A client’s message on hiring interpreters abroad

October 6, 2021 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I am about to share a personal experience with a client that, in my opinion, has value. I understand what you are about to read may upset some of you. I do not write it to offend anybody. I just ask you to read the post until the end, and reflect on the words of this client who should remain anonymous although he knows of this article.

During one of the in-person interpretation jobs I have done during the pandemic I had the opportunity to meet a very interesting individual who is now my client. It all started with an email asking for my availability for an in-person conference after indoor activities, observing all public health security measures, were allowed again. We exchanged a few emails, signed a contract and two weeks later I was at the venue some five hours before the event.

As soon as I arrived, I noticed the portable booths were not installed in a place convenient to the interpreters so I approached the person who seemed in charge of preparations. I explained we needed to move the booths and asked them to do so. I was told they would do it as there was plenty of time before the public arrived, but they needed the “go ahead” from their boss due in the building any minute. I waited for about fifteen minutes before the boss arrived.

He immediately approved the change and asked me if we could spend a few minutes talking about my services. We moved to an adjacent room and over a cup of coffee we talked for over an hour. He told me they had held two events remotely in the past twelve months and they were excited to be back face to face. I asked if they had interpretation for those two events and he explained they had hired a company to interpret, but he was not sure he wanted to continue working with this business, so he went shopping for interpreting services and found me. I listen to what he had to say about his company and his expectations for the interpreter team; next, instead of wasting his valuable time teaching him we are interpreters, not translators, or explaining to him why interpreting is so difficult (I have never met a lawyer or a physician who explains how tough Constitutional Law is, or how sophisticated is human physiology), I asked a lot of questions to have a better picture of their needs and that way decide how to support their events better.

He shared that the interpretation had been average but not what they expected. He told me at some point the interpreters seemed confused and the audience complained about sound quality and rendition. He told me who he hired and he also said the interpreters were working from abroad. He was surprised the interpreter team was not based in the United States. I explained how many agencies and platforms are using interpreters based somewhere else as this reduces their costs and increase their profit. I told him we had the same problem before the pandemic as some agencies would bring interpreters from overseas, often without getting a work visa, arriving in the country on a tourist/business visitor visa (B1/B2) or as part of a Visa Waiver Program (VWPP) if they were from a country covered by it. When entering the country, they would not disclose the purpose of their visit to the authorities. These interpreters would work for a lower fee, stay two or three in the same hotel room, and work under conditions American interpreters would not accept. I told him how these interpreters, many more of them now, hired by direct clients, language services agencies, or remote interpretation platforms (through their chosen business model to appear as if they were independent from the hiring entity) are now doing distance interpreting from developing markets, working for fees lower than interpreters in developed markets, and under conditions inacceptable in Western Europe and the United States such as longer hours, interpreting solo, working without previous dry runs, and with no legal protections.

The client, a top-level executive of a major corporation, paused for a minute and added: “You know, I am in a business where many follow the same practice. They hire people who are in the United States without a legal immigration status, pay them little, and offer them zero benefits. It is illegal, but they do it anyway because it is profitable. They argue Americans would not do farm, construction, or hospitality work, and they are right. Nobody in their right mind would work under such conditions. They take advantage of these immigrants because they know they need the money to send back home…”

I was about to agree with his words when he continued speaking: “…I see the same thing now. These interpreters don’t come to our country. They remain in Latin America or Eastern Europe, but they are treated the same, and for the same reasons. That is wrong. I am glad I had this chat with you because from now on we will only hire interpreters who live in the United States. That is what we do with our employees, everybody needs to have papers to work here…”

I told him I have nothing against my colleagues abroad, I explained many are excellent interpreters, and I have no problem working remotely with them as long as they do not accept lower fees or sub-standard working conditions by Western World standards. I finished my conversation telling him I hoped he would be happy with the interpretation service we were about to provide, and asked him to please hire me time and again for in-person and distance events where only U.S. based interpreters, or interpreters abroad working for the same pay and conditions as those in the country would work.  

That evening after the event, I thought of my new client’s words. I was happy he understood our situation as interpreters in the industrialized world, and I reflected on how I had never seen what he just showed me: Those who hire interpreters abroad do it because our colleagues agree to take little money and poor work conditions with no benefits or legal protection. These industrialized world direct clients, agencies and platforms are hiring people who could not work in the United States or Western Europe if the events were held in-person, because when working remotely they can get away with their practice of paying low fees, offering remote solo assignments, asking interpreters to work many hours remotely, not paying royalties when profiting from recorded interpretations of events, and providing no legal protection if a work-related injury occurs, such as temporary or permanent disability due to acoustic shock for example. All of our colleagues in these countries, many first-class interpreters, need the money, more so now because of the pandemic, and those hiring them are maximizing their profits by taking advantage of such circumstances. When questioned about these practices, some of these entities argue that a lower fee may not be considered appropriate in the U.S. or Western Europe, but in the countries where these interpreters live it is good income. “It is good for them.” That explanation is demeaning as it is telling our colleagues: “We know you know we dine at Three-Michelin Star restaurants, but McDonald’s is good enough for you.”      Conference interpreters and those community interpreters in unregulated fields are at a higher risk of this exploitation than community interpreters who require a certification or license to work like court and healthcare interpreters. My client made me think and notice certain things I had not paid attention to before, such as the permanent recruitment campaign by some of these entities in the developing world while nobody is doing a thing to stop it. In my case, I got two benefits from my conversation with this client: I now explain to clients, colleagues and students the ugly side of these practices, and I got a solid, good new client who has hired me on another two occasions after that first event. I now ask you to share your thoughts, and please do not send comments defending the agencies or platforms. Unlike most interpreters, they have their own media outlets to do so.

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!

Interpreters’ new normal? Not so fast.

July 3, 2020 § 20 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Every time I open a social media platform or check my email I find a message from a distance interpreting platform inviting potential clients and interpreters to a free demo session, an advertisement from an interpreting agency announcing they offer the most affordable remote interpreting services, or they have opened an interpreting hub; and I see dozens of posts from interpreters (known and unknown) showing pictures of their laptops, headsets, and microphones while they smile and stare at the wall in front of their desks.

We entered the second half of the worst year in the history of our profession, and we did so full of uncertainty. The time when we will go back to the airport and work from the booth in a conference room is not on the radar yet. Financial losses in the private sector, tight budgets in governments and international organizations, travel restrictions in parts of the world, and an out of control pandemic in many places due to people’s ignorance and terrible performance by government officials in several nations, are testing our patience, bank accounts, and commitment to the profession and colleagues we must defend. I dislike everything I just described, but I understand why it is happening, and I adapt my practice to these temporary circumstances.

I do not understand how some of my colleagues are telling their clients that remote simultaneous interpretation “is pretty good,” and call it “the new normal.” As I was told by a client who spoke to one of these interpreters, not a platform or an agency, some colleagues have even explained to the clients that “…(RSI) can do almost everything an in-person interpretation can, and soon it will be as good and cheaper…” (client and interpreter names omitted for privacy and legal reasons).

Those statements are false, even responsible platforms and agencies agree that distance work has its limitations. RSI and VRI are “OK” for now, they are a resource to deal with a situation during the pandemic and its aftermath in extremis (Merriam-Webster: “In extreme circumstances.” Oxford: “In an extremely difficult situation… it is something to which (humans) will resort”).

Distance interpreting can be useful for certain events or encounters, but due to some factors from outside interpreting, such as technology and infrastructure, and others from inside interpreting, such as lack of support from a boothmate next to the active interpreter, and the deprivation of valuable information and clues gained only by the sensory perception of individuals’ physical presence (an RSI interpreter is at the mercy of the limited sensory information a bandwidth can convey). When not used in extremis, distance interpreting is just a way to hold a meeting or conference at a low cost but without the benefit of interpreting services the way they are meant to be provided. RSI is essentially some businessmen who got funding to develop something that pleases their clients, as long as you do not mention everything missing from the interpretation. To some it is a budget solution, just like Ryanair and Walmart.

Interpreters need to stop to think that by endorsing statements like the ones I mentioned above, they are doing the platforms’ bidding, not the professional interpreters’ community. Propagating such information is bad for the client, it is bad for the event, and it is bad for business. Eventually conferences will be back because nothing can replace the human need for human contact. The meeting after the meeting, a handshake to close the deal, a conference destination to reward the salesforce, the need to get out of the house, and yes, the burdens of distance interpreting on conference attendees will bring our work back, and when it happens we must be ready to embrace our profession the way it is meant to be. Singing the praises of distance interpreting, even though we know of its shortcomings, just because we want to work right now, and we fear falling out of favor with agencies and platforms, will make it harder to convince the end client and event organizer to offer in-person interpreting services again. Right now, you are making little money, but agencies and platforms are having a great year. They will oppose in-person interpreting in the future, not because they are bad awful people, but because it serves them poorly. No doubt distance interpreting is here to stay, there are certain events where it works fine: Corporate board sessions, planning meetings, preliminary business negotiations, and others can be interpreted remotely because of the savings to the company or organization. We will see distance interpreting for marginal court procedures and medical consultations. Government window clerks and airline ticket counter employees could use tablets with RSI. That is fine. Some people fly Ryanair and shop at Walmart.

For now, we need to focus on protecting the benefits of in-person interpreting while providing distance interpreting services in extremis. We also need to listen to our clients, they are the key element to our practice, not the platforms. Our efforts should go to the client; see what they need, help them to solve their problems, and accommodate their preferences. Clients will choose a remote platform that serves their needs, they already know, and saves them money. Be ready to work on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Blue Jeans, Go To Meeting, Skype for Business, Amazon Chime, Cisco Webex, Fuze, Adobe Connect, and others. Not all clients are willing or ready to spend money on an interpreter-dedicated platform and we must accept this for now. Things will change.

A year ago, remote meetings were a small business, used by few around the world. Today everybody with internet access has been to at least one. It went from an obscure unattractive business to a money-making industry, and that gets the big guys’ attention. Now that the lid is off, and the high tech giants know of its profitability, remote meetings, and so distance interpreting, will see so much money on research and development; and soon, the biggest players in the industry will offer their clients affordable, user-friendly platforms integrated to their already known and trusted services, under their well-known name brands. Don’t be surprised if two years from now we are talking of RSI platforms owned by Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Some names we see in the market today could be gone, and others may be part of an acquisition by one of the big leaguers. Nothing is certain, but… remember Betamax. That is why you must focus on your clients, give them advice, and adapt to their needs when needed. Eventually, they will decide where to go, not you.  Be flexible, without lowering your standards, adapt to what is out there today, and never sell short in-person interpreting. If not us, who will defend quality of service, and the profession?

RSI will change the profession. Will it change the interpreter of the future?

May 19, 2020 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Remote Simultaneous Interpreting, and other forms of remote interpreting, will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis more popular and stronger.  It is a great option and no doubt it will get better. There will be good and bad platforms, and interpreters shall continue to work for direct clients while they will continue to struggle with agencies, and defend the profession from existing and newcomer entities’ insatiable appetite for profit at the expense of interpreters’ pay, and at the expense of quality.

In a few short years, there will be a new generation of conference interpreters who never knew the profession without remote work. It will be similar to what we see with the generation that never carried a suitcase full of dictionaries to the booth, or went to the “other booth” to make a phone call from the conference venue.

I have no doubt, however, that in-person interpreting will remain the rule for the meetings and events of higher importance. RSI will take its place at the table, but not at the head of the table, just as the newest invitee to the feast, very popular and sought after for lesser exchanges and negotiations.

But even when the water goes back to its usual levels, there will be many events, such as preliminary business or corporate negotiations, urgent and emergency executive discussions, staffer planning discussions, and routine company and government meetings that will choose virtual events in considerable numbers. Add that to the smaller businesses, local government agencies with scarce financial resources, and non-for-profit organizations’ activities that rarely or never held meetings, workshops or conferences because they could not afford them, and you are left with a big market sector in need of remote simultaneous interpreting.

Many of these events will not retain professional conference interpreters, they will try their luck with community interpreters, court interpreters and others, very good and capable in their field of practice, but inexperienced in conference interpreting. Others will hire top interpreters to do the job.

With time, many new conference interpreters could prefer working from a local hub, and perhaps (oh, God!) from their own homes. Conference interpreting will be more attractive, and turn into a viable option to many interpreters who never considered it in the past because they prefer the home turf over constant travel. Interpreters who like gardening, or want to be involved in community theater, or play softball with their church’s team will happily embrace conference interpreting. We may see colleagues afraid of flying, or some who never had a passport working as conference interpreters without ever spending a night at a hotel.

No doubt these new conditions will attract many good capable people to conference interpreting. The question is: Will these interpreters of the not-so-distant future be like the colleagues who populated the booth all over the world before the pandemic? It is a complex situation, and it is difficult to give a straight answer. All I can say is that I am not sure the job description I included above would be appealing.

I decided to be a conference interpreter because I love interpreting. I enjoy learning and studying about language and communication among humans. I have a passion for helping people understand each other by providing my services; I believe in using the tools of my craft to better the world. If those were the only things that interested me, I could have been a translator, or remain a court interpreter as I was before.

A big part of what made conference interpreting attractive was that it was a place where I could do the above while being myself: extroverted, outgoing, constantly surrounded by extroverted people. Conference interpreting won me over from practicing law because of the traveling around the world. As an attorney I could have continued to travel to many places, but only as a tourist on a vacation. It was different. Conference interpreting allowed me to meet people from all cultures who literally live all over the world. It is appealing because of the opportunity to meet in person people I admire from government, science, sports, the arts, and ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. This has been possible not because of who I am, but because of what I do.

My life differs from the lifestyle of a translator or a community interpreter, from the little things, like never having to buy a bottle of shampoo because hotel rooms always have them, and thinking of doing laundry as putting your clothes in a bag you take to the front desk, to creating the most fascinating and valuable friendships with people who live everywhere. I joined the ranks of those who practice in-person interpreting because thanks to my job, when I say my goodbyes to my friend in Australia, or Japan, or South Africa, or Costa Rica, and I say “I’ll see you soon” I know it will happen. I travel all over, and I always have somebody to see everywhere I go. Finally, and in my opinion, more important, interpreting has allowed me to develop the greatest bond between humans. This will be hard to understand to people who do not work as conference interpreters, but the friendships and relationships with your fellow interpreters are precious and very strong. I am not sure I would be a conference interpreter without the possibility to work and in reality, live with a group of most interesting individuals. People you get to know better than anybody else in your life. You are together for extended periods of time, under stressful situations, with the most diverse backdrops planet earth offers. You travel together, eat together, work together, and socialize, and learn from each other.

Once I was attending a translators/interpreters’ conference somewhere in the world, and during the gala dinner, I got to sit at one of those big round tables with another 10 people or so. Most were translators, many I had never met before. Suddenly, a dear interpreter friend came to my table. I was very happy to see a “friendly face” so we said hi. I greeted my friend and said: “I am so glad to see you. I think I had not seen you since we had lunch in Greece”. My colleague kindly replied: “No. I think we saw each other in Beijing after that”. The translator sitting next to me made a comment I will never forget: “What a peculiar profession and interesting lifestyle. In my job I only go from the bedroom to the computer, and to the movie theater once a week”. To put it as a colleague told me a few months ago during lunch in Buenos Aires: “I love it that we see each other all over the world, and we never have to spend a penny to do it”.

Remote interpreting will change the profile of conference interpreters as a group. People who did not consider the profession, will enter the field. They will be very talented and capable; however, I am not sure that people with a current conference interpreter profile will stay in the profession. Many probably will, but many others will go somewhere else, lured by a profession where they can help better the world, and enjoy the pleasure of human relations, world travel, first-hand culture acquisition, and a profession where isolation will never be a part of the job description. Virtual boothmates are like watching a sports event on TV; it will never be the same as on the field with your teammates. Conference interpreters will not be better or worse than today. They will be different. We will see.

Please share your thoughts with the rest of us, and remember that this post is not talking about the good or bad things of remote interpreting, the platforms, or even the agencies. Its focus is you: the human element of the profession. Thank you.

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