Are we protecting our profession? Part 1.

March 29, 2016 § 49 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Every now and then something happens in our profession that makes me wonder if we are truly doing what is best for all of us: individually and collectively as interpreters and translators.  In fact, this happened recently when I learned, like many of you, that the American Translators Association had revisited the antitrust legislation issue and had reviewed its policy.  As expected, ATA followed its traditional pattern of protecting the “interests” of the association over the interests of its individual members or the profession, and adopted a policy that clearly observes antitrust legislation as is, without questioning it.   It is not clear to me how the association arrived to this resolution to endorse everything the government wants, and is included in the legislation and case law, without first seeking a legal opinion from attorneys who disagree with the current antitrust laws or their interpretation by the government.  As I understand it, the mission of a professional association is to advance and protect the interests of its members and the profession they practice.  This can only be accomplished by assessing the current legislation as to its impact on those who it is supposed to protect.  I am convinced that a well-publicized campaign to get public comments from the membership, and seeking a legal opinion as to how to interpret the current legislation in the light most favorable to the interests of the individual interpreters and translators, which could have included proposed amendments to the antitrust legislation would have been fruitful and very successful.  Of course, it would have rocked the status quo where big multinational businesses, sponsors or members of the association, benefit from the current interpretation of the law and the association’s corporate policy, that leaves the individual members on an uneven field where they cannot talk about the insulting and sometimes degrading fees, or rates as these huge corporations refer to them, that are offered for their interpreting and translation services.

We all want to comply with the law, and nobody is suggesting that we break any legislation. On the contrary, we should always observe the law of the land, as these rules and regulations exist to protect the weaker members of society from the actions of those who are in a position to take advantage of them.  This does not mean that we should not question a legal precept when we believe that it is not advancing justice or protecting the weak.

Antitrust legislation was born in the United States in the latter part of the 19th. century when the legislator, first at the state level, and later at the federal Congress, saw the need to protect consumers from big business that at the time was acting as big conglomerates with “excessive” economic power according to the opinion of a majority of the citizens of the United States. The goal of the legislation was to regulate the conduct of business corporations by promoting a fair competition for the benefit of the consumer. Legislation such as the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the Sherman Act of 1890, the Clayton Act of 1914, and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 became the law of the land.  They were followed by more recent laws like the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936 and the Celler-Kefauver Act of 1950. Ohio Senator John Sherman clearly explained the rationale behind this policy when he said that: “…If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessaries of life…” (Speech delivered in the U.S. Senate on March 21, 1890) The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with this spirit of the legislation when it referred to the Sherman Act as a “charter of freedom, designed to protect free enterprise in America” (Appalachian Coals, Inc. v. United States, 288 U.S. ({{{5}}} 1933) 344 [359]) Antitrust legislation goes against the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, but it is tailored under strict scrutiny to limit this right only as it protects the consumer from the voracious unscrupulous merchant. We have many examples of these businesses throughout the more than one hundred years of antitrust laws in the country: The mining industry, the automobile industry, and even the telephone industry are some of the examples that come to mind. In all of these cases we can clearly see the benefits of restricting commercial and industrial activities to avoid monopolies.  We do not dispute that, but the fact is that the world has changed and we now face a very different economic reality than the one faced by the antitrust legislator of the 19th. century.

Technological advances and the rapid growth of globalization have created a world with uneven realities and circumstances in many fields, including interpreting and translating. When applied today, the rules conceived to protect the weak from the powerful, provide shelter to multinationals like Capita, SOSi, and LionBridge who take advantage, with the blessing of some of our professional associations, of the legal ban to talk about fees and working conditions of professional interpreters and translators who are forced to negotiate with commercial, not professional, entities who take advantage of any circumstance they can use in their favor.

But it does not need to be that way, a careful reading of the law shows us that discussing fees and work circumstances is legal, as long as there is no agreement to fix a fee.  The problem is that, to avoid any possible discomfort, some professional associations adopt internal rules and policies where all mention of fees has been proscribed.  It is clear that there is a need for litigation, it is the courts, not the executive branch, who should decide if these 19th. century rules designed to protect the little guy from big business should apply to individuals who make a living from the practice of a professional service, not an industrial or commercial activity (despite the efforts by many to convince us of this model) who are constantly oppressed and taken advantage of by the big business of multinational interpreting and translation corporations.

Who is the little guy who needs the protection of the law under these circumstances? Professional service providers should not fix their fees for services offered to their individual clients: the consumers in this scenario; but there is a big difference between offering services to a neighbor or a store down the street where I live, and having to accept rock bottom fees from publicly traded entities who have a presence in fifty countries.  The court system needs to decide these cases, and if the decision is adverse, the legislation has to be changed. Not all legislation is good or fair; in fact, there are plenty of examples where we can see how the law created or enabled an unjust situation. Let us remember that not long ago the United States had legislation that favor slavery, or deprived women from the right to vote.  This is where professional associations are expected to act to protect their individual members and above all: the profession.

Perpetuating the present situation will not advance the profession, it will mutate it into some kind of involuntary servitude where the big guys will call the shots.  I now ask you for your comments, in the understanding that nobody is calling for violating current legislation, just to change what we have right now, and to opine about the role that a professional association should play when the profession needs to be protected from exterior forces who are trying to hijack it from the interpreters and translators.   Next week we will discuss the same topic from a different perspective: The professional associations and the battle against the professionalization of the interpreter.

A bad combination: The interpreter’s ego and sense of denial.

December 4, 2014 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We all know that most interpreters are very gifted and well-educated people, but due to the individual characteristics required for the job, and because of the lifestyle needed to be a top-tier interpreter, we interpreters are also very complicated. Not everyone is able to stand up in front of a crowd of thousands, and many would not be capable of speaking from a booth or a TV studio to millions of people around the world. It takes self-confidence, self-esteem, and courage to do it. These are the qualities of the professional interpreter, and they could also turn into our flaws or defects. All interpreters have a big ego, some can control it better, but the fact is that I have never met an interpreter without one. An ego is a good thing to have, and it comes in handy when interpreting for a dignitary or negotiating a contract. Yes, it is true that sometimes it jumps over the set limits and we have to reel it back. We all know it, we all have experienced it, and for this reason, we are all pretty much tolerant of the occasional diva explosion from our colleagues. We are grown-ups, we are professionals, and we all know how to live with it. The problem is when a colleague has an ego the size of the Sears Tower, she does nothing to control it, and this attitude affects the professional relationship with other colleagues, and gets on the way of the delivery of a quality professional interpreting service. Add to this mix the self-denial often caused by the same ego, and then you have an impossible situation that we all have lived through at one time during our careers.

I once worked with a colleague who at the time was more experienced than me. She was one of those pioneers of the profession who empirically became a good interpreter, in her particular market, which is different from mine as it is in another country, she was well-known and sought-after by some of the biggest names in the interpreting industry. She was widely respected, and in her old age she was also feared because of her influence on the market. She could ruin the future of an interpreter who was trying to access the highest levels with a simple phone call or comment.

In the past, I had worked at the same events she had worked, but until this occasion, I had never worked with her as a team. I was very impressed with the way she interacted with the colleagues, the organizers of the event, the speakers, and the media. It was evident that she knew her craft. I still remember thinking what a great experience this was going to be for me as the younger interpreter in the team (not a very common occurrence nowadays). My expectations collapsed little by little once we were in the booth. The first thing that shocked me was her total ignorance of modern technology. She had no computer skills at all, she did not know what a Power Point was, and complained about the interpreter console because “…it had too many unnecessary bells and whistles that are never used in the booth”. Of course, as the senior interpreter, she started the speech. I was determined to be a good booth partner, to help her with all the “technology” and to be ready with words, terms, water, anything she would need during her rendition. I was paying more attention to her work than I had for a long time, and I was so disappointed. Her speech was choppy as she seemed to get distracted very easily, soon she lagged way behind the speaker, and when she reached the point of no return because of her distance from the source language speech, she just skipped parts of the presentation; some of them crucial to the rest of the speech. The only notes she passed me were complaints about the sound; she claimed it was very low, but in reality it was extremely loud, you could even hear it without the earphones. When she finished her shift and handed me the microphone, she told me that she was going to step outside to talk to the sound technician because it was “impossible to hear the speaker.” I had no problem hearing everything he said during my shift. At the break she informed me that she was very upset because the equipment was bad, the technician had not fixed the problem and he was rude, and that she was going to look for the agency representative to ask him to tell the speakers to speak louder so they can be heard in the booth. I was very uncomfortable with the situation. When she went to look for the people she needed to find to formally complain, I grabbed a cup of coffee with the other Spanish interpreters who were working other rooms during the same event. One of them was a colleague from my market who I know very well. She had worked many times with this “living-legend” when she was at the peak of her career and also recently. I thought she would be a good person to talk to before I decided what to do next. After she listened to my story, nodding in agreement most of the time, she clearly told me that it would be better to leave things as they were. She stated that next to this interpreter, truly an “institution of the interpreting profession”, my credibility was zero, and that the only thing I would accomplish was to be blacklisted from future events, and nothing else. “Don’t you think that all of these colleagues feel exactly as you do? They all do, but they know there’s nothing we can do about it. Just forget it, do your best, and next time she will be dead or you will have another booth partner.” I followed the advice and did nothing.

My colleague was right, I returned the following year, and although the diva was there, I had a different partner in the booth. I felt bad for this new young woman who was in the booth with her, but that was not my problem this time around.

A few years later I received an offer to work as an interpreter of some business negotiations that would require a lot of consecutive interpreting, as part of the job would consist of inspecting mines, manufacturing plants, and exposition pavilions. The job was to last ten days. Because it was interesting, challenging, and well-paid, I immediately accepted the assignment without even asking who would be my colleague for the job. Of course, it was her! The only difference is that now this was about five years later and it would be consecutive interpretation in crowded places where it would be difficult to hear and be heard.

The assignment was a disaster. She could not hear anything and was constantly asking for repetitions to the point of making the parties lose their concentration. Her consecutive was non-existing; after the speaker uttered three words, she would jump in the middle of a statement doing a simultaneous rendition without equipment and with a voice so weak that nobody could hear it. People started to complain because there was a big contrast between her “consecutive” rendition full of requests for repetitions, and constantly stopping the speaker after just a few words, all in a voice so soft that nobody (including me just a few inches away from her) could hear. My consecutive was delivered without interruptions or repetitions and in a powerful voice. The worst part was that she was leaving out of her rendition many important details and she was giving the wrong figures, amounts, prices, etc.

This is when I decided to talk to her. This was five years after the first experience when I decided to remain silent, and during these period of time I had worked plenty of times in this market and was now well-known and respected by colleagues, promoters and agencies. In other words, I felt more confident of my share of the market than five years earlier. I also knew that if we didn’t do something the negotiations would collapse and the project would end in disaster.

That evening I invited my colleague to have a drink at the bar of the hotel. After some small talk, I spoke before she started complaining about everything, I told her that her consecutive had not been complete and that the clients had complained to me that she was interrupting them all the time in order to “interpret” what had been said. I told her that it was very difficult to hear her because she was speaking very softly without making any effort to project her voice. I even told her that her consecutive rendition was always in a softer voice than her normal conversational voice, and that this could be understood as lack of confidence because she did not remember what the speaker had just said in the source language. Finally, I asked her if she was willing to at least try to do the assignment as we had been asked to do it (consecutively) in which case I would do everything I could do to help her, or if she was not comfortable doing so, I asked her if it would be better for me to request a different interpreter for the rest of the job. She immediately became very angry. She blamed it all on me, and accused me of speaking very loud to contrast her more “feminine voice” and turn all the clients against her. She called me a liar and said that her consecutive rendition was impeccable and better than mine. She even claimed that I could not hear the speakers either, but since I was too chicken to complain, I had been inventing half of what I had interpreted. She got up and before storming out of the bar, she told me that she had never been disrespected like that before, that she was staying, and that she was going to ask for me to be taken off the assignment. After she left I was very upset and frustrated by her self-denial boosted by her gargantuan ego, but at the same time I felt a sense of relief: I had made my peace. The agency (and the client) would now decide if I had to leave the assignment. I remember thinking that I did not want to leave, I was enjoying the subject matter and wanted to see how these negotiations were going to end, but at the same time, If I had to leave I would still get paid for the entire assignment, and I had set the record straight with my colleague the diva.

The following morning I got a phone call from the agency informing me that my colleague had had a personal problem overnight and unfortunately she had left the assignment. I stayed on the job until the end and I got another colleague who was very easy to work with and had an excellent consecutive rendition. Months later I learned from another colleague that the client had sent a quality evaluation to the agency complaining about my diva colleague and praising the services rendered by the substitute colleague and me. I also saw on the diva’s online profile that now she does not do consecutive interpretation assignments. I have run into the diva interpreter a few times after this incident, mainly at interpreter gatherings; sometimes she politely greets me, and sometimes she ignores me pretending that I am not there. I now ask you to share with the rest of us some experience that you had with an interpreter whose ego was out of control or was in total denial.

An Ethical Myth: As Interpreters and Translators “We Are Not Allowed to Talk Fees”.

September 10, 2012 § 25 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

For many years I have heard colleagues say that we cannot talk about what we charge. I have seen how a simple question about price can turn the sweetest colleagues into the meanest medieval executioners. The reason for this behavior? Someone told somebody a long time ago that it was illegal to talk about what we charge as professionals.  I must confess that this “ethical principle” (not compiled anywhere by the way) has always bother me, but after seeing how a simple question about fees turns interpreters into the Incredible Hulk, for a long time I kept my mouth shut, I looked the other way.

The thing is, I cannot do it anymore!  The more I teach about interpreter ethics, the more I see how this myth has done a disservice to the profession.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right to free speech to all individuals in this country. It has no limitations except for the ones set by the Court (You cannot scream “Fire!” inside a movie theater) and by the law: civil and criminal liability in cases of libel or slander.  Out of these exceptions, free speech is probably the most cherished human right in the world.

According to the United States Constitution,  Can I go around talking about my interpretation and translation fees with everybody? Yes I can! But, Why did they tell me that it was against the law and that I could lose my court certification if I did?  Because of a misunderstanding.  The law prohibits monopolies, it is illegal to fix prices for goods and services. The market should decide how much my services are worth.  In other words, I can talk about my fees with all my colleagues, clients, relatives, etc., I can even advertise them on line, over the phone, on TV, and the list goes on.  The thing we cannot do is get together and decide on a universal price for a service. Fixing prices is against the law. But, if you just talk about fees, even if more than one interpreter or translator ends up charging exactly the same,  there is nothing to worry about.

Think of it this way: Gas stations sell the same product, they advertise their prices on the road for everybody to see, they are often next to each other, and may times they charge the same price. It is perfectly legal because they have not fixed the price. That is why the guy down the street sells gas for less and maybe for that reason he makes more money.

Next time a colleague asks you how much you charge for a day of conference, per translated word, or I ask you your hourly rate for a deposition, engage in the conversation, there is nothing wrong. You will learn from this experience and so will your colleagues.  We need to know the law to obey it and to exercise our rights.  My question to all of you is: Even if you know that discussing fees is not illegal, Do you feel comfortable doing it?  If you do not, I am curious to read your reasons for not talking price with other colleagues.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with price at The Professional Interpreter.