Our work requires trust and a little respect.

March 7, 2016 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

In this era of high speed communications and world trade the function of the interpreter is of unquestionable importance.  There cannot be a globalized society without mutual understanding, and all efforts to understand another culture begin with the transmission of a proposal or an idea by means of the language they speak.

The interpreter is defined as a person who converts a thought or expression in a source language into an expression with a comparable meaning in a target language, conveying all semantic elements as well as the tone and register, and every intention and feeling of the message that the source language speaker is directing to the target language recipients. Basically, it is the action of transmitting ideas between two groups of people who are physically (or virtually) present, but do not understand one half of what is being said in the room.

The question that immediately comes to mind is: Why do these individuals, who have something important to communicate to the other group, believe the conveyed information, and base their decisions in what this interpreter said in their native language? What on earth makes them believe what the interpreter uttered, especially in the many instances when they had never seen this person before? In fact, when interpreting from the booth, the recipients of the interpreting services never get to see the interpreter.  The answer is complex, but it is also very simple: Because they trust the interpreter.

During their life, most humans will have many experiences with providers of goods and services. They will make decisions, some big and others small, based on their expectations as to the quality of some of those goods and services.  In some cases, because of the nature of the service and the characteristics of those who deliver it, they will select the provider based on trust. This is what happens when a person hires a physician, a lawyer or an architect. We put our lives in the hands of surgeons and airplane pilots because we trust that they will perform as expected. We trust that a civil engineer will build us a house that is safe for our family. We trust that an accountant will take care of our fiscal obligations according to the law.  We trust these individuals and their services because they practice a profession. They are professionals who have studied and demonstrated that they can deliver the service, perform the task.

On the other hand, we pick individuals or businesses for other services, or to get some goods, based on an expected result.  That is why when we go to a restaurant we hope that the food is as good as we heard it was, or when we go to the store we hope that the clothes we are going to purchase will fit, last, be comfortable.  We select the providers of these goods and services expecting a desired result: a fast car, an honest housekeeper, and so on.  These goods and services are commercial, they do not fall in the category of professional occupations.  People can join these industries and with skill and perseverance, not necessarily with a formal education or a scientific skill, get to the top of their trade.  A very capable individual can become the best laborer in any giver industry.  Of course there has to be some trust for these businesses to succeed, but this is on the realm of “trust but verify”. That is why we are not shocked when we see a homeowner by the side of the technician throughout the time he is at the house fixing the refrigerator, but we would never even think of joining the surgeon by the operating table while he performs a liver transplant. The second activity is a professional service and it requires absolute trust.

Interpreters fall into the first category. We are professionals providing a sophisticated, complex, and unique professional service.  Like the airplane pilot, we are a trusted professionals and people trust us to the point of letting us be the source of all information and exchanges when dealing with someone who speaks a different language they do not understand.

I have always believed this to be one of the most important characteristics of our craft. Ours is one of very few fiduciary occupations. It is for this reason that I reacted the way I did when I recently faced a situation where they questioned these essential characteristics of our profession.

I consider myself very fortunate because after many years of hard work, I have developed a portfolio of very good clients who value my work and show it on the way they treat me and remunerate my services.  It is not very common to see me accepting an assignment from an unknown source, but sometimes, because the gig seems interesting, or because I have nothing better to do, (provided that my minimum requirements are met), I accept one of these assignments.

Not long ago, I was sitting at my desk working on the blog when I received an email for an assignment that looked interesting.  It got my attention, so I checked my schedule to see if I was open on the date of the event and I was. I must say that the email came from a well-known agency, but with the exception of a job here and there many years ago, I had never really collaborated with them on an assignment.

I responded to the email providing the information they requested: my willingness to take the assignment, my availability on that date, and my fee.  The person from the agency got back to me very quickly to let me know that it all looked great, but they would need me to go lower on my fee. I immediately answered with a resounding: No!

At that point, I thought that this was the end of the story; that just like so many other times in the past, they were going to apply me the silent treatment.

To my surprise, the agency contacted me again on the following morning; this time it was a different person, a supervisor I was told, who wrote to me and stated that she had googled me, that they had asked around, and that after their little research, they had agreed to my fee, and if I was interested, they would love to have me as part of their team for the assignment. I said that I would do it, but that I needed to discuss payment terms with them before going any further. I explained that I have an invoice system that I use, and that I needed them to honor my invoice like the rest of my clients.  It was explained to me that the company’s policy was to use their payment system and invoice forms. I again emphasized the fact that I would only take the job if they agreed to a simple invoice by email process with no other hurdles. I explained that I sell my time and the hours or minutes I was going to spend working on their forms would not be paid by anybody.  The agency representative answered that my conditions were agreeable, and all I had to do was to email them an invoice after the assignment. I agreed and that was the end of the negotiations, which by the way, I have in writing.

Several weeks went by until one day I received an email with the materials for the assignment. Everything was fine to that point, but as I kept on reading until the end of the message, I discovered that they had sent me some forms to fill out, indicating the time I started and finished interpreting. On top of that, they requested that I call the agency at the moment I arrive to the venue, and that their client’s representative sign the form “certifying” that the assignment had indeed started and ended at the times written by me on their form.

I had never been asked to do anything like this before. I felt insulted and got very upset.  They were checking on me, just like they would on the Maytag Man, to make sure I had worked, and my word was not good enough for this folks; they needed me to prove that I was at the event, so they told me to call them; and my credibility was so poor that they needed another individual to vouch for me.

I took a deep breath, actually, I took several, and afterwards I thought of the absurdity of this policy. It was clear to me that they had this rules in place because they did not trust me, and did not trust any of my colleagues. The thing I could not understand is: If they have their doubts about the time I show up for the assignment and about whether or not I actually rendered an interpretation, how is it possible that they let me interpret from a foreign language that nobody in the room understands but me and my booth mate.  They got it all backwards. I felt disrespected by this “interpreting” agency, and I felt that they had insulted my profession.

After a few minutes I wrote them back, indicating that I was not used to be under the surveillance of anybody, that I was a professional who sells his time, skill, and knowledge by providing a professional service, and that I have always expected to be treated with decency, respect, and as a professional. I added that I could not agree to their corporate policy, and for that reason, I was declining the assignment.  It was not long before the person from the agency wrote back, and her email was very telling. It read as follows: “…We regret that (you have) declined the assignment. We agreed to pay you above our usual rate, but unfortunately, we cannot waive the other requirements. This is our policy and it is very similar to that of many others in the industry…”

That is the problem, dear friends and colleagues, these agencies expect to deal with us as merchants, not professionals. Key terms such as “rates” (like a merchant) instead of “fees” (like a professional), give us an idea of who they are looking for in the “industry”. To take one of the words this agency used on their final email: “Unfortunately”, interpreting is not an industry, it is a profession. We cannot work under mistrust, nor for a client (who they would probably call “customer”) who comes to our environment with the same hopes and expectations that you have when you enter the drycleaners.  I deal with clients who trust me to do my work just like I trust the dentist who drills holes in my teeth.  We are a profession. Industries deal with their service providers as laborers, I will stick to those businesses who deal with me as a professional.  I now invite you to share your comments or similar experiences when an agency or a direct client has viewed you as a factory worker and not as a professional.

Video Remote Interpreting: Agencies do not see what I see.

November 9, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Video remote interpreting, or VRI as it is widely known, is one of those topics that are difficult to discuss because some multinational agencies have turned it into an emotionally charged subject.  Those of you who know me personally, and the friends and colleagues who read the blog, know that I have always been a pro-technology individual, that as an interpreter I embrace technological changes and the benefits that come with modernization; and as a person who loves to study history, I recognize that technology has come to the interpreting profession, including VRI, and it is not going anywhere.

In the past, I have written about the benefits of working remotely by video, about how this change is helping us, the interpreters, to work more and better assignments that we could not do before because of the limitations of time and space. I have also told many of you, and I repeat it right here, right now, that even with its deficiencies and set-backs, VRI technology is getting better every day.  I have no doubt in my mind that the day when we don’t worry about VRI technology more than we presently worry about conventional technology in the traditional booth is just around the corner.

To this point everything looks good and promising. It is when you begin to factor in all the other sideshows that generally accompany VRI interpreting that we see the dark side of this issue.

There are some good and honest agencies all over the world; we interpreters know who they are and wish to continue our mutually beneficial collaboration with them; however, during the last two or three years we have been bombarded by these multinational interpreting agencies, and some others not quite as big, who have undertaken the task of proselytizing all the interpreters and all the students of interpretation they can find. It seems that you cannot attend a professional conference anymore without having to sit through a presentation by an executive or an administrator of one of these entities, who almost never is or was an interpreter, and listen to their interpretation of the new reality in our profession. They skillfully present an extremely one-sided view of the changes created by VRI, and launch their efforts to convince the individual interpreter to blindly accept their conclusions and conditions as the only truth.  Dear friends and colleagues, I see things very differently from my perspective as an individual independent interpreter. Let me explain:

The multinationals and the smaller agencies that from now on I will respectfully refer to as their “junior partners” want me to believe that there is this great new technology that is being provided by these huge agencies and their junior partners, that they know how it works and that for this reason they are entitled to be the ones offering this technology to the client (who they often refer to as customer because they see interpreting as an “industry” not a profession). While they are telling me this, I see that they never mention the inventors and researchers, that these individuals are not invited to the conferences and seminars because it is not in the multinationals’ best interest that we, as mere interpreters, meet them and start a direct relationship with the creative talent, thus bypassing the middleman in this equation also known as the agency.

They tell us again and again that VRI changed the old rules and that from now on interpreters better get used to the idea that they will make less money because, by eliminating the need to travel to the site of the event, it will be cheaper to deliver interpreting services. It is just a consequence of modernization. The problem is that what I see are multinational agencies and their junior partners generating all-time high profits because, despite of the savings in travel and other logistics that VRI eliminates and therefore the end-client would not be willing to pay anymore, by reducing the interpreters’ fees because the service is now rendered remotely, they now keep a bigger share of the professional fees paid by the client for interpreter services. I see that an event covered remotely will eliminate travel-related costs, but the professional service of the interpreter is exactly the same. The fact that the interpreter is working from home or from a facility near home instead of from a booth on the other side of the world is irrelevant for the rendition.  There is no logic, there is no reason, and there is no moral justification to demand that a professional interpreter work for less because of his physical location.

They tell us that VRI interpreting for these multinational agencies and their junior partners benefits the interpreter because she will not have to “waste” two days traveling to and from an event. Instead, she will be able to take a second assignment for those “traveling” days; therefore, she will have a higher income.  The problem is that I see a professional independent interpreter, who owns her time, deciding to work one assignment, two, or none. This is a personal decision that has nothing to do with the multinational agency or its junior partner as it does not impact the interpreter’s performance during the assignment with said entity.  There is a good chance that there may not be other assignments available for those days, and in that case, you could argue that the interpreter would actually make less money because she will not be paid the travel fee anymore. I do not include this in my judgment because it is part of the risk of being an independent professional interpreter. It has nothing to do with the multinational entity.

They tell us that healthcare and court interpreters will be better off with VRI because instead of spending hours getting ready to go to work, traveling to the assignment, and waiting for their medical appointment or court hearing to take place, they can stay home and play with their kids, do some gardening or work in their car. It is a win-win situation!  Unfortunately, what I see is an interpreter who goes to the hospital, clinic, courthouse or jail because that is his job, being forced to accept one or two hours of work paid by the minute, instead of a full day of paid work. People go to work because they need to make money. Many would love to stay with their children, plant a tree or fix the attic; unfortunately you don’t get paid for any of those things. That is what vacation is for.

These entities tell us that thanks to VRI many indigenous language interpreters are now working with hospitals and emergency rooms; they brag about this. They are helping these generally ignored and forgotten interpreters. That is not what I observe. When I look at these indigenous colleagues, I see rare and exotic language interpreters providing professional services for a very low fee. We all know that our colleagues in rare and exotic languages command a higher fee than those of us who have a more conventional language combination.

The multinational agencies and their partners tell us that they are the ones who know the market, that as interpreters, we may know how to provide the service, but it is the agency that can get the clients. What I see is that we as interpreters know many people that they do not know. We are in the trenches with those who make an event successful. These are the players that we can go to and keep the interpreter service a reality. They do not know many of them.

These agencies tell us that they are the ones who make sure that interpreters provide their services ethically and professionally. Unfortunately for those who believe this idea, I cannot see how one of their employees, somebody less experienced and with less formal education than the interpreters she “coordinates” by micromanaging and setting demeaning practices used in unskilled labor markets, can do a better job than a professional who will still be around a year from now. Most of these agency employees will not.

The multinational agencies and their junior partners often say that there are many interpreters who are very happy working for them under the existing conditions. What I see is a group of individuals who are scared to death of losing that rock-bottom income that together with their spouse’s wages makes it possible for them to survive. They are too afraid to speak up. Of course, I would not doubt that there may be some who are suffering of the Stockholm syndrome.

They tell us that they are training interpreters, that they are helping them to improve their skills. In reality, what I see is, in my opinion, no more than a bunch of laughable tests and online courses claiming to help you become an interpreter.

These multinational entities constantly say that there are not enough interpreters in the market to meet the current demand. That they are working on training more people to fulfill these need. Unfortunately, all I see is many good interpreters sitting at home without work because they refuse to work under such insulting conditions as the ones often contained in these agencies’ contracts.

Multinational entities and their junior associates tell us that it is them who know the technology; that we do not, that many interpreters are reluctant to learn how to work with VRI technology because they are afraid of the new tools. The truth is that every day more interpreters are getting tired of the middle guy who adds no value to the service and can be replaced at the blink of an eye. Interpreters, inventors and researchers can work together directly.  As far as learning the technology, do not worry. All I can say is that there are many more college degrees on this side of the table. Interpreters will learn.

These are my opinions, it is my perception of what is going on. I truly believe that we as interpreters need to develop a direct relationship with innovators to be in a position where we provide VRI services in a professional dignified way that includes the most essential part of this profession (because it is not an industry): the individual interpreter, embracing those honest agencies who understand their role in this profession and do not try to go beyond, and eliminating all those prone to abuse their position and willing to impose their personal insatiable desires over the professional services they claim to provide.  I now ask you to share your comments on this issue, and to refrain from coming in here to defend the philosophy and practices of the multinational agencies and their junior partners I refer to throughout this entry.  They have plenty of spaces where they can continue to serve the Kool-Aid. We have very limited venues to express our opinion.

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