciate your points.
Tony, thank you for that clarification. Also it was brought to my attention that compensation for public service interpreters in other countries tends to be substantially higher. So now I think I have a more complete picture of the situation. Thank you for your valuable advice, I always take it to heart.