”Sorry. I do not interpret for free.”

May 8, 2017 § 32 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Recently many interpreters have been asked to provide their services for free. The current refugee situation in Europe, immigration policy of the United States, and other crisis around the world, including the awful repression of the people of Venezuela, have created a wave of foreign language speakers who seek help in countries where their native language is not spoken.

I have heard from colleagues asked to go to an airport to interpret for individuals denied admission into the United States. Others have been asked to provide their services during town hall meetings without pay. Several have received requests to work for free during asylum hearings or medical examinations at refugee camps or religious organizations-run facilities.

When asked to “interpret at no charge for these folks who have gone through so much”, many interpreters feel pressured to provide the service, even when this may represent a financial burden to them. Arguments such as “It will not take long, and it really is nothing to you since you speak the language… please help” are often used to corner professional interpreters into a place where it becomes very difficult to decline.

There are plenty of times when the only one asked to work for free is the interpreter. Many non-for-profit organizations have paid staff, and it is these social workers, physicians, attorneys and others who will assist the foreign language speaker. Everyone is making a living while helping these people in need, but the interpreter! Something is wrong with this picture.

Many of the people who work for these organizations do not see interpreters as professionals. They do not consider what we do as a professional service. They just see it as the acquired knowledge of a language that interpreters speak anyway, and they perceive it as something that should be shared for free. They believe that what doctors, lawyers and social workers do is a professional service and deserves pay. To them, we perform a non-professional, effortless task that should be volunteered.  Even if the interpreters questions this idea, and asks to be paid, the answers go from: “We are non-for-profit and we have no money” to “The entire budget will go to pay for doctors and lawyers, and you know they are expensive. There is no money left for you”. And then they go for the kill by closing the statement with: “but you understand; these are your people. They need your help”.

This is insulting. First, they see us, treat us, and address us as second-class paraprofessional service providers. Then, they claim there is no money when we all know that non-for-profits do not pay taxes because of the service they provide, but they have sources of income. Finally, they think we are not smart enough to see how they are trying to use us by playing the guilt card.

I systematically decline these requests because I consider them insulting and demeaning to the profession. Interpreters are professionals just like the other parties involved, their job is as important and essential as the rest of the professions participating in the program, and we must get paid just like the rest of the professionals.

There are instances when attorneys and other professionals provide the service without payment. The difference is that in some countries, lawyers and other professionals must perform some hours free of charge; sometimes several hours worked pro bono can be credited as part of the continuing education hours to keep a professional license current. Even court and healthcare interpreters receive this benefit sometimes. People see it as working for free, but it is far from it. The first scenario is a legal obligation to keep a professional license valid. The second one is a creative way to lure professionals into providing professional services at no charge for needed continuing education credits and an enhancement of their reputation in their community that will see them as willing participants helping in the middle of a crisis.

According to the American Bar Association, eleven states have implemented rules that permit attorneys who take pro bono cases to earn credit toward mandatory continuing legal education requirements (The states are: Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, Washington State, and Wyoming).

I have no problem with interpreting for free if the interpreter must comply with a compulsory social service, or can benefit by receiving continuing education credit.  When the legislation (or the lack of it) is so interpreters get nothing from their service while the others benefit, then interpreters are treated as sub-professionals and I believe they should say no to all those asking them to work under these disadvantageous conditions.

If these non-for-profit organizations want interpreting services for free, they should lobby their legislative authorities or administrative officials to provide continuing education credits to all interpreters who provide some hours of work for free.

Another possible solution would be to allow interpreters to treat these free professional services as a donation to the non-for-profit organizations, making them tax deductible. This would create an incentive and level the field with all other professionals already getting a paycheck, or continuing education credits.   American legislation does not allow interpreters in the United States to deduct the value of their time or services (IRS Publication 526 for tax year 2016).  An amendment to this legislation would go a long way, and would benefit both, non-for-profit organizations and professional interpreters.

Some of you may disagree with me on this subject. I am asking you to detach your professional business decisions, which we should make with our brain, from your emotional decisions that come from your heart.  We all have causes we care about and we willfully, with no pressure, help in any way we can, including interpreting for free. This is something else, and you should do it when nobody else is making a profit or even an income to get by. It is called fairness. On the other hand, we should protect our profession, and the livelihood of our families by refusing all “volunteer” work where some of the others are getting paid or receiving a benefit we are not. Especially when they insult our intelligence by resorting to the “emotional appeal”.

I sometimes donate my services under the above circumstances,   as long as I may advertise who I am and my services. This way I donate my work, but I am investing in my business by enhancing my client base and professional network.  I now ask you to comment on this issue that seems very popular at this time. The only thing I ask from you is to please abstain from the comments and arguments for working for free that appeal to emotions instead of professional businesses.

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