Our current market and the fearful interpreter.

April 19, 2021 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The post-Covid interpreting market looks very different from what we knew before 2020. Distance interpreting brought in globalization at an unprecedented pace, and with that a new set of rules that for now look like the Wild West. Much remains to be done, and many things will happen before the market settles down and we have a clear view and understanding of a more permanent, stable workplace; but for now, misrepresentations, ignorance, and opportunism, coexist with professionalism, quality, and experience.

The impact of false advertisement and entry of inexperienced individuals has been such, that even well-established working relations between professional interpreters and long-time clients have been affected to a degree.

My professional practice is now strong and steady, but in the last twelve months I experienced first-hand, three times, what this chaos and confusion can do to my business.

First, I was contacted by a long-time client to let me know that the annual assignment I have been doing for seven years was no more. When I asked if the event had been cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic, I was told the conference would be held on line, but it would be interpreted by other interpreters from a developing country charging less than half of my fee. The client told me that to them costs were THE priority, and no argument about quality, experience, cultural knowledge would make them change their minds. I understood. I had lost my first long-term client to a group of inexpensive interpreters with (in the words of the client) had zero experience in these events, but were “enthusiastic, energetic, and cheap.”

Several months later, I was asked by another client who has worked with me for over fifteen years to interpret a one-day event. It was a distance interpreting assignment on a topic I have interpreted often before. The event took place without incident and I invoiced my client. To my surprise, this client’s accounting department contacted me a few weeks later asking me to explain and justify the fee I had charged. The invoice was straight forward; in fact, it was identical to many other invoices I had submitted for similar services. It was a full-day fee. Nothing else. I replied to the accountants, and two weeks later I was contacted by my client. I was told my service rendered on that date did not justify a full-day fee because there was a 2-hour intermission after the first 2 hours and before the final two. I explained that such a service is a full-day because the interpreter is dedicating the full day to the event, including interpreting when the event goes over the first two hours. I also reminded them they had paid this way for years without ever questioning the charge, and the contract obligated them to pay for a full-day of work. The client listened carefully to my arguments and replied that they appreciated my services, but other interpreters who they had been hiring for other language combinations, all court or healthcare interpreters, were charging them by the hour, and they did not charge for the hours in between. We had a good conversation about conference interpreting, quality of the service, and meeting their needs. At the end of a long conversation, we agreed to continue our professional relationship as always, but the client express their hesitancy about replacing their other language combinations court and healthcare interpreters with conference interpreters in the immediate future.  I did not lose the client, but it was clear they were moving away from conference interpreters in other less-commonly used languages.

My third experience concerned another very good client that comes with less frequency, but always with multi-day, high-profile assignments. This client sent me an email asking for my availability for a multi-day assignment. After I replied telling them I was available, they responded by asking me if I would do the assignment for a full-day fee about twenty percent below what I usually charge. My answer was no. I got another email a few days later asking me if I was still available, and willing to work for a full-day fee about fifteen percent below my normal fee. I said no again. A few weeks went by and I received a third email informing me that if I was still available, they had “found the funds” to pay me my usual full-day fee. I was available (the assignment was months later in the year) so I agreed to do the job. After signing the contract, I wondered what had happened, and it came to my knowledge from other sources (in the world of interpreting we discover everything sooner or later) that they had “auditioned” other interpreters willing to work for the lower fee, but the client was not satisfied with their performance. I was fortunate the client was looking for quality and they valued my services, even though they hesitated for a moment as they were tricked by the social media mirage we see every day.

These episodes make me wonder what is going on that interpreters will accept worse conditions than the ones offered 20 or 30 years ago. I believe it is fear:

Interpreters fear the client. Instead of starting a negotiation from a place of power, knowing the service they offer has quality, they fear clients will never call them again if they raise any issue. Interpreters fear saying no to a shrinking fee because they think all the work will go to those diving to the bottom, instead of shedding those clients and focusing on quality-seeking organizations. Interpreters fear saying no to long RSI hours because they think the platform will never call them again. They agree to these market-devastating conditions instead of considering taking the client to another platform or even staying with the same one, but working directly for the client without an agency-like platform in the middle. They are equally afraid of charging full fees for RSI cancellations; afraid of asking for team interpreting on depositions and other legal community interpreting events; they will not dare to charge overtime, or a higher fee for complex assignments that require many days of preparation, because they do not understand they do not need the agency if they go to the client directly: There can be interpretation without the agencies, but there cannot be interpretation without interpreters.

Even when there is a contract, interpreters are afraid of charging full-day fees when retained to interpret a few hours throughout the day, and they are afraid to stand up for their rights when the client cuts their fee after the service was rendered as I did in my examples above. Many interpreters sacrifice quality, and put their reputation at risk, hurting their opportunities in the future because they are afraid the client, and more frequently the agency, will be upset if they keep asking for materials, programs, and the name of their boothmates. They do not dare to raise their fees when everything else is going up, including their cost of doing business. Some colleagues willingly take low-paying jobs to post their assignments on social media, and keep quiet on the fee issue because they are ashamed to admit they worked for peanuts, instead of having the courage to denounce the job offer. When offered a rock-bottom fee or despicable working conditions, interpreters must turn down the agency or de-facto-agency platform and, unless contractually impaired, contact the client directly, offer their services and eliminate the middle man. When harassed by a platform or agency for not agreeing to draconian terms, interpreters should move on and look for a better option. There are thousands of agencies, and many interpreting-dedicated platforms that basically do the same. Yes, you may lose clients, as I lost one of three, but you will keep, and find better ones; clients that will let you provide a quality service, protect your health, and develop your reputation and brand for a better future. Let’s get rid of the fear and face the Wild West with courage, determination, and convinced that, unlike agencies, we are an essential part of the process. I now invite you to share with the rest of us how you have protected your market and reputation.

What ever happened to the written federal court interpreter exam?

May 21, 2018 § 16 Comments

Dear colleagues:

With all the noise and frustration surrounding the oral federal court interpreter examination fiasco, we have overlooked a group of colleagues left out in the cold with no updates and plenty of confusion: The candidates studying to take the written federal court interpreter certification exam scheduled for the summer or 2018. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) has been silent for many months and interpreters are concerned, puzzled, and they do not know what to do.

The AO’s official website redirects you to Paradigm’s webpage which shows this message: “Written examination registration dates will be announced in the spring of 2018, test locations will be announced at that time.”

This message has remained intact for months; no updates, no explanations, no changes.

In the weeks since my last widely read post on the oral exam, and despite all the comments by those who took the test in 2017, many federally certified court interpreters, and colleagues in general, raising serious concerns everywhere in social media about the judgment of those AO officials who hired Paradigm, and the lack of transparency and accountability after the administration of the test, the authorities who oversee the administration of the exam have done nothing to keep those who plan to take the written test during the summer of 2018 informed.

Apparently, silence continues to be the only policy coming from the federal judiciary. Our colleagues who plan to take the written exam do not know what to do. They do not even know if they should stop studying. Because from the lack of information they cannot even tell if there will be a written exam this year.

We do not even know for sure if the AO has severed its ties with Paradigm. There has been no official notice, and their own website continues to redirect all users who want information on the written exam to Paradigm’s website which shows outdated information where it claims that registration dates “…will be announced in the spring of 2018…” If this information is valid as of today, they better hurry up and publish the information before spring is no more.

I cannot help it but feel sorry for those whose lives have been on hold for several weeks while they wait to find out the exam dates and locations in order to make personal and professional arrangements to travel to the test sites.

If the exam has been postponed until further notice, please tell the interpreting community; if Paradigm is no longer the contractor for the written exam, please tell the interpreter community; if no details can be shared at this time because of pending litigation, please tell the interpreter community; If the negligent administration of the oral exam in 2017, and the decision to retest so many people will push the written exam into 2019, and if this will disrupt the regular 2-year cycles of  both oral and written exams, please tell the interpreter community.

This will make you look better and it will be a way to begin the road to recover credibility and trust. Remember, it is about transparency and accountability. Those at the AO must never forget they are the government. Those with the misfortune to take the oral test last year, and the ones suffering the uncertainty of the written test right now are the taxpayers.

We cannot lose sight of this unquestionable reality; dear friends and colleagues, we are protecting the profession, but we are also exercising our rights. To the handful of colleagues who feel intimidated by those who argue that the certification is not an entitlement and try to mask ineptitude and negligence when hiring Paradigm as a “technical difficulty”: Perhaps when you work within the government system for a long time you think that the federal government is some kind of a magnanimous god who favors court interpreters, also U.S. citizens, by granting them a certification. Do not be distracted by comments like the ones above. The real issue is transparency and accountability. The AO should come clean and explain why they hired Paradigm, admit fault, apologize, and communicate the way they plan to remedy this chaos, not only by telling those who took the exam they will now have a chance to retest. They must talk to those who want to take the written exam, and to the professional community.

Threats about pulling the exam are awful, distasteful, and baseless. The government cannot force the professional community into silence by threatening cancellation of the Spanish federal court interpreter certification program. They have not, and will not. These comments never came from an official source and should confuse no one. Navajo and Haitian-Creole certification programs were scratched because of docket and financial reasons. Spanish is used in all U.S. courts more than all other foreign languages combined. There is no rational justification to do something like that, so please ignore these rumors.

It is also important to remember that almost nobody who takes the federal court interpreter exam wants a guarantee to work in court. Sometimes staff court interpreters must be reminded that a federal certification is a means to prove skill and knowledge to many clients. The majority of the high-income earner interpreters I know make the bulk of their fees outside of court and work with a district court, making far less money, when they have no other assignment, or for personal reasons. A candidate who pays a fee to take a test has a right to demand performance in exchange for the fee. It is a service based on contractual obligations.

It is also of concern that people who are involved with voicing NAJIT’s policy or opinions have stated that this association with many members who took the oral test, who are waiting to take the written test, and who are voicing their anger with the way the AO has performed during this crisis, can claim that the Association has “no dog in that fight”. To be fair, this unfortunate comment came not from NAJIT’s Board and it has not been endorsed by the Association either.

Dear friends and colleagues, those of us who did not take the exam because we are already certified, or because our working languages do not include Spanish, or even those who practice our profession in other fields with nothing to do with the court system have a duty to defend and protect the profession, and a right to support our colleagues who were, and continue to be, affected by this negligent and careless actions. Resorting to smoke and mirrors like injecting Seltzer v. Foley is just a diversion tactic that will not work. That case questioned the rating criteria of the written exam; here the question is the ineptitude and negligence of those who hired Paradigm as the contractor in charge of administering the test, and the actions taken after the fact. Nobody has questioned the validity of the exam, nor the integrity of the raters. I have even said that I do not believe there was bad faith or the deliberate intent to cause harm by AO officials. All we are arguing is apparent negligence and ineptitude, and for that we are demanding transparency and accountability.

Implying that I have questioned the validity of the exam or the integrity of the raters only shows those who claim such things, and argue that people are angry because they did not pass the exam (even though no test results were out when these claims circulated in social media) have spread rumors without reading my posts.

Just like in other cases before: accreditation vs. certification of healthcare interpreters, exploitation of immigration court interpreters by a new language contractor, the court interpreter fiasco in the United Kingdom, the contractual and managing problems of the court interpreter program in New Mexico, abandoning the interpreters in conflict zones by Western Nations, the exploitation of telephonic interpreters by unscrupulous VRI service providers, and many others, I have no vested personal interest in these cases; it is nothing personal against government officials, language services agency owners, or professional associations; I just stand up, and will continue to stand up for the profession. I now ask you to share your comments on the written federal court interpreter exam of 2018. Please remember, personal attacks, disqualifications, foul language and surrogate defense of Paradigm, NAJIT, or the AO will not be posted.

Should interpreters work under those conditions?

April 24, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Freelance interpreting is a beautiful career but it has its complications. Besides the general complexities of being an interpreter, independent professionals must worry about getting and keeping clients, the administrative aspects of the business, and the market conditions, including competitors, unscrupulous agencies, and ignorant individuals who, knowing little of the profession, try to set the rules we all play by.

We all have our own personal motivations to work as interpreters. All legitimate and many honorable. I am an interpreter for two main reasons: Because I like working in the booth, and because of the freedom, flexibility and income.

In my experience, I have rarely encountered a colleague who hates the profession (although I have met some). Freedom and flexibility are appealing to many; but with the actual decision to take or reject assignments based on content and other factors, or the relentless pursuit of professional good work conditions and a professional fee, many interpreters bulk at confronting the market and demand what they deserve.

For many years I worked as court and conference interpreter simultaneously. I liked the work in court, the cases, the challenges, the drama, and sometimes the outcome of a legal controversy, but it was wearing me out.  Many times working in court was depressing, not because of the truculent cases or the human misery you get to see in the courtroom, but because of the conversations among many of my colleagues.

It wasn’t unusual to hear interpreters talk about how they could barely make ends meet, or complain of how little work they were getting from the court. Common topics would include choices between paying the rent or a child’s medical bills. The interpreters who dared to talk about a nice dinner in town or an overseas vacation were met with resentment. It was almost like those with a good income had to keep it secret. It was very uncomfortable.

I do not like to see people suffer, and no doubt these colleagues were in pain. The problem is that it was self-inflicted. Being an interpreter who makes little money is a curable disease. It requires that the interpreter practice and study to improve their rendition, grow their vocabulary, and increase their general knowledge. It also needs a good dosage of courage and determination to go out there and look for good clients. Sitting in the courthouse interpreters’ room complaining of how they are not given more assignments, and settling for the fees (low in my opinion) that the judiciary pays interpreters will never get you ahead of the curve. I never liked it when other interpreters would describe themselves as “we work for the courts”. Unless you are a staff interpreter, the courts are your clients, not your boss. Talking to many colleagues all over the world I can say the same for those who work in healthcare: You will never make a lot of money interpreting in a hospital or clinic. The cure for the disease is one paragraph above.

I respect others’ opinion, and we all know what we want to do with our career and our life, but to me getting to know the market (or markets in many cases) where you work does not mean “learning the limits to what you can request or charge”. To some, interpreters who adapt to their market are doing something good. To me, they are just giving up and convincing themselves this is the best they might do. An interpreter who does not accept irrational work conditions or insultingly low fees is on the right track. Those who demand team interpreting for any assignment that will go over 30 minutes to one hour maximum, or ask for a booth with decent interpreting equipment, or want to get the materials ahead of time so they can study, are doing what professionals do. Interpreters who refuse to work under substandard conditions or don’t dare to charge a high fee for fear that the client will go with somebody else are digging their own graves and hurting the profession.

The interpreter who rejects an assignment because the agency wants him to work alone, or the interpreter who walks away from an offer to do a conference for a miserable fee are doing what should be done. Accepting work without materials because “nobody in my market provides materials ahead of time for this type of assignment” and working solo or without a booth because “If I don’t do it I will go out of business” may be adapting to the market, and to some this may be praiseworthy. To me they just are excuses; a pretext to avoid the constructive and educational confrontation with the agency or direct client. This interpreters do not “adapt” to the market, they shape it, and that is good.

I started this entry by emphasizing that to get what we want we must practice and study. Only good professionals may demand (and enjoy) everything we have discussed here. We must be professionals at the time of our rendition in the booth, courthouse, hospital, or TV network. We must earn the trust and appreciation of our client by becoming reliable problem-solvers who will do anything needed from us as professionals to make the assignment a success.  Be flexible as an interpreter. Once, the console failed in the middle of a conference, and instead of suspending the rendition until the tech staff could fix the problem, I jumped right on stage and continued interpreting consecutively until the system was working again. This is what we do. This is the right flexibility the client should expect from us. One time an agency asked me if I could be the driver of some of the foreign visitors I was to interpret for. I immediately refused. Driving is not part of what an interpreter is expected to do as a professional, and neither is to do photocopies, or set up the chairs and tables for the conference.

That we have to get a lot of clients to generate a good income is false. I consider myself a successful interpreter and I probably have fewer clients than many. I am never the first interpreter the agencies most of you are familiar with call, and I don’t want to be. If you are the first name on the list it means you could be undercharging or too willing to accept the agency’s work conditions.  I am the last name on the list, and that is good.

Whether it is because the agency could find nobody else, and they are now willing to pay my fee, or because it is a difficult, or high-profile assignment and they need one of the best, even though they know that my services don’t come cheap.  Well-run agencies make a great deal of money; hospitals charge more than any other service provider in society; attorneys keep one-third of the money awarded in a case (and interpreter fees do not even come from that slice, they are deducted from the part the plaintiff is to receive).

I know we all have our reasons to do what we do with our careers. I respect everybody’s decisions. All I ask you to do is that the next time you evaluate taking an assignment under less than ideal work conditions, or for a lower fee, before saying yes to the agency or direct client ask yourself if adapting to the market is a good thing, or shaping the market to satisfy your needs is better.  I invite you to share your opinions with the rest of us.

Are incompetent bureaucrats scaring away good interpreters?

April 10, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Today we will discuss a delicate subject that cannot be avoided as it impacts all freelance professional interpreters. I am talking about the cost of doing business versus the unreasonable cost of doing business. All professionals know that freedom and independence come with a price and we all know that we must pay it to enjoy the best things in life. It is called the cost of doing business.

The time an interpreter spends developing a client base talking to the best prospects in person, sitting in front of a computer answering their questions, or chatting with them over the phone takes part of our time, and for those who sell personal professional services time is money.  Administrative chores such as printing glossaries, mailing documents and buying office supplies are also part of this cost of doing business. So is invoicing.

Getting paid for services already rendered could be a full-time job unless we are organized and develop a billing system that is accurate, user friendly, and does not take too much of our time. Morose payers, crooked client, and banking mistakes are unavoidable, they will always be there and we must factor them in as part of our business. We consider all these factors when bidding for a contract or providing an estimate. The thing we cannot factor in, and we must stay away from are never-ending bureaucratic proceedings filled with nonsensical steps and inspired by the most pure form of institutional chaos and individual incompetence.  We can encounter this condition anywhere, but it is frequently found in government invoicing procedures.

We are all familiar with the long government invoice forms requesting absurd, and often repetitious, information. Nobody likes them, but sometimes the importance of the contract, or the monetary reward, for jumping through all the hoops justifies the sour moments.  The unforgivable part is when interpreters go through this enormous waste of their time, answer dumbness award-winning questions from a bureaucrat, are disrespected, and what they collect is worth less than the time and energy spent navigating the bureaucratic maze of mediocrity.  This is where we must draw the line.

All governments have obsolete, and often outdated, systems and procedures to pay interpreters. This is clear in the judiciary. You all know of puzzling methods followed by your respective states to pay you for work you did sometimes two or three months earlier. Once they realized they were losing money by working with a court system, some interpreters quit working with these clients, while others thought about it, but for different reasons: real financial need, fear, or ignorance, they remained as contractors for that court system. I stopped working federal cases with Criminal Justice Act appointed attorneys (CJA) two years ago when they changed to a system that injected the attorney as an intermediary between the service provider (interpreter) and client (courthouse) and never regretted the decision. I was losing more money doing paperwork and chasing after CJA attorneys and courthouses than the fee generated by my interpreting services.

I understand that to leave that work or stay and take it on the chin is a complex personal decision that only you can make. I also know of the fact that government agencies will always move slowly and have endless checks and balances because of their work volume. This makes it harder to decide what to do; unless there is a case so full of abuse and lack of respect for the interpreter as an individual, or our craft as a profession you have no choice but to get out of the zest pool before you are permanently harmed. This is what I am told has been happening for some time in a particular state.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you remember other occasions when I have written about irregularities in several court interpreter programs at the state-level, including this state, but this time the stories have a human aspect I could not keep to myself.

Sometime ago, this state adopted a billing system similar to the one used by other states (and non-judicial government agencies) that required certain information from the interpreter and some data about the work performed. In that state, interpreters are paid by the hour with a two-hour minimum guarantee (and a bunch of bizarre rules requiring the interpreter to travel to other cities and counties within the guaranteed period of time we will not discuss in this post). The billing system asks interpreters to enter their time, including the time when the “proceeding” ended. The billing system is confusing and it takes some skill and time to understand it and use it correctly. There is no technical help available on line from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts as far as I know.

As we all know, interpreters are busy interpreting, understanding the culture of the foreign client, and in a court setting they are also paying attention to their surroundings to protect their physical integrity. And to any regular human, the requirement of reporting the time of an assignment and writing down when the “proceeding” ended would be met by entering “3:30 pm”.  In the dark dungeons of immeasurable insanity, an invoice can be rejected if I entered “3:30 pm” and the recording machine that keeps the record shows it ended at “3:24 pm”. The invoice will be sent back even when the times coincide because I entered “3:24 pm” instead of “15:24”. Dear friends and colleagues: They want military time!

You can see that the billing system is twin brother of the bizarre, and it could be intimidating for some colleagues. Depending on where in the world you come from, certain things can make you uncomfortable. Add to it the fact that, in the opinion of many, the staff in charge at the Administrative Office of the Courts (where there is not a single certified court interpreter) is not known for their warmth or devotion to the interests of the interpreters or the well-being of the profession, and you can get situations like the one of a very well-respected interpreter who I have known for many years, and strikes me as a professional and dedicated colleague.

This individual is an interpreter in a language combination common in some parts of the country, but rare in a small state like this one, although there are many speakers of the language all over the state. He felt confused, embarrassed, and intimidated to where, after having some invoices rejected for petty reasons like the one above, he did not invoice the state for about a year. A rare language interpreter, actually, the only certified interpreter with that language pair in the State, worked for a full year without getting paid. Finally, when he sent in all of his invoices to the Administrative Office of the Courts, he was met with a bunch of one-sentence communications (I saw 44) rejecting all of his filings because of some nonsensical excuse. To this day, even without pay and after being disrespected, the interpreter continues to work within the court system because he knows he is the only interpreter in that language combination in the state, and he feels bad for the people who go to the court system seeking justice.

This is not an isolated case. A year earlier, the same thing happened to another interpreter whose invoices were also rejected for petty reasons. This interpreter, also one of the most professional in the state, reacted differently, and after being retaliated against by the Judicial Branch administrative authorities, he decided he had had enough and quit. He is now interpreting for the courts in a different state.  I was told by at least three interpreters that depending on the individual doing the filing, the same insignificant billing mistakes are often overlooked by the administration.  If this was true, it could have something to do with who the person filing the invoice is.  I will not get into that because it is a legal matter that interested parties will no doubt take to court.  The issue we are discussing here is the collateral damage that irrational billing requirements by federal and state-level judicial authorities are creating.

These actions, presumably adopted to protect the quality of the services provided, and watch over the taxpayers’ money, are scaring away many good interpreters because of the undue burden and lack of flexibility by often well-intentioned, but not very knowledgeable, government workers who apply these policies with no discretion or awareness of the damage they cause, and the money they cost to the state.  I for one stopped doing CJA attorney cases, one interpreter in the story moved to a different State, and the only certified interpreter in a rare language pair in the state may decide that he will not take it any longer and decline court assignments, forcing the authorities to hire out-of-state interpreters at a much higher cost to the citizens of the state.  I now invite you to share your stories with the rest of us, and if you fear retaliation, I assure you that your name, place of residence, language combination, and any other information that could identify you, will not be included in your comments.

When your new client used to have a bad interpreter.

May 12, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Throughout the years I have written about educating the client, I have shared with all of you my ideas as to how we can make an assignment a total success and leave the client with the unshakable idea that interpreter fees are not an expense but an investment.

Not long ago, a colleague suggested that I write about those relatively common occasions when you work for a client for the first time, he has worked with other interpreters before, and the interpreter who was in that booth before you, the only other interpreter that your client ever met, was the pits.

Obviously, we all know how the story ends if everything goes as planned: The client will love our work and will never go back to mediocrity.  Unfortunately, in many cases this requires of an extraordinary effort and a lot of patience on our part.

The first thing we need to determine is whether or not the former interpreter was really bad, or it is just one of those cases where the client did not get along with our colleague.

I would begin by asking many questions about the interpreter’s performance.  I would find the right questions for the specific client so that, without getting him to feel uncomfortable, the following question marks get an answer: Was he professional? Was he honest? Did he know how to interpret? Was he good at problem solving and communication?  Then, I would ask around. Talk to the client’s staff; seek their opinion. Ideally, if the equipment company is the same one they had in the past, ask the technicians. They always know what is going on.

If you do all of this, and your conclusion is that the interpreter was not a bad professional, and that the only problem was a conflict of personalities with the client, then you will have to do very little as far as educating the client on how to furnish materials, finding the right location for the booth, discussing speaker’s etiquette, and so on. In this situation your challenge will be to either adjust to the particular tastes and demands of the client (to me this is not the best scenario) or, if possible, find common ground with the client, get him to trust you, and develop a professional relationship based on honesty and mutual respect.

On the other hand, if you conclude that the last interpreter was incompetent, the first thing you will need to figure out is why he was bad.  It is only then that you can start the client’s education.

Interpreters are bad or mediocre for many reasons, but some of the most common ones are: (1) They work for an agency that despises quality and is only concerned with profitability; (2) They lack talent or knowledge about the profession; (3) They worked under bad conditions, such as poor quality equipment or alone in the booth; and (4) They were afraid.

If the prior interpreter worked for one of those agencies we all know, and you are now working with the client through another agency, the education must emphasize the fact that not all agencies provide a mediocre service, which usually includes mid-level to low-level interpreters. That you, and all top-notch professionals would never work for such a business, because you only keep professional relationships with reputable interpreting agencies who take pride on the service they provide, including very well-paid top interpreters with significant experience.  If you happen to be working with a direct client, then take advantage of this opportunity to sing the praises of eliminating the middleman. Go into detail on the way you prepare for an assignment, how you choose your team of interpreters, and make sure that the client knows where every cent of the money he is paying you goes. Only then you will be able to prove him what we all know: interpreters make a higher fee when working directly with the client, and the client spends less because the intermediary’s commission is eliminated.

If you determine that the interpreter who was there before you, was an individual who did not have enough experience, preparation, or frankly, he did not have what it takes to be a real professional interpreter, explain this to your client and take this opportunity to educate him on the qualities that are needed to work in the booth. Show him all the years of experience and preparation that have allowed you to work at your present level, share with him the complexities of the interpreting task; convince him of how an ignorant individual could never do the job correctly; and finally, tell him that interpreting is like singing or dancing: It is an aptitude a person is born with and it needs to be developed and improved. Try to convey the fact that there is something else, difficult to put into words, that interpreters are born with.

When you conclude that the previous interpreters had to work under bad conditions, you must explain to the client the importance of having the appropriate environment for an impeccable rendition. Explain how the interpreter cannot do his job if, due to the poor quality of the interpreting equipment, he cannot hear what the speaker said. Convince him of placing the booth where the interpreters can see and hear everything that will be going on. Make sure that the client understands that there are many ways to save money during a conference: a different caterer or at least a menu less ostentatious; a different ground transportation service; a less expensive band for the dance; but never a lesser quality interpreting and sound equipment; never a lesser quality, cheaper interpreter team, because this is the only expense that will make or break a conference.  A conference with the best food, at the most magnificent venue, with a sound and interpreting equipment that does not work, will be a failure. The audience will not be able to hear or understand the speaker they paid for and came to see. They will come back to a second conference when the food was prepared by the second best chef in town, or the event took place in the second nicest convention center, but they will never be back to a second conference when they could not understand what the main speaker said during the first one because the equipment did not work, or the interpreter was exhausted from working alone in the booth.  The client needs to hear this to be able to understand the importance of your working conditions.

Finally, when your conclusion is that the interpreter did a mediocre job because he was afraid, then you have to explain this to the client, and educate him on the benefits of having experienced interpreters in the booth: Professionals who have been through it all, and know how to prevent an incident or solve a problem. Tell the client how these interpreters exude confidence and will never have a panic attack on the job. Make it clear to your client that interpreting for a famous individual or on a difficult subject is intimidating, and only self-confident professionals can assure the success of an event of such magnitude.

In many ways, getting to the assignment after the client has gone through a bad experience will help your cause. You will find a more receptive individual, and you will have a point of reference; something to quote as an example of the things that should not happen. I now invite you to share your comments and suggestions about other ways to take advantage of this type of situation when you come to the job as a second choice because the first one did not work out.

The biggest danger to the interpreting profession.

June 15, 2015 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreters face many challenges every day; some are professional, some are technical, and some are market-related.  Today we are going to talk about this last category, and we will particularly devote some time to what I consider to be one of the greatest dangers to our profession.

Many times, you have read, heard and complained about the huge bad agencies and the backwards government offices you have encountered during your career. We all know they are there and we should be extremely careful when dealing with them so that our best interests as freelance professionals are protected.

There are other entities in our environment that could be more dangerous because they seemed harmless and deal with many interpreters more often than any other client. I am talking about the small interpreting agencies that exist all over the world in huge numbers. I am referring to those agencies that are individually owned and operate in small markets where so many of our colleagues live and work.

We all heard of the big interpreting agencies, but the truth is that most interpreters do not live in New York City, London, or Chicago. They live in smaller cities and communities where the big agencies rarely take over the market; and they don’t do it because, by their standards, there is not enough money to be made. There are no big conferences, there are no international organizations, and there are no Fortune 500 corporate headquarters.  The void left by these big players is occupied by “mom and pop’s agencies” that find these smaller markets attractive, and free of competition against the big language business organizations.

Although there are some honest businesses owned by people who know and care about the profession, many small interpreting agencies are individually or family owned, often times the company owner knows nothing about interpreting or translating, and is monolingual.  These individuals come from other professional backgrounds such as sales, computer design, or public relations, and they just happened to stumble upon our profession due to marriage or a change of residence to a more linguistically diverse community.  Because of their personal characteristics, and often (but not always) because they are native speakers, they can produce an adequate sales pitch for their not very sophisticated market, and the next thing you know, and without any real knowledge of what we do, they start offering interpreting and translation services and booking interpreters for assignments such as administrative law hearings, medical office visits, and “second-tier” conferences in their own region.  So far it sounds bad, but not horrendous. Allow me to continue.

The reason why the get government offices, medical doctors, and small event planners to hire them is twofold: They have enough knowledge of their market to access the places where these clients look for language services (internet search positioning, chambers of commerce, local fairs, etc.) and they offer translators and interpreters for a lower fee.  This is the sale!

Remember, when they first started their business they knew nothing about our profession. By now they have learned one thing, the only one they ever cared to learn: You can get translators from poor countries, and local interpreting talent (mediocre at best) for rock-bottom prices. Because of their “sales skills” they are able to convince their client, who is eager to find the cheapest service provider ever, that their professional services are provided by “adequate”, “qualified” native-speaker interpreters. The bureaucrat, doctor, or businessperson who is hiring the small interpreting agency, does not know anything about interpreting experience, certifications, degrees, licensing, patents, or any other interpreter credentials, and they are so thrilled to get the interpreter so cheap, that they will believe anything this ignorant will tell them.

Of course, due to the rickety pay, the agency owner will have these (mediocre at best) interpreters working under deplorable conditions such as obsolete equipment, bad interpreter location inside the room, no interpreting booth, and no team interpreting.  Sometimes they will brag to their interpreters that they got them a table-top booth to do their job, and every once in a blue moon they will provide a real technician to be by the interpreter’s side throughout the event.

After the interpreting services are rendered, these agencies will take their sweet long time to pay. Many times a “standard” payment policy will be 90 days, and even then, some of these raiders of our profession will tell the interpreter that “their client has not paid them yet” and will use this as an excuse not to pay the interpreter, who erroneously, will feel sorry for the abusive agency owner, and will gladly agree to wait until the agency gets paid. Never mind the house mortgage payment, the kids’ school tuition, and the family medical expenses. The interpreter will now wait for the “poor agency owner” who will console himself in the meantime with a trip to Hawaii, tickets to an expensive sports event, or at least a fancy dinner.

Dear friends, interpreters will take these terrible assignments, wait forever to get a tiny paycheck, and go back to the same abusive agency owner mainly for two reasons: (1) Because the interpreter is so incompetent, that he knows deep inside that no one else will ever hire him to work, and (2) Because they are so afraid of never working again for this same individual.  Not because they are bad interpreters (although each day they will be worse if they stay with the agency and continue to work under those unprofessional conditions) but because they do not know how to get their own clients; because they believe that the clients belong to the abusive small agency owner, and they cannot take them away.

The thing is, dear colleagues, that it is precisely because of the second reason above that these dangerous agencies exist. They are in business because interpreters are too afraid to go directly to the client and explain that the agency is run by a person who knows very little about interpreting, that the service they have been providing through the agency is second-class because they have been asked to work without any technical and human resources, not because they are second-tier professionals. Many times when these interpreters offer their professional services directly to the client, they find out that the agency was keeping more of the paycheck than they thought, and sometimes the government agency, doctor office, and event organizer will realize that they could even save money when they pay the interpreter his full regular fee.

I know that some of you are thinking: (1) What about interpreter services in other languages different from yours? The agency finds and provides all these “exotic” language interpreters on a regular basis. The answer to that is very simple. Although it is not of your concern because you are an interpreter, you can teach the client how to get other language interpreters. If you have been around for some time, chances are that you will be able to provide a name list to the client, and this will satisfy most of his needs. For the others, you can suggest professional associations’ membership directories such as ATA, IAPTI, AIIC, NAJIT, IMIA, etc. and perhaps for those occasions, the client can reach out to one of the big international language agencies. I see no problem because this would help your client without harming anyone. After all, there is nobody in town who could do the job. (2) What about that contract we signed that states that we cannot even look in the direction of the small agency’s client? Many of these agency owners included this provision to discourage interpreters from talking to clients. The best thing to do is to take the contract to an attorney and ask if the provision is enforceable (not legal). If it is not, you know what to do, and if it is, then you just have to wait for the provision to expire, after all none of them is forever.

I know that my colleagues in the big world capitals have little to do with these “family businesses”, but they have appeared here and there from time to time, so please be very careful, avoid them, and remember, in the big city there is always another way to get work.  The solution is, my friends and colleagues, to reject work from these entities, fight over the market so they cannot keep it or take it away from you, and observing the law, act like a business. You have an advantage: you know your profession.  As you can see, in my opinion we have to separate the big multinational language service providers from these “mom and pop’s” agencies. The big ones meet a market need that we cannot meet individually. Although we have to be firm and careful when negotiating with them, we need them for the big events and conferences.  These small ones, these apparently harmless local business are a real danger to the profession. The good news is that in this case you do not need them. You can fulfill the needs of your market.  I now ask you, the interpreters, to please share with the rest of us your opinion about these small and dangerous agencies that are all over the place.  Please do not reply if you are one of the rare exceptions among this business entities. I already mentioned you as some of the few good guys at the top of the post. And please do not bother to comment if you represent one of these agencies and you want to defend what you do. You have your own forums where you “make your case” all the time.

What are court interpreters afraid of?

April 10, 2015 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During my many years of practice I have seen and heard a lot of things. As a staff interpreter and as a freelancer, I have attended meetings where court interpreter policy had been discussed.  I have many friends and acquaintances who were, and still are, court employees.  A good number of them do a good job, others do not. From the staff interpreter’s perspective, these policy meetings are permeated by two very strong forces:

The sense of duty to the profession that these colleagues experience as they hear the sometimes absurd proposals by their bosses. This makes them reflect on the reason why they were hired in the first place: Their knowledge of the profession, so they end up putting themselves in the shoes of the practicing freelance interpreter who is about to be victimized by the judicial system. They have to go through these emotions. No doubt. It happened to me when I worked for the courts.

The second, very powerful force in the meeting room is called the sense of loyalty, the corporate spirit. They are constantly reminded, directly and indirectly, that they are now one of “us”, the court administration; that they are no longer one of “them”, the freelancers.  They perfectly understand that loyalty is expected. These two forces clash inside the staffer’s head and heart, and the collision can produce two results:

The clear realization by the staff interpreter that he was hired to present the professional interpreters’ perspective, to make sure that no decision would be made without first considering and evaluating the effects of such changes on the delivery of the service and the quality of the performance. When this happens, the interpreter opposes all nonsense that is about to become institutional policy, and voices his objections out loud, perhaps suggesting a meeting with the freelancers before any decisions are made.

Unfortunately, the second result is the one that prevails most of the time: Staff interpreters, afraid of losing their jobs, or at least the favor of their supervisors, remain silent, and sometimes may even suggest the steps need to implement the new policy despite the freelancers’ opposition.  Of course, it is easier to act and react out of fear.  Some of these interpreters are more concerned about their retirement than about the interpreting services provided in their jurisdiction.  Others are terrified of the idea of losing their job and having to go out there to fight for every single dollar they would have to earn as freelance interpreters.  Fear means inaction. It means that harmful decisions, sometimes adopted in good faith by the administration, will become the new rules, and staffers will do nothing to stop it.

This is how bad policy comes to be. How it becomes a reality is up to the freelance interpreters, because once the wrong policy is implemented, independent contractor interpreters have two clear options: They can refuse to work under those circumstances and look for other clients, or they can renegotiate with the courts (sometimes they should even take legal action when the administration has clearly breached the terms of the independent contract they may have with the freelance interpreter).

Unfortunately, many interpreters prefer to submissively accept the new rules and comply, even if it means less income, even when it is demeaning to the profession.  They are acting and reacting out of fear.  The thought of waking up tomorrow and realizing they do not have to go to court because they were not asked to interpret scares them to death. To them, court work, even in exchange for a rock bottom fee is peace of mind.  They firmly believe that as long as they keep working, even when underpaid, they are doing the best they can.

This is the biggest problem that court interpreting faces as a profession in the United States, because, unlike our colleagues in the U.K., too many court interpreters in America are willing to roll with the punches and work more for less and under worst conditions.  Many interpreters forget that courts are a client, not an employer. The court administrator and the interpreter supervisor are not their boss, they are a client, and they are not even your best client, as courts pay far less than private clients in the legal field.  Interpreters must remember that as providers of a professional service, they are bound by a contract, and so are the courts. Both parties are equal. Nobody is less. Contracts are meant to be negotiated, not blindly accepted; and just like with everything else in life, when the terms of the contract are not what you want, walk away without signing on the dotted line. There are other clients.

When court interpreters start thinking of the courts as their client, not their boss, the free market will kick in, and interpreters, just as attorneys, will be able to get a professional fee. Until then, I am afraid that court interpreting will continue to go backwards.  I now invite you to share your ideas and proposed solutions regarding this crucial issue to the future of court interpreting, and please, do not answer by saying that there is no other work outside the courts, because there is.

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