Our options when the client does not pay.

May 3, 2021 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Sometimes freelance interpreters face a scenario where a client agrees to pay a professional fee, and after the interpretation they refuse to pay, make a late payment, or try to pay less than the fee agreed by the parties. It is not unusual to hear from a colleague struggling to stay afloat as a business because of morose or dishonest clients.

The first thing we must do is assess the client before agreeing to the service, we have to do our homework, find out who the client is, what is their track record. This due diligence is essential to decide if we want to enter a professional relationship or not. The next step should be a negotiation where you listen to the potential client’s needs, establish your conditions, and give expert advice to the client. Once an agreement is acceptable to both parties, you must sign a contract, preferably your own, or the client’s when they require it, as long as all your negotiated conditions are included.

Many times, there is not enough time for a lengthy negotiation, especially when this assignment is short or urgent. When you find yourselves in this situation, negotiate by email, text, or over a telephone or video call. Do noy skip this step. Many times, there is no time to draft a lengthy, written contract; some clients have a less formal approach to their hiring practices. That is fine, but there is something you must do regardless of the situation or the client: You must have proof of the essential terms of the negotiation, in case you have to take action against that client.  Let it be very clear I am not giving you legal advice; if you need legal assistance, please see an attorney in your jurisdiction. I am only sharing what I do in these cases:

Email or text your client, even if you were just retained and you are on your way to the assignment; even if you are on the phone with the client. Just let them know you are sending an email spelling out the conditions just discussed because you need it for your internal paperwork. This text or email must include all relevant terms of the agreement, and it should be short and straight to the point. Something like: “Per our recent conversation, this is to confirm that you have retained me to interpret “X” Conference (or other event) to take place in (city and country, or on “X” platform to be used if RSI) on (dates and times of the event). My fee will be “X” amount per day (up to 4, 6 or 7 hours, depending on the type of service: distance or in-person) with an OT hourly rate of “X” amount after that, payable within (30, 45) days from the time I send my electronic invoice to this same email address, and a late interest payment of “X” percent if not paid on time. Please confirm these terms by responding to this email the word: “Confirmed”.

Then, in small print (to keep the email short) but before my signature, I add: “It is agreed by the parties that the recipient of this communication has 48 hours from the date of this email to reject its terms, and not responding to this communication within that time will constitute agreement to all the terms in this communication.” Once again, remember this is not legal advice. Please consult an attorney if you have questions.

When a client does not pay by the date agreed in the contract, send them an email (never a phone call because you want to have proof of this communication) attaching your invoice with a legend stating “Overdue.” And politely “remind” them of the payment. This is enough in most cases. If the client cries poverty, or ignores you, wait 30 days or whatever is customary in your country but charge late payment interest. After that, you repeat the same 30 days later. If the client does not pay, then retain a collection agency. They will charge you to collect, but that is better than nothing. Finally, if this does not work, or if you prefer to skip the collection agency step, take the client to court. Sue for payment of your fees, late payment interests, court costs, and attorney’s fees (when retaining a lawyer). Most morose clients will settle at this time, but if they do not, move ahead with the lawsuit and get a judgement against the client. This does not guarantee you will collect any money, but will go to the client’s credit report. You should also take that judgement to the Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, and local Consumer Affairs authority where the client resides. Next, report the incident and provide copy of the final judgement to the client’s professional associations (for disciplinary action) and to your local, national, and international interpreter associations so this client can be included in all black lists to benefit your colleagues. Finally, if applicable, share this information with the ethnic media target of that client’s business, and share it on your social media, just stating the facts, without editorializing to avoid any future complications. This will get your money most of the time, and will teach a lesson to those who violate your professional services contract. It will also send a message to others that you take your work seriously. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your policy to avoid this breach of contract, or to collect unpaid fees.

When clients do not provide information in advance.

February 10, 2020 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We are expected to accurately interpret all subjects from one language into another, often to an audience that knows the topic, sometimes to people who have devoted their lives to that subject. We meet these expectations and deliver the rendition by performing many complex tasks, among them extensive preparation, including research and study of the topics to be presented during the conference, lecture, workshop, business negotiation, press conference, court hearing, diplomatic summit, etc.

We are professionally trained to research a subject, understand it, prepare glossaries, and study it, but this is not enough. Knowledge in any subject is infinite and it must be narrowed down to the specific themes to be presented or discussed at the event we were hired to interpret. Speakers have different styles and many have done their own research, written books or papers that will be presented, or at least alluded to, often for the first time, during the dissertation.

Due to these facts, the only way we can deliver the best quality service is by studying the presenters’ materials ahead of time.  This means our client must provide this information: documents, videos, audio recordings, for us to prepare, and we need to get them as far in advance as possible.

Documents are very important because that will be the main portion of the lecture; it often includes power point presentations we must review for several reasons: We need to make sure we understand the contents of every slide, that we find the best equivalent terms in the target language; we must pay attention to the information each slide contains because we need to tell the presenter how long the slide needs to stay on the screen before moving on to the next one, to give the audience time to listen to the interpretation and then see the contents of the slide (words, figures, charts, images, quotes, etc.) This is time consuming and it could take interpreters several days to go through the power point presentation.

Videos are difficult to interpret. Sometimes the sound is not very good, or words get lost behind the sounds of very loud music or noise; the speakers on the video may talk too fast, have a heavy accent, use regional expressions, tell a joke or share a sports story. Many speakers choose movie or TV show clips with nothing to do with the conference, because they were chosen as icebreakers or to drive a point across. There are videos of songs also. Interpreters need to study these videos; some must be watched many times. They have to assess the jokes, idiomatic expressions, cultural differences, and sports analogies, and then decide what to do: find a similar joke in the target language, use an equivalent sports story on a sport the audience will relate to, find the best idiomatic expression on the other language to convey the same message using the same register. Sometimes the best solution is to recommend the speaker not to use the video, particularly when there are cultural concerns.  Then, on the day of the event, interpreters need to make sure the video’s volume and quality of sound is the right one for both: the room and the booth.

Audio recordings could be an interpreter’s nightmare, especially in court interpreting where the quality of the sound is less than desirable because many of these audio recordings come from wiretaps, hidden microphones, concealed body microphones, and so on. These recordings are plagued with obscenities, slang, low register speech, and powerful background noises. Interpreters devote endless hours to listening and sometimes decoding what was said. This time-consuming task must be performed ahead of the event so the interpreter knows the recording’s contents and determines what words to use during the rendition. After reviewing the recording an interpreter can suggest to the client to use a transcript of the audio recording, with a written translation into the target language, and either project it on the screen at the same time the audience listens to the recording and the interpreters simultaneous rendition, or to distribute paper transcripts and translations for the audience to follow along the recording.

These arguments should be sufficient for all clients to provide these materials to the interpreting team ahead of time; many knowledgeable, experienced clients do so and the results are evident: a great interpretation. Others are more reluctant, and there are some who unfortunately neglect the interpreters or clearly decide not to provide an iota of information before the event.

Interpreters need to convey to the client the reason they have to see the materials before the assignment; they have to explain that interpreting is a fiduciary profession, that we are bound by a strict duty of confidentiality, and make them see we have no interest in the information past the day of the interpretation. When the client is concerned about intellectual property rights or national security, Interpreters can offer flexibility to the client, and for an additional fee, they can agree to review said materials at the client’s place of business, but always ahead of the event.

All interpreting services contracts must include a provision stating that the client assumes the obligation to provide all requested and needed materials to the interpreters as early as possible, and always before the event.

Even with such a clause, sometimes, interpreters get no materials, get part of them, or they get all materials, but a video or a slide were added at the last minute and the interpreting team learns of this change at the venue, right before the start of the event, or even worse: during the rendition when the slide is shown on the screen or the video is played.

In these cases, professional interpreters have two reactions coming straight from their gut simultaneously: “I will stand up and walk away. I am not interpreting this”, and “I am a professional, the client’s incompetence or negligence it’s not the audience’s fault. I’ll stay and try my best”. Both reactions are good and have value. Let me explain:

The good client will always deliver materials on time, you need not to concern about them, but there are other clients late with the materials, deliver only part of them, and sometimes forget to provide needed information altogether, but they have potential, you want to keep them, and they will improve if you try a little harder. I say give these clients a second chance.

As soon as it is evident they will not provide materials, talk to them and clarify that what they did was wrong, but, because you are a consummate professional, you will try your best and stay and interpret the event even though the final result will not be nearly as good as it would be if the materials were provided. If they fail again on a second event: drop them, you are wasting your time with them, and time is money.

Finally, if your contract calls for client to deliver all requested and needed materials and the client did not comply, when you are not interested on that client, and it was a nightmare dealing with them during the preparations for the event, I would walk out without interpreting, demand payment of my fees, explain to them they breached the professional services contract they had with you, and if they refuse to pay, sue them for your fee plus damages and your attorney’s fees.

On both cases you taught the client a lesson: To the client you want to keep, you tried to educate them and keep them on your list. To the client you never want to see again, you showed them that interpreters are professionals they cannot take advantage of.

I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this important subject.

The best interest of the interpreter, not the agency’s.

August 29, 2018 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The Association of Language Companies (ALC) effusively announced that on August 8 of this year “leaders from the language service industry gathered on Capitol Hill to sound the alarm over new <disruptive> employee classification regulations that threaten to upend the $45 billion-per-year industry’s business model”.

Over fifty individuals attended their “policy summit” to “strategize an industry-wide response to the recent California Supreme Court ruling which narrowed the definition of who can be classified as an independent contractor”.

As part of a public relations campaign, many of these agencies’ representatives have been telling interpreters that the California Supreme Court decision is terrible and, unless it is neutralized, it will effectively destroy the interpreting “industry” leaving thousands of interpreters with no work. Without even hearing the details of the decision, and knowing how it will affect them as freelancers, not as agencies, some of our good colleagues celebrated the agencies’ lobbying efforts, and even praised them for “saving our source of income”.

I agree that the Dynamex decision by the California Supreme Court will affect freelance interpreting, but I disagree it will hurt independent interpreters and it will be the end of our profession as we know it. This court decision is a rare occasion when judicial decisions favor independent professionals over the special interest groups financed by the big multinational agencies, and if independent interpreters play their cards wisely, it will bring huge benefits to them. Let me explain:

We should start by understanding what the California Supreme Court decided on April 30, 2018 in Dynamex (Dynamex Operations West, Inc. Petitioner S222732 v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Loa Angeles County, Respondent; Super Ct. No. BC332016, CHARLES LEE et al., Real Parties in Interest).

In an 82-page decision, the Court rejected the Borello test to determine whether workers should be classified as either employees or independent contractors for the wage orders adopted by the California Industrial Welfare Commission, for a worker-friendly standard that may change the independent contractor market. The California Supreme Court embraced a standard presuming that all workers are employees instead of contractors, placing the burden of proof on the agency or other entity classifying an individual (in our case the interpreter) as an independent contractor. For those of you who practice court interpreting: This is similar to the prosecution burden of proof in a criminal case. Although not subject to a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, companies, agencies, and other entities must overcome the legal presumption of employment (just like the presumption of not guilty in Criminal Law).

But, where does this decision originate?

Dynamex is a nationwide same-day courier and delivery service offering on-demand same-day pickup and delivery. Before 2004 Dynamex classified all of its California drivers as employees, but staring in 2004 they converted all of their drivers to independent contractors to save money on employee benefits and expenses related to income tax retention. A year later, a driver named Charles Lee entered into an independent contractor written contract with Dynamex. After leaving his work at Dynamex, Mr. Lee filed a class-action lawsuit on his own behalf and that of other drivers in a similar situation against Dynamex. During their time working for Dynamex, these workers had to work during the hours and according to the schedule unilaterally set by Dynamex; they received direct and strict direction from Dynamex in a subordinate relationship instead of an equal-to-equal relationship as expected by independent contractors, and the drivers could not work for someone else because they were always working for Dynamex under the described conditions. They alleged that Dynamex had misclassified them as independent contractors in violation of State law, including various sections of the Labor Code and the Business and Professions Code Section 17200 (engaging in unfair and unlawful business practices).

The case went through a long litigation in California until it finally reached the Supreme Court where the Court framed its decision by broadly characterizing the misclassification of independent contractors as harmful and unfair to workers, honest competitors, and the public. The Court did a long and detailed analysis of precedent, analyzing Borello, Martínez and Ayala v. Antelope Valley Newspapers, Inc. (59 Cal. 4th 522, 527. 2014)

The California Supreme Court rejected Dynamex’s arguments for applying said previous cases. Instead, the Court adopted the ABC Test to determine if an individual is an employee or an independent contractor. Under the test, a worker will be deemed to have been “suffered or permitted to work”, and thus an employee, unless the employer proves:

  • A. That the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in the performance of the work, both under the contract for performing the work, and in fact.
  • B. That the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and
  • C. That the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed.

Each requirement needs to be met for the presumption that the worker is an employee to be rebutted, and for a court to recognize that a worker has been properly classified as an independent contractor. If a worker is classified as an employee, the employer must pay Social Security and payroll taxes, unemployment insurance taxes, state employment taxes, worker’s compensation insurance coverage, and all Labor Law rules and conditions regarding wages, vacation, sick leave, overtime, maternity leave, etc.

Bringing the Court decision to the interpreting field, we find that most agency-freelance interpreter relationships will fail the ABC test.

Agencies would fail “A” because they micromanage interpreting assignments. From checking in and out when arriving or leaving the site of interpretation, to endless paperwork required for payment and other “rules”; not forgetting ridiculous dress codes, and other one-sided rules such as not talking with the client about interpretation.

They would also fail “B” because it would be extremely difficult to argue that the fact that an interpreting services agency is hiring an interpreter as an independent contractor, constitutes a service outside the course of the agency’s business; and

They would fail “C” because they hire the interpreter according to such schedules they cannot render the services anywhere else, they make them sign non-compete contracts, force them to hide their personal business from the client so the agency does not lose the client. In other words: an outsider could not see the difference between a staff interpreter working side-by-side with an independent contractor.

Now you know, the “industry leaders” are spending their money in lobbyists so they continue to pay rock bottom fees to most interpreters with no risk. They keep the money and the interpreter gets close to nothing, without having a say.

I don’t want you to think that all agencies are bad either; I happily work with some who respect me as a professional. I am not saying that freelancing is bad.  I do not want to be considered an employee of any agency or other entity.

I do not support what the multinational agencies are doing for three reasons: First, because I want to be the one who decides if I want to be an independent contractor or not. I do not want to leave the decision in the hands of greedy one-sided “industry leaders”. Second, I think that been treated as employees would be great for many colleagues who could not succeed in the freelance market. They would get a decent wage, and many other social protections that otherwise they would lack if they continue to freelance for those agencies who bring in the money for the shareholders (nothing wrong with that) and pay very little to the interpreter, so little it is not enough to afford a decent health insurance coverage and a retirement plan (this is wrong). My third and very powerful reason not to support this lobby effort is very important:

Now that there is a court decision that favors independent contractors in California, interpreters should seize the moment, take advantage of this leverage, and negotiate a system that benefits all professional interpreters: those who want to be staff and those of us who will continue to freelance. A system that keeps agencies in business, but eradicates the one-sided system most interpreters (out of necessity or because of lack of negotiating skills) endure today.  I propose this:

Raise our voice so the non-interpreters in the field (aka: the “industry leaders”) do not get away with passing one-sided legislation as they are trying right now. We have to act with energy and decision because they are pursuing an option as nefarious and unfair as the “Major League Baseball” exception Congress granted once and landed thousands of professional ballplayers in servitude where they could be bought, traded and sold having no input.

These “industry leaders” argue that Dynamex should not be applied to them, because they are not part of the “gig” economy. They told Congress they “exclusively” work with “…highly-trained and educated professionals whose success is dependent upon the highest quality of work…” adding that “…to be a professional linguist takes years of education and training…” They mentioned the State Department interpreters as an example. I wonder why they did this instead of mentioning the many interpreters they hire without a college degree but with a high school diploma, or how they justify laborer pay for such illustrious “linguists”.

We do not have the funds to lobby against this multi-headed hydra, and we cannot go to our largest professional association because it will not go against the interests of its corporate members, and they may even share the same lobbyists as the “industry leaders”. What we have is the right to testify in congress, appeal to the ACLU for help if needed and pertinent, and most important: We have our professional services and skill as leverage.

I wonder why we need to change the law and attack the Supreme Court decision. If agencies really want to work with the best, professional, trained, and experienced, they should have no problem complying with the ABC criteria. The problem is, dear colleagues, that they do not want the brightest professionals, they are too expensive. They want the high school diploma new paraprofessional interpreter who will work for a pay similar to Wal-Mart’s, and to avoid mistakes, she must do it under micromanagement conditions. They do not want the best because they would risk to lose the client. They want somebody so afraid of losing this laborer’s salary job, that he will never dare to tell the client he interprets independently from the agency, even when the client already knows it and sees this situation as ridiculous.

Interpreters, however, could join the “industry leaders” as a common front to pass legislation fair to all parties. Instead of eliminating the criteria in Dynamex, a fair legislation should allow for interpreters to opt out of the employee reclassification and remain as freelancers if they do it freely, with no coercion by the agency or other entity retaining their services, and both, the written contract and de facto performance demonstrate this was not a sham by the agency, but a real independent contractor. Interpreters could then negotiate with the retaining agency a professional fee that truly depicts their freelancer status and not an employee working under serfdom conditions.

At this time in California, and unless the law changes, interpreters should demand compliance with the ABC rule. As of today, with the Supreme Court decision as the supreme law in California, compliance protecting interpreters and our profession is possible:

“A” can be overcome by negotiating a written contract that clearly leaves the interpreter free of the agency’s control. It clearly states that interpreters will deliver the service they are retained for, but all conditions to implement the service and fulfill the obligation are left to the interpreter. No more stupid paperwork that requires hours of unpaid time; no more micromanagement in the contract and in the real world.

“B” will be more difficult to overcome, especially for the smaller agencies because the multinationals have so many other businesses through subsidiaries it will be costly, but possible to solve this requirement. Remember that it is the agency’s burden, so you need not worry about this one.

“C” is your real leverage. The agency cannot overcome this requirement without the interpreter’s cooperation. You will have to show that you have a website, or an office where you offer your services to other prospective clients; you will show you are a real independent contractor by showing the authorities how you are not contractually bound to secrecy when a client asks you for your services during an assignment with the agency. More important: without your cooperation, the agency can never prove this requirement.

We must educate ourselves so we do not jump up and down as cheerleaders to support this public relations propaganda campaign. Seize the moment and change the landscape. Make these “industry leaders” live up to what they preach and, using their own words, demand they only hire the highest quality of professionals with years of education and training. We can support them in their lobbying efforts, but only when all professional freelance interpreters are paid professional fees. Do not listen to those colleagues who live in fear, worship these agencies, and think they are doing them a favor by hiring them to work. There cannot be an interpreting agency without interpreters. There can be interpreting services without agencies. I now ask you to share your thoughts with the rest of us, and please be advised that comments defending agencies will not be posted. They have plenty of media outlets to proselytize. Here we want to hear the voice of the interpreters.

Interpreters: Your clients, and your clients’ clients.

June 4, 2018 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I get goosebumps every time I hear freelance interpreters talk about their “boss”. I am constantly surprised at the huge number of independent contractor colleagues who refer to the authorities at the agencies, hospitals and courthouses they provide interpreter services for as their bosses.

This is an abomination when used to describe the other party to a professional services contractual relationship, now exacerbated by the very dangerous ruling by the United States National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in SOSi where it ordered this interpreting agency to reclassify its interpreters working as independent contractors as employees. SOSi is appealing the decision, and we will discuss it in depth on a future post.

Our concern today is the conscious or subconscious lack of understanding of the professional services relationship derived from a contract where an independent interpreter is the service provider.

Freelance interpreters are independent professionals who provide their services for a fee. The terms of such services and fees are agreed upon by the interpreter providing the service and the individual or corporation recipient of the interpreting services in a contract. The parties to this contract are: The professional (who provides the interpretation, in other words, the interpreter) and the recipient of the professional service, called the client.

Yes, dear friends and colleagues, as freelance professional interpreters we provide our services to a counterpart called the client. Our main contractual duty is to render the interpreting services as agreed with the client, and the client’s main obligation is to pay the agreed fee in exchange for those services. The contract is called: Professional services contract.

Freelance interpreters are independent professionals free to choose the clients they want, under the terms they see fit, and for the service they picked. There is no authority figure over the freelance interpreter. All duties, responsibilities and obligations are contained in a voluntary contract (oral or written), a professional code of ethics, and the legislation governing the profession in a particular jurisdiction.  Client and interpreter are equals. There is no boss.

Bosses exist in labor relations where a part: the employee, is in a subordinate position to the other: the employer or boss, who gives directions, orders, and instructions to the subordinate who must comply with these commands during working hours, in exchange for a fixed wage. Employer and employee are not equals in this relationship. An employee cannot choose what she does. If she does not comply she will be sanctioned and even fired.

Webster states that: a client is “… a person who engages the professional advice or services of another…” Oxford tells us that a client is “…a person or organization using the services of a lawyer or other professional person or company…”

Interpreting is a profession. Interpreters perform a professional service. Interpreters, like all professional service providers, have clients.

Here we see then that we must not call a client a boss because it is inaccurate, and it immediately puts the interpreter at a disadvantage. Calling your client “boss” creates a subservient relationship in your mind that will quickly translate into an attitude and lifestyle. It paralyzes the interpreter as she or he will no longer feel capable or worthy of arguing work conditions, professional fees, or assignments.

For those of you who see judges, doctors, court and hospital administrators, and language service agencies: Eliminate that thought. It is wrong. They are your clients, and you can negotiate and refuse assignments when you consider it appropriate.  Your duties and responsibilities to do a professional top-notch job come from the contract, the legislation, and from your professionalism. You do a good job because you are a professional who wants to provide a good service because you want to keep the client, or you just want to do the right thing. You don’t do it because you have somebody breathing on your neck looking over your shoulder micromanaging everything you do. You do not need someone telling you how to dress for an assignment, or reminding you to get there on time. However, as long as you see the client as your boss, they will act as your employer.

Professional interpreters have clients and charge professional fees. They do not charge rates. A commercial product vendor or a non-professional service supplier do not have clients. They have customers. A customer buys goods or non-professional services from a business. Webster defines them as: “…one that purchases a commodity or service…” Oxford gives more details when it tells us that a customer is “…a person who buys goods or services from a shop or business…” Unlike professionals, these merchants get a rate or a price in exchange for the goods or non-professional services purchased.

Physicians and dentists are professional service providers, so they technically have clients, but for historical reasons, and due to the nature of their services, these service recipients are called patients. According to the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics (AMA), physicians must be “…dedicated to providing competent medical care, with compassion and respect for human dignity and right.” It also considers that people with an illness must wait to see a doctor or to be treated, and that requires patience. Webster indicates that a patient is “…an individual awaiting or under medical care and treatment…”  To Oxford it is “…a person receiving or registered to receive medical treatment…”

I have observed how many freelance interpreters have a hard time separating their client from others who may participate in the process like vendors and providers. The convention center or hotel events center are not the interpreter clients, they are vendors who provided the facility so there can be a conference. Unless the interpreter hired them directly, they have no contractual relation with the interpreter. They are the interpreters’ clients’ problem. The same can be said for the technical support: booths, interpreting equipment, sound system, etc. Unless they were hired directly by the interpreters, these are also suppliers who have a contract with the interpreters’ client, not with the interpreters. They are not your problem either.

Another common mistake is to confuse the direct beneficiary of the interpretation with the interpreter’s client. Usually, they are not your client. The five hundred people in the auditorium listening to your rendition are the direct beneficiaries of your professional rendition. Without you they could not attend the event; however, they are not your clients. They are your client’s clients. As professionals we must accommodate all reasonable requests by the audience and the speakers, but they are not the ones paying your fee. They are paying your client because they are your client’s clients. For this reason if a person in the auditorium asks you to speak louder, you may consider the request, and even honor it when reasonable; but if somebody attending the conference asks you to take a recorder to the booth and record the rendition for him, you will decline, and direct him to your client (please read my blog post on what to do in this situation).

Dear friends and colleagues, as professional interpreters who provide our services as freelancers we have many clients we choose. We decide who we want as our client, and who we do not. We have the last word on whether we do an assignment, and when a professional relationship with a client must end. We set and negotiate the terms of our work, our pay, and out booth mates.  Employees do not get to do this because they have a boss: the employer. We do not. We practice in a world where we are equals with our counterparts in a professional contractual relationship. We do a magnificent job, we accommodate all reasonable requests of our clients’ clients, and we cooperate and support other providers and suppliers such as facility workers and technical support staff, but we do it because we are professionals and we have made a business decision to keep the client we want to keep, not because we are told to do so. Please stop referring to your client as your “boss”, and the next time a project manager tells you what to wear to an assignment, to be on time; or the next time a hotel waiter tells you not to have a cup of coffee, please stand up for your dignity and that of the profession. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this issue.

“Excuse me, interpreter, we will record your rendition”.

January 22, 2018 § 15 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A few months ago I came back to the booth after a break during an event I was interpreting and I found my boothmate talking to one of the conference attendees. He was asking for her permission to bring a digital recorder inside the booth because he wanted to record the interpretation of the conference. Before my colleague responded, I explained to the gentleman that recording an interpreter rendition is more complex than simply asking the interpreter.  I told him that it would not be possible to record us, and I asked him to talk to the event organizers who would work on all clearances and legal documents needed before anything could be recorded to be played back at a later time.  He understood my polite negative, picked up his microphone and recording devise, and exited the booth.

Once we were alone, my boothmate told me she did not know that anything other than our consent was needed. She told me that often, other organizers and agencies had recorded her rendition without even asking for her permission. I was very surprised.

The United States and many other countries have enacted legislation that protect intellectual property. There are also international conventions to protect patents, trademarks, and copyrights covering tangible and intangible products discovered, invented, or created by the human mind. The use and exploitation of this intellectual property without the authorization of the author violates law and perpetrators are subject to both criminal and civil liability.

Only after the author, or legal holder, of an intellectual property right has consented to its use or exploitation this can be manufactured, sold, printed, reproduced, or used. Because the protected intellectual property is the work product of an individual, this inventor, creator, or author must be compensated. Such compensation is called royalties.

American legislation defines royalties as “…a percentage of gross or net profit, or a fixed amount per sale to which a creator of a work is entitled which is agreed upon in a contract between the creator and the manufacturer, publisher, agent, and/or distributor. “ Inventors, authors, movie makers, music composers, scriptwriters, musicians, interpreters, translators, and other creators of an intellectual product , contract with manufacturers, publishers, movie production companies, producers, event organizers, agents, and distributors to be paid royalties in exchange for a license or authorization to manufacture or sell the product. Royalties are payments made by one entity (the licensee) to another entity (the licensor) in exchange for the right to use intellectual property or physical assets owned by the licensor.

In a situation like the one I describe above, the speaker at the podium is the author of the knowledge and information he is disseminating among the attendees to the conference. He owns that intellectual property. The interpreters in the booth are the authors of the content in the target language of the knowledge and information the speaker at the podium disseminated in the source language. Both, the speaker (in the source language) and the interpreters (in the target language) would be licensors to the attendee who requested the recording when he went to the booth. This individual would be the licensee to the speaker as far as the knowledge and information disseminated by the speaker during the speech, and for the elocution of the contents in the source language. He would also be the licensee to the interpreters for the rendition of the speech into the foreign (signed, or indigenous) target language.

The attendee would need, at least, the authorization of the speaker to record the presentation in the source language, and the consent of both, speaker and interpreters to record the presentation in the target language. Attendee would need to negotiate the payment of royalties with speaker and interpreters, and all licensors would need to be compensated for the use of their intellectual property.

It could be more complicated; the speaker may have partners who coauthored the paper he is presenting; a university, government, or other entity may be the legal holder to the intellectual property rights because of a contractual agreement between the speaker and his sponsors.  The interpreters could have negotiated the sale of their intellectual property (the rendition into the target language) to the agency that retained them, the main speaker, the university, government or other entity who sponsored the research, or any other party legally entitled to said intellectual property.  It is never as simple as letting the attendee record your rendition.

Years ago, interpreters would get to the booth, and whenever there were no speakers of the target language they were there to interpret, they would just sit in the booth doing very little. There were no “customers” for their intellectual product.  This has changed. Now often interpreters must interpret into their target language even if there are no speakers in the room, because there may be others virtually attending the presentation from a remote location, or because the speech, and its interpretation into several target languages, will be sold to others who could not attend the live event.

For this reason interpreters must know of the event organizer’s plans. If there will be a video or audio recording of the presentation, we must negotiate royalties. Those fees belong to us, not to the speaker or the event organizer; and they do not belong in the pockets of the agency that hired us to do the conference. As interpreters we must be very careful of what we sign. Speaker and event organizer may be paying royalties to the agency for the recording, and the interpreting agency may not be passing these payments on to you, the rightful owner.

Interpreters can negotiate this intellectual property rights. They can sell them to a third party if they wish to do so. They can even transfer them for free. It is up to the skill and business mind of the interpreter to decide what to do, but we must know that we can negotiate; that we are in the driver’s seat. I would allow no type of recording of my work unless I get paid royalties. How I negotiate payment, how to calculate them, and whether or not I will settle for a lump payment or a recurring payment every time the recording is sold, will depend on the content, and my long term relationship with that client.

Please do not ignore your intellectual property rights. The United States Code, Code of Federal Regulations, and other legislation will protect us in the U.S., but when working abroad, and even when the work product (recorded rendition) will be sold abroad, or the licensee entity is a foreign national, check local legislation and look for any international treaty. Finally, regardless of the location of the job, always include an intellectual property/payment of royalties clause in your interpreting services contract. At the minimum you should prohibit any recording of your rendition without your written consent.

I now invite you to leave your comments and to share your experiences with this issue that will be more pervasive every day.

Is it true that interpreters must abstain from public commentary?

December 10, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I have recently read many comments about the court interpreter in California who decided to talk to the media after she provided her services to the defendant in a high profile criminal case. To my surprise, must comments promptly endorsed the position that a court interpreter cannot make any public comment. Such extreme “black and white opinion” is quite concerning.

Before expressing such a sweeping opinion, interpreters should reflect on the purpose of their professional service, the reasons for the rule or legislation, and what the consequences of failing to observe it really are. Let’s see:

The main topic concerning this analysis is confidentiality. The nature of the duty of confidentiality is based on two things: the subject matter or area of interpretation, and a scale of values.

Different subject matters or fields of interpreting will be governed by different legislation, interests, and goals. If the interpreter’s professional practice involves intellectual property, diplomacy, or national security, there will be many limitations and restrictions as to the things the interpreter can share with others. Most of these duties will come from legislation, not canons of ethics of regulations. Many others will derive from contractual obligations regarding commercial brands, patents and copyrights.

The scale of values is also important: The more important the value, the stricter the responsibility.

Revealing the content of diplomatic negotiations could have implications of war and peace, and the interpreter could even go to prison, or at least lose his job and reputation.

Revealing medical information can disrupt a patient’s health or treatment, impact insurance coverage, kill a patient’s future employment opportunities, and generate legal problems for hospitals, physicians and interpreters.

When we provide diplomatic or military interpreting services at certain level, we are required to undergo a security clearance process and we take a legally binding oath to secrecy. Breaching this legal obligation will bring catastrophic consequences to the interpreter.

The California case gives us the opportunity to revisit a court interpreter’s duty of confidentiality, so we can see how sweeping statements like those made by some of our colleagues last week, most of them in good faith, are not so categorically right.

First, we need to understand what is protected by the duty of confidentiality, and who imposes the restrictions on the court interpreter.

Interpreters exist because there must be equal access to the administration of justice, regardless of the language the court or the parties to a controversy speak. Here we must make a distinction:

(1) The court interpreter as a communication tool to the litigant.
When a plaintiff, defendant or victim cannot actively participate in their legal case because of a language barrier, the court interpreter acts as the ears and voice of the foreign language speaker in communications with the court, his attorneys, and the opposite party. Interpreters render a complete, accurate interpretation of everything that is said during the hearing, and interpret to the court and parties everything the foreign language speaker says. These interpreters handle three types of information: public record, confidential information, and privileged communications.

These are the interpreters hired by the court, paid from the courthouse budget, and selected from a roster kept by the clerk’s office.

When a plaintiff or defendant want to be represented by a private attorney, but they cannot communicate with their attorneys because of a language barrier, those privately retained attorneys can also hire professionals court interpreters in private practice to help them communicate with their foreign speaking client, their client’s relatives, and with those witnesses who do not speak the language of the attorneys. In this case it is the attorney who selects the interpreters from prior experiences or referrals from others; and it is the attorney, not the court, who pays the interpreters’ fees (very likely from the plaintiff or defendant’s assets). This interpreters handle three types of information: public record, confidential information, and privileged communications.

As we can see, in both cases, interpreters work with information that is public record. This means that everybody has access to what was said or done. For example: As a rule, court hearings are open to the public. Anybody can go to the courthouse and sit in the courtroom during a trial. At the State-level, many jurisdictions broadcast their proceedings in public and even commercial TV. All legal arguments, court rulings, and witness statements are heard by all interested individuals.

Both, court appointed and privately retained interpreters are privy to confidential information not because of who the interpreters are as individuals, buy because of what they do for living. This information is sensitive in nature and if disclosed, it could adversely impact third party innocent individuals. For these reasons, interpreters are usually barred from sharing this information. Details surrounding a case that come to the knowledge of the parties, but are irrelevant to the outcome of the controversy are kept from the public. Names of business partners, financial information, paternity, personal health information, sealed court cases, juvenile court records, are just some of the examples that fall under this category.

While working with an attorney, all interpreters learn what is called privileged information. This is crucial, intimate information about the subject matter of the controversy that lawyers need to know to represent their clients and defend their interests. This information is treated differently because it is only when a person knows that statements made to their attorney in confidence cannot be disclosed to anyone, not even the judge or jury in the case, that clients can truly open up to their attorneys and share all details of a case. Those acting as agents of the attorney, such as paralegals, investigators, and interpreters, are covered by the client-attorney privilege, and nobody, not even a judge can compel them to disclose said privileged information.

(2) The court interpreter as auxiliary agent to the administration of justice.
The court system has a vested interest on the perception that the administration of justice within its jurisdiction is equally fair to all citizens, even those who do not speak the language of the court. For this reason, courts have set policy to clarify this principle, and reassure all potential litigants of the impartiality of the court, even in those cases when a foreigner is party to a controversy, especially in criminal cases where life or liberty are at stake.

This principle has motivated some courts (not all of them), in particular in the United States, to go beyond what many would consider reasonable, and impose the strictest restrictions to some of the things court interpreters can and cannot do. Based on this one-sided extremely restrictive rules, the federal courts of the United States abide by the United States District Court Code of Ethics for court interpreters, who have been sworn as officers of the court for the duration of the assignment, and interpret under contract with such court, “…to follow the Standards for Performance and Professional Responsibility for Contract Court Interpreters in the Federal Courts…” (USDC Code of Ethics. Preamble)

The Federal Code of Ethics contains some important principles needed to practice the court interpreter profession that are free of controversy, such as Rule 5: “Confidentiality. Interpreters shall protect the confidentiality of all privileged and other confidential information…”

It also covers other situations where restrictions seem unreasonable and arbitrary, like Rule 3 where it states that: “…During the course of the proceedings, interpreters shall not converse with parties, witnesses, …attorneys, or with friends and relatives of the party, except in the discharge of their official functions…”, or Rule 6: “Restriction of Public Comment. Interpreters shall not publicly discuss, report, or offer an opinion concerning a matter in which they are or have been engaged, even when that information is not privileged or required by law to be confidential…”

Dear friends and colleagues, we must remember that the above restrictions by the United States District Court Code of Ethics only apply to court interpreters who are providing their professional services when they “…are sworn in (and) they become, for the duration of the assignment, officers of the court with the specific duty and responsibility of interpreting between English and the language specified. …In their capacity as officers of the court, contract court interpreters are expected to follow the standards for performance and professional responsibility for contract court interpreters in the federal courts…”

In other words, said restrictions, as they are not the law, but a mere contractual obligation, only apply to those who are providing their services in federal court pursuant to a contract with the court. These blanket restrictions do not apply to any of us when working as interpreters in federal court if we have been retained by one of the parties.

Once we understand this limitation, and the different role interpreters play when they act as a communication tool to the litigant with his attorneys, and in those cases when they also act as an auxiliary arm to the administration of justice and are paid by their judiciary. It is obvious that legal restrictions and limitations such as client-attorney privilege and confidentiality will apply to all interpreters as they are part of the essence of the legal representation, but other limitations that go beyond that scope will not apply to privately retained interpreters as they exist to assure impartiality and transparency to the extreme. This is not necessary with private attorneys and their interpreters as they are publicly known as part of a team: plaintiff’s or defendant’s.

To the latter group of interpreters, sharing what is already public record should be no problem; and in my personal opinion, I do not believe that even court appointed interpreters should be sanctioned for sharing public information with the media. I believe that telling a reporter that a hearing was moved from 1 pm to 2 pm and saving her the trouble to go up 20 stories to read the same information on the court’s bulletin board will hardly raise suspicion of prejudice, particularity when we know that interpreting is a fiduciary profession. To me, it looks very weird when the interpreter refuses to answer such silly questions and reacts by moving away without an explanation.

As far as confidential information, please be aware that the prohibition is not absolute either. A court order can compel you to testify. Please remember that the client holds the right to said confidentiality, and as such, he or she can always give consent. When this happens, confidentiality goes away. Will these ever happen in your professional career? We do not know, but we should always be aware that it is a possibility.

Even client-attorney privilege is not absolute. There are certain exceptions in the law that allow you to pierce the veil of this sacrosanct privilege. Among other possibilities, the client, who holds the privilege, can also lift it by giving consent; you can also pierce it when defending yourself from the actions of the client who holds said privilege. Let’s say that the client sues you arguing that the interpreter did nothing in the case. Under those circumstances you can pierce the privilege to prove that the client is not telling the truth and show the work you did, as long as the privileged information you divulged is limited and tailored to the point you are trying to prove in court. Statements and information provided during a client-attorney communication that include future illegal activity is not covered by the privilege either, and you as interpreter must disclose it to the authorities.

We must remember at all times that different jurisdictions will have different policy, rules and legislation, so we must adhere to all applicable rules, as long as they apply to us, depending on the type of professional service we are going to provide.

In the case of California, please keep all of the above in mind, and understand that Rule 2.890(c)(4) states that: “…An interpreter must not make statements to any person about the merits of the case until the litigation has concluded…”

Notice how the rule does not go beyond the conclusion of the case, because the rule (erroneously in my opinion) does not make a distinction between interpreters privately retained by the parties who act as a communication tool to the litigant, and those retained by the courts who also must play the role of auxiliary agents to the administration of justice and therefore be impartial at all times. Once there are no more appeals, there is no reason for the restriction on the first type of interpreter.

Finally, a couple of thoughts: I was saddened to see how must of my colleagues immediately assume the role of a criminal court interpreter retained by the court. I am always hoping that more interpreters view themselves as independent professionals working with private attorneys. There is an abysmal difference in professional fees, and the work is about the same. I ask you to please think like a private practitioner, instead of accepting the rules without any reservation. Question the rules and try to understand why they compel you to do or abstain from doing something.

It also concerned me how so many of our court interpreter colleagues rush to “obey” anything the courts say without even checking the source of the “command”. Many people criticized and condemned the interpreter who spoke to the media because of what the “Professional Standards and Ethics for California Court Interpreters” say. Please understand that this is just a manual, not legislation, regulations, or a court decision. It is just a didactic tool for those who are trying to understand the profession. Use it as such. Observe the California Rules of Court.

I hope we all understand that professional rules include universal standard values, but they also incorporate local culture so necessary for an administration of justice that reflects the values of the community it is meant to serve. For this reason, I. Sincerely hope we all come to understand that asking for universal rules or codes is not the best legal option. A system like the one we have is an appropriate one. We just need to understand the rules better, and fight to change those we believe constitute a hurdle to our profession. I now ask you to please share your founded legal arguments on this issue that could adversely impact our profession.

Ignorance and negligence could kill a legendary interpreter program.

June 14, 2016 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Humans are reluctant to think that something that was very good in the past could end up as something very bad. It goes against our idea of making things better, contrary to our concept of progress. Unfortunately, it is too often that a bad situation manifests itself right in front of our eyes. Just think of Venezuela; once the best economy in Latin America with a bright future ahead, and now a sad story of poverty, government corruption, and hunger, where millions of bright good people suffer the consequences of incompetent decisions.

The interpreting world has had its share of cases where a good situation turns bad. Today I will share with you a tragic story that, without prompt and able action, could become the Venezuela of the interpreting world.  First, a word of caution:  The story I am about to share with all of you depicts an intolerable situation in a certain region of the United States, and it directly impacts a relatively small segment of our professional community; Nevertheless, the conditions that gave birth to this tragic scenario could easily happen again anywhere in the world, perhaps in your area, maybe in your professional field. In fact, I am sure that this is happening in other regions of the planet.  It is for these reasons that I invite you to carefully read this story, so you can learn how to recognize the symptoms, and find a way to take action defending your profession before it is too late.

This story has to do with court interpreting in the United States.  Many of you already know that court interpreting is the most common interpreting practice in the United States. It has the most interpreters, and it is the only specialization that has its own legislation at the state and federal levels.

For American standards, compared to other types of interpreting, court interpreting has a “long history” of regulations and professional standards in the United States. It goes back to 1978 when the American federal government passed the Federal Court Interpreters Act which required that Spanish language interpreters passed a certification exam in order to qualify for work in the federal court system. Soon after, several individual states followed the example of the federal government, and developed their own legislation to test and certify Spanish language interpreters who were going to provide professional services in that particular state system.  The first state to set its own system was California in 1979, followed by New York, New Mexico, and New Jersey in the 1980s. These efforts culminated with the creation of the (now defunct) Consortium of States where a majority of the states came together, combined resources, and developed a test that served as the basis to certify those Spanish language interpreters who met the minimum requirements to work as professionals in a given state judicial system. After the creation of the Consortium, individual states developed certification tests in other languages to meet the needs of their specific areas.  New York and California did not participate in the Consortium of States, but New Mexico and New Jersey became the “gold standard” for court interpreter certification at the state-level in the U.S.

Due to its history and traditions, New Mexico became a pioneer and a national leader in all court interpreter matters: A founding state of the Consortium, New Mexico was the first state to allow non-English speakers, who were American citizens, as jurors at the state court level, actively participating in the trial process and jury deliberations with the assistance of a court interpreter. It also developed a very important professional community of Navajo court interpreters, and considered all court interpreting services as one profession, for the first time bringing to the table, at the same time, all spoken foreign language, Native American language, and Sign Language court interpreters.  Other major landmarks in the history of court interpreting in New Mexico include being one of the first states to require continuing education to keep the certification current, having a state supreme court justice as an active advocate of quality standards in court interpreting, and it became the sponsor of the largest annual court interpreter conference for a state of its size.  In other words, New Mexico took some of the biggest names in the interpreting and translation conference world to its state so that the local professionals could benefit of these trainings at a very low cost.  New Mexico was the “gold standard” for other states and the quality of its court interpreters was recognized throughout the country.  It was at this time, when things were going the right way, that two events changed the course of this court interpreter program, and pushed it to the edge of the cliff where it started its current freefall: There was a change of the guard at the helm of the state program, and the federal government exercised its muscle to compel the states to comply with the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Among them: the state’s obligation to give universal access to all services provided with federal funds, including all non-English speakers. All of a sudden, furnishing certified court interpreters in all criminal law cases was not enough anymore. New Mexico needed to offer interpreting services to all non-English speaking individuals who walked into a state government office.

The landscape changed. Due to his age and other personal reasons, the State Supreme Court Justice who had served the interpreting community as an advocate and unconditional ally for so many years, took a back seat and slowed down his pace; the person in charge of the administration of the state court interpreter program left, and even her very capable assistant of many years transferred to another government position. They were replaced by a newcomer with academic credentials but without court interpreting experience, and lacking the knowledge necessary to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of such a complex population and professional interpreter community.

The changes started almost immediately. Some of them were noticeable right away, others did not show their head in plain sight until many months later. The state government officials’ attitude towards the interpreters changed radically.  From the head of the Administrative Office of the New Mexico State Courts, to the language access services statewide manager, to the rookie judge (not a Supreme Court Justice anymore) who now actively participated in all interpreter issues that had to do with an entity created by the state called the New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee; policy, attitudes, and decisions began to change.  There would be no annual conference anymore; the conditions that interpreters had been working under for many years would be reevaluated to cut as much as possible; the cordial and professional relationship, based on mutual respect, that had existed for decades between the interpreting community and the state would now be replaced by a tough attitude where the difference in size and power would be clearly exercised by the big guy in the contractual relationship, now very willing to show its muscle in the event of a minor dissidence or difference of opinion; and the Civil Rights Act’s Title VI requirements would be portrayed as fulfilled by creating a less expensive sub-par category of paraprofessional quasi-interpreters, instead of fostering and promoting the growth of the interpreter profession, thus meeting the minimum standards of the Civil Rights Act mandate, which of course, would require more funds and a greater effort on the part of the state, including, but not limited to, the Administrative Office of the Courts’ active participation in the preparation of a budget to be presented to the state legislature where fulfilling the true mandate of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act would be a top priority for the judiciary, whose only reason to exist as part of the government, is to guarantee an administration of justice inclusive of all citizens of the state.  Of course, this would demand a different attitude by the state, with a judiciary willing to battle the legislature, and go to the United States Justice Department to denounce the State Legislature whenever it was not addressing the equal access to justice mandate. A very different attitude, especially when compared to… perhaps securing judges and bureaucrats’ salaries and then throwing everybody else under the bus.

I have been told by many interpreters in New Mexico that since the time this change of priorities took place, the state has switched interpreters’ minimum guaranteed periods of work, it has changed its travel policy to pay less to the interpreters, there have been attempts to include as part of the original contract, attachments that fundamentally change essential parts of the interpreters’ contracts after these agreements have been executed already; I have listened to stories of interpreters been disrespected at Language Access Advisory Committee meetings; the story of an interpreter whose certification was revoked for no reason, who later won a legal case to get the certification reinstated, but has been isolated by the state officials who have never let this person work in the court system again.  I have seen the abysmal difference between the quality of a certified court interpreter’s rendition, and the mediocre paraprofessional services provided by the so called “justice system interpreters”, and I have listened to the American Sign Language Interpreters who share the same concerns as their spoken language counterparts regarding the quality of video remote interpreting, and more importantly, the level of interpreting skills of those who may provide the service from out of state, perhaps without a New Mexico or federal court interpreter certification.  It is possible that the State of New Mexico has designed a strategy to justify its actions. Even though what they are doing is legal, and I am in no way suggesting that the state has violated any law; it is still wrong for the profession, wrong for the interpreters, and bad for the non-English speakers who need a professional certified court interpreter to protect their life, freedom, or assets

I know that many of our colleagues in New Mexico are fighting a very important battle to protect the profession and the true professional interpreter; many have retained an attorney to represent them before the everyday more aggressive attitude of the state officials, and many of them are refusing to sign a contract with the state, unless and until, the minimum professional work conditions that they are requesting, and constitute the minimum standards everywhere else in the civilized world, are met by New Mexico. Just like we did last year when we, as a professional community, backed up the efforts by our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States until SOSi agreed to better their fees and basic working conditions, let’s all be one once again and support our colleagues in New Mexico.

Finally, to our colleagues in New Mexico, I encourage you to talk to the State Bar and make all attorneys in New Mexico aware of the fact that the state is on the brink of destroying that tradition that made New Mexico the “gold standard” of court interpreting at the state-level in the United States.  Submit articles to the New Mexico Bar Bulletin for publication, even this piece. I could almost assure you that many lawyers are not even aware of the abysmal difference between real certified court interpreters and the individuals the state is furnishing for so many of their court appearances.  Make sure that your voice is loud all over the state.  I now invite you all to share your comments about this situation and many other similar scenarios in the United States and many other countries.

Government contractor continues to humiliate U.S. interpreters.

January 25, 2016 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It has been about two months since some of our colleagues, for their own very personal reasons, decided to negotiate and enter into a professional services contract with SOSi, and agency part of a bigger operation that was temporarily awarded the contract, for a one-year base period that could be extended, to provide interpreting services at all courthouses and hearings involving the United States Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) better known as the Immigration Court.

For several days now, I have been listening to many colleagues who are now interpreting EOIR hearings all over the United States after signing a contract with SOSi, and the list of negative comments and complaints about the performance of this Defense Department contractor turned language services provider is appalling.

Although I would have never entered into a contract with SOSi after learning everything we found out about this company and its business model over the last few months, and I applaud those colleagues who decided to stay away from this folks, we cannot abandon our colleagues who decided to give this contractor a chance.  We have to defend our profession.

After reading emails, messages, personally speaking to colleagues, and talking over the phone, I heard the same terrible stories over and over again. They are unconscionable, but it is more disturbing the disclosure by some colleagues, in confidence and under the condition of anonymity, that they have been warned by this contractor’s agents not to speak ill of the company or suffer the consequences. I was told that this was a reason, at least In part, why some interpreters, very few compared to the ones who are vociferously complaining by the way, are praising SOSi and its practices.  I am not saying that some interpreters, perhaps in a certain area of the country, did not receive everything they claim they got from the defense contractor. In these cases some people often get everything they rightfully deserve.

When I heard of these allegations I decided to make a list of the most common “occurrences”, and I decided to read more on the company to see if there was some link between everything the interpreters are saying and the company’s business policy.  The first thing I came across was an interview with Julian Setian, CEO of SOS from September 18, 2014 by Lauren Budik of the “Washington Exec” when he was nominated for the “Greater Washington Government Contractor Awards” as “Executive of the Year” in the 75 million to 300 million dollar category. Although the interview is softball and self-serving as most of these “awards” interviews tend to be, there was an answer to one on the questions that it thought was very telling about the philosophy of the new temporary EOIR contractor. To the question: “What are the largest challenges that you predict your business will face in the next five years?” Setian’s answer was: “The biggest challenge in the next five years remains the most obvious… decreased U.S. spending and price pressure in the U.S. government contractor market. Regardless of strategy, that is a reality that everyone in our industry has to contend with…”  In other words, SOSi won the award because of their determination to be more frugal than the rest.  This could explain the low fees, late and incomplete payments, and all other monetary irregularities our fellow interpreters are suffering. (http://www.washingtonexec.com/2014/09/julian-setian-sos-international-llc-talks-2014-govcon-awards-nomination/)

I also found some very interesting statement by SOSi employees on the website indeed.com

One former employee from Reston, Virginia, states: “…I can not (sic) recommend this company… the senior leadership churns through managers in every department and the turnover is very high with each manager lasting an average of 1 year. This is due to the ineffective top leadership… before considering a position with this company it is advisable to talk to past as well as present employees… and research their (SOSi’s) reputation… by talking to teaming partners, former customers, etc…” A former instrument technician from Marietta, Georgia, stated that there was “… no room for advancement… not treated with respect at all… good old boy system…” (http://www.indeed.com/cmp/Sosi/reviews?fcountry=US)  There are many “good reviews” on this site, but the comments above explain, at least in part, the way so many interpreters apparently have been ignored and mistreated by SOSi during these first months of the contract.

Dear colleagues, we are on a permanent campaign to raise awareness of our profession, to protect our status as professionals, not laborers, and to defend professional appropriate working conditions needed for us to do our very complex and demanding work. It is for this reason, and because this contractor is still on its “probationary period” of one year, that we should consider very carefully if it is desirable to keep them there for the rest of the decade. If the answer to this question is no, we need to make sure that the U.S. government and the private bar know of these irregularities and help us decide to terminate the contractual relationship with SOSi once the 1-year base period expires.

Among the many complaints and negative comments about SOSi that have come to me, the following are the most frequent and widely present throughout the country:

  • They do not pay on time, apparently in violation of the contractual obligation
  • Many payments are partial instead of covering the total fee amount on the COI statement, apparently in violation of the contractual obligation
  • When this defense contractor pays the interpreter, many times they electronically deposit a lump sum without any reference to the services been paid, making the interpreter’s bookkeeping impossible or at least confusing, apparently all due to lack of due diligence on the part of the contractor.
  • SOSi does not have an accounting system needed for an operation of this size with the United States government. For this reason, the filing of invoices by interpreters are not acknowledged, and quite a few interpreters are being paid a fee lower than the one contractually agreed by the parties, apparently in violation of the contractual obligation.
  • This temporary EOIR contractor is not reimbursing interpreters for travel expenses, and it has denied payment in cases when the hearing does not take place and the interpreter is already present at the courthouse of destination, apparently in violation of the contractual obligation.
  • On repeated occasions, SOSi’s designated “payment processing” individuals are not fluent in English, and appear to ignore the policy and process to handle payment inquiries.
  • Many interpreters have found it extremely difficult to speak to a contractor’s representative to iron out all of these issues, and many times their messages go unanswered.
  • The contractor is attempting to run this very complex scheduling process nationwide without having any software to do it. Apparently they are using an Excel sheet just like any mom and pop’s business would do.

These irregularities are creating an environment where many interpreters are seriously considering rejecting all new cases, and in those areas where they are already declining assignments, immigration courts are developing a backlog due to the many cases that must be continued due to the lack of interpreters, and many cases that are heard by an immigration judge have to wait for a long time before one of the few contract interpreters who continue to work with no pay is free to attend that courtroom.

If you are a current immigration court interpreter under the SOSi contract, if you are an immigration court interpreter who did not have the stomach to deal with these individuals (bravo!) and decided to provide interpreting services somewhere else, or if you are an interpreter, not even a court interpreter, just a professional colleague, and your blood boils when you read about the way our current immigration court interpreter colleagues are being humiliated, directly by this defense contractor turned language service provider, and indirectly by the EOIR that apparently could not care less, I invite you to share this information with your colleagues, local media, social media, professional associations, attorneys’ bars and professional associations’ local chapters, like the American Bar Association (ABA) the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the National Immigration Forum, as well as your responsible, honest, caring local immigration judges (there is at least one everywhere and you should know who they are). I also invite you to share any ideas you may have that could eventually help our colleagues who are presently on a very bad situation, as many of them have not received any, or very little, income for quite some time.

A lesson to all interpreters.

October 12, 2015 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We have seen over the past few weeks how a grassroots movement by some of our colleagues has produced results that until recently would have been considered unrealistic.  I am referring to the freelance United States immigration court interpreters who, so far, have refused to accept the contractual conditions offered by a new federal government contractor that does not deal with them as language professionals but as unqualified laborers.

For many years, federal government contractors did their bidding and earned contracts from the immigration courts (EOIR) based on a widely accepted assumption that immigration court interpreters would take any fee offered to them, regardless of how low it was. This is how the bidding process worked and produced the abhorrent working conditions that LionBridge imposed on the interpreters, including extremely low fees, absurd cancellation policies, unprofessional treatment where the interpreters’ word had no credibility when their word conflicted with court staff, and even a penalty for those who wanted to be paid on time.  For these reason many interpreters left, or never entered, the immigration court interpreting field. It was just unattractive to those who wanted to make a higher income and expected to be treated like professionals.  Even now, the testimony of several attorneys reflects this reality when they comment that, many times, the quality of the interpretation in immigration court was lower than at those courts managed by the Administrative Offices of the Courts.

This is the environment that SOSi, the new bidder, encountered when they came into the picture. No wonder they pushed interpreter working conditions to a low never seen before.  They assumed that this time would be like the others and interpreters would take the offer, no matter how unfair and insulting.  They were wrong.

You see, friends and colleagues, a few things have changed since the last time the contract was awarded to LionBridge. By the time SOSi bids for the EOIR contract, there were more interpreters with a formal education than before; these colleagues had entered to the world of immigration court interpreting for many reasons: to gain some professional experience, to put their name out there, to have some income to begin to repay their student loans…

They worked as immigration court interpreters, but they were not there to stay; their time working over there would be a step towards a more fulfilling and better paid career. They did not plan to stay, but while they were there, they shared their ideas about professionalism and their personal dreams with the other interpreters who were already there. They inspired many of them to study to better themselves as interpreters, to go to a community college and study interpretation, to take a state or federal court interpreter certification exam, to become certified as healthcare interpreters, and so on.  The crowd that SOSi encountered did not look much like the one its predecessor found some twenty years earlier. The result: They would not put up with worse working conditions than the horrendous ones they had suffered from the previous contractor, so they refused to sign the contracts, and the deadline for SOSi to take over interpreting services came and went without fulfilling their obligation because of their lack of the most precious and indispensable asset to provide interpreting services: the professional immigration court interpreter.

These colleagues took advantage of things that were not there the last time the contract was up for bids: social media, communication and peer support, information about the working conditions of other court interpreters working somewhere else, and the experience of our colleagues in the United Kingdom with another agency devoted to the degradation of the professional interpreter: Capita.

The refusal to sign these individual contracts happened all over the United States, the voice got louder, blogs spread the word and informed some not-so-well known facts about the contractor (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/disrespecting-the-immigration-interpreter/) virtual forums were created, professional associations intervened, the media wrote about this issue in English (http://www.buzzfeed.com/davidnoriega/immigration-courts-could-lose-a-third-of-their-interpreters#.sopPZ5w26) in Spanish (http://www.eldiariony.com/2015/10/07/disputa-laboral-de-interpretes-amenaza-con-agravar-demoras-en-tribunales-de-inmigracion/) and discussed it on the radio (http://www.scpr.org/programs/take-two/2015/10/09/44770/backlog-at-immigration-courts-could-grow-with-a-pa/)

The contractor, probably frustrated by this “unexpected occurrence”, apparently decided to get help from local language services agencies all over the country to see if, by buffering this link between them and the professional immigration court interpreter, some colleagues would agree to sign the individual contracts, and, unless there is some legal figure no interpreter is aware of, as a result of their signature, they would become contractors of a sub-contractor (the local agency), putting them one more step away from the entity that won the contract: SOSi. In fact, I have heard from several interpreters in different cities who have contacted me with their concerns about the contents of this contract that has been offered to them.

Although the following is in no way legal advice, nor is intended in the slightest to be such a thing, I have decided to give my opinion about some of the portions of the contract as they were presented to me by my colleagues. Remember, this is just my opinion, based on my many years of professional experience as a professional interpreter, and my years in law school.  Your opinion may be different and I will not dispute such a thing.  Let’s see:

The most common concern about our colleagues can be summarized by this colleague’s observations: In general, I have my doubts that my previously negotiated  half/day and  full/day rates would really be respected, in light of SOSi’s option to pay these “…unless EOIR determines that using a different CLIN would result in less cost to the government.”  What does this mean in plain English?

There is a legal principle in civil law (and contracts are civil law) called the parol evidence rule. This principle states that all negotiations between the parties to a contract that took place before or simultaneously to the signing of a contract, that are not clearly spelled out on the document, are non-existent and therefore, non-binding and unenforceable. This means that all “negotiated rates” that are not in writing are irrelevant. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parol_evidence_rule) (http://thelawdictionary.org/parol-evidence-rule/)

A follow up question to the last comment was this one: what is a CLIN?”

Although I do not know for sure, I believe that “CLIN” in this context refers to “Contract Line Item Number” This would mean that if EOIR finds a legal way to pay less than the “previously negotiated rate” or If other interpreters are willing to work for less, the pay could be impacted.

Some interpreters are concerned about the travel expenses when they are asked to go out of town to interpret a hearing.  Apparently, the section of this contract that addresses this issue does not mention the English<>Spanish interpreters.  As far as travel expenses, keeping in mind that English<>Spanish interpreters cover the immense majority of the immigration cases, my feeling is that they could be leaving the English<>Spanish interpreters out of the equation because they feel they can meet these needs with Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) and with local folks if needed.

It is also worrisome that said contract seems to emphasize “telephonic interpreting”, indicating that this service will be paid at an hourly fee. As we all know, like all professional services providers, interpreters sell their time.  Getting paid for the time interpreted based on an hourly pay would result in a detrimental situation for the interpreter, because nobody is paying for the time it takes to this professional services provider to get ready to do the rendition (travel to the courthouse or detention center, setting aside big chunks of time to do the assignment, etc.)

According to some colleagues, SOSi appears very firm on its insistence that interpreters compete for offered work assignments on a generally accessible “available assignments” website.  In other words, interpreters would no longer be contacted individually, as with Lionbridge, to accept or reject offered assignments.  Apparently, SOSi’s recruiters have explained the validity of this policy as a way to avoid having to hire assignment coordinators.

In my opinion, Immigration court interpreters must keep in mind that SOSi’s contractor history and system is based on bidding subcontractors. That is how most Department of Defense contracts work (and remember, they are primarily a defense contractor) so I don’t see them changing strategy. All interpreters could be considered subcontractors bidding for a job every time there is a need for an interpreter.

This is the most critical hour for our immigration court colleagues because this is when experienced agencies and contractors put in practice their well-rehearsed tactics.  Some interpreters may decide to sign a contract even though the “promised, negotiated fee” is different from what the contract states, or it is hidden in an appendix or table. Immigration court interpreters will only achieve the dignified treatment they deserve, and has been denied for so many years, if they continue to speak with one voice, and it will get more difficult unless those with more experience and formal academic education step in and help their colleagues.  We must remember that fear can derail any project, and the immigration court interpreters are not a homogeneous group. Unlike conference interpreters, many of them interpret at a questionable quality level, others may think, deeply inside, that the ridiculous fees offered by the contractor are not so bad, some may live from paycheck to paycheck, and may decide to sign the draconian contract; and some of them may not really be freelancers, but employees with no steady job.

The truth is, that to get to a professional fee, the interpreters have to be willing to stay away from the immigration courts for as long as it takes, and during that time, if they are truly freelance interpreters, they will find their income doing so many other interpreting assignments. If they are really independent professionals, they will have to come to terms with the realization that well-paid immigration court interpreting will not be an everyday thing; it will be one of many other interpreting assignments that the true freelancer will have to cover. EOIR is a client. It is not an employer.

The contractor, SOSi, LionBridge, or any other has a responsibility to their shareholders, and that is fine. The federal government has budgetary limitations, and that is fine.  It is because of these undisputed facts that the independent immigration court interpreter needs to understand that to get the financial resources to cover his professional fee, the service will have to be more efficient. Less hours of work at the EOIR, but better pay.  That is how the freelancing world works, and all interpreters will need to understand it; otherwise, the lesson learned will not be the one this entry begins with, but instead, the lesson will be that once again, because of the interpreters’ lack of determination and unity, things will stay the same.  I ask my dear friends and colleagues not to waste this unique opportunity in their careers.

Although these lines merely contain my personal opinion, and in no way this pretends to be any legal advice for anybody, if I were facing the situation these immigration court interpreters in the United States have in front of them, I would hold on to signing anything until it is clear who stays and who does not. If SOSi stays, to become attractive to the interpreter community, they will probably make some changes to their contractual policy towards the interpreters. If there is a new different language services agency, I would wait to see what they have to say first. Also, for my peace of mind and for the safety of my professional future, I would never sign a contract after talking to the HR people. I would ask for the legal department because I would need to understand, and know, the contractual terms, and the likelihood that they will be honored by the language service provider. I now invite you to share your opinion with the rest of us, and for the benefit of as many interpreters as possible.

When a professional and business interpreting decision is not popular.

July 15, 2015 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Being a freelancer has many benefits but it also puts us in situations where we have to exercise our judgement and make decisions that will not always be easy. During my many years as a professional interpreter sometimes I have faced choices that required of an exhaustive analytical process in order to decide if I take an assignment or not. To get to the point where I am comfortable with my decision, I usually look at the prospective job from a professional perspective, a business point of view, and a moral (therefore subjective) position.

I try to determine if I am professionally able to provide the service I am expected to deliver: Do I have the knowledge and skill necessary to do a good job? Do I have time to research and prepare in the event the subject matter is unique or different from what I normally do?

If the answer is yes, I assess the business pros and cons of taking the assignment: Will it hurt my business or will it enhance it?

Finally, I go through a self-reflection to determine if I will feel comfortable with the subject matter that needs my interpreting services.

I had to go through this process when a few days ago I decided to provide my interpreting services for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant in the United States.

I understand that many of my colleagues would have turned the assignment down because of the controversy associated with one of the owners of the pageant and the statements he recently made regarding Hispanics, in particular Mexicans, who come across the border without legal documents to do so. After a long and thorough reflection, I decided to go ahead and provide the service because I concluded that it was not contrary to the standards that I described above.

From the professional perspective I concluded that, despite the opinions expressed by Donald Trump about Mexicans and others who enter the United States illegally, this should not impact my ability to do a good job.  I know that many of my colleagues in the United States would have turned the assignment down, and some of you expressed your opinion against my taking on the assignment.  I respect the opinions of others, but I disagree with their posture because it goes against what we do as interpreters. When questioned by some of you, my answer was that most of those objecting to the assignment systematically provide interpreting services to individuals who are not exactly the pillars of our society. On a daily basis, court interpreters bridge the language barrier between the courts and the defendants charged with horrible crimes such as murder, rape, and child molestation.  They provide the service without hesitation because they know and understand that despite the crime, and the criminal, interpreting services are required to deliver justice in our system. The higher value of the job has very little to do with the charge or the perpetrator.  As for those colleagues who do not work in court, I cannot help but picture those assignments where the interpreter works in a conference or a business meeting where the subject matter has to do with issues that are distasteful, controversial, or opposed by a significant segment of the population, such as gun control, military operations, or unpopular business practices.  These interpreters go into the booth and do their best because they recognize that this is the essence of our profession, not because they endorse the philosophy of those they are interpreting for. We all know that these are not our ideas; that we do not have to like the message nor the messenger. We have a job to do, and we do it to the best of our ability.

As a freelancer, it is extremely important to make the right business decision when you agree to do an assignment. To assess the situation, we have to separate the pure business aspect of the situation from all other factors that could cloud our view.  I understand why so many business entities decided to distance themselves from the pageant. For them it was the right choice: they deal directly with the groups that were offended by Trump’s statements.  They are their consumers. The fact that Univision, NBC, and even Chef José Andrés broke up with the Trump emporium makes business sense. They could not risk losing so many consumers, or having people protesting outside their site of business. I agree with what they did.  On the other hand, as an interpreter, I do not deal with Spanish-speaking people as my direct clients. They are the recipients of a service that I provide at the request of my direct client: the agency, event organizer, law office, court system, or international organization.  For a decision to impact my business, it has to hurt my client. In this case, taking the job benefited my business. I acted professionally and did not abandon a client when I was needed the most. This will, no doubt, benefit me for a long time. My clients know that it takes a lot for me to go back on a contractual obligation to perform a service.  I guess that if part of my business depended on working directly with the Spanish speaking community or with organizations that decided to oppose Trump, I would have probably decided differently, but in my situation this was not the case.

Before I decided what to do, I considered the moral aspects of my decision. To do this, I carefully separated two things that should never be grouped as one: What Donald Trump, the politician running for president of the United States said, and what the pageant is and represents to many who had worked for months and years for the success of the event.  Although I disagree with Trump’s statements, and I believe that he should have never generalized his opinions, I also understand that, to a degree, they were taken out of context. It is false that all those who come to the United States are rapists and drug dealers, but it is also undeniable, as my court interpreter colleagues perfectly know, that a good number of those undocumented individuals commit crimes every day. Donald Trump’s remarks made me angry, but the reaction by the corrupt governments of Mexico and other Latin American countries also made me mad. They should be ashamed of themselves, because it is them who push their citizens across the border. They have no right to be offended. They are destroying their people. On the other hand, interpreting for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant does not mean interpreting for Donald Trump. Those of us who participated in the event interpreted for the presenters and contestants who had nothing to do with a statement by a politician who is only part-owner of the pageant and was quoted, at least partially, out of context. I could find no valid moral reason, for me, not to take the assignment and fulfill my contract.

I am only trying to point out that as interpreters, we provide our services to many people. Sometimes we are the “voice” of a revered and admired individual, on other occasions we give the sound of our voice to despicable vile characters.  Many times we interpret events that are in agreement with our way of thinking, many others we interpret topics that we dislike and even disagree with.

I am not saying that we should accept every single assignment that comes our way. All I am saying is that we should analyze the proposed event, and only reject it when professionally, from the business perspective, or morally (as a very personal thing) we conclude that it is the right thing to do.  I know that not all assignments are for all interpreters and I respect that. I know colleagues who will not interpret in court for child molesters; I have colleagues who will not interpret conferences that go against their political or religious beliefs (pro-choice, pro-life, gun control, free trade, etc.) There are gigs that I would surely turn down as well. I do not see myself interpreting for the Nation of Islam or for Nambla for example. However, I believe in assessing all aspects of an assignment before making a decision. We have to remember that this is part of our profession; that we are not the ones speaking and saying those awful things, and we cannot lose sight of the fact that this profession is also a business, and for that reason, we should decide like businesspeople.  I now invite you to share with the rest of us the elements that you consider before rejecting an assignment, and please, abstain from political comments and editorializing about Donald Trump. This post is not about what he said; we all agree that it was wrong. It is about what we have to do as professional businesspeople in the interpreting profession when faced with a controversial situation.

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