Video Remote Interpreting: Agencies do not see what I see.

November 9, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Video remote interpreting, or VRI as it is widely known, is one of those topics that are difficult to discuss because some multinational agencies have turned it into an emotionally charged subject.  Those of you who know me personally, and the friends and colleagues who read the blog, know that I have always been a pro-technology individual, that as an interpreter I embrace technological changes and the benefits that come with modernization; and as a person who loves to study history, I recognize that technology has come to the interpreting profession, including VRI, and it is not going anywhere.

In the past, I have written about the benefits of working remotely by video, about how this change is helping us, the interpreters, to work more and better assignments that we could not do before because of the limitations of time and space. I have also told many of you, and I repeat it right here, right now, that even with its deficiencies and set-backs, VRI technology is getting better every day.  I have no doubt in my mind that the day when we don’t worry about VRI technology more than we presently worry about conventional technology in the traditional booth is just around the corner.

To this point everything looks good and promising. It is when you begin to factor in all the other sideshows that generally accompany VRI interpreting that we see the dark side of this issue.

There are some good and honest agencies all over the world; we interpreters know who they are and wish to continue our mutually beneficial collaboration with them; however, during the last two or three years we have been bombarded by these multinational interpreting agencies, and some others not quite as big, who have undertaken the task of proselytizing all the interpreters and all the students of interpretation they can find. It seems that you cannot attend a professional conference anymore without having to sit through a presentation by an executive or an administrator of one of these entities, who almost never is or was an interpreter, and listen to their interpretation of the new reality in our profession. They skillfully present an extremely one-sided view of the changes created by VRI, and launch their efforts to convince the individual interpreter to blindly accept their conclusions and conditions as the only truth.  Dear friends and colleagues, I see things very differently from my perspective as an individual independent interpreter. Let me explain:

The multinationals and the smaller agencies that from now on I will respectfully refer to as their “junior partners” want me to believe that there is this great new technology that is being provided by these huge agencies and their junior partners, that they know how it works and that for this reason they are entitled to be the ones offering this technology to the client (who they often refer to as customer because they see interpreting as an “industry” not a profession). While they are telling me this, I see that they never mention the inventors and researchers, that these individuals are not invited to the conferences and seminars because it is not in the multinationals’ best interest that we, as mere interpreters, meet them and start a direct relationship with the creative talent, thus bypassing the middleman in this equation also known as the agency.

They tell us again and again that VRI changed the old rules and that from now on interpreters better get used to the idea that they will make less money because, by eliminating the need to travel to the site of the event, it will be cheaper to deliver interpreting services. It is just a consequence of modernization. The problem is that what I see are multinational agencies and their junior partners generating all-time high profits because, despite of the savings in travel and other logistics that VRI eliminates and therefore the end-client would not be willing to pay anymore, by reducing the interpreters’ fees because the service is now rendered remotely, they now keep a bigger share of the professional fees paid by the client for interpreter services. I see that an event covered remotely will eliminate travel-related costs, but the professional service of the interpreter is exactly the same. The fact that the interpreter is working from home or from a facility near home instead of from a booth on the other side of the world is irrelevant for the rendition.  There is no logic, there is no reason, and there is no moral justification to demand that a professional interpreter work for less because of his physical location.

They tell us that VRI interpreting for these multinational agencies and their junior partners benefits the interpreter because she will not have to “waste” two days traveling to and from an event. Instead, she will be able to take a second assignment for those “traveling” days; therefore, she will have a higher income.  The problem is that I see a professional independent interpreter, who owns her time, deciding to work one assignment, two, or none. This is a personal decision that has nothing to do with the multinational agency or its junior partner as it does not impact the interpreter’s performance during the assignment with said entity.  There is a good chance that there may not be other assignments available for those days, and in that case, you could argue that the interpreter would actually make less money because she will not be paid the travel fee anymore. I do not include this in my judgment because it is part of the risk of being an independent professional interpreter. It has nothing to do with the multinational entity.

They tell us that healthcare and court interpreters will be better off with VRI because instead of spending hours getting ready to go to work, traveling to the assignment, and waiting for their medical appointment or court hearing to take place, they can stay home and play with their kids, do some gardening or work in their car. It is a win-win situation!  Unfortunately, what I see is an interpreter who goes to the hospital, clinic, courthouse or jail because that is his job, being forced to accept one or two hours of work paid by the minute, instead of a full day of paid work. People go to work because they need to make money. Many would love to stay with their children, plant a tree or fix the attic; unfortunately you don’t get paid for any of those things. That is what vacation is for.

These entities tell us that thanks to VRI many indigenous language interpreters are now working with hospitals and emergency rooms; they brag about this. They are helping these generally ignored and forgotten interpreters. That is not what I observe. When I look at these indigenous colleagues, I see rare and exotic language interpreters providing professional services for a very low fee. We all know that our colleagues in rare and exotic languages command a higher fee than those of us who have a more conventional language combination.

The multinational agencies and their partners tell us that they are the ones who know the market, that as interpreters, we may know how to provide the service, but it is the agency that can get the clients. What I see is that we as interpreters know many people that they do not know. We are in the trenches with those who make an event successful. These are the players that we can go to and keep the interpreter service a reality. They do not know many of them.

These agencies tell us that they are the ones who make sure that interpreters provide their services ethically and professionally. Unfortunately for those who believe this idea, I cannot see how one of their employees, somebody less experienced and with less formal education than the interpreters she “coordinates” by micromanaging and setting demeaning practices used in unskilled labor markets, can do a better job than a professional who will still be around a year from now. Most of these agency employees will not.

The multinational agencies and their junior partners often say that there are many interpreters who are very happy working for them under the existing conditions. What I see is a group of individuals who are scared to death of losing that rock-bottom income that together with their spouse’s wages makes it possible for them to survive. They are too afraid to speak up. Of course, I would not doubt that there may be some who are suffering of the Stockholm syndrome.

They tell us that they are training interpreters, that they are helping them to improve their skills. In reality, what I see is, in my opinion, no more than a bunch of laughable tests and online courses claiming to help you become an interpreter.

These multinational entities constantly say that there are not enough interpreters in the market to meet the current demand. That they are working on training more people to fulfill these need. Unfortunately, all I see is many good interpreters sitting at home without work because they refuse to work under such insulting conditions as the ones often contained in these agencies’ contracts.

Multinational entities and their junior associates tell us that it is them who know the technology; that we do not, that many interpreters are reluctant to learn how to work with VRI technology because they are afraid of the new tools. The truth is that every day more interpreters are getting tired of the middle guy who adds no value to the service and can be replaced at the blink of an eye. Interpreters, inventors and researchers can work together directly.  As far as learning the technology, do not worry. All I can say is that there are many more college degrees on this side of the table. Interpreters will learn.

These are my opinions, it is my perception of what is going on. I truly believe that we as interpreters need to develop a direct relationship with innovators to be in a position where we provide VRI services in a professional dignified way that includes the most essential part of this profession (because it is not an industry): the individual interpreter, embracing those honest agencies who understand their role in this profession and do not try to go beyond, and eliminating all those prone to abuse their position and willing to impose their personal insatiable desires over the professional services they claim to provide.  I now ask you to share your comments on this issue, and to refrain from coming in here to defend the philosophy and practices of the multinational agencies and their junior partners I refer to throughout this entry.  They have plenty of spaces where they can continue to serve the Kool-Aid. We have very limited venues to express our opinion.

State court interpreter certifications could turn meaningless.

October 16, 2014 § 17 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A couple of weeks ago I received an email that concerns me enormously. I am sure that many of you who are based in the United States have received similar emails from state-level judicial agencies. In my case, I got an electronic communication from the Administrative Office of the Courts of one of the fifty states in the U.S. (not the federal government) this was one of those global emails that are sent out to everybody on a master list. Basically, the message was that the National Center for State Courts in the United States (NCSC), apparently in coordination with (at least) some states, is planning to offer remote telephonic interpreting across state lines, and for that purpose, the states (and I assume the NCSC as well) are compiling lists of state-level certified court interpreters who may want to be part of the interpreter pool that will be used to interpret court hearings from a different state. Although I hope the message’s meaning was different, this is what I understood. The email is written in such a way that, to the reader, this idea looks good and beneficial for everyone: the interpreters, because they will have more work (although I would guess that the fees offered by the state governments will not be anything to brag about) the states with underserved populations due to the lack of interpreters, because they will get somebody who has been certified somewhere by a state-level judiciary, and the foreign language speaker, as they will have the services of a professional interpreter instead of a family member or a paraprofessional.

Does it sound good to you? Well, if I understood the email as a communication asking permission to include interpreters’ names on a master list to indiscriminately interpret by phone, regardless of the state, it did not sound even half decent to me. Let me explain:

It is true that state-level certified interpreters are better equipped than paraprofessionals, and therefore the service provided should be of better quality. It is true that all state-level certified interpreters have attended a basic orientation and they have passed a court certification test (now administered by the NCSC or CLAC) and in many cases they have also taken an ethics and professional responsibility test. This obviously puts them ahead of those unscrupulous people that are roaming through the hallways of many courthouses in the United States. Unfortunately, and this is the real and very big problem: these interpreters, who have been certified by one of the fifty states, would now interpret cases from other states where both substantive and adjective law are different. That is the problem. The interpreter will interpret legal proceedings based on legislation that he does not know. Unlike U.S. federally certified court interpreters who work nationwide because they interpret the same federal legislation all across the country, these state-level individuals will have to deal with fifty, sometimes very different, legal systems.

Just like the age to get married and gun control laws vary from state to state, the catalog of crimes and civil law contracts are different. Think of one single situation: battery and assault; or is it assault and menacing? Well, the answer is: it depends on the state, and the differences are radical. Penalties and procedures also change depending on the state. This is why attorneys can only practice in those jurisdictions where they have passed the Bar Exam. It is a very delicate matter.

If this is indeed what the NCSC and the states want to do (and I hope I am wrong) then I am extremely concerned as an interpreter, because this will be another attempt to de-professionalize our jobs and make them look more like the legal secretary who can work anywhere, and less like the attorneys who can only practice in the state (or states) where they are members of the state bar. Sure, I understand that state-level agencies will praise the “benefits” of this solution, which in reality will solve their own problem (not the interpreters’ or the foreign language speakers’): Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. This is a state-level priority because states that do not comply will lose federal money.

I am also worried as an attorney for several reasons: First, states will allow interpreting services across state lines using telecommunications. This could be an interstate commerce issue where the federal government has to participate (at least); but the second reason is the one that motivated me to write this post: interpreters who do not know the legal system of a particular state will practice in that jurisdiction. They may physically be in the state where they are certified, but their services will affect a court system, and litigants in another state where they have never demonstrated their capacity to practice. I believe attorneys who represent foreign speakers need to be aware of this potential “solution” so that from the beginning they know that perhaps the case could later be appealed for ineffective assistance of the interpreter. Attorneys need to know that when they are advising their client on an assault charge in their home state, they may be using the services of an interpreter from a state where assault really means battery. Lawyers will need to assess the potential procedural complications in case they sue the interpreter. Jurisdiction will have to be determined, and these lawsuits could end up in federal court.

If this “program” has also been planned for civil cases, then the problem is worse. Remember, there are at least three different civil legal systems in the United States, the one followed by those states who have a system based on the Anglo-Saxon tradition, those whose system comes in part from the days where these territories were part of the Spanish Crown (just think divorce and community property division) and then Louisiana and the Napoleonic written system. As an attorney, or a foreign language speaker, I would not want to have an interpreter from another state, much less one from a state where the system is different.

I sure hope that this “solution” (if conceived as I understood it) is discarded and the states look for better options such as a higher fee for those interpreting in state courts. There are very good and capable interpreters everywhere in the United States, it is just that they will not work for the fees currently offered. A more attractive fee would also encourage others who would like to join the profession but are reluctant because of the lack of money to even make a decent living.

By the way, these problems apply to those languages where there is no certification and the interpreters are registered or qualified to work in court by a particular state.

I really wish I am mistaken and this is not happening in the United States, but if it is, I will continue to watch the developments of this program, and if needed, I will speak up in legal forums to bring awareness of the potential risks generated by using state-level certified interpreters in places where they have never been certified. I now ask you to share your thoughts, and concerns, about this potential change that would end up rendering a state-level court interpreter certification useless.

Interpreting for government contractors: A real nightmare?

September 24, 2013 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

I know that working with government contractors is a delicate topic for many of you. I understand that in some cases you are as invested in a project as the contractor, and I also know that these entities and individuals serve a purpose in our system.  I have personally worked for many government contractors in my professional career.  I have to say that my experiences have been good most of the time, but because I have been shortchanged by a contractor in the past, and because I have heard horror stories from many of my colleagues, I decided to write this blog.

My worst experience with a federal government contractor wasn’t as an interpreter. It was as a translator. Years ago I was hired to do a very large translation that required of many months of hard work. Because of the size, it was agreed that I would receive a big down payment, and that I would deliver the translation in parts. Every time I delivered part of the translation I would get paid for the part that was delivered. I translated one third of the job and I got paid; I translated a second third of the job and I was paid; but when I delivered the rest of the translation I received no money. I repeatedly sent invoices and notices to the same people I had been dealing with for over a year. They first told me that there had been a glitch in the system and I would get the check very soon. Months later they put me through to several people I had never dealt with, and I was told that this payment would take some time because the government had not paid them yet.  Finally, after several attempts to talk to somebody and never getting a real human being on the phone, I decided to contact the company’s general manager and I was told that they were not going to pay me, period. They argued that the government had paid them less than expected and that I had already received an important sum of money.  I had no choice but to send the invoice to a collections agency and after about a year I got most of the money they owed me. They paid on installments.  As an interpreter there was a time when I was offered a job by a contractor.  Although I had not worked for this company, I knew colleagues who had and they had shared their horror stories.  The proposal was interesting so I decided to talk to this contractor.

It went wrong from the beginning when this person started by telling me: “…of course you are not one of those interpreters that want to charge (he mentioned the amount) dollars per day right?  We are offering you a great opportunity, so part of it is that you have to play ball with us and accept (he quoted me a pretty insignificant amount) dollars per day…”  I paused for a second and said: “You are right. I am not one of those interpreters who charge (I repeated the amount he had used before) dollars per day. I charge (I quoted a quite larger amount) dollars per day regardless of the great opportunity this may be…”  Obviously he did not like my answer and after a few irrelevant exchanges we parted ways. He said that he would get back to me with an answer but I knew he wasn’t going to call again.

A few months went by and I eventually ran into a colleague who works with government contractors all the time. During our conversation about his work, he brought up the name of the individual I met with months before, and said that this contractor I had turned down months before, was in some kind of crisis because he had hired some interpreters for a big job and apparently the client was not happy with the service provided. My friend mentioned that contractors had been under a lot of pressure because the government was looking for lower bids every time, and they had started to cut costs by hiring less experienced and less expensive interpreters.  That was the end of the conversation and that was it.

A few weeks later I got a phone call from the same contractor “apologizing” because it had taken him this long to get back on the proposal but that he was ready and we should meet.  He never mentioned the fact that he had tried other interpreters first and it backfired.  At this point I really didn’t want to work with him because the interpreter fee comment from the first meeting had really bothered me, but we met anyway.  He was ready to pay the amount I requested at the first meeting, but this time I asked for more. He seemed surprised and told me he had to think about it. We said goodbye and I never heard from him again. I later learned that his company had not paid in full to any of the colleagues who ended up doing the job.  I was really glad I decided not to take the job.

Some interpreters have not been this lucky.  Although I didn’t see this first hand, I heard of some colleagues brought to the country on non-immigrant visas sponsored by the contractor, who are not paid regularly, are forced to work overtime for free, and are constantly threatened with the revocation of their visa.  Other colleague told me that after being hired by a government contractor for a 2-week job away from his hometown, he was cancelled on the day the job started and the contractor refused to pay him arguing that he had “done nothing…to deserve payment…” totally disregarding the fact that this colleague had made travel arrangements, had turned down other assignments during those 2 weeks, and was not going to make any money for at least a good part of the 2-week period. I know staff interpreters who quit full-time and part-time jobs with government contractors, and I know others, like me, who had to go to collections agencies, and even to court, in order to get paid for work already done.  I am not saying that all government contractors are bad people. Some of them are really good. All I am saying is that before signing a professional services agreement with a government contractor, you should check the company out and review the contract very carefully.  Contractors are essential in our type of work and we must work together developing strong professional relationships, but we should never forget that despite the glamour and prestige of the job offered, we should always do our homework before signing on the dotted line.  Please share your contractor experiences, good or bad, with the rest of us.

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