The Uncomfortable Situation When the Client Disrespects Interpreters and Foreign Language Speakers.

August 9, 2022 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The best part of having a well-established professional practice is that your client portfolio is already developed. After years of collaboration, you come to know your clients and they know you. Tensions, concerns and uncertainties about policy, practices, and the relationship, are no more. My preference is to keep my clients and rarely work with somebody I do not know.

Unfortunately, sometimes a project is so interesting, or the conditions are so attractive that you take a chance and try a new client. As you all freelancers know, sometimes this strategy works, sometimes it does not.

A collaboration on a multi-day assignment that was both, interesting and well remunerated came along; it was with someone I did not know and I moved forward. At the time of the preliminary, planning stages of the event things seem fine, although there were some revealing clues I missed, but things did not get truly uncomfortable until the start of the assignment.

On the first day of the event, this person I had never worked with before, a monolingual individual in a position of power who apparently has traveled little, quickly assessed the foreign language speakers and made an instantaneous judgement call that would affect everybody participating in the event, including the interpreting team.

Before 6 in the morning of the second day of the assignment I received a message on my phone informing me, and the rest of the team, that our interpreting services would be needed no longer because everybody in attendance seemed to have an acceptable level of fluency in English. Shortly after, I received an email with my plane ticket to go back home.

Because of a good contract, our fees were not a problem; there was no financial damage derived from this decision, but the process was unprofessional and the way it was handled was disrespectful.

I find it difficult to believe that an individual with no knowledge of foreign languages can conclude that everyone in the audience is fluent in a language that is not their first, and this can be done after observing about two hours of a conference where the audience is mostly listening, and the few questions asked during such a period of time come from people who are confident enough on their foreign language skills to ask them directly, without interpretation, even if they fumble with the words, apply grammar incorrectly, and use false cognates.

The interpreters learned the decision was made to save money (we got paid because of a good contract, but other expenses as lodging, per diem, transportation, etc. would be saved) but no one was ever consulted. Not the interpreters, who know the working languages in the event, and also know, from experience, that as peer-pressure shrinks, attendees use their native languages, especially to ask questions. The audience was never polled to see if they needed interpretation. The decision was based on a single opinion from a monolingual individual whose only goal was to save (little) money, apparently a priority as it became clear when I analyzed all circumstances surrounding the job. Things that seemed irrelevant at the planning stages now made sense: Booking plane tickets on an airplane grounded for 24 months after 2 fatal accidents in one year, because they were cheap; offering a welcome reception with sub-par food and even worse service at a place no-doubt chosen because of the price.

The contract terms protected the interpreters, and even freed our time to work on other assignments on the cancelled dates, but that we were never approached in person to tell us face to face of this decision to dismiss the team, that there was not even a greeting other than a message early in the morning when you are still in bed, and to leave the attendees without the benefit of interpreting services, without even polling them to discover their needs, is inappropriate, unprofessional, and frankly disrespectful. The lesson learned was that you can try new clients when protected by a good, solid contract, and the benefit from this situation was that I did not have to continue my collaboration with such a difficult, one-track mind individual. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your stories about good contracts that protected you from difficult clients, or bad experiences where you lacked said protection.

Many Interpreters Don’t Understand the Value of the Service They Provide.

July 18, 2022 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

When interpreters you never heard of take to social media, even LinkedIn, to talk about their many RSI assignments, bragging about how they work long hours at odd times of the night, just to be “congratulated” by others doing the same thing, and by people known for hiring interpreters for little pay and poor working conditions, and next you look at what our European Parliament colleagues are doing, you must conclude it is admirable, and worthy of our full support.

These brave interpreters are fighting to protect their health and to work under the conditions previously agreed to, but they are also fighting for the profession. If an institution like the Parliament gets away with violating a collective agreement, and resorts to hiring cheap interpreters, even from places outside the Union, all other interpreters will be next. Those of us who mainly work in the private sector, and as individual contractors with some institutions, must understand that the rules broken somewhere else, and the disregarded agreements, will happen in our market not long from now. These are some of the reasons why we should all support our EP colleagues; but there is another reason we should admire them, respect them, and use them as an inspiration and role model: They understand the value of the service they provide, and they use it as a tool to protect the profession.

It is funny how at the same time these colleagues are fighting this battle, many others have quit, decided not to act, or chose a strategy that does not let them negotiate as equals with those who impact their interpreting practice.

Recently, the court interpreters of an American State, who have been paid one of the lowest professional fees in America, and have not seen a fee raise or cost of living adjustment for years, asked for a $10 USD per hour fee increase, set a deadline for the authorities to respond, and threatened with a walk off if those dates were not observed and their demand for a raise was not honored. First, the action had a lot of support, it got precious media coverage locally and nationwide, but a few days later, after the State gave them questionable reasons, basically denying the raise and telling them they would “consider” their petition for the 2024 budget, despite the determination of some interpreters to go ahead with the walk off, most interpreters gave in and continued to work. They feared not being scheduled to work (for peanuts) anymore.

A few weeks ago, a nationwide association of judicial interpreters held a conference in the United States. Among the guests to speak about their successes on language access to the courts, an individual who has repeatedly lowered court interpreters’ work conditions in one of the States in America was scheduled to participate and praise the accomplishments of the program he is responsible for. I learned of this situation when an interpreter who works in that State reached me in Europe to share the news and to ask me why in my opinion that person had been invited to speak, despite his actions as an administrator which have resulted in leaving approximately 20 or so state-certified court interpreters (a considerable number in a small State like this one) out of work, because of his practice of hiring interpreters without a court certification, and interpreters from other States who work for a pay lower than the one State court interpreters must get paid.

I immediately suggested all interpreters in the State take this opportunity, when the interpreting universe of the United States is paying attention to this conference, to publicly denounce these practices for the world to know. In other words: to bombard the conference Twitter account with stories of how the practice of these government officials is not to observe court interpreter state policy, and to deny court work to those who complain. Even though this was a unique chance to pressure the State, except for a few colleagues, who I salute, the rest of the interpreters decided not to go to war with the State government to protect their profession. They feared retaliation and not being “called to interpret anymore”.

Finally, a few days ago I was asked to sign a petition to the authorities asking for a fee raise for a group of specialty interpreters in the United States. These are the only interpreters authorized to practice at this level; they are an elite group, and considered among the best in their field. Unfortunately, they are also known as the interpreter group that has not seen a raise, or cost of living adjustment in over 6 years. Even though I knew from the start I would sign the letter in solidarity with my colleagues (I rarely work in that system because they pay very little), I read the letter and was sad to see it was a very timid letter applying no leverage. My first reaction was: Why is a government agency that has not cared enough about its interpreters for so many years going to change policy after reading a letter with no teeth? Unlike the interpreters’ letter in the first case above, which at least had a deadline and a threat of strike, these federal court interpreters exercised no leverage. They put no pressure on the authorities.

The European Parliament interpreters showed us the value of our work. If the interpreters in other organizations or public service agencies stopped working, the system would be crippled. The authorities know this and know they would need to avoid such labor stoppage no matter what. All government agencies in the world operate within a budget and it takes time to modify it, but all government agencies in the world have additional emergency funds to be used to keep the government running. Had these interpreters exercised their leverage, their raises would be coming right now.

Interpreters everywhere must understand that communication among those who don’t share a common language is impossible without their services. They need to see there is a great demand for what we do elsewhere; that during the time of a stoppage they can interpret in other fields and venues, especially in these days of distance interpreting. The day most interpreters shake off their fears, doubts, and lack of confidence, and do as our European Parliament colleagues did, their fees and work conditions will finally be as they should. It is a matter of understanding they need us more than we need them.

Like President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “The only thing to fear is fear itself”.  

How to handle an assignment cancelation.

July 5, 2022 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues,

Interpreting is subject to many external factors that can affect the event to be interpreted. Rescheduling and cancelations are not uncommon. Natural disasters, political crises, financial problems, participants’ illness, transportation issues, and even a pandemic can postpone or scratch a conference, a filed motion, a plea agreement, or a dismissal can continue or cancel a court hearing, and technical issues can interrupt, postpone, or cancel any remote event or RSI interpretation.

Most interpreters, and many clients, understand that interpreters sell their time, and the professional-personal nature of the service makes it impossible for an interpreter to work two assignments at the same time. Because postponements and cancelations are common, and this understanding of how interpreters work and generate income is widely known, practically all interpretation agreements have a cancelation clause.

Unfortunately, there is no cancelation policy uniformity. Most interpreters, and their clients, understand that interpreters must be compensated for a last-minute cancelation, fewer agree this compensation should cover more than last-minute changes.

Because interpreters need to prepare for an assignment, a cancelation impacts interpreters beyond missing a day of work; an interpretation quoted fee represents more than the 3 days of interpreting during the conference or trial, it includes the compensation for the time an interpreter devotes to research, study, planning, and practice for the event. The compensation amount must be linked to the time already spent on the assignment. Complex cases require more preparation, so the compensation must reflect it. Let’s see: A three-day technical, scientific, or specialized conference canceled four weeks before the scheduled start should command higher compensation than a routinary three-day conference, on the same topic, held every year. On the first case a fair compensation could be eighty percent of the agreed fee. Compensation for the second conference, with the same advanced notice, could be fifty percent of the originally agreed fee. Cancelation of a scheduled interpretation received by the interpreter over eight weeks before the event should carry no monetary compensation unless the subject of the conference caused interpreters to begin preparations before that date.

In all cases, the client needs to reimburse the interpreter for all disbursed expenses to the notice of cancelation. This includes airplane or train tickets, hotels, car rentals. Immunizations, Covid tests, photocopies, printing of materials, long distance phone calls, etc.

The situation is more complicated when clients, in good faith, because they want to keep the professional relationship with the interpreter, send a notice of cancelation of the event, and send notice of another assignment for the same dates of the now cancelled event. Under this scenario, clients expect interpreters to cover assignment two on the same terms they were originally retained to interpret assignment one. Clients believe they have protected the interpreter because no work day was eliminated. Many interpreters think the same way.

That is not the case: Although the interpreter will work on the same dates and will make the same money he was expecting from interpreting assignment one, the interpreter needs to prepare for assignment two, a different conference requiring research, study, planning, and practice. The originally quoted fee included preparation for that assignment. Using the same fee for assignment two would mean that the interpreter will now research, study, plan, and practice with no compensation. This is unacceptable.

Interpreters need to understand that the original agreement, the meeting of the minds on services and fees, ended with the notice of cancelation. Even though the client has proposed a different job for the same dates, the interpreters are entitled to compensation for their preparation for the original conference and to reimbursement of expenses. The client has now made a new offer for a different assignment, and fees must be negotiated from the beginning. Once the interpreters assess the complexity of assignment number two, they can quote a fee for that interpretation. The fee should factor in there were no vacated dates from the first assignment, but it has to include preparation tasks for the new event. Once the parties agree, there will be a new interpreting services contract for the second assignment. If the interpreter is hired for the second conference, an adjustment to the cancelation fee for the original contract reflecting there were no vacated dates is appropriate. The goal is to be compensated for all work performed inside and outside of the booth (or virtual booth) and to respect the client by negotiating in good faith and only charging for professional services rendered.

In Our Unregulated Profession: Educate the Client Every Time You Can.

June 14, 2022 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues,

I was recently retained to work on an RSI assignment by an official organization. This was not a private market job, but it was a multi-day project that provided the opportunity, even at a distance, to converse with those in charge of the event.

On the last day of this job, I learned from one organizer that they were very happy with the interpreters’ work. I was told they were very impressed by the level of the interpretation and technical support. This person congratulated us for the smooth hand overs, quality of the interpreters’ sound, our preparation for the assignment, justifying our request for so many documents; I heard they were “impressed” by the fact we never stumbled with any of the specialized terms, and we never asked for the speakers to slow down. They also commended our tech support team for “protecting the interpretation” every time they asked for the speakers to mute their microphones to prevent echo, asked the participants not to speak over each other during their exchanges, and when during the dry run they explained the headsets and microphones acceptable for the event.

This person mentioned they will have other similar events soon, and they were under pressure to look for other interpreter services in the private market because our services came at a high price compared to the fees others ask for in the private market.

I let them know that they will likely get a different quality of service at those lower prices because interpreting is an unregulated profession where anyone can claim to be a conference interpreter. I explained that our cost was justified by our services because the organization that brought us to the event only offers interpreters who regularly work with governments and international organizations, with years of experience, who are members of the most prestigious conference interpreters’ association in the world. I took the opportunity to emphasize that all things he congratulated us for, come from such quality level, and that even in the private market, the interpreters I was talking about would not be less expensive, as they charge the same, or higher fees, when working for a private corporation.

The organizer thanked me for sharing this information; told me nobody in the private sector had ever explained that to them, and they now understood the higher cost was justified. This was a brief exchange, but that evening I reflected on the importance of doing a good job, always understanding the client’s needs and thoughts, and never wasting an opportunity to talk to the person in charge of making the decisions when a window opens organically as it happened here.

I Applaud the Professionalism and Humanity Many Interpreters Have Displayed under Terrible Circumstances. 

March 9, 2022 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

For some weeks we have witnessed the professional job our colleagues in Ukraine and elsewhere have done under extremely difficult circumstances. We have seen them in action interpreting for journalists throughout the country, even in very dangerous situations; we have seen their stellar performance in the international organizations, bilateral and multilateral government summits, refugee camps, TV networks, and non-governmental organizations. Some of us may have been directly or indirectly involved in some of these services, and many of us have been in touch, at a more personal level, with interpreter friends and their family members in Ukraine, in a neighboring country’s refugee shelter, or living abroad in Ukrainian communities, sometimes for many years.

To many, when we think of our colleagues in these extraordinary circumstances, the first images that come to mind are of Victor Shevchenko’s moving, emotional rendition of President Zelensky’s speech to the European Parliament, and Die Welt Übersetzerin‘s interpretation of Zelensky’s words for the German WELT television channel, truncated by emotion. To these two colleagues, and all others: You are doing an amazing job, and as evidenced in social media and interpreter associations’ websites worldwide, we support you, respect you, and admire you.

These sad times have shown the public that interpreters are not automated beings that take information in a source language, convert it, and then render it in a different target language. Interpreters are human beings, they are world citizens who, to do their job correctly, need to have a bast knowledge acquired by reading, studying, traveling, and life experiences. Interpreting is a human profession, and this is one reason why a machine full of algorithms will never convey the same emotional message our colleagues are transmitting to the world at this terrible time. My motivation to write this post came from the examples above, also from the inappropriate comments by some in social media, sadly including some interpreters, who criticized the emotional renditions with empty arguments too bizarre to even mention. All I will say is I am glad AIIC issued the very valuable resolution against bullying, and I invite those who criticized these interpreters to read this document and learn about professionalism in our craft. I wish all interpreters providing their services during this horrible invasion: physical and mental health, freedom, and a safe return to your loved ones. I now invite you to share your comments, and please abstain from sending political comments justifying the invasion. They will not be posted.

The Super Bowl: Interpreters, American football, and a big day in the United States.

February 7, 2022 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

Because Americans love to bring up sports in a conference, and due to the acquired taste needed to enjoy a sport popular in the United States and few other places in the world, every year I write a post on the biggest sporting event: The Super Bowl.

On February 13 the United States will hold the most watched TV event in our country, a game played on an unofficial holiday, more popular than most holidays on the official calendar. The Super Bowl is the national professional football championship game in the United States of America; and it is not football… at least not THAT football played in the rest of the world.  This popular sport in the United States is known abroad as “American football,” and even this designation seems troublesome to many who have watched a little American football and do not understand it well.  Although it is mainly played holding a ball, the sport is known in the United States as football for two reasons:  (1) Because this American-born sport comes from “rugby football” (now rugby) that came from soccer (football outside the United States) and (2) Because it is football, but it is not British organized football, which when American football invented was called “association football” and was later known by the second syllable of the word “association”“socc” which mutated into “soccer.”  You now understand where the name came from, but is it really football? For Americans it is. Remember that all other popular team sports in the United States are played with your hands or a stick (baseball, basketball and ice hockey). The only sport in the United States where points can be scored by kicking the ball is (American) football. So, even though most of the time the ball is carried by hand or caught with your hands, sometimes, a team scores or defends field position by kicking or punting the football.   Now, why is all this relevant to us as interpreters?   Because if you interpret from American English you are likely to run into speakers who will talk about the Super Bowl, football, or will use examples taken from this very popular sport in the U.S.  

On Sunday, most Americans will gather in front of the TV set to watch the National Football Conference champion Los Angeles Rams battle the American Football Conference champion Cincinnati Bengals for the Vince Lombardi Trophy (official name of the trophy given to the team that wins the Super Bowl) which incidentally is a trophy in the shape of a football, not a bowl.  It is because the game was not named after a trophy, it was named after a tradition.  There are two football levels in the United States: college football played by amateur students, and professional football.  College football is older than pro-football and for many decades the different college champions were determined by playing invitational football games at the end of the college football season on New Year’s Day.  These games were called (and still are) “Bowls.”  You may have heard of the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and many others.  When a professional football game was created to determine the over-all champion between the champions of the American and National Conferences, it was just natural (and profitable) to call it the “Super Bowl.”

The game, which involves two teams representing two regions of the country, will be played in Los Angeles, California. It will be the second time in history that one team playing for the famous trophy will play in its home stadium.  Last year was the first time when the Tampa Bay team played at home. Every year the Super Bowl is played in a venue where the weather at this time of the year is more welcoming. There will be millions watching the match from home, and there will be hundreds of millions spent on TV commercials during the game.  

As I do every year on these dates, I have included a basic glossary of English<>Spanish football terms that may be useful to you, particularly those of you who do escort, diplomatic, and conference interpreting from American English to Mexican Spanish.  “American” football is very popular in Mexico (where they have college football) Eventually, many of you will face situations where two people will discuss the Super Bowl; as you are interpreting somebody will tell a football story during a presentation; or you may end up at a TV or radio studio simultaneously interpreting a football game for your own or another foreign market.

The following glossary does not cover every term in football; it includes terms very common, and where there were several translations of a football term, I selected the term used in Mexico by the Mexican media that covers the sport.

ENGLISHSPANISH
FootballFútbol Americano
National Football LeagueLiga Nacional de Fútbol Americano
NFLN-F-L (ene-efe-ele)
American Football ConferenceConferencia Americana
National Football ConferenceConferencia Nacional
PreseasonPretemporada
Regular seasonTemporada regular
PlayoffsPostemporada
WildcardEquipo comodín
StandingsTabla de posiciones
FieldTerreno de juego
End zoneZona de anotación/ diagonales
Locker roomVestidor
Super BowlSúper Tazón
Pro BowlTazón Profesional/ Juego de estrellas
Uniform & EquipmentUniforme y Equipo
FootballBalón/ Ovoide
JerseyJersey
HelmetCasco
FacemaskMáscara
ChinstrapBarbiquejo
Shoulder padsHombreras
Thigh padsMusleras
Knee padsRodilleras
JockstrapSuspensorio
CleatsTacos
TeeBase
FundamentalsTérminos básicos
Starting playerTitular
Backup playerReserva
OffenseOfensiva
DefenseDefensiva
Special teamsEquipos especiales
KickoffPatada/ saque
PuntDespeje
ReturnDevolución
Fair catchRecepción libre
PossessionPosesión del balón
DriveMarcha/ avance
First and tenPrimero y diez
First and goalPrimero y gol
Line of scrimmageLínea de golpeo
Neutral zoneZona neutral
SnapCentro
Long snapCentro largo/ centro al pateador
HuddlePelotón
PocketBolsillo protector
FumbleBalón libre
TurnoverPérdida de balón
TakeawayRobo
GiveawayEntrega
InterceptionIntercepción
CompletionPase completo
TackleTacleada/ derribada
BlitzCarga
Pass rushPresión al mariscal de campo
SackCaptura
Run/ carryAcarreo
PassPase
“I” FormationFormación “I”
Shotgun FormationFormación escopeta
“T” FormationFormación “T”
Wishbone FormationFormación wishbone
Goal postsPostes
CrossbarTravesaño
SidelinesLíneas laterales/ banca
ChainCadena
Out-of-boundsFuera del terreno
Head CoachEntrenador en jefe
Game OfficialsJueces
FlagPañuelo
POSITIONSPOSICIONES
CenterCentro
GuardGuardia
Offensive TackleTacleador ofensivo
Offensive lineLínea ofensiva
EndAla
Wide ReceiverReceptor abierto
Tight endAla cerrada
Running BackCorredor
HalfbackCorredor
FullbackCorredor de poder
QuarterbackMariscal de campo
BackfieldCuadro defensivo
Defensive endAla defensiva
Defensive tackleTacleador defensivo
Nose guardGuardia nariz
LinebackerApoyador
CornerbackEsquinero
Free safetyProfundo libre
Strong safetyProfundo fuerte
Place kickerPateador
PunterPateador de despeje
PenaltyCastigo

Even if you are not a football fan, and even if you are not watching the big game on Sunday, I hope you find this glossary useful.  Now I invite you to comment on football, sports interpreting, or maybe you would like to share a “sports interpreting anecdote” with all of us.

Will greed win over quality medical interpreting in the middle of a pandemic?

September 9, 2021 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

On May 15, 2021 the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) released a study suggesting that an English-to-English exam might solve the shortage of healthcare interpreters in what they call “languages of lesser diffusion,” meaning languages other than Spanish, Arabic or Mandarin. The reason for this “sui-generis” affirmation is very simple: developing actual interpretation exams to test candidates on simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, and sight translation in both: source and target languages would be too expensive and therefore not profitable. Interesting solution: examine candidates’ English language skills (reading comprehension, medical concepts, fill-in the blanks, and what they consider can show the candidate’s “potential correlation with overall interpreting ability”: “listening comprehension.”) An English only exam will catapult an individual into an E.R. to perform as an interpreter without ever testing on interpretation!

What about native English speakers, who in the study scored an average of 87.9% compared to non-native speakers, who scored an average of 76.6%? No problem, says CCHI; passing score is 60% and Spanish language interpreters will continue to take the interpretation exam already in existence. I suppose the expectation might be that people who speak other “languages of lesser diffusion” in the United States have a higher academic background and their English proficiency is higher. Another point that makes this “solution” attractive is that most interpreter encounters in hospitals, offices and emergency rooms involve Spanish speakers, which brings the possibility of lawsuits for interpreter malpractice to a low, manageable incidence. I would add that many people needing interpreting services will not even consider a lawsuit because of ignorance, fear or immigration status. The good news: CCHI concluded that although this English-to-English exam option “is a promising measure…(it)…requires additional revision and piloting prior to use for high-stakes testing.” (https://slator.com/can-a-monolingual-oral-exam-level-the-playing-field-for-certifying-us-interpreters/)

Reading of this report and the article on Slator got me thinking about the current status of healthcare interpreting in the Covid-19 pandemic. How long will the American healthcare system ignore that the country is everyday more diverse and in need of professional, well-prepared healthcare interpreters in all languages? The answer is difficult and easy at the same time.

A difficult answer.

It is difficult because we live in a reality where every day, American patients face a system with very few capable healthcare interpreters, most in a handful of language combinations, and practically all of them in large and middle-sized cities. The two healthcare certification programs have poor exams. One of them does not even test simultaneous interpreting, and the other tests a candidates’ simultaneous skills with two 2-minute-long vignettes (one in English and the other in the second language). Consecutive skills are also tested at a very basic level with four vignettes of twenty-four 35 or fewer-words “utterances” each. It is impossible to assess somebody interpreting skills with such an exam after just 40 hours of interpreter training. (https://cchicertification.org/uploads/CHI_Exam_Structure-Interface-2020.pdf).

Except for those interpreters with an academic background or prepared on their own because they care about the service they provide, the current system provides a warm body, or a face on a screen, not a healthcare interpreter. Because the motivation is a robust profit, it is conceived and designed to protect the interests of insurance companies, hospital shareholders, and language services agencies. It has been structured to project the false impression these entities are complying with the spirit of the law; It is not designed to protect the physician or the patient.  

In 1974 the United States Supreme Court ruled that failing to provide language support for someone with limited English proficiency is a form of discrimination on the basis of national origin (https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2000/08/30/00-22140/title-vi-of-the-civil-rights-act-of-1964-policy-guidance-on-the-prohibition-against-national-origin).  The ruling was later broadened and implemented by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (https://www.ada.gov/effective-comm.htm) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) commonly known as “Obamacare.” (https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/1557-fs-lep-508.pdf) This legislation specify that healthcare organizations must offer qualified medical interpreters for patients of limited English proficiency and those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

An easy answer.

Despite the reality we face, the answer to the question above is easily attainable because the healthcare industry has immense financial resources and a system that lets them capture money at a scale no other industry can.

The healthcare sector deals with the lives and quality of living of all individuals present in the United States. Their reason to exist is to save lives, not to produce ever-growing dividends to its shareholders every year. This is an industry that spends unimaginable amounts of money in medical equipment, state-of-the-art technology, physicians, surgeons, nurses, therapists, researchers, attorneys, and managerial staff salaries. New expensive hospitals, medical office buildings, clinics, laboratories, and rehab centers are built all the time. This industry can spend top money in those sectors because it is good for business. It is an investment that produces a profit. I am not even scratching the surface of these expenses, but even if we ignore the money spent in food, gear, vehicles (land and air), utilities, clerical staff, janitorial staff, and medical aide positions, we can safely conclude this is an industry that knows how to spend money when an expense is viewed as an investment that will produce a financial benefit.

Designing good medical interpreter exams in many languages is expensive, paying professional-level fees to healthcare interpreters will cost money, managing a continuing education program will not be cheap, but the healthcare sector cannot cry poverty. They have the funds to do it. It is incomprehensible how a business that bankrupts its patients after one surgery or a chronic disease can argue with a straight face, they can only pay 30 to 50 dollars an hour to a medical interpreter. This is an industry that charges you fifty dollars for a plastic pitcher of water or twenty dollars for a box of tissue they replace every day.

Quality interpreting, and living up to the spirit of the law, cannot happen when an organization spends money to look for shortcuts such as testing English-to-English in an interpreting program. Only the promise of a professional income will attract the best minds to healthcare interpreting. Current conditions, including low pay, an agency-run system, and searching for shortcuts to go around the law will never produce quality interpreters.

If those deciding understand good professional healthcare interpreters are an investment as valuable as good physicians, surgeons and nurses, the solution can begin immediately. Designing and administering a quality interpretation exam will take time, getting colleges and universities to start interpreting programs that include medical interpreting will not be easy, but there are steps that can improve the level of interpreting services right away.   

A higher pay, comparable to that of conference interpreters will immediately attract top interpreters in all languages, at least temporarily or part-time to the field. Many top interpreters see the need for quality services during the pandemic, and they feel a need to help, but they have to make a living and healthcare interpreter fees do not meet the mark.

Instead of thinking of English-to-English exams to create an illusion they are forming interpreters, stakeholders should recruit native speakers of languages where interpreters are hard to find, but they must stop looking for “ad-hoc” interpreters in restaurant kitchens and hotel cleaning crews, and start talking to college students and professors, to scientists and physicians from those countries who now practice in the United States. With current technology, hospitals should look for their interpreters among the interpreter community in the country where a language is spoken and retain their services to interpret remotely, instead of opening massive call centers in developing countries, using the technology to generate a higher profit instead of better quality.  

Hospital Boards must find the money and allocate it to interpreting services. In these cases, such as Medicaid and others, the cost of interpreter services should be considered an operating expense. Insurers do not reimburse for nursing and ancillary staff. Hospitals and practices pay their salaries.

Payers may also benefit by covering interpreter services. Although data are limited according to the Journal of the American Medical Association Forum, studies suggest that when physicians struggle to communicate with patients, they are more likely to order unnecessary tests and treatments. This not only puts patients at increased risk, but also directly increases payer spending. Limited English proficiency patients may need care more frequently or seek treatment in more expensive settings, such as the emergency room, when they cannot communicate with primary care providers. Similar to insurers in fee-for-service arrangements, risk-bearing provider groups in alternative payment models face a similar incentive to curtail unnecessary or wasteful utilization. Poor interpreting services will also result in malpractice lawsuits against hospitals, language service providers, insurance companies and medical staff. In the long run, by far, this makes investing in quality interpreter services and interpreting education/certification programs a smaller expense. “Paying for interpreter services, from cost-based reimbursement, to their inclusion in prospective payment models, to insurer-led contracting of remote interpreters, would not only address the disparities exposed by the pandemic, but also help support practices facing financial peril due to the pandemic.” (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama-health-forum/fullarticle/2771859) It is time to grow up and stand up to the stakeholders in the healthcare sector; it is time to unmask the real intentions of language service providers who take advantage of often-poorly prepared interpreters to get a profit. It is time to have a serious healthcare interpreter certification exam that really tests the candidate’s interpreting skills. We need university and college programs, and a different recruitment system led by hospitals and insurance companies not multinational interpreting agencies, or ill-prepared small local players. Interpreters cannot be made in 40 hours and we can’t have newly trained interpreters learning at the cost of real patients’ safety. The pandemic showed us the importance of healthcare interpreting, let’s seize the opportunity to professionalize it.

Our options when the client does not pay.

May 3, 2021 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Sometimes freelance interpreters face a scenario where a client agrees to pay a professional fee, and after the interpretation they refuse to pay, make a late payment, or try to pay less than the fee agreed by the parties. It is not unusual to hear from a colleague struggling to stay afloat as a business because of morose or dishonest clients.

The first thing we must do is assess the client before agreeing to the service, we have to do our homework, find out who the client is, what is their track record. This due diligence is essential to decide if we want to enter a professional relationship or not. The next step should be a negotiation where you listen to the potential client’s needs, establish your conditions, and give expert advice to the client. Once an agreement is acceptable to both parties, you must sign a contract, preferably your own, or the client’s when they require it, as long as all your negotiated conditions are included.

Many times, there is not enough time for a lengthy negotiation, especially when this assignment is short or urgent. When you find yourselves in this situation, negotiate by email, text, or over a telephone or video call. Do noy skip this step. Many times, there is no time to draft a lengthy, written contract; some clients have a less formal approach to their hiring practices. That is fine, but there is something you must do regardless of the situation or the client: You must have proof of the essential terms of the negotiation, in case you have to take action against that client.  Let it be very clear I am not giving you legal advice; if you need legal assistance, please see an attorney in your jurisdiction. I am only sharing what I do in these cases:

Email or text your client, even if you were just retained and you are on your way to the assignment; even if you are on the phone with the client. Just let them know you are sending an email spelling out the conditions just discussed because you need it for your internal paperwork. This text or email must include all relevant terms of the agreement, and it should be short and straight to the point. Something like: “Per our recent conversation, this is to confirm that you have retained me to interpret “X” Conference (or other event) to take place in (city and country, or on “X” platform to be used if RSI) on (dates and times of the event). My fee will be “X” amount per day (up to 4, 6 or 7 hours, depending on the type of service: distance or in-person) with an OT hourly rate of “X” amount after that, payable within (30, 45) days from the time I send my electronic invoice to this same email address, and a late interest payment of “X” percent if not paid on time. Please confirm these terms by responding to this email the word: “Confirmed”.

Then, in small print (to keep the email short) but before my signature, I add: “It is agreed by the parties that the recipient of this communication has 48 hours from the date of this email to reject its terms, and not responding to this communication within that time will constitute agreement to all the terms in this communication.” Once again, remember this is not legal advice. Please consult an attorney if you have questions.

When a client does not pay by the date agreed in the contract, send them an email (never a phone call because you want to have proof of this communication) attaching your invoice with a legend stating “Overdue.” And politely “remind” them of the payment. This is enough in most cases. If the client cries poverty, or ignores you, wait 30 days or whatever is customary in your country but charge late payment interest. After that, you repeat the same 30 days later. If the client does not pay, then retain a collection agency. They will charge you to collect, but that is better than nothing. Finally, if this does not work, or if you prefer to skip the collection agency step, take the client to court. Sue for payment of your fees, late payment interests, court costs, and attorney’s fees (when retaining a lawyer). Most morose clients will settle at this time, but if they do not, move ahead with the lawsuit and get a judgement against the client. This does not guarantee you will collect any money, but will go to the client’s credit report. You should also take that judgement to the Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, and local Consumer Affairs authority where the client resides. Next, report the incident and provide copy of the final judgement to the client’s professional associations (for disciplinary action) and to your local, national, and international interpreter associations so this client can be included in all black lists to benefit your colleagues. Finally, if applicable, share this information with the ethnic media target of that client’s business, and share it on your social media, just stating the facts, without editorializing to avoid any future complications. This will get your money most of the time, and will teach a lesson to those who violate your professional services contract. It will also send a message to others that you take your work seriously. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your policy to avoid this breach of contract, or to collect unpaid fees.

How COVID-19 affected interpreting.

February 18, 2021 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This is an article I wrote for the ITI. It was published several months ago, and I now reproduce it on my blog:

The pandemic has been an eye-opener on the future of the profession, and an opportunity to assess everything I was doing right before this crisis. During the last couple of months, I have strengthened my professional bond with my direct clients. Because of the uncertain future, and complicated present, I saw the need to contact my best clients with three objectives: To reassured them I am here to assist them at this time; to show them empathy and remind them I am going through the same difficulties they are facing to remain viable; and to advise them on their best options to deal with urgent matters using RSI until they meet in person again. COVID-19 showed me I did the right thing years ago when I looked for direct clients instead of waiting for the agencies to contact me. I validate this decision every time I hear how agencies are trying to lower interpreting fees; or how they are taking advantage by recruiting desperate or inexperienced interpreters willing to be paid by the minute. I see there is an RSI hype that, from the platform’s perspective is a total success. You can hardly spend a minute on social media without running into an interpreter bragging about their newly acquired skill. Unfortunately, I see how many of these colleagues believe that learning the platform translates into assignments and income. I feel sorry for them because nobody reminded them interpreters get hired based on the quality of their work and their professional experience. It breaks my heart to see how many are spending the limited money they have on expensive microphones, headsets, and even soundproof rooms. Isolation made me appreciate things I never considered before: genuine solidarity among professional colleagues, human contact, my time in the booth, talking to the client face to face, touring a venue before the event, crowded airports, hotel bars after the event, shaking the hand of a good technician in appreciation for making me sound good. Interpreters are social beings and there are many cultures in the world that will demand in-person conferences and meetings when it is safe to do it. Before the virus, RSI was a small business; now tech giants are pouring in their resources. It may be a matter of time before the RSI platforms interpreters are talking about are Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Finally, I learned two lessons: Some professional associations are helping us through these ugly days while others prioritized money over humans and are forging ahead with expensive conferences no one will attend. I learned RSI will get better every day and it will remain the choice for small and preliminary meetings. It will also be used by companies that could not afford in-person events before. We must decide the professional fees and work conditions we need and want. It must be the interpreter who gets the client, not the platform. If we do our job, there will be a bigger pie for all interpreters.

What we learned as Interpreters in 2020.

January 12, 2021 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2020 ended and we are working towards a better and safer 2021, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months. As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, last year was like no other. 2020 was garbage. It was a terrible year for humanity, and for the profession, and it was even worse for the interpreters.

Stating the facts does not make me a negative individual. This post acknowledges reality because that is the only way we can move forward and leave this awful year in the trash can. To those who say the year was not so bad, because it made us realize what is truly important, I say this is a self-defense mechanism that keeps us from dealing with the horrendous truth; and to those claiming that 2020 was a good year for them, all I can do is ask them how can you celebrate a year when so many millions of people died, many more millions got sick with long-term consequences, lost their jobs, or their business went under with no fault of their own? The year was a dark moment in human history. We saw how many of our colleagues, some great interpreters, left the profession just to feed their families; we saw how the sound technicians, our professional partners, lost their source of income, and with that their homes, cars, health insurance. I was left wondering about the lives of airport, hotel, and airline workers who I used to see several times a week and were left with the sad option of collecting unemployment insurance and visiting food banks to feed their children. I often think of my colleagues enduring the hardship of not working remotely as they now have their children at home because schools were closed many months ago; I see how many colleagues, some top-tier interpreters, are struggling to learn technology, and install the infrastructure at home to enter the world of distance conference interpreting, and literarily suffer as they try to understand a technology that appeared too late in their lives, or cut essential expenses so they can pay for high speed internet, or noise-cancelling headphones. I feel so sad when I see my elderly colleagues getting COVID-19, and sometimes passing away. I had a hard time, like we all did, but fortunately, I was technologically ready to jump on the distance interpreting bandwagon, and even though I am working at home, missing all those things that make life worth living, such as traveling, and enjoying human contact, I was lucky enough to work, remotely, with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession saw its conferences migrate to a virtual mode, allowing us to learn and practice, but depriving us from the opportunities to do networking and renew friendships with those colleagues we only see once a year. I congratulate those professional associations that cancelled, postponed, and moved their conferences online, and I shame those associations that put money ahead of their members’ health, and waited until the last moment to switch to virtual. That we will remember.

2020 was the year of fraud and misrepresentation of credentials where sadly, many great instructors and presenters shared cyberspace with unknown, self-proclaimed experts who made money by designing a nice website, attractive advertisement, and nothing else. We saw the growth of our profession in distance interpreting: Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) video remote interpreting (VRI) and over the phone interpreting (OPI). Unfortunately, much of its growth was due to questionable advertisement by some platforms and agencies who scared clients and naïve interpreters by making them believe that in-person interpreting was forever gone, and selling them the false idea that distance interpreting was of the same quality as in-person traditional work. We learned the value of real interpreter-centric professional associations that defended our interests when platforms, agencies, and many clients tried (and continue to try) to lower our standards by retaining unqualified interpreters, violating the rules of professional domicile, and recruiting interpreters and para-professionals willing to work long hours, solo, and for little money. We saw how not even a pandemic can bring us a one hundred percent pariah-safe year.

One of the few good things that happened in 2020 was the defeat of ATA’s Board initiative to decouple membership from certification. I applaud the members who made it possible with their vote.

Finally, to end on a positive note, I say we proved to ourselves that interpreters are resilient, able to adapt to adversity to survive, and good humans. We saw more unity among our colleagues than ever before. This was a welcome development in the ferocious assault by the agencies demanding work for lower pay, and platforms demanding work under substandard conditions. I disagree, however, with the idea that we “learned” how to do this. We just remembered how to do it. It is Darwinian that humans adapt to changing circumstances. That is natural selection.

We now face a new year full of uncertainty, with a poor distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, new mutations of the virus, a world economy in shambles, a hospitality sector, vital to our profession, looking at a long term come back that has not even started, and the usual agencies and their associates looking for a way to make a quick buck at the expense of the interpreter. As you can see, dear friends and colleagues, there were terrible things in 2020, many of us lost family, friends and colleagues; our income was affected, and some of our clients closed. Fortunately, we remembered we are resilient, adaptable, and courageous; we discovered we can work together as interpreters regardless of our geographic location, and we saw there is technology to keep us going during the crisis. Much changed and sadly much stayed the same. I will focus on the good things to come while I guard against the bad ones. I wish you all a better and healthy 2021!

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