”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.

What interpreters should do when asked to charge less for their services.

September 13, 2016 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Lately, it seems to me that there are requests everywhere for interpreters to work for less and even for free. Whether it is the Olympic Games, the political campaign events in the United States, or the community organizers’ voter registration actions.  Everybody seems to want a free ride.  At first impression, it looks like these are worthy causes and we as interpreters should be on board; unfortunately, when you take a second look at the request, you start wondering what is really going on. You see, Olympic Games’ organizers ask us to provide our professional services for free, they tell us it is a righteous idea, it will help to bring people together, and it will contribute to world peace. Then you realize that the physicians, paramedics, attorneys, dietitians, and many other professionals involved with the Olympic movement are not doing their jobs for free, they are getting paid for their professional services.  The same thing happens when you notice that the person asking you to volunteer your interpreting services to a political campaign or to a community organization’s event are paid staffers who do nothing for free. Something is not quite right.

Principled causes and ideas are great and we celebrate their existence, but professional services should always be remunerated, regardless of the virtuous cause they help advance. Otherwise, professionals should only get paid for awful, despicable activities. Under this criteria, healthcare workers should always work for free.

This reminds me of an occasion, many years ago, when a judge asked me to interpret a restraining order application form for free. When I refused stating that I would not do it unless I was paid for the professional service, the judge told me that it would be my fault if I refused and the victim was later harmed by the alleged perpetrator she was seeking protection from. He said that I was greedy.

Despite the fact that this judge was backed by an ignorant selfish interpreter coordinator at that courthouse, I immediately responded that my services were professional, just like the judge’s. I then asked him what kind of moral authority he had to scold me for not working for free while at the same time he was making a pretty fat check for presiding over the hearing. I did not interpret and I never knew what was of that alleged victim that a judge refused to help, because it was up to him to lend her a hand by just approving the payment of my professional interpreting services of the restraining order application.  You see, it is easy to be a Good Samaritan when it is on other people’s dime, it is more difficult when it affects you directly.

It is easy to ask for volunteer work when you are getting paid for asking others. I have nothing against volunteer, charitable work, but it has to be on my terms. I am a professional just like the physician, or the judge of my story, I run my own practice and I have to generate an income to cover expenses and to live the way I want to live; in my particular case, I work hard and provide an excellent professional service to be able to live my lifestyle.

As professionals, we must never lower a fee to give someone a break because they are poor, needy, or just need a break to get back on their feet.  You see, the day you agree to reduce your fee to a client, regardless of the motivation behind your decision, will be the last time you were able to charge your regular fee. From that point on, because everything gets to everybody’s ears in this world, all clients will always ask why you are charging them a full fee when you charged a lower amount to another client.  It is a dead end with no return.  It is a terrible business decision. I think you are starting to see why a lawyer or a doctor ask you to lower your fee for their “needy client or patient” while at the same time they charge them their regular fee.  When someone asks you to provide a professional service for free or at a reduced fee they are belittling the profession; they are automatically placing you in a separate category from the one where doctors, engineers and accountants are.  To lower your fee is a disgrace.

People, clients included should know that they will always be able to find someone else willing to work for a lower fee, but you are not that person. Your services are of the highest quality and that goes hand in hand with a robust fee.  On the other hand, because we should have a spirit of social empathy and solidarity, we must provide certain services pro bono.

Please pay close attention to what I am about to say:  As a professional, I am who decides when to volunteer my services, I decide the causes that are worthy of my time and effort. Professional interpreters should set aside a time for these free services, buy it should be at a time and place you decide; that way you can set the time aside when it does not interfere with your professional practice or your personal life.  You should designate, let’s say, the first Saturday of the month from 8 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon to assist anyone who needs your services for free, and you should do it at a church, community center, or similar venue. During that time, chosen by you, you will interpret legal, healthcare, school or any other community situations that those attending the facility during the previously set hours many need. Once the time is up, and at any other time, you will only see full-fee paying clients.  This is very different from living at the mercy of others who may want you to provide free or discounted professional services at times when you should be taking care of your professional obligations towards your paying clients.  This will immediately put you on the driver’s seat and will make it clear to everyone that you charge for your services, and sometimes, when the cause is righteous, and on your terms, you provide services free of charge. By doing so, you are not lowering the professional standards, you are not harming your own practice, and you are not insulting the profession.

Next time that you are asked to lower your fees or to work for free because the client deserves a break, stand firm on your regular fees, and if you decide that you want to provide a service for free, not discounted, then let that person know the terms of your pro bono services.  I ask you to please share your thoughts on this very delicate issue that is vital to us as individuals trying to make a living, and to the profession at large.

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