How should interpreters set their fees?

February 19, 2015 § 15 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Not long ago I heard a colleague ask another interpreter how she should set her fees as a freelancer in order to remain competitive and make a living. Basically, the answer was: “figure out your expenses (office, equipment, dictionaries, utilities, etc.) and then make sure you set a fee that covers all that plus an extra amount for you to make a decent living.” I heard that answer, and although at first it seemed to make a lot of sense, upon reflecting on the concept I knew it was wrong, or at best incomplete.

You see, when I decided to be an interpreter I was motivated by two equally important issues: My love for language of course, but also my indomitable desire to have a great and comfortable life. I never thought about making a “decent” living. I wanted to make as much money as I could, and I have devoted the rest of my life to better myself and broaden my horizons in order to make this happen.

It is true that when setting a fee, and please pay attention to the semantics: I always say fees and never rates, because we are professionals, just like a physician or a lawyer, and professionals charge a fee for their services, not a rate or a fare. As I was saying, when figuring out our fee schedule it is absolutely necessary to factor in all our fixed business expenses, and as interpreters this should include your personal appearance: clothing, grooming and so on, advertising expenses: conventional and social media, travel expenses, professional insurance, and other similar expenditures that we all know are necessary to get the good assignments, the important clients.

This however, is just the tip of the iceberg of what we need to consider when quoting a fee. We are in a profession where we provide professional services that are personal; in other words, unlike the engineer who can be working on two different projects at the same time, we can only do an assignment at a time. Once in the booth we cannot make any money somewhere else. This means that we have to consider a reality of our work: we sell our time one client at a time, and that time is precious; it includes not just the hours we spend in the booth or the meeting room doing a rendition, it also encompasses the time it takes us to get to the assignment, sometimes up to two days if the job is half way across the world.

Well then, after factoring in all these elements, we have to factor in the time and cost invested in formal education, and not just interpreting and other related disciplines; we also need to consider other professional education such as medical school, law school, engineering, chemistry, biology and so forth. Then, we must add the time we spend in preparation for the assignment, research study, glossary development, meeting with colleagues, speakers, agencies, technicians and others, and the time we devote to improve our skill by staying informed of what is going on in the world, learning history, technology, science, arts, and all other subjects that directly or indirectly contribute to the formation of that well-rounded individual that an interpreter needs to be to provide a first class service. I am not saying that you have to keep time records for every one of these things and then invoice them to the client. What I am saying is that you must allocate an economic value to that time and effort and include it as part of your fee. “My professional work for two days of interpreting costs “X” plus “0.1 percent for all the years of constant, and ongoing studying and learning”

Next, you need to decide what should be your compensation for the lifestyle that your profession requires you to have. This is particularly important for those interpreters who already are at the top of the profession and for the ones who are devoting their entire life to get there. This may not be that relevant for some interpreters, but I know that most elite interpreters in the world did not get there by accident. They had to work (and still do) very hard to reach that status, and very often it means that they need to have a lifestyle that most people would not want to have. I am talking of all those evening events, those assignments on a holiday, the ones that keep us away from home for weeks and even months at a time, the jobs that represent a danger to our lives and physical integrity like conflict zones, epidemics, and others where the interpreter rushes into the bad situation to do his job at the same time that most regular people are leaving the place. It is no coincidence that so many interpreters at this level have no family, they are single or divorced, they have no children, and the majority of their friends are other interpreters who have embraced the same life. Of course those who devote most of their lives to their profession do it because they love it, because that is the life they chose for themselves, but regardless of this motivation, the fact that you are doing things most people would not, has to be factored in when setting a fee.

Now that you have taken into account all of these fixed expenses and personal conditions as part of the fee, you must move on to the next phase: You must consider the market where you will be providing these services. Most experienced interpreters who work in many countries know that they cannot expect the same pay everywhere. There are economic realities that will set limits to a particular region. We need to be aware of this factor. Our goal needs to be to command the highest possible fee that a particular market can pay us. If you get this fee you cannot complain, even if it is lower that the fee for the same service somewhere else in the planet. You are making top money for that part of the world. Of course, we cannot forget the original goal: to have an income that will let us live a comfortable life. For this reason, we need to plan our assignments very carefully. You will not afford the Ferrari if you do all your work in a lower-fee region of the world, but you can mix the events so that at the end it evens up. For those colleagues who do not practice this kind of interpreting, the ones who do all of their work in the same location, they will have to make a choice at some point during their careers and stay where they are, or move to another region where fees are higher.

Finally, you need to address the needs of your “regular” “preferred” “top of the list” clients who give you a lot of work. In that case I would suggest offering “extras” as part of the service, but never lowering the fees. There are many other ways you can save money to your client without impacting the interpreters’ fees. They are untouchable. We will probably discuss those other “cuts” on a different post at a later time.

My friends, there are many ways to set your professional fees and we are all unique. I expect that most of you will do it differently. I am aware that not all elements mentioned above need to be considered by every interpreter; I also know that there could be many that I left out. All I am doing is bringing to your attention all the things you need to consider when setting your fee schedule, so that by going beyond office rent, utilities, computers and dictionaries, you consider other elements you bring to the table and are essential to provide this professional service that we call interpreting. I now invite you to share with all of us your ideas about the elements that you believe need to be factored in when setting your fee schedule.

A travesty of justice, and hope to non-English speakers, come to the Illinois judicial system at the same time.

January 20, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

By now many of you heard of the Luis Pantoja case from my postings on Twitter and Facebook or from the media attention it received from printed press and TV.  This is the case of the individual charged with sexual assault on a Spanish speaker woman in Cook County Illinois (Chicago).  On cross-examination during the preliminary hearing the victim contradicted herself and it became evident to the defense attorney that she did not understand his questions. He asked her if she wanted an interpreter and she answered: “…yes. Please…”  Unfortunately, Cook County Illinois Judge Laura M. Sullivan decided against the request and simply asked the defense attorney to rephrase the question. Because of the contradictions in the testimony, obviously due to the language barrier, on September 17, 2013 this judge dismissed the charges as she found no probable cause; she also set Pantoja free.  It is puzzling that Pantoja, who is hearing-impaired, had the services of a Sign Language interpreter during the hearing.  Pantoja was arrested again on the first week of January 2014 and this time he was charged with the sexual assault of a 15-year old girl.  This time he has been held in custody on a $2.5 million bail.  This judge has been characterized in the past as “minority hater” by some publications.  At the least, her decision in this case shows a lack of judicial judgment.  Besides the public outcry against this travesty of justice, and the criticism to the judge and judicial system by Second City Cop, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, Salon Magazine, and others, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) issued a very strong opinion condemning the decisions taken by the judge, and the flawed state legislation that does not provide for an interpreter in cases when the victim or a witness speak a foreign language.  They are right. Unfortunately, nobody mentioned the other crucial aspect of the problem: There is no court interpreter certification in the state of Illinois.

Dear friends and colleagues, the state of Illinois is home to more foreign speakers than the U.S. average, and the city of Chicago is one of the most diverse cities in the world with people from all corners of the planet, and with a huge Polish and Hispanic population.  There are many more foreign language speaker cases in Cook County Illinois, the county where the city of Chicago is located, than most other judicial systems in the United States where they have implemented a court interpreter certification program.  In other words, the program does not exist where it is needed the most.  This lack of quality control has allowed that people with untested knowledge and skill work as language interpreters in this busy judicial system.  If you add to this lack of certification the extremely low pay and shocking working conditions that exist for those who provide interpretation services in Illinois, you can easily conclude that even with legislation that required interpretation services for victims and witnesses, and even with a more considerate judge presiding over this case, the chances of this victim getting accurate and professional interpretation services were very slim.

Although I live in Chicago, I do not know the state of Illinois court interpreters because in Chicago, just like in other big cities, state-level court interpreters and federally certified court interpreters do not work in the same places.  Chicago is a very international city with a great need for good capable interpreters who work its many conferences, countless professional and corporate training sessions, and the federal courts where only interpreters certified by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts can work. I still remember when I first moved to Chicago and tried to meet the Cook County Illinois court interpreters.  All I wanted to do was to let them know that I was their new neighbor. I took the telephone and called the main interpreter office.  A person answered the phone and before I could even tell him who I was, he told me that: “…well, you are an interpreter…we are not hiring anybody. We have all the people we need. Goodbye…” and he hung up on me.  I could not even tell him my name.  Frankly, after such a rude greeting I lost all desire to contact that office ever again.  Since these interpreters get paid between $15.00 and $25.00 per hour there was not even an economic incentive to try again.    Now the “hope” part of the posting.

Despite all the problems and irregularities above, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts is currently developing a plan to provide access to the courts to those who do not speak English as their first language.  After all these years the U.S. Justice Department decided to enforce the requirement that all individuals have access to the administration of justice.  Basically, unless the states comply with the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and provide language access to all people, the federal government will stop all monies it presently gives to the states.  All states that were not in full compliance, and all others who did not even have a court interpreter certification program like in the case of Illinois, had to start planning and implementing these changes.  Last week I attended a Language Access to the Courts meeting sponsored by the Illinois Judicial Branch in Chicago.

The meeting was well organized and the attendance was very good.  The State government officials in charge of developing the plan seemed capable and enthusiastic.  Of course, there were different motivations among those in attendance:  There were those state administrators who want to keep the federal funds and see this as another hoop to jump through; the interpretation agencies were there to watch over their interests and make sure they are not left out of the game.  Some educational organizations were present in hopes of being awarded an interpreter certification training contract; some others were there for no other reason than a real commitment to equal justice; and of course some interpreters were there: non-certified interpreters who went to see what is coming to them, and certified court interpreters (I include myself in this group) to make sure that our profession is not diminished by the desire to get this implemented somehow in order to keep the federal funds coming.

There were valid and important points made during the meeting. This was good. Unfortunately, there were also remarks that frankly worried me.  It is clear, and fortunately the people from the State in charge of this program know it, that these changes from now until the day when we only see certified court interpreters in the Illinois courts is far away.  It was of concern to learn how court administrators do not know where in the world some important languages are spoken, or how they refer to certain languages as “dialects,” and it is really incredible to hear a judge say that as a bilingual person, he has no problem doing the entire hearing in the foreign language instead of waiting for an interpreter to get to the courtroom; but it also lets us comprehend the magnitude of the task ahead.  I selected the term “hope” for this posting because I really hope that this change happens. I want to trust those involved in the planning and implementation of this Language Access Plan.

It is important to remember that as professional certified interpreters we have to remain vigilant so that the certification requirements are not watered down, and more importantly, that the exceptions to the certification process do not happen. At least we have to make sure that they do not happen in those languages, like Spanish, where there are plenty of capable certified interpreters who hold a federal certification or a credential from another state.  It is essential that we make sure that to continue working, those already employed by the state courts as interpreters take the certification exam and pass it.  It is necessary that we educate the public and private bar so these attorneys know the difference between a certified court interpreter and an old-timer who cannot pass the test.  We have to make sure that the interpreter fee issue is discussed as part of this program.  In a state like Illinois, particularly in a metropolitan area like Chicago’s, the courts will never get the top-tier interpreters unless they pay them accordingly.  There are just too many other places where interpreters get a professional fee that takes into account the big city lifestyle with all of its expenses. As I said, I have hope; let’s make sure that it becomes reality so that we never again have to deal with a travesty of justice like the one perpetrated in Cook County Court last September.  I invite you to share your ideas and comments on both issues: The Cook County Court horror story, or the possibility of having a real court interpreter certification program in Illinois.

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