We should act more like professionals and less like merchants.

April 29, 2019 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Interpreters are constantly fighting to be recognized as a profession, to be respected by their clients, and to be treated and remunerated as providers of a specialized service that requires a strong academic background. Although most interpreters strive to be viewed as fellow professionals of physicians, engineers, attorneys and accountants, many colleagues, including freelance interpreters, behave more like a tradesperson than a professional.

Because of poor legislation, pervasive ignorance, and a myth that any bilingual can interpret, the idea that professional interpreting services can be provided by a commercial agency has been accepted, or at least tolerated, around the world. Professional services have been bought and sold like commodities by businesspeople foreign to interpreting, stingy government agencies, and unscrupulous interpreters willing to sell out their profession to make a quick buck.

A world where physicians provide their services through a commercial agency’s model is unimaginable. Attorneys’ Bars around the world would oppose, and destroy, any efforts to sell legal representation by agencies where a high school teenager, calling herself a project manager, were to assign lawyers to their clients on an availability basis, without considering quality or experience to decide on the attorney who gets the case. Interpreters see this happening every day and do nothing about it. Not even freelancers question this commercial model; they join these merchants and help to undermine their own profession.

I am not naïve. Multinational interpreting agencies are powerful, greedy organizations willing to fight for what they consider their “industry” to the end. They launch advertising campaigns, misinformation efforts to convince potential customers (they do not have clients) that hiring an interpreter is very difficult; that it can only be done through an agency. They spend time and money convincing freelance interpreters they are their allies; they procure them work, deal with the customer, and pay them a fare “rate” (they do not pay professional fees) after taking the portion of the paycheck they have morally earned. Interesting that agencies never disclose interpreters what they charge their customers, and force freelancers to remain silent when approached by one of the customers about their professional fees or availability.

We will not get rid of these agencies, but I know that interpreters will only be viewed as professionals when they act the part. I also know that some, few, are managed by good people.

There are many colleagues around the world who work as I do. We operate as a doctor’s office or a law office work. When contacted by a client about an assignment that will require the services of interpreters in five languages, I provide my client with the name and contact information of trusted colleagues with the experience and language combination needed for the assignment. If the potential project involves languages commonly used in my part of the world, or several interpreters in my own language combination, I even forward the inquiry to my trusted colleagues, my allies. My client takes it from there and individually negotiates the fee. I also suggest, and sometimes forward, the request to a trusted equipment/technical support provider. The client negotiates costs directly with them. It is like going to a building where many physicians have their offices, all independent, but all trusted colleagues; they suggest one of their colleagues depending on the field of specialization needed by the patient, but each doctor negotiates and sends a separate bill. These professional alliances, professional groups, are a network of professionals who know each other’s quality of work, ethical values, and language combinations. The client has to pay the professional interpreters individually, but he need not look for interpreters with the right experience, language pairs, or availability. That is all done by the interpreter who the client contacted first. That interpreter is the point of contact who suggests colleagues she will vouch for, and she is moved by no other interest but her client’s satisfaction. She will not subcontract the other interpreters, she will not charge them a commission or referral fee, she will only do what all physicians do when you go to their office and they suggest you see the dentist downstairs or the eye doctor next door.

There will be instances when you cannot help the client. There are languages you never work with. Sometimes doctors cannot recommend a colleague because they have no proctologist in the building. That does not mean that the professional network they offer to their patients has no value.

My good clients love this option. They understand it is difficult to get quality in all booths. They trust me and know that I would not jeopardize my reputation by referring them to a mediocre interpreter. They know I suggest nobody services because they are cheap. They also trust my judgement and experience a lot more than they trust a young monolingual person with no practical or theoretical knowledge of the profession, who calls himself “project manager” and has met none of the interpreters he will line up for a job. Clients know that project managers abide by company rules and guidelines which include: profit at all costs. They know their professional pool is limited because they can only provide interpreters willing to work with the agency in exchange for lower fees, inadequate working conditions, and disrespectful treatment.  This professional network model operates as a virtual office where my trusted colleagues are all over the world. It has no time or space limitations.

Interpreters who want to grow and expand to a larger scale should do it, but they should do it as law firms do. Incorporate as a professional corporation or a limited liability corporation, not a commercial enterprise like agencies do. These solutions will let you work as formal partners or shareholders and protect from liability without giving up your professional identity. We need not look or operate like an agency. They are not us.

They want to commoditize our profession and turn it into an industry. They are outsiders with a different set and scale of values. We are professionals. We should act as such. I know many of you are already doing what I described. I also know many colleagues will dismiss these ideas and even defend the agency commercial model. I am aware professional associations are guided by board members who own agencies, and as we have seen, even board members refuse to recuse themselves from voting in association matters when there is a conflict of interest between interpreters and agencies. Finally, I know some interpreters are not ready to freelance, they fear they cannot get clients outside the agency world, or they are content with little money. There, stay with the agencies, that is what you like and deserve.  I now invite you to share your thoughts on this critical issue for our recognition as professional service providers.

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.

Our work requires trust and a little respect.

March 7, 2016 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

In this era of high speed communications and world trade the function of the interpreter is of unquestionable importance.  There cannot be a globalized society without mutual understanding, and all efforts to understand another culture begin with the transmission of a proposal or an idea by means of the language they speak.

The interpreter is defined as a person who converts a thought or expression in a source language into an expression with a comparable meaning in a target language, conveying all semantic elements as well as the tone and register, and every intention and feeling of the message that the source language speaker is directing to the target language recipients. Basically, it is the action of transmitting ideas between two groups of people who are physically (or virtually) present, but do not understand one half of what is being said in the room.

The question that immediately comes to mind is: Why do these individuals, who have something important to communicate to the other group, believe the conveyed information, and base their decisions in what this interpreter said in their native language? What on earth makes them believe what the interpreter uttered, especially in the many instances when they had never seen this person before? In fact, when interpreting from the booth, the recipients of the interpreting services never get to see the interpreter.  The answer is complex, but it is also very simple: Because they trust the interpreter.

During their life, most humans will have many experiences with providers of goods and services. They will make decisions, some big and others small, based on their expectations as to the quality of some of those goods and services.  In some cases, because of the nature of the service and the characteristics of those who deliver it, they will select the provider based on trust. This is what happens when a person hires a physician, a lawyer or an architect. We put our lives in the hands of surgeons and airplane pilots because we trust that they will perform as expected. We trust that a civil engineer will build us a house that is safe for our family. We trust that an accountant will take care of our fiscal obligations according to the law.  We trust these individuals and their services because they practice a profession. They are professionals who have studied and demonstrated that they can deliver the service, perform the task.

On the other hand, we pick individuals or businesses for other services, or to get some goods, based on an expected result.  That is why when we go to a restaurant we hope that the food is as good as we heard it was, or when we go to the store we hope that the clothes we are going to purchase will fit, last, be comfortable.  We select the providers of these goods and services expecting a desired result: a fast car, an honest housekeeper, and so on.  These goods and services are commercial, they do not fall in the category of professional occupations.  People can join these industries and with skill and perseverance, not necessarily with a formal education or a scientific skill, get to the top of their trade.  A very capable individual can become the best laborer in any giver industry.  Of course there has to be some trust for these businesses to succeed, but this is on the realm of “trust but verify”. That is why we are not shocked when we see a homeowner by the side of the technician throughout the time he is at the house fixing the refrigerator, but we would never even think of joining the surgeon by the operating table while he performs a liver transplant. The second activity is a professional service and it requires absolute trust.

Interpreters fall into the first category. We are professionals providing a sophisticated, complex, and unique professional service.  Like the airplane pilot, we are a trusted professionals and people trust us to the point of letting us be the source of all information and exchanges when dealing with someone who speaks a different language they do not understand.

I have always believed this to be one of the most important characteristics of our craft. Ours is one of very few fiduciary occupations. It is for this reason that I reacted the way I did when I recently faced a situation where they questioned these essential characteristics of our profession.

I consider myself very fortunate because after many years of hard work, I have developed a portfolio of very good clients who value my work and show it on the way they treat me and remunerate my services.  It is not very common to see me accepting an assignment from an unknown source, but sometimes, because the gig seems interesting, or because I have nothing better to do, (provided that my minimum requirements are met), I accept one of these assignments.

Not long ago, I was sitting at my desk working on the blog when I received an email for an assignment that looked interesting.  It got my attention, so I checked my schedule to see if I was open on the date of the event and I was. I must say that the email came from a well-known agency, but with the exception of a job here and there many years ago, I had never really collaborated with them on an assignment.

I responded to the email providing the information they requested: my willingness to take the assignment, my availability on that date, and my fee.  The person from the agency got back to me very quickly to let me know that it all looked great, but they would need me to go lower on my fee. I immediately answered with a resounding: No!

At that point, I thought that this was the end of the story; that just like so many other times in the past, they were going to apply me the silent treatment.

To my surprise, the agency contacted me again on the following morning; this time it was a different person, a supervisor I was told, who wrote to me and stated that she had googled me, that they had asked around, and that after their little research, they had agreed to my fee, and if I was interested, they would love to have me as part of their team for the assignment. I said that I would do it, but that I needed to discuss payment terms with them before going any further. I explained that I have an invoice system that I use, and that I needed them to honor my invoice like the rest of my clients.  It was explained to me that the company’s policy was to use their payment system and invoice forms. I again emphasized the fact that I would only take the job if they agreed to a simple invoice by email process with no other hurdles. I explained that I sell my time and the hours or minutes I was going to spend working on their forms would not be paid by anybody.  The agency representative answered that my conditions were agreeable, and all I had to do was to email them an invoice after the assignment. I agreed and that was the end of the negotiations, which by the way, I have in writing.

Several weeks went by until one day I received an email with the materials for the assignment. Everything was fine to that point, but as I kept on reading until the end of the message, I discovered that they had sent me some forms to fill out, indicating the time I started and finished interpreting. On top of that, they requested that I call the agency at the moment I arrive to the venue, and that their client’s representative sign the form “certifying” that the assignment had indeed started and ended at the times written by me on their form.

I had never been asked to do anything like this before. I felt insulted and got very upset.  They were checking on me, just like they would on the Maytag Man, to make sure I had worked, and my word was not good enough for this folks; they needed me to prove that I was at the event, so they told me to call them; and my credibility was so poor that they needed another individual to vouch for me.

I took a deep breath, actually, I took several, and afterwards I thought of the absurdity of this policy. It was clear to me that they had this rules in place because they did not trust me, and did not trust any of my colleagues. The thing I could not understand is: If they have their doubts about the time I show up for the assignment and about whether or not I actually rendered an interpretation, how is it possible that they let me interpret from a foreign language that nobody in the room understands but me and my booth mate.  They got it all backwards. I felt disrespected by this “interpreting” agency, and I felt that they had insulted my profession.

After a few minutes I wrote them back, indicating that I was not used to be under the surveillance of anybody, that I was a professional who sells his time, skill, and knowledge by providing a professional service, and that I have always expected to be treated with decency, respect, and as a professional. I added that I could not agree to their corporate policy, and for that reason, I was declining the assignment.  It was not long before the person from the agency wrote back, and her email was very telling. It read as follows: “…We regret that (you have) declined the assignment. We agreed to pay you above our usual rate, but unfortunately, we cannot waive the other requirements. This is our policy and it is very similar to that of many others in the industry…”

That is the problem, dear friends and colleagues, these agencies expect to deal with us as merchants, not professionals. Key terms such as “rates” (like a merchant) instead of “fees” (like a professional), give us an idea of who they are looking for in the “industry”. To take one of the words this agency used on their final email: “Unfortunately”, interpreting is not an industry, it is a profession. We cannot work under mistrust, nor for a client (who they would probably call “customer”) who comes to our environment with the same hopes and expectations that you have when you enter the drycleaners.  I deal with clients who trust me to do my work just like I trust the dentist who drills holes in my teeth.  We are a profession. Industries deal with their service providers as laborers, I will stick to those businesses who deal with me as a professional.  I now invite you to share your comments or similar experiences when an agency or a direct client has viewed you as a factory worker and not as a professional.

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