We should act more like professionals and less like merchants.

April 29, 2019 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Interpreters are constantly fighting to be recognized as a profession, to be respected by their clients, and to be treated and remunerated as providers of a specialized service that requires a strong academic background. Although most interpreters strive to be viewed as fellow professionals of physicians, engineers, attorneys and accountants, many colleagues, including freelance interpreters, behave more like a tradesperson than a professional.

Because of poor legislation, pervasive ignorance, and a myth that any bilingual can interpret, the idea that professional interpreting services can be provided by a commercial agency has been accepted, or at least tolerated, around the world. Professional services have been bought and sold like commodities by businesspeople foreign to interpreting, stingy government agencies, and unscrupulous interpreters willing to sell out their profession to make a quick buck.

A world where physicians provide their services through a commercial agency’s model is unimaginable. Attorneys’ Bars around the world would oppose, and destroy, any efforts to sell legal representation by agencies where a high school teenager, calling herself a project manager, were to assign lawyers to their clients on an availability basis, without considering quality or experience to decide on the attorney who gets the case. Interpreters see this happening every day and do nothing about it. Not even freelancers question this commercial model; they join these merchants and help to undermine their own profession.

I am not naïve. Multinational interpreting agencies are powerful, greedy organizations willing to fight for what they consider their “industry” to the end. They launch advertising campaigns, misinformation efforts to convince potential customers (they do not have clients) that hiring an interpreter is very difficult; that it can only be done through an agency. They spend time and money convincing freelance interpreters they are their allies; they procure them work, deal with the customer, and pay them a fare “rate” (they do not pay professional fees) after taking the portion of the paycheck they have morally earned. Interesting that agencies never disclose interpreters what they charge their customers, and force freelancers to remain silent when approached by one of the customers about their professional fees or availability.

We will not get rid of these agencies, but I know that interpreters will only be viewed as professionals when they act the part. I also know that some, few, are managed by good people.

There are many colleagues around the world who work as I do. We operate as a doctor’s office or a law office work. When contacted by a client about an assignment that will require the services of interpreters in five languages, I provide my client with the name and contact information of trusted colleagues with the experience and language combination needed for the assignment. If the potential project involves languages commonly used in my part of the world, or several interpreters in my own language combination, I even forward the inquiry to my trusted colleagues, my allies. My client takes it from there and individually negotiates the fee. I also suggest, and sometimes forward, the request to a trusted equipment/technical support provider. The client negotiates costs directly with them. It is like going to a building where many physicians have their offices, all independent, but all trusted colleagues; they suggest one of their colleagues depending on the field of specialization needed by the patient, but each doctor negotiates and sends a separate bill. These professional alliances, professional groups, are a network of professionals who know each other’s quality of work, ethical values, and language combinations. The client has to pay the professional interpreters individually, but he need not look for interpreters with the right experience, language pairs, or availability. That is all done by the interpreter who the client contacted first. That interpreter is the point of contact who suggests colleagues she will vouch for, and she is moved by no other interest but her client’s satisfaction. She will not subcontract the other interpreters, she will not charge them a commission or referral fee, she will only do what all physicians do when you go to their office and they suggest you see the dentist downstairs or the eye doctor next door.

There will be instances when you cannot help the client. There are languages you never work with. Sometimes doctors cannot recommend a colleague because they have no proctologist in the building. That does not mean that the professional network they offer to their patients has no value.

My good clients love this option. They understand it is difficult to get quality in all booths. They trust me and know that I would not jeopardize my reputation by referring them to a mediocre interpreter. They know I suggest nobody services because they are cheap. They also trust my judgement and experience a lot more than they trust a young monolingual person with no practical or theoretical knowledge of the profession, who calls himself “project manager” and has met none of the interpreters he will line up for a job. Clients know that project managers abide by company rules and guidelines which include: profit at all costs. They know their professional pool is limited because they can only provide interpreters willing to work with the agency in exchange for lower fees, inadequate working conditions, and disrespectful treatment.  This professional network model operates as a virtual office where my trusted colleagues are all over the world. It has no time or space limitations.

Interpreters who want to grow and expand to a larger scale should do it, but they should do it as law firms do. Incorporate as a professional corporation or a limited liability corporation, not a commercial enterprise like agencies do. These solutions will let you work as formal partners or shareholders and protect from liability without giving up your professional identity. We need not look or operate like an agency. They are not us.

They want to commoditize our profession and turn it into an industry. They are outsiders with a different set and scale of values. We are professionals. We should act as such. I know many of you are already doing what I described. I also know many colleagues will dismiss these ideas and even defend the agency commercial model. I am aware professional associations are guided by board members who own agencies, and as we have seen, even board members refuse to recuse themselves from voting in association matters when there is a conflict of interest between interpreters and agencies. Finally, I know some interpreters are not ready to freelance, they fear they cannot get clients outside the agency world, or they are content with little money. There, stay with the agencies, that is what you like and deserve.  I now invite you to share your thoughts on this critical issue for our recognition as professional service providers.

Interpreters: Your clients, and your clients’ clients.

June 4, 2018 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I get goosebumps every time I hear freelance interpreters talk about their “boss”. I am constantly surprised at the huge number of independent contractor colleagues who refer to the authorities at the agencies, hospitals and courthouses they provide interpreter services for as their bosses.

This is an abomination when used to describe the other party to a professional services contractual relationship, now exacerbated by the very dangerous ruling by the United States National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in SOSi where it ordered this interpreting agency to reclassify its interpreters working as independent contractors as employees. SOSi is appealing the decision, and we will discuss it in depth on a future post.

Our concern today is the conscious or subconscious lack of understanding of the professional services relationship derived from a contract where an independent interpreter is the service provider.

Freelance interpreters are independent professionals who provide their services for a fee. The terms of such services and fees are agreed upon by the interpreter providing the service and the individual or corporation recipient of the interpreting services in a contract. The parties to this contract are: The professional (who provides the interpretation, in other words, the interpreter) and the recipient of the professional service, called the client.

Yes, dear friends and colleagues, as freelance professional interpreters we provide our services to a counterpart called the client. Our main contractual duty is to render the interpreting services as agreed with the client, and the client’s main obligation is to pay the agreed fee in exchange for those services. The contract is called: Professional services contract.

Freelance interpreters are independent professionals free to choose the clients they want, under the terms they see fit, and for the service they picked. There is no authority figure over the freelance interpreter. All duties, responsibilities and obligations are contained in a voluntary contract (oral or written), a professional code of ethics, and the legislation governing the profession in a particular jurisdiction.  Client and interpreter are equals. There is no boss.

Bosses exist in labor relations where a part: the employee, is in a subordinate position to the other: the employer or boss, who gives directions, orders, and instructions to the subordinate who must comply with these commands during working hours, in exchange for a fixed wage. Employer and employee are not equals in this relationship. An employee cannot choose what she does. If she does not comply she will be sanctioned and even fired.

Webster states that: a client is “… a person who engages the professional advice or services of another…” Oxford tells us that a client is “…a person or organization using the services of a lawyer or other professional person or company…”

Interpreting is a profession. Interpreters perform a professional service. Interpreters, like all professional service providers, have clients.

Here we see then that we must not call a client a boss because it is inaccurate, and it immediately puts the interpreter at a disadvantage. Calling your client “boss” creates a subservient relationship in your mind that will quickly translate into an attitude and lifestyle. It paralyzes the interpreter as she or he will no longer feel capable or worthy of arguing work conditions, professional fees, or assignments.

For those of you who see judges, doctors, court and hospital administrators, and language service agencies: Eliminate that thought. It is wrong. They are your clients, and you can negotiate and refuse assignments when you consider it appropriate.  Your duties and responsibilities to do a professional top-notch job come from the contract, the legislation, and from your professionalism. You do a good job because you are a professional who wants to provide a good service because you want to keep the client, or you just want to do the right thing. You don’t do it because you have somebody breathing on your neck looking over your shoulder micromanaging everything you do. You do not need someone telling you how to dress for an assignment, or reminding you to get there on time. However, as long as you see the client as your boss, they will act as your employer.

Professional interpreters have clients and charge professional fees. They do not charge rates. A commercial product vendor or a non-professional service supplier do not have clients. They have customers. A customer buys goods or non-professional services from a business. Webster defines them as: “…one that purchases a commodity or service…” Oxford gives more details when it tells us that a customer is “…a person who buys goods or services from a shop or business…” Unlike professionals, these merchants get a rate or a price in exchange for the goods or non-professional services purchased.

Physicians and dentists are professional service providers, so they technically have clients, but for historical reasons, and due to the nature of their services, these service recipients are called patients. According to the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics (AMA), physicians must be “…dedicated to providing competent medical care, with compassion and respect for human dignity and right.” It also considers that people with an illness must wait to see a doctor or to be treated, and that requires patience. Webster indicates that a patient is “…an individual awaiting or under medical care and treatment…”  To Oxford it is “…a person receiving or registered to receive medical treatment…”

I have observed how many freelance interpreters have a hard time separating their client from others who may participate in the process like vendors and providers. The convention center or hotel events center are not the interpreter clients, they are vendors who provided the facility so there can be a conference. Unless the interpreter hired them directly, they have no contractual relation with the interpreter. They are the interpreters’ clients’ problem. The same can be said for the technical support: booths, interpreting equipment, sound system, etc. Unless they were hired directly by the interpreters, these are also suppliers who have a contract with the interpreters’ client, not with the interpreters. They are not your problem either.

Another common mistake is to confuse the direct beneficiary of the interpretation with the interpreter’s client. Usually, they are not your client. The five hundred people in the auditorium listening to your rendition are the direct beneficiaries of your professional rendition. Without you they could not attend the event; however, they are not your clients. They are your client’s clients. As professionals we must accommodate all reasonable requests by the audience and the speakers, but they are not the ones paying your fee. They are paying your client because they are your client’s clients. For this reason if a person in the auditorium asks you to speak louder, you may consider the request, and even honor it when reasonable; but if somebody attending the conference asks you to take a recorder to the booth and record the rendition for him, you will decline, and direct him to your client (please read my blog post on what to do in this situation).

Dear friends and colleagues, as professional interpreters who provide our services as freelancers we have many clients we choose. We decide who we want as our client, and who we do not. We have the last word on whether we do an assignment, and when a professional relationship with a client must end. We set and negotiate the terms of our work, our pay, and out booth mates.  Employees do not get to do this because they have a boss: the employer. We do not. We practice in a world where we are equals with our counterparts in a professional contractual relationship. We do a magnificent job, we accommodate all reasonable requests of our clients’ clients, and we cooperate and support other providers and suppliers such as facility workers and technical support staff, but we do it because we are professionals and we have made a business decision to keep the client we want to keep, not because we are told to do so. Please stop referring to your client as your “boss”, and the next time a project manager tells you what to wear to an assignment, to be on time; or the next time a hotel waiter tells you not to have a cup of coffee, please stand up for your dignity and that of the profession. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this issue.

Professional values and interpreter identity affirmed at a dental office.

January 5, 2016 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I spend most of the year traveling for work. To me, travel is a priceless tool that lets me peek through a window and see the world as it is, unfiltered and first-hand. It was something that happened during my last trip of 2015 that made me think about who I am as an interpreter, what I need professionally, and in my opinion what the true professional interpreter and translator need so we can be better at what we do for living.

Last week, while in Mexico City, I lost a tooth filling and I had to go to a local dental office to take care of it.  Fortunately there was no pain, but this is one of those things that you have to take care of right away, so I made an appointment the following morning to see a local dentist.  For those of you who have received all of your dental care in the United States this would be a true cultural experience.  The first thing that surprised me was that as soon as I was sitting in the waiting room the dentist who was going to take care of my tooth came out to let me know that it would not be long before they call me to see him.

Even more shockingly, there was absolutely no paperwork to fill out. Being used to answering endless questionnaires and signing tons of forms and releases in the United States before seeing anybody from the medical profession, I have to admit that I was surprised. Then, almost instantly, it sank in: This was a professional dental practice managed by professional dentists who thought and acted like members of the dental profession. They saw me as a person who needed a professional service: I was a patient. It never crossed their minds that I was a customer, they never saw their job as an industry. There was no need for endless paperwork for the assembly line because I was dealing with real professionals in a field where there is no room for commodities. There were no forms, releases, or “cover your butt” documents to read and sign because the dentists were calling the shots, not the insurance companies, not the pharmaceutical conglomerates, not the professional associations that are in bed with all of these other members of the cast who are in the dentists’ environment, but hold different and many times opposing interests and points of view to those of the professional delivering the service that I was there for.  The service was delivered professionally and promptly and I left the dental office happy and satisfied with the way they treated me and the services I received.

Dear friends and colleagues, I saw in action what many of us have tried to do throughout our careers, and at the same time, I saw the ugly face of that “reality”, foreign to our profession, that so many are trying to sell us as the true state of affairs and the future of the “industry”.   Thanks to a dental problem in a foreign country I got to see what our profession really looks when the decisions are made by interpreters and translators instead of multinational agencies, incompetent project managers, and corrupt entities who want us to believe that we belong at the industrial park with the car manufacturer and the sweat shop, when in reality we are part of the professional services provider world with the physician, the lawyer, and the dentist among others who are downtown and very far away from the language maquiladoras where some want us to live.

I was a direct client, in this case a direct patient, who entered a professional services relationship with the professional to deliver the dental care.  I paid a professional fee for the service rendered, and I was treated like a valuable individual. The fact that I met the dentist from the get go, made me feel comfortable and safe, even in a place as scary as a dental office with all of its sounds and smells. I had peace of mind throughout the entire episode because I always felt, and knew, that I was dealing with the person who knew what needed to be done: the professional dentist.

My friends and colleagues, this is exactly what we need to do every day. We have to deal with the client directly, we need to get them to experience the abysmal difference between on one hand dealing with a professional interpreter or translator who knows the field, can solve problems, and can deliver a world-class service at a well-deserved and earned world-class professional fee, and on the other hand having to deal with ignorant front desk individuals, monolingual agency owners, and unscrupulous multinational entities who many times charge as much as a real top-notch professional interpreter or translator and pocket most of it while paying the timid, scared or mediocre individual who translated the documents or interpreted the event a fee that even a beggar would consider an insult; and on top of all that, they see them as customers in a made-up industry, instead of clients getting a professional service.

A visit to a dentist in Mexico City motivated me to reaffirm my commitment to the profession, and inspired me to continue to practice a professional service without falling for those self-serving sophisms spreading the idea that we are not professionals but part of an “industry”.  At this time of the year when most people make New Year’s determinations, I ask you to join me on this commitment to defend the profession and our livelihood from these outside forces who want to vanish the idea that a professional works and acts like that dentist who I met in Mexico City last week.  I now invite you to share your comments on the issue of how you are educating your clients about the big differences and huge risks of hiring a “maquiladora interpreter or translator” from the “industry” instead of a professional.

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