The Uncomfortable Situation When the Client Disrespects Interpreters and Foreign Language Speakers.

August 9, 2022 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The best part of having a well-established professional practice is that your client portfolio is already developed. After years of collaboration, you come to know your clients and they know you. Tensions, concerns and uncertainties about policy, practices, and the relationship, are no more. My preference is to keep my clients and rarely work with somebody I do not know.

Unfortunately, sometimes a project is so interesting, or the conditions are so attractive that you take a chance and try a new client. As you all freelancers know, sometimes this strategy works, sometimes it does not.

A collaboration on a multi-day assignment that was both, interesting and well remunerated came along; it was with someone I did not know and I moved forward. At the time of the preliminary, planning stages of the event things seem fine, although there were some revealing clues I missed, but things did not get truly uncomfortable until the start of the assignment.

On the first day of the event, this person I had never worked with before, a monolingual individual in a position of power who apparently has traveled little, quickly assessed the foreign language speakers and made an instantaneous judgement call that would affect everybody participating in the event, including the interpreting team.

Before 6 in the morning of the second day of the assignment I received a message on my phone informing me, and the rest of the team, that our interpreting services would be needed no longer because everybody in attendance seemed to have an acceptable level of fluency in English. Shortly after, I received an email with my plane ticket to go back home.

Because of a good contract, our fees were not a problem; there was no financial damage derived from this decision, but the process was unprofessional and the way it was handled was disrespectful.

I find it difficult to believe that an individual with no knowledge of foreign languages can conclude that everyone in the audience is fluent in a language that is not their first, and this can be done after observing about two hours of a conference where the audience is mostly listening, and the few questions asked during such a period of time come from people who are confident enough on their foreign language skills to ask them directly, without interpretation, even if they fumble with the words, apply grammar incorrectly, and use false cognates.

The interpreters learned the decision was made to save money (we got paid because of a good contract, but other expenses as lodging, per diem, transportation, etc. would be saved) but no one was ever consulted. Not the interpreters, who know the working languages in the event, and also know, from experience, that as peer-pressure shrinks, attendees use their native languages, especially to ask questions. The audience was never polled to see if they needed interpretation. The decision was based on a single opinion from a monolingual individual whose only goal was to save (little) money, apparently a priority as it became clear when I analyzed all circumstances surrounding the job. Things that seemed irrelevant at the planning stages now made sense: Booking plane tickets on an airplane grounded for 24 months after 2 fatal accidents in one year, because they were cheap; offering a welcome reception with sub-par food and even worse service at a place no-doubt chosen because of the price.

The contract terms protected the interpreters, and even freed our time to work on other assignments on the cancelled dates, but that we were never approached in person to tell us face to face of this decision to dismiss the team, that there was not even a greeting other than a message early in the morning when you are still in bed, and to leave the attendees without the benefit of interpreting services, without even polling them to discover their needs, is inappropriate, unprofessional, and frankly disrespectful. The lesson learned was that you can try new clients when protected by a good, solid contract, and the benefit from this situation was that I did not have to continue my collaboration with such a difficult, one-track mind individual. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your stories about good contracts that protected you from difficult clients, or bad experiences where you lacked said protection.

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