Alert: They are interpreting illegally outside their country.

February 6, 2019 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

During my career I have experienced first-hand situations when people who live outside the United States interpret at the same convention center where I am working another event. I am not talking about diplomatic interpreters who travel with their national delegation to the United States, nor I am referring to the personal or company interpreters who travel to the States with a CEO to negotiate a deal. I am talking about foreign nationals brought to the United States to interpret a conference because their professional fees are lower than customarily fees charged by interpreters who live in the United States. One time I ran into some interpreters from a South American country at a convention center’s cafeteria. They were nice, experienced, and they did not live in the United States. After the usual small talk, I asked them how difficult was to get a visa to come to interpret in the United States, one of them dodged the question and the other one told me she didn’t know because she already had a visa she was granted when she took her children to Disneyworld. Just a few weeks after that episode, I got a phone call from a colleague who wanted to let me know that he was working at a venue in the mid-west where they were using other interpreters brought from abroad for the conference. He explained these foreign colleagues were having a hard time with the cultural references, and apparently had entered the country on tourist visas.

In this globalized economy, some agencies are hiring foreign interpreters, who live outside the United States, because they come from economic systems where a sub-par professional fee in the U.S. looks attractive to them. I have heard of interpreters brought to work in conferences and other events for extremely low fees and under conditions no American interpreter would go for: Two or even three interpreters in the same hotel room, no Per Diem or pay for travel days, often working solo, for very long hours without enough breaks, and without a booth.

The worst part of this scenario is that many of these foreign colleagues are very good interpreters who come to the United States to hurt the market by working for that pay and under those conditions, and they do not see how they impact the profession. Multinational and small-peanuts agencies love these interpreters because they just buy them the cheapest plane tickets, put them all in a budget hotel or motel, and pay them for a five-day conference a sum of money that would only cover the professional fees of local interpreters’ one or two days of work. Sometimes the agency’s client suggests interpreters be brought from abroad to abate costs; they even argue these colleagues’ renditions are even better because they “speak the same language the audience speaks, with all of its expressions, and dialects, unlike American resident interpreters who many times speak with a different accent because they do not come from the attendees’ country.” It is true that many of these foreign interpreters are very good and experienced; it is also true that, in my case, their Spanish accent and some regional expressions may be more familiar to their audience full of fellow countrymen; however, it is also likely that these interpreters may have a difficult time when interpreting references to local politics, sports, places, and general culture used by the speakers; what we call “Americana”. I would argue that professional interpreters, by living in the United States, are exposed to all language variations in their language combination because, unlike most foreign interpreters, they routinely work with multinational audiences. I also believe that it is more important to understand what the speaker is saying, after all that is why those in attendance traveled to the United States for. A rendition that puts the entire message in context, and is transmitted to the target language with all cultural equivalencies is a more desired outcome than listening to a rendition from someone who sounds like you, but does not get the cultural subtleities, not because she is a bad interpreter, but because she does not live in the country.

But there is a bigger problem: Most of these interpreters brought from abroad are in the country without a work visa.  Entering the United States on a visa waiver or a tourist visa does not give them legal authority to work in the U.S.

This is a serious matter: Whether they know it or not, the moment these interpreters step into the booth, or utter the first syllable of their rendition, they are out of status, and they are subject to removal from the United States. The moment the agency, event organizer, university, business or organization brings one interpreter to the country they are subject to a fine. Not to mention reactions to the illegal hiring of foreigners to the detriment of American professionals in the court of public opinion.

If these interpreters are really the best for the conference topic, agencies and organizers may hire them and bring them to the United States, but they would have to do it legally, through a work visa application; and depending on the visa needed, there are complex and lengthy legal steps to be followed before the Department of Labor (DOL), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Department of State (DOS) at the American embassy or consulate at the interpreter country of residence, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the port of entry. The process is lengthy and it requires of an immigration attorney. Dear colleagues, if the event requires the expertise and skill of the foreign interpreter, agencies and organizers will cover the costly process. If they were only retaining interpreters from outside the United States to save money, the visa process’ length and cost will make it more expensive than hiring top-notch interpreters living in the United States. (

These interpreters, even if they worked illegally in the United States, must pay U.S. federal income tax for the work performed within U.S. territory. An exception exists for certain amounts earned by foreign nationals not living in the U.S.; Under this exception, compensation for services performed in the U.S. is not considered U.S. source income if these conditions are satisfied: (a) The service must be performed by a nonresident taxpayer temporarily present in the U.S. for a period of 90 days or less; (b) The total compensation for these services does not exceed $3,000.00 USD; The services must be performed as an employee of or under contract (in the case of a self-employed contractor) with one of the following: A nonresident individual, foreign partnership or foreign corporation not engaged in a trade or business in the U.S., a foreign office or foreign branch of a U.S. resident, U.S. partnership, or U.S. corporation.

Always remember this, educate your clients, the agencies you work for, and if you are getting nowhere, when you see interpreters who do not live in the United States working an event, and believe me, you will know because of the cultural nuances, consider reporting the incident to the immigration authorities.

This is not an issue exclusively found in the United States, it happens all over the world, especially in first world countries of Asia and Western Europe. It also happens next door: Again, American agencies in their tireless quest to make money and destroy the profession, take American interpreters to work in Mexico, and if they are United States citizens, they take them with no visa. I have seen phone books, publications, and websites advertising interpreters from the United States for conferences, industrial plant visits, and depositions in Mexico. Among the most popular arguments to lure event organizers, businesses, or Law Offices in the U.S., they assure them that American interpreters are more familiar with their lifestyle, that they are certified by this or that U.S. government agency, and they even imply that somehow Mexican interpreters are less capable or professional than their U.S. counterparts.

This is total nonsense. Mexican interpreters are as good as Americans, interpreters living in Mexico possess American certifications, and there are probably more interpreters in Mexico with a college degree in translation or interpretation than those we have in the States. Let’s face it, the only reason these agencies want to promote American interpreters is because when a lawyer, company or event organizer hires the interpreting team in Mexico they do not need the agency; they make no money. Unless you travel as part of a diplomatic delegation, a business mission, international organization, or you are an employee of a firm that takes you to Mexico to exclusively interpret for the company you work for; If you are an interpreter living in the United States and you take an assignment to interpret for a deposition, industrial plant inspection, or other job, unless you are a Mexican citizen, or you have legal authority to work in Mexico, you will be breaking the law and are subject to deportation. It does not matter that you speak Spanish, you must be allowed to work in Mexico. (Art. 52 y sigs. Ley de Migración. D.O. 25/5/20111 There are fiscal obligations for those working as interpreters in Mexico, even if they had no authority to work.

Because often the agency’s client or the interpreters do not know they are breaking the law, you should educate them so they hire local talent. Please remember, this is a collective effort, we must try to bring up fees and working conditions in every country according to this economic reality and possibilities. This will never be achieved by killing foreign markets with illegally obtained, procured, or provided professional services at sub-par conditions. You probably noticed that I skirted around VRI services. Although it could be as harmful as in-person interpreting services when left in the hands of unscrupulous multinational agencies, that is an entirely different matter that requires more research and study of legal theories and legislation. I now invite your comments on this very important issue.

In tough times: Raise your fees!

May 14, 2018 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Globalization has created a world market where we all compete, regardless of our location. Although this has raised professional fees for some colleagues in places with small economies, it has hurt most interpreters to a different degree, depending on whether they stuck to their local economy and clients, or they went to the international market and taking advantage of new technology acquired clients they would have never even considered before globalization. In a market like the United States, with very high speed internet, thousands of airports and flights to every corner of the planet, and a very reliable infrastructure, many of us felt no downturn in our business; in fact, we benefited from the change.

Unfortunately, and without getting into politics, some recent U.S. government decisions, and later changes to the way we did business and conducted our international relations, have created a state of uncertainty, and sometimes resentment, which have affected our profession.

Some of the conferences and international events we had interpreted for many years have been cancelled; others have been moved to other countries due to the uncertainty on the admission of visitors to the United States, as the organizers avoided the risk of investing on a project that a significant segment of attendees could not attend because of their country of origin. For the same reason, many international programs at universities, non-for-profit organizations, and government agencies have been considerably downsized or postponed. The situation for community interpreters is not any better, because less foreigners in the country means less litigation and less foreign investment, which impacts court and legal interpreters; and when foreigners visit the United States less frequently, they use hospital and medical services at a lower rate. This hurts healthcare interpreters.

Faced with this reality, it was time for me to decide how I was to continue to enjoy the same income level despite the new reality we are living; and turn this poison into medicine and even generate more income than before.

Many freelancers get scared when they find themselves in this position, and their first impulse is to lower their fees to keep the clients they have, and to advertise their services at a lower fee than before. They operate under the false idea that money is the main motivator in a client decision making process.

Fortunately, my professional experience has showed me that quality trumps price in everything a client values. That is why people spend more money on a better doctor, a safer airline, and a renowned university. All have cheaper alternatives, but with the things people value the most, there is always a thought that crosses their mind: “It is more expensive but, if not for this, what is money for?” At that point I decided to raise my professional fees.

With this in mind, I carefully studied my client portfolio and classified my clients according to their business value, considering the income they produce me, how frequently they require of my services, the affinity of the type of work I do for them to my personal interests, and the prestige a certain client brings to you in the professional world. I considered a separate category for difficult clients, but to my surprise these were very few, and I needed them for my plan to work.

I immediately realized there were clients on that list I wanted to keep no matter what, and there were others that I would lose regardless of my best efforts. They were in a category where my work was not one of those services that they value the most.

I approached my clients according to how badly I wanted to keep them. If I really wanted them, I would explain this change in person when possible, or by phone or Skype if they were abroad or if their schedule could not fit me within a reasonable period of time. Next, I decided to contact the rest by e-mail on a carefully worded communication that was clear, not too long, and that ended with an open invitation to discuss this raise in more depth in person or by phone if they wanted to do so.

It would be a conciliatory email. No ultimatums, or “take it, or leave it” type of notice. I was out to make friends, not to fight with my clients. I knew that I had two things working in my favor: They already knew my work, and I already knew how they like their interpreting.

For my strategy to succeed, I needed to present my proposal to somebody with the authority to decide. Talking to somebody down the totem pole would be a waste of my time. I decided that I would only talk or write to owners of small companies or agencies, and to senior management in larger corporations, organizations, and government agencies. (There is a video on this subject on my YouTube Channel).

I drafted a talking points memo to be used with my “A” list clients when I told them I was raising my fees. The points I would make to the client had nothing to do with globalization, current American politics, or the uncertain future interpreters were facing in the United States. I recapped the successes we had in the past, and I listed some of the professional things I do for them that are not always found in other interpreting services, but I was not heavy about it. I figured that if they had agreed to talk in person or by phone, it was because they already considered me an asset to their company. It was all about the quality of my professional service and the time and effort I would devote to the success of their conferences, projects, and other events.

I lost some clients, none from the “A” list, all those who stayed with me are now happily paying the new higher fees as they are now getting a more personalized service, and because of this new practice, I have acquired new clients, who were in part, referred by my old clients who stayed with me despite the raise. We now have a better working relationship because they know more about what I do, and their internal decision making process to continue working with me made them realize my true value for their organization.

The lesson learned, dear friends and colleagues, is to face adversity with a cool mind, refuse to give in to fears and peer pressure, and with confidence and self-assurance face the problem and win. It is always better to make more money when appreciated, and an added benefit is that instead of contributing to an even bigger depression of our market, you will do your part to pull it out of the shadows of uncertainty. I now invite you to share with the rest of us what you are doing to win as a professional interpreter in this new reality of globalization and political uncertainty.

Interpreting political debates: Before and during the rendition.

April 29, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every two years we have a primary election season in the United States where the two main political parties (Republicans and Democrats) pick their candidates for the general election in November. Two years after Americans elect a president, they vote again to renew the United States House of Representatives (425 members) and one-third of the United States Senate (33 or 34 Senate seats depending on the cycle because there are 100 Senators) Along with these national offices, many states elect governors, state legislators, and other local officials. Traditionally, before an election, all candidates running for a particular office in the United States publicly debate the issues. It happens within a political party during the primary elections and then again between the candidates from each party during the general election. Because the population of the United States is very diverse and complex, many voters do not speak English, or at least they do not understand it well enough to comprehend a candidate’s platform or position regarding specific issues. Add to this landscape the fact that many regions of the United States have very important concentrations of people from a particular nationality or ethnicity that may have issues that are relevant to their community even when they may not be as important for the general population. This happens with Hispanics and some other groups, and because of the number of people who are interested in a particular issue, there are debates specifically geared to these populations, often held in English because that is the language of the candidates, but organized and broadcasted by foreign language organizations and networks. This exercise in democracy means that we as interpreters are quite busy during political season.

Because of the number of elections and debates, primary elections tend to require more interpreters than a general election; also, due to the regional nature of a primary election, these debates are normally held in smaller towns and cities, increasing the practice of using the services of local interpreters.

This year has not been an exception. I have traveled to many cities and towns all over the country to interpret political debates in elections of all types: governors, senators, U.S. House members, local legislators, and mayors. Most debates have been live, in almost all of them I have interpreted for the T.V. broadcast, but there have been some recorded debates and some radio broadcasts as well. As always, when interpreting a debate I usually run into the same colleagues: the same local professionals, or the same national interpreters (meaning interpreters like me, who by decision of the organizers or the networks, are brought in from a different city) for the races that have a higher profile. Although I know that the pattern will repeat during the general election in the weeks and months before November, I also know that sometimes new interpreters are invited to participate in these events. This year I already worked with some interpreters new to the political debate scene, and I expect to encounter some others during the rest of the primary season and maybe even the general election. As I watched some of my new colleagues prepare for a debate and deliver their services, I reflected on the things that we need to do to be successful at this very important and difficult type of interpretation. These are some ideas on things that we should do and avoid when getting ready to interpret a political debate and when we are at the TV or radio station doing our rendition.

  • Know the political system. One of the things that will help you as an interpreter is to know why you are there. It is crucial to understand why we have primary elections in the United States. We as interpreters will do a better job if we know who can run and who can vote in the election. This requires some research and study as every state is different. In some states voters must be registered with the political party to be able to vote in the primary, while other states hold open primaries where anybody, as long as they are American citizens, can vote. Some states have early voting, others have absentee ballots and there are states that even allow you to mail in your vote. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work. Of course, the more states you work at, the more you have to research and study.
  • Know basic local legislation and politics. When interpreting a state legislators’ debate it is essential to know how is the state government structured: Does it have a unicameral or bicameral system? Are legislators full or part-time? Can governors be reelected? Are there other political parties in that state? A well-prepared interpreter needs to know the answer to all of these and similar questions.
  • Know the most relevant issues and people in that particular state, county, or city. Most questions during these political debates have to do with local matters, not national issues; for this reason, a professional interpreter must become acquainted with local affairs. Read local newspapers, watch and listen to local newscasts and political shows, and search the web. The shortest way to embarrassment is not to know a local topic or a local politician, government official or celebrity when they pop up during a debate. Know your local issues. It is a must to know if water shortage, a bad economy, a corruption scandal, a referendum, the names of local politicians (governor, lieutenant governor if the state has one, State House speaker, chief justice of the State Supreme Court, leader of the State Senate) or any other local matter is THE issue in that part of the country.
  • Know basic history and geography of the state, and please know the main streets and landmarks of the region. There is nothing worse than interpreting a debate and all of a sudden struggle with the name of a county or a town because you did not do your homework. Have a map handy if you need to. Learn the names of rivers and mountains, memorize the names of the Native-American nations or pueblos in that state.
  • Know your candidates. Study their bios, read about their ideology and platform; learn about their public and private lives. It is important to keep in mind that you need to know about all candidates in the debate, not just the candidate you will be interpreting.
  • Know national and world current events and know your most important national and international issues in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer. It is important to know if there is a war or an economic embargo, it is necessary to know the names of the national leaders and their party affiliation (president, vice-president, speaker of the House, Senate leader, cabinet members) and it is essential to know the names of the local neighboring leaders and world figures in the news (names of the governors of neighboring states, the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico, the secretary general of the United Nations and the OAS, and at least the names of the presidents, prime ministers and heads of state of the main partners, allies, and adversaries of the United States).
  • Know the rules of the debate. You need to know how long the debate will be, how much time a candidate has to answer a question and to refute another candidate, you need to know the order in which they will be questioned, who will be asking the questions and in what order. Try to find this information on line, and request it from the organizers or whoever hired you for the debate. Remember: it is a T.V. event so there is always a schedule and a program; you just need to get a copy.
  • Get acquainted with your candidate’s speech patterns, accent, tempo, and learn his/her stump speech. All candidates have one, and they gravitate towards these talking points every time they have a chance and the moderator lets them do it. The best way to achieve this is by watching as many speeches as you can, especially previous debates, ideally on the same issues, as sometimes debates in the United States are limited to certain issues such as education, taxes, foreign policy, the economy, etc. Most candidates, unless they are brand new, have speeches and debates on You Tube or in the local T.V. stations and newspaper electronic archives; just access their websites and look for them. If possible, at least listen to a couple of speeches or debates of the other candidates in the debate. You will not be interpreting them, but you will be listening to them during their interaction with your candidate.
  • When possible, participate on the distribution of assignments to the various interpreters. How good you perform may be related to the candidate you get. There are several criteria to pair an interpreter with a candidate. Obviously, T.V. and radio producers like to have a male interpreter for a male candidate and a female interpreter for a female candidate. After that, producers overlook some other important points that need to be considered when matching candidates and interpreters: It is important that the voice of your candidate is as similar to your own voice as possible, but it is more important that you understand the candidate; in other words, if you are a baritone, it would be great to have a baritone candidate, but if you are from the same national origin and culture than the tenor, then you should be the tenor’s interpreter because you will get all the cultural expressions, accent, and vocabulary better than anybody else. You should also have a meeting (at least a virtual one) with your fellow interpreters so you can discuss uniform terminology, determine who will cover who in case of a technical problem or a temporary physical inability to interpret like a coughing episode (remember, this is live radio or T.V.)
  • Ask about the radio or T.V. studio where you will be working; in fact, if you are local, arrange for a visit so you become familiar with the place. Find out the type of equipment they will be using, see if you can take your own headphones if you prefer to use your “favorite” piece of equipment; find out if there is room for a computer or just for a tablet. Ask if you will be alone in the booth or if you will share it with other interpreters. Because small towns have small stations, it is likely that several interpreters will have to share the same booth; in that case, figure out with your colleagues who will be sitting where (consider for example if there are left-handed and right-handed interpreters when deciding who sits next to who) Talk to the station engineer or technician and agree on a set of signs so you can communicate even when you are on the air. This is usually done by the station staff because they are as interested as you in the success of the event.
  • Finally, separate yourself from the candidate. Remember that you are a professional and you are there to perform a service. Leave your political convictions and opinions at home. You will surely have to interpret for people who have a different point of view, and you will interpret attacks against politicians you personally admire. This cannot affect you. If you cannot get over this hurdle then everything else will be a waste. This is one of the main reasons why they continue to hire some of us. Producers, organizers, and politicians know that we will be loyal to what they say and our opinions will not be noticed by anybody listening to the debate’s interpretation.

On the day of the debate, arrive early to the station or auditorium where the debate will take place, find your place and set up your gear; talk to the engineer and test everything until you are comfortable with the volume, microphone, monitor, and everything else. Get your water and make arrangements to get more water once you finish the bottles you brought inside the booth. Trust me; you will end up needing more. Talk to your fellow interpreters and make sure you are on the same page in case there is a technical glitch or an unplanned event during the debate. Once the debate starts, concentrate on what you are doing and pretty much ignore everything else. You will need all your senses because remember: there is no team interpreting, all other interpreters are assigned to another individual, it is live T.V. and if you count the live broadcast and the news clips that will be shown for weeks, there could be hundreds of thousands (if not millions) watching your work. If you enjoyed the experience and if you did a good job there will be more opportunities in the future and you will have enhanced your versatility within the profession.

I hope these tips will be useful to those of you in the United States and all other countries where there are political debates, and I invite you to share with the rest of us your comments and tips.

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