April 24, 2017 § 6 Comments
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.
April 10, 2017 § 6 Comments
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.
March 8, 2017 § 2 Comments
For several months I have received phone calls and emails from some of our healthcare interpreter colleagues in the United States complaining about the same situation: Unscrupulous interpreting agencies asking them to work for laughable fees. I know this is not breaking news to you; we all run from time to time into these glorious representatives of the “industry”. What makes this situation different, and motivated me to write this post, are the shameless tactics used by these agencies’ recruiters. They have decided that giving the interpreter a guilt trip will soften us up enough to work for a miserable fee that will not even pay for gas and parking, or for the babysitter.
Oftentimes when interpreters provide their fee schedule for healthcare interpreting services, these programmers, recruiters, project managers, or whatever may be their official title in that particular agency, throw the ball right back in the interpreter’s court, not to negotiate a professional fee that is fair considering the complexity of the service requested, but for the interpreter to feel awful about turning down an assignment. The argument goes like this: “…but the patient does not speak English and he is really sick… we cannot afford the fee you requested; his condition will get worse unless you help him… the patient really needs you…” Another version they use brings up the issue of all patients’ right to an interpreter derived from Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. In that case, the agency representative would add something like: “…but you know these people must have an interpreter if they don’t speak English, and you are the only one in town. We all need to comply with the law. It is your duty as a healthcare interpreter. You cannot use the fee as an excuse…” To make a long story short, these agencies are passing the ball to the interpreter through guilt trips and fear.
The good thing, dear colleagues, is that interpreters are not obligated to provide professional services under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The fact that there may not be an interpreter to assist the patient may be something awful, but it is not your problem. Let me explain:
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 USC Section 200d et seq. prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin (including language, according to President Clinton’s Executive Order No. 13166, Aug. 11, 2000, 65 F.R. 50121) in any program or activity that receives federal funds or other form of federal financial assistance. The term “program or activity” and the term “program” mean all of the operations of a department, agency, special purpose district, or other instrumentality of a State or of a local government; or the entity of such State or local government that distributes such assistance and each such department or agency (and each other State or local government entity) to which the assistance is extended, in the case of assistance to a State or local government. It also includes colleges, universities, or a public system of higher education; and a corporation, partnership, or other private organization, or an entire sole proprietorship if assistance is extended to such corporation, partnership, private organization, or sole proprietorship as a whole, or if it is principally engaged in the business of providing health care, or social services.
Therefore, it is the hospital who has the obligation to provide the interpreter. Not you. In fact it is not the interpreting agency’s legal obligation either. Federal funds and other types of assistance are very important to hospitals and universities for research and other purposes. It is extremely unlikely that one of these institutions would risk losing those resources just because they are unwilling to pay the healthcare interpreter’s professional fee.
If the interpreter is contacted by an agency, it means that said company has a contractual relationship with the hospital or medical institution to provide interpreters in order to comply with the mandate of Title VI. The agency is getting paid by the hospital, but they now want to profit a little more at the expense of the interpreter. When an agency has this plan of action to be more profitable, they direct their agents to generate the highest profit possible. This is when they resort to despicable practices like the ones described above.
It is important that we as interpreters understand the law, and recognize these horrible practices. It is also essential that we take action in two different ways: (1) Always turn down these agencies, and (2) Let the hospital know that their contractor agency is jeopardizing the hospital’s Title VI compliance by scaring away the professional interpreters because of low interpreting fees and disgusting practices such as these guilt trips. I am sure that hospital administrators will put an end to this “activities” very quickly.
I now invite you to share with the rest of us any experiences like the ones above that you, or another colleague had with an agency, and what action you took to stop this from happening again.
March 1, 2017 § 9 Comments
Many interpreters complain that clients do not want to cover their expenses; that they do not understand why we charge for costs separately when we are already asking for a well-deserved hefty fee. The complaining seems to include agencies and direct clients alike, and it makes many of our colleagues uncomfortable.
Interpreters dislike the subject because they do not how to charge fees and costs, or because they do not really understand why we must be paid for both of these items. As for the client, many agencies just do not want to pay because their business plan is to profit as much as they can get away with, and to keep the interpreter from the money for as long as possible, or for as long as the interpreter allows it. Direct clients have different reasons, but they can all be summarized in one: lack of knowledge. They do not know what the interpreter does.
As we just saw, they may have different reasons to dislike, and frankly avoid, paying for interpreter fees and costs, but most of their hesitation and reluctance to pay can be eliminated with some clarity and a simple system.
In the past, I have discussed the items we must consider when calculating our professional fee and what costs we need to pass on to our client. You can read these blog entries somewhere else in my blog. Today we will explore a system that will help you educate the ignorant client and will protect you from the Draconian one-sided “job opportunities” that some agencies put on your table.
The first thing I do when I am contacted by a serious client who wants to retain my professional services, is to find out as much about the assignment as possible: type of interpretation that will be required, subject matter, name of the individuals giving the speeches or presentations, dates when my work will be needed, duration of the project, place where the services will be provided, work conditions, equipment to be used, languages provided, name of the other interpreters already retained or prospective interpreters who are being considered for the assignment, and I always want to know what it I exactly that the client expects to be covered by my professional services.
After a good chat, and sometimes more than one when the project is big and the client needs to get the answers to some of my questions, I inform them that they will hear from me within 24 hours. I explain that they will receive an email with an estimate for the professional fees and costs I would charge for the assignment as presented to me. Then I get to work.
I already have a format that matches my professional style and personality. This gives me the organization and coherence needed to be able to explain what I do and how much I charge.
I suggest you develop your own format for your estimates, and as always, everything that I suggest in this entry, and anywhere else in the blog, is not intended as legal or financial advice; these are just mere suggestions that in no way guarantee you any result. If you need to know financial, legal, or other consequences, please retain a professional.
Whether you prepare your estimate form on your own, or with professional help, I strongly encourage you to at least include the following:
On a nice document, formatted to your taste as far as font size and style, letterhead and logo, and color of both, background and font, start with your document’s personalized title: Something like “Estimate of Professional Interpreter Fees and Costs Submitted to XX Corporation for the XX Conference in XX City from X date to X date”.
Next, inset an introductory section where you go into more detail about the service you would provide to the client. Something like this: “This estimate is submitted at the request of XX Corporation, with its address at XX Avenue in XX City, regarding professional interpreting services XX language<>YY language in XX City, on the following dates: from X date to Y date, during the XX Conference of XYZ Topic”.
On the next section of your estimate, you need to talk about your professional fees, so start by including a section title such as: “Professional Fees”, or “Professional Interpreter Fees”, or something similar. I would always include the term “professional” to underline the fact that, if you are hired, they would be retaining the services of a professional just like a physician or an accountant, not an unskilled laborer. Then, I would describe my work with words like: “My professional daily (or hourly) fees for simultaneous interpreting, consecutive interpreting, and sight translation (depending on the service you are about to provide) is $XX (per day or hour) for a total of XX days (or hours). The total amount would be: $XX (unless there are other interpreting fees for additional hours (days) as described below. The professional fee for hours of service in excess of 8 per day would be $XX per hour in XX amount of minute increments.” After that paragraph, you can add:
“This professional service includes (telephonic) (in person) interpreting at the convention center (hotel, plant, law office, etc.) Other than the professional tasks above, I will not provide any other services such as (answering phones, making tea, hussle for customers, technical support), or any other service that goes beyond interpreting services and the cultural adviser function implicit in conference interpreting. Under no circumstance I will drive a vehicle for you or any of your clients, customers, associates, etc.”
At this point you will be ready to move on to your “expenses section” of the document. Start with the most expensive ones that the client has to advance you or reimburse you for. I always start with transportation expenses: Airfare or train tickets. Maybe something similar to this: “Payment in advance for the flight from XX City to YY City and back”. If possible, do your research so you can include the total cost, including taxes and incidentals such as luggage, priority boarding, and similar services unless your frequent flyer status allows all those things for free. Always get suggestions based on the Airlines you want to fly, the airports you prefer, and the time of the day when flying is more convenient to your Schedule. Make sure to include something in case airfare or train ticket prices change because the client takes too long to approve the estimate and sign a contract. Saying something like this may come in Handy: “The ticket prices above are not guaranteed until purchased. For that reason, prices could increase. If this happens, it is your responsibility to advance the correct amount according to the price on the day the ticket is purchased”. You can also include your arrival time and your departure time from the city where the assignment will take place. This way the client does not get any ideas about putting you to work before you get there, or up to 10 minutes before your flight leaves. You know your clients, and everybody is different, but for long trips I would require a business or first class seat in order to get to work fresh instead of tired from the trip.
I would then insert my ground transportation expenses. Many interpreters do not include these expenses. They should. Your client needs to pay for your ground transportation back at home from your office to the airport, and back; for your transportation from the airport to the hotel, and back, at your destination, and from all trips to and from the hotel to the venue where you will be interpreting. I do not believe that you have to charge for a stretch limo, but do not use the airport shuttle or the subway either. Travel by Taxi, Uber, or something similar. Based on prior experience, include an estimated total amount for ground transportation, but explain to the client that this is an expense they will have to reimburse because at this time you have no way to know the exact amount of the expenses; unless you both agree to set a fixed amount ahead of time and that lump sum would be all you get. You may lose some money, you may end up with a little more than the expenditure, but at least you would include ground transportation in the same check with your fees and all other expenses.
Once you covered transportation, the next big expense is lodging. I would demand a room in the same hotel where the event is to take place, and I would never accept sharing the room with another person. No roommates, no motels of dubious reputation, not cheaper hotels outside the county an hour away from the venue. Besides the hotel room, I always ask for the internet service. As you know, must budget hotels include internet service (and breakfast) in the price of the room, but most top hotels (where you will be staying during the assignment) have an extra charge. The client must pay for it, as you will need access to the internet for professional reasons. I would insert something like this under “lodging expenses” on my estimate form: “Payment of hotel room for the following nights: XX, YY, and ZZ at ‘XX Hotel’ in XX City, plus any charges for internet access. As of today, the hotel rate for a single one bed room is $XX (plus taxes and internet service charges) but said amount is subject to change. If so, you must cover the hotel fare applicable at the time of the reservation”. You can also agree with your client that they will directly take care of the hotel and internet service. This is common in big events because the client already has a hotel group rate and they will just add you to the same package.
An estimate can include many other things, but there is at least one more expense that is usually forgotten and should be included in all estimates. I am talking about your Per Diem.
Meals during professional trips are expensive. Most venues offer costly restaurants, and many times interpreters have to eat at airports or order room service late at night when they finally finish work. These meals have to be paid by the client. In the United States, and in many other countries, the federal government has pre-set fixed Per Diem rates based on the particular city or town’s cost of living. In the United States, the IRS has a list on line for all towns and cities in the country, and the U.S. Department of State has the same thing for all destinations overseas. I usually inform the client that I have calculated my Per Diem based on said rates. It would be very hard for the client to argue against a Per Diem already established that is continuously adjusted and universally accepted. I would put the following under “Per Diem”: “I will receive as Per Diem, the daily amount established by the IRS for XX City. This amount for the year of XX is $XX per day, for a total of $XX for XX days.”
The next section of my estimate would deal with cancellation charges, and I would spell it out in detail, even if it turns repetitive, and ugly for a language lover. I would cover different possibilities because the more advanced the notice of cancellation, the better chances I will have to get my income on another assignment somewhere else; the closer to the date of the event, the more money I need to get as compensation from the cancelling client.
Expenses are different. Regardless of the advanced notice, a client would always be obligated to reimburse me for all expenses already made up to that time, including cancellation fees in those cases where an expense allows cancellation, but this will generate a penalty or fee. For this reason, it is always better to get part of the fee and expenses in advance. It is better to prepare a statement explaining the client how much money you will return (if applicable) than turning into a detective and chase the morose, and now uninterested client half way around the world to get paid and reimbursed.
I would include something along these lines:
Notice of cancellation XXX or more weeks before the event: No professional fees, but the client must reimburse me for all expenses already made, and for all expenses generated for returning the rest of the advanced payment to the client (because some banks charge for this service). Said amount will be deducted from the amount to be returned to the client if there are enough funds available. Otherwise, the client must provide payment for the amount in excess of the advanced payment.
Notice of cancellation XX or more weeks before the event: XX Percentage of the total professional fee, and all expenses already made, and for all expenses generated for returning the rest of the advanced payment to the client (because some banks charge for this service). Said amount will be deducted from the amount to be returned to the client if there are enough funds available. Otherwise, the client must provide payment for the amount in excess of the advanced payment…” And so on.
The next thing I include on my estimates is a table or a graphic with a summary of my fees and expenses, including totals. This makes it clear for the client. Besides the table, I would add the following so the estimate is crystal clear: “The client must pay the total amount indicated, unless there are any changes due to an increase on interpretation hours (days) or changes to any of the transportation or lodging prices. Please keep in mind that some taxes and additional charges are yet to be included, and they must be reimbursed to me as soon as I inform you of their existence”.
Then comes the terms of payment. This is crucial and when you spell it out for the client to see from day one, you are saving yourself some headaches and extra expenses due to late payments or disputed amounts. Payment should be prompt and non-compliance should carry consequences. How about something that brings up important points like these ones:
“The client must pay all professional fees and expenses as follows:
Advanced payment: Once this estimate is approved, the client will have 48 hours to make the advance payment, which will include XX percentage of the total professional fees, airfare (according to the applicable rate) hotel charges at the applicable rate (including taxes and internet service) unless the client directly pays for the hotel and related charges, including internet access. The advance payment must be in cashier’s check or by electronic transfer to my account. The remaining professional fees and expenses must be paid in full no later than XXX date. Any delays on this payment will generate a XX percent late payment interest”.
Finally, I would include the date and a place on the document for me and the client to sign as proof of agreement to the terms of this estimate. Like this: “Delivered to the client for review and acceptance on this date XX”, followed by both of our signatures.
Dear friends and colleagues, I believe that there is much to be done. We have to educate the direct client and identify and exclude corrupt greedy agencies, but we can also make our lives a little less complicated by adding some clarity to our charges. I have found that it is easier to explain my fees, expenses, and the scope of my professional services to those clients who have seen my estimate on paper. It allows them to understand and ask questions, and it gives us a road map to organize all those items that perhaps we have been paying for when in reality it is the client who has to cover them.
I hope that you find this explanation useful, and it motivates you to be more organized, assertive, and (because the contents of this blog post are not legal advice) to visit your attorney or accountant if you need professional help to develop your unique, tailor-made estimate of professional fees and costs. I now ask you to please share with the rest of you any tips you may have to make this process smoother and faster.
February 22, 2017 § 1 Comment
For years, and especially during the past few months, there has been a lot of talk about the communities of foreign-born individuals who are physically present in the United States. All aspects of their lives have been debated and scrutinized: from their immigration status to their religion, from their ethnic origin, to the language they speak at home. Many articles have been written, and many discussions have been held about their right to stay in the country, the impact they have on the economy, and the actions of the federal government regarding their admission to the United States and the exclusion proceedings instituted against them. The policy the federal government has adopted towards foreign-born individuals in the United States has been rightfully questioned, criticized and denounced.
As interpreters, we deal with foreign-born people on a daily basis. We see what happens at the immigration courts (EOIR), the United States Immigration and Citizen Services’ (USCIS) interviews, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hearings, and the federal judicial system. The news are not always good, but at least they are on the spotlight. Scandals such as SOSi’s abhorrent practices towards immigration court interpreters, the White House’s six-country travel ban, and the talk about the wall between Mexico and the U.S. are forcing the issue, and eventually things will have to change.
Unfortunately, foreign-born individuals physically present in the United States as immigrants, non-immigrants, and undocumented, face another terrible injustice that is turning into a reality, and eventually it could become an everyday threat: I am referring to a practice followed by state courts in many places that is gaining popularity and acceptance by the establishment, sometimes due to ignorance or indifference, and many times because of incompetence and greed.
This modern form of potential discrimination by state-level Administrative Offices of the Courts against people whose first language is not English has to do with access to justice: It is evident to me that state governments could be systematically discriminating against people who lack fluency, or do not speak English, by denying them the services of certified court interpreters in languages with a certification program, just because state government officials want to save money.
It is undeniable that those states where the language access program is not managed by a professional interpreter are at a tremendous disadvantage because there is a person with neither knowledge nor interpreting background at the helm; but the problem is even worse. Some states where the head of the program is an interpreter, and many state-level courthouses with full and part-time staff interpreters are just passively allowing for this to happen without moving a finger for fear to lose their jobs.
The potentially discriminatory practice goes like this:
During the Obama administration, state-level courts were made aware of the fact that the federal government was going finally to enforce, after almost forty years, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which allows the withholding of federal funds dedicated to the states when the latter do not provide universal access to all the services offered, even if some accommodations need to be made in order to avoid discrimination based on many categories, among them not being able to speak, or fluently speak English. This included all state-level courts.
Before this development many states were running court interpreter certification programs. California had its own program, and in July 1995 Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington State founded a consortium. Other states joined the consortium, and many states began to offer the services of certified court interpreters for criminal cases. A handful of states even provided certified court interpreters for certain litigants in civil cases. Unfortunately, lack of vision by the Administrative Offices of State Courts and by State Legislatures made the profession’s growth difficult because they refused to pay certified court interpreters a professional fee commensurate to the difficult, and sometimes dangerous, services provided.
This reality, coupled with judges’ ignorance that permitted non-certified court interpreters to appear in court, even though the needed language pair has a certification program, and certified interpreters were available, created an exodus of many of the best interpreters who migrated to more profitable interpreting fields, and made the profession less than attractive to new generations.
When the notice of enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act arrived, the states were faced with the possibility of losing huge amounts of money from the federal government. They knew that to save “their” money, they would need to provide access to justice to all individuals who did not speak English.
They finally realized what they had done (although they did not recognized it, or refused to acknowledge their fault). There were not enough interpreters to fulfill the federal mandate, and they did not want to lose their subsidies!
The best thoughtful solution to this problem would have been to boost the popularity of court interpreting as a profession by actively promoting the career and by making it more appealing. Responsible States would have developed a plan to encourage teaching of court interpreting at universities, colleges and community colleges. They needed to launch a campaign among high school students informing them of the potential opportunities as certified court interpreters. They needed to increase the times they offered their certification examinations, and they needed to pay an attractive professional fee, with cost of living adjustments, to all certified court interpreters. They needed to do this by lobbying State Legislatures for more funds, and if unsuccessful, by cutting or reducing other non-essential services and devoting those resources to the certified interpreter program. It was a matter of priorities and doing the right thing.
This did not happen. Instead of doing these things, state officials got together to see how they could keep the federal money coming their way. This is how the states came up with the Language Access Services Section (LASS), the Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC). A system designed to protect their federal funds while giving the appearance of granting language access to all foreign-language speakers in State-court systems.
As a result of these developments, states opted for the easiest and cheapest solution, which basically follows three major principles: (1) Use video remote interpreting (VRI) as much as possible to reduce costs of an in-person interpreting service, and pay less to the interpreter as they would get paid by the minute, or in more “generous” states by the hour at a much reduced fee; (2) Use all those who demonstrated that they are not fit to become certified court interpreters, by creating a “new classification” of “credentialed interpreters” (Nevada) or “Justice System interpreters” (New Mexico) so that individuals who failed the court interpreter certification exam can work interpreting court proceedings; and (3) Use certified court interpreters as little as possible, while giving the appearance that these questionable new classifications had to be retained because no certified court interpreter was “reasonably available” to do the job.
This is happening in many states, and I ask you to please include in the comment section a report of what is going on in your own states. Because what is currently taking place in Nevada and New Mexico has come to my attention, I will share the main points with all of you.
The Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts is considering implementing this new category of paraprofessionals by rewarding those who fail the court interpreter certification test with access to work in court as interpreters. These decisions are being considered by the Nevada Court Interpreter Advisory Committee which is integrated by judges and administrators, and no independent certified court interpreter is part of the committee. Interpreters do not get notice of the Committee meetings, and so far, the person in charge of the interpreter program at the Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts apparently has shown no desire to inform interpreters ahead of time so they can at least attend the meetings.
Nevada courts use the services of way cheaper paraprofessional non-certified court interpreters even when certified ones are available, and currently, this state’s certified court interpreters are among the lowest paid interpreters in the country, despite the fact that judges and administrators make six figure salaries in Nevada. It is clear that there is a problem with the state judiciary’s priorities.
The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts is already rewarding those who fail the court interpreter exam by using the services of these much cheaper paraprofessional “justice System interpreters” (JSI) even when certified court interpreters are available. Under the excuse of unsuccessfully attempting to find a certified court interpreter, they are retaining the services of these individuals even when certified court interpreters were ready and willing to do the job. The State is also resorting to the way cheaper video remote interpreting (VRI) even when interpreters appear from other states and are not familiar with New Mexico law and procedure. It is very concerning that they are using this system and these interpreters for hearings of such importance as sentencing hearings.
The New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee does include a disproportionate minority of independent interpreters; however, it is said that its meetings are sometimes hostile towards independent interpreters who raise objections to the dismantling of the certified court interpreter program, and that some interpreters have been refused work in the state court system even after all possible grounds for denial have been dissipated and proved unfounded.
Despite the fact that judges and the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts make six figure salaries, New Mexico certified court interpreters have not seen a fee adjustment in a number of years, their expense reimbursements have been significantly reduced, and instead of having a professional relationship with a judiciary that makes an effort to prioritize access to justice and find funds to do it, they have been warned by the AOC that there is no money. They face an administration with an attitude that could be interpreted as contempt towards foreign language litigants, moved by a philosophy at the top that apparently believes that the AOC only has a legal obligation to provide “an interpreter”, not a certified court interpreter. To me, this is the pull the rabbit out of the hat principle where you create an “interpreter” category in order to get federal money. It is not about having a warm body next to the non-English litigant. It is about quality. The federal law requirement had in mind a professional service.
I do not believe that this is the time for interpreters to take it on the chin. There is a lot of turmoil in the country at this time, but the rights of foreigners are center-stage. Let’s seize the moment to protect the profession and make sure that states do not get away with this plan which could potentially discriminate against speakers of a foreign language by treating them as second-class litigants.
I suggest you educate your communities, talk to your state legislators, and speak to your local media. All of it is necessary, but I also propose you do two additional things that could make the difference:
First, I wonder how many litigants are aware of the fact that the individual provided by the court to “interpret” for them is not a certified court interpreter; that in fact, they will be dealing with somebody who has already demonstrated that he or she is not fit to be a certified court interpreter because he or she failed the exam. I would approach people in the courthouse and make them aware of this circumstance; I would even print a flyer explaining to them that this “interpreter” categories are as good as a three dollar bill, regardless of what the government tells them. Ask them how they would feel if instead of a licensed physician, their outpatient surgery was going to be done by somebody who failed to become a licensed doctor. Ask the foreign language speaker’s attorney what she or he would do if the court were to appoint a person who failed the state bar as the litigant in a divorce proceeding because there were no children to the marriage. You will see how fast they demand a real certified court interpreter for their case.
Second, organize yourselves either through your local professional interpreter association, or independently, and volunteer to attend court hearings where this paraprofessionals are “interpreting” (after all court is open to the public) and keep score. Write down every time one of these individuals is late for court, acts unethically, does something unprofessional, and makes an interpreting mistake. Write down how they enter their appearance in court, see if they claim to be certified court interpreters. After a few months, or during election time, send this information to the State Bar, to the publishers of voters’ guides, to the political parties, to non-for-profit organizations with tremendous weight in court elections such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and to the local media. This way people will know who are the judges who care about access to justice, and who are the judges who only care about getting federal money.
I do not believe that these actions will solve all problems, but they will help to expose these programs for what they really are. If you do not do it, nobody will; not because they do not care, but because they do not know. I now invite you to share with the rest of us the current situation in your own state administrative office of the courts.
January 13, 2017 § 15 Comments
The title of this blog entry is a question that I am asked everywhere all the time. As I travel, I come across many great colleagues, some who just graduated and are now starting their professional careers, some veteran interpreters with a long experience in other fields such as court, healthcare, or military interpreting, and others who, for other reasons, have decided to try their luck as conference interpreters.
The story I hear is basically the same all the time: “I really want to be a conference interpreter, but there is no work”, or “who should I talk to if I want to work as a conference interpreter?”
These questions are valid, and they do need an answer, but before we get to that, I would like to emphasize something else: conference interpreting is difficult and very demanding. Because of its diversity of subject matters, the importance of the events to be interpreted, and the quality-demanding audience that listens to your rendition, it is like no other field. Although interpreting in other areas can be extremely hard, and sometimes it could be high-profile, no other interpreting work requires it every time.
I want to make sure that you understand that I am not saying other fields are easier; in fact sometimes they are more difficult as they demand an accurate professional rendition under adverse circumstances such as noisy courtrooms, military bases, and hospitals; and in the case of court interpreting, they require of a complete rendition with the interpreter having very little time to do it (as it happens with the short consecutive mode that is used in court for the testimony of a witness). I am just making the point that conference interpreting often requires that the interpreter work with a speech produced by a very sophisticated speaker, and (unlike other interpretations where sometimes the target’s native language skills are somewhat limited) it is always rendered to a very knowledgeable audience that, although monolingual, can easily recognize if the registry, terminology, grammar, general vocabulary, and skills of the interpreter are up to the level of the event to be interpreted.
For these reasons, it is quite important to be honest about our skills’ level at present time, and based on that answer, decide if we can move on to answer the question on the title above, or if we should work on our craft first, and postpone the question for later.
There is no single answer that tells us how to get work as conference interpreters. It is very different to work as staff or independent contractor for an international organization such as the OAS, UN, or the European Parliament, where you have to go through certain established protocols and systems, including testing and sometimes background investigations. The criteria to be satisfied and the approval process is also different for those interpreters who want to do conferences for government entities as staffers or independents. For these jobs, testing and security clearances are usually required, always following a process determined by the appropriate country government or particular agency. There is plenty of information on how to try to get these assignments, so we will not cover them further in this post. We will concentrate on how to get conference work as an independent contractor in the private sector.
Conference work in the private sector may include interpreting for corporations, colleges, professional associations, or political and special interest groups. The events where interpreting is required can go from enormous conferences, business negotiations, professional lectures, and college courses, to political rallies, press briefings, or commencement speeches. The only thing conference work never includes is the so-called “conference work” that in reality is community interpreting.
I am referring to the assignments to interpret a neighborhood association’s meeting, the planning of an action by a community organization, a recruitment effort by a religious organization, and similar jobs. They do not qualify as conference interpreting because they are done under precarious circumstances such as lack of interpreting equipment, even a booth or at least a table-top. In this so-called “conference interpreting” assignments the interpreter is expected to do the job in sub-standard working conditions and without any quality control. It is not unusual to find an interpreter working solo on these projects, and there is a practice of mixing professional interpreters with para-professionals in an attempt to mask the lack of quality in the rendition. Organizers of these events believe that they can attract struggling professional interpreters hungry for conference work, and pay them a miserable fee, if they advertise the job as “conference interpreting”, even though it is not.
The first thing qualified professional interpreters need to do if they want conference work is to physically be where the action is. Unlike healthcare, community, and court interpreting, conference interpreting does not happen in every city and town. These are large expensive events, require of planning and take place for a purpose: dissemination of knowledge, motivation of a sales force, rallying behind a specific idea, candidate or organization, presentation of a newly discovered scientific finding, and so on.
Obviously, these events need to be held in cities with infrastructure, airports, train stations, hotels, convention centers, universities, and many times, other unrelated attractions such as beaches, amusement parks, or historical sites. Conference interpreters need to be in these places; ready, willing and able to jump into an assignment at a moment’s notice. Event organizers, interpreting agencies, and direct clients will always go for the local talent first. It is more flexible and cost-effective. How can an agency call you at the last moment, or how can a colleague ask you to cover for her in case of an emergency, unless you live in the city where the conference is taking place?
Even in the age of remote conference interpreting, clients will go for the local interpreter first because that is the person they know. It is possible to remotely interpret a conference from a small town anywhere in the world, but it is next to impossible for the agency or event organizer to find these interpreters in a place far away. Interpreters need to be where the assignments are, at least to be seen and acknowledged as part of the very competitive conference interpreter community.
My many years of experience doing this work have taught me that the international organization and government agency work in the United States is in Washington, D.C. and New York City. I also learned, and statistics back it up, that the private sector conference work in America is in Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, New Orleans, Honolulu, and Miami. My experience elsewhere, with my language combination, tells me that the action takes place in Cancun, Panama City, Buenos Aires, London, Dubai, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur. Yes, there are secondary markets, many of them in the Western United States, but they do not have many year-round, simultaneous, world class events. It is not the same to host an annual big event in a city, or to have five to ten big events at the same time in the same city, several at the same venue, as it happens in Chicago’s McCormick Place. I lived in a mid-size city in the Midwestern United States for a few years, and I did not get any conference work to speak of. Professionally speaking, those were wasted years that I will never get back. To summarize: regular conference interpreting work requires relocation to one of these cities.
The next important thing to get work is to be able and willing to travel at any time, and with no advanced notice. I have gone from watching TV at home to an airplane bound for Europe with an hour’s notice. In fact, as I write this entry, I am getting ready for a trip abroad to cover an assignment I just got yesterday afternoon. Traveling for conference work means several things: (1) You need to be free to travel all the time without any personal, health, or family obstacles or complications; (2) You must be able to travel anywhere. This means that you have to be eligible to get visas to most countries in the world, and you always need to have a valid passport. (3) You need to be a good businessperson with resources to invest in your career. This means that you must have the financial resources to buy a plane ticket and hotel room, many times at the most expensive rate because of the late purchase, knowing that it will take weeks, and sometimes months, to be reimbursed by the client. If nothing else, you need to have a healthy international credit card. Personally, just in case I have no time to do it at the last minute, I keep at home enough money in the most popular foreign currencies (euro, pound, Canadian dollar, yen, Mexican peso, etc.) so I can leave right away. As you can see, conference interpreting is a career that demands a lot, and it is not for everybody.
Finally, to be able to get work, an interpreter who meets all the characteristics above, needs to get in touch with the most reputable agencies, event organizers, big corporations, and offer his services. These interpreters will not get any work, but they cannot give up. They need to insist every few months and systematically contact these major players until one day they get the call. It will probably be because a regular conference interpreter got sick, died, had a conflict or an emergency, and nobody else from the trusted regular roster was available. It is then that the agency will get a hold of the most enthusiastic new interpreter who never let them forget him, despite the fact that he did not get any work for a couple of years.
Then, it is totally up to you: the new interpreter, to be ready, prepared and willing to give the performance of your life. You will only have one chance to show your skills in the booth. This is the day when you must leave a good impression on the agency, event organizer, technicians, and more importantly, the other interpreters you will work with. These colleagues will give feedback to the client, and their opinion carries a lot of weight. They will also become your source of referrals if you are good. Be an excellent booth mate and shine.
One last thing: Please do not charge rock bottom fees for your services. It does not matter how excited you are with your first conference job. The excitement will be gone in a month and you will have to live with your fees for a long time. A new interpreter who enters the market charging lower fees will soon become the pariah of the profession. Nobody will want to work with you. You must understand that charging less not only hurts you, it hurts your colleagues, and it diminishes the profession.
I hope this long answer helps some of you interested in this fabulous career of conference interpreter. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this topic.