Many Interpreters Don’t Understand the Value of the Service They Provide.

July 18, 2022 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

When interpreters you never heard of take to social media, even LinkedIn, to talk about their many RSI assignments, bragging about how they work long hours at odd times of the night, just to be “congratulated” by others doing the same thing, and by people known for hiring interpreters for little pay and poor working conditions, and next you look at what our European Parliament colleagues are doing, you must conclude it is admirable, and worthy of our full support.

These brave interpreters are fighting to protect their health and to work under the conditions previously agreed to, but they are also fighting for the profession. If an institution like the Parliament gets away with violating a collective agreement, and resorts to hiring cheap interpreters, even from places outside the Union, all other interpreters will be next. Those of us who mainly work in the private sector, and as individual contractors with some institutions, must understand that the rules broken somewhere else, and the disregarded agreements, will happen in our market not long from now. These are some of the reasons why we should all support our EP colleagues; but there is another reason we should admire them, respect them, and use them as an inspiration and role model: They understand the value of the service they provide, and they use it as a tool to protect the profession.

It is funny how at the same time these colleagues are fighting this battle, many others have quit, decided not to act, or chose a strategy that does not let them negotiate as equals with those who impact their interpreting practice.

Recently, the court interpreters of an American State, who have been paid one of the lowest professional fees in America, and have not seen a fee raise or cost of living adjustment for years, asked for a $10 USD per hour fee increase, set a deadline for the authorities to respond, and threatened with a walk off if those dates were not observed and their demand for a raise was not honored. First, the action had a lot of support, it got precious media coverage locally and nationwide, but a few days later, after the State gave them questionable reasons, basically denying the raise and telling them they would “consider” their petition for the 2024 budget, despite the determination of some interpreters to go ahead with the walk off, most interpreters gave in and continued to work. They feared not being scheduled to work (for peanuts) anymore.

A few weeks ago, a nationwide association of judicial interpreters held a conference in the United States. Among the guests to speak about their successes on language access to the courts, an individual who has repeatedly lowered court interpreters’ work conditions in one of the States in America was scheduled to participate and praise the accomplishments of the program he is responsible for. I learned of this situation when an interpreter who works in that State reached me in Europe to share the news and to ask me why in my opinion that person had been invited to speak, despite his actions as an administrator which have resulted in leaving approximately 20 or so state-certified court interpreters (a considerable number in a small State like this one) out of work, because of his practice of hiring interpreters without a court certification, and interpreters from other States who work for a pay lower than the one State court interpreters must get paid.

I immediately suggested all interpreters in the State take this opportunity, when the interpreting universe of the United States is paying attention to this conference, to publicly denounce these practices for the world to know. In other words: to bombard the conference Twitter account with stories of how the practice of these government officials is not to observe court interpreter state policy, and to deny court work to those who complain. Even though this was a unique chance to pressure the State, except for a few colleagues, who I salute, the rest of the interpreters decided not to go to war with the State government to protect their profession. They feared retaliation and not being “called to interpret anymore”.

Finally, a few days ago I was asked to sign a petition to the authorities asking for a fee raise for a group of specialty interpreters in the United States. These are the only interpreters authorized to practice at this level; they are an elite group, and considered among the best in their field. Unfortunately, they are also known as the interpreter group that has not seen a raise, or cost of living adjustment in over 6 years. Even though I knew from the start I would sign the letter in solidarity with my colleagues (I rarely work in that system because they pay very little), I read the letter and was sad to see it was a very timid letter applying no leverage. My first reaction was: Why is a government agency that has not cared enough about its interpreters for so many years going to change policy after reading a letter with no teeth? Unlike the interpreters’ letter in the first case above, which at least had a deadline and a threat of strike, these federal court interpreters exercised no leverage. They put no pressure on the authorities.

The European Parliament interpreters showed us the value of our work. If the interpreters in other organizations or public service agencies stopped working, the system would be crippled. The authorities know this and know they would need to avoid such labor stoppage no matter what. All government agencies in the world operate within a budget and it takes time to modify it, but all government agencies in the world have additional emergency funds to be used to keep the government running. Had these interpreters exercised their leverage, their raises would be coming right now.

Interpreters everywhere must understand that communication among those who don’t share a common language is impossible without their services. They need to see there is a great demand for what we do elsewhere; that during the time of a stoppage they can interpret in other fields and venues, especially in these days of distance interpreting. The day most interpreters shake off their fears, doubts, and lack of confidence, and do as our European Parliament colleagues did, their fees and work conditions will finally be as they should. It is a matter of understanding they need us more than we need them.

Like President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “The only thing to fear is fear itself”.  

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§ 9 Responses to Many Interpreters Don’t Understand the Value of the Service They Provide.

  • Kathleen M Morris says:

    As always, your comments are timely and urgently needed right now, Tony. The time has come for language professionals who are seriously concerned about upholding standards of practice, and a living wage, to stop just reading these blogs, and to take concerted action.
    When will we, as a profession, finally realize this, and take concrete, organized steps to ensure a professional future determined by interpreters themselves?

  • Jesús Sifuentes says:

    I would think that those interpreters with the determination to go ahead with the walk off would feel betrayed by those who gave in and preferred to continue to work for peanuts; and of course, continued to complain about their situation. That State knows how to “divide and conquer.”

  • Christopher Day says:

    This fear people have of standing up for themselves and making working conditions and pay better is so relatable. The same is happening in my industry of court reporting and I’ve blogged about it quite a bit.

    I hope you all see some progress. Interpreting services are so valuable.

  • Oxana Lysenko says:

    This is how it always plays out in the US: While truckers in France shut down the highways with their trucks, farmers in the Netherlands shut down the highways with their tractors,and EU Interpreters stop interpreting; American workers bend over even further to make sure their lords and masters are not inconvenienced in the land of CEO pay on average 300 times that of a worker’s.

  • Carolina Martinez says:

    I like this post! Thanks for sharing this important concern!!!! We, as interpreters are important!!!!!

  • Janis Palma says:

    Someone else just brought this post to my attention because you mention “a nationwide association of judicial interpreters [that] held a conference in the United States.” Please let it be known that those interpreters who complained made me (the chair of that association at the time) aware of their issues when it was too late to do anything because the person about whom they were complaining had already given his presentation. Maybe things would have been different if they had reached out to me before the conference had already started.

  • Hilda E Zavala-Shymanik says:

    A quick note to to clarify that the panelist in question was approved by the conference committee and the board of said association after due diligence. This individual is a good presenter and his bio and credentials are impeccable. We provided a safe forum where attendees could ask questions and make comments. Some expressed issues on the feedback forms but by then it was too late. We did not learn of their grievances until after the session, as Janis points out.

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