What are really interpreter fees?

November 9, 2020 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The following post first appeared on the website of the International Association of Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI). I wrote it for members of the association, but I believe it is also relevant to this blog:

There seems to be a mystique around interpreters’ fees; how do interpreters set them, how they charge, what they charge for; what is it that they do. I thought that, as head of IAPTI’s Interpreters Committee, and practicing professional interpreter, I should cover the issue. This will clarify what we do, and educate the public.

First, because semantics matter, and they carry a tremendous psychological weight, notice I am referring to interpreters’ fees, not rates. In legal terms, a fee is “a charge…for an official or professional service…” (Black’s Law Dictionary Sixth Edition, West Publishing CO. 1990 p. 614). A rate is an “…amount of charge or payment… for a service open to all and upon the same terms…” and it goes to say: “a rate which applies to… a specific commodity alone…” (Black’s Law Dictionary Sixth Edition, West Publishing CO. 1990 p. 1261). Interpreting is a professional service, and professional services are remunerated by the payment of fees. Rates apply to much commercial services offered to the public, such as airfare rates for example. Rates are paid for commodities. Interpreting services, just like translations, are not commodities. While a consumer pays a rate for a service within an industry, a client pays a fee in exchange of professional services. Interpreting is not an industry; it is a profession.

I will not deal with the concept of how much an interpreter should charge. Because we do not want to get in a controversy about fixing interpreting fees, we will leave that issue alone. It is not relevant to describe an explain what interpreter fees really are.

Each professional interpreter has to decide how much to charge, we have to individually consider what we will consider when setting our fees. Some may include certain concepts that others may not. Formal education, continuing professional formation, years of experience, cultural knowledge specific to a certain nation or social group, and other elements could be considered by many. In the past I have dealt with these issues on my blog: “The Professional Interpreter” (“How should interpreters set their fees.” The Professional Interpreter blog. 2/19/2015 https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2015/02/19/how-should-interpreters-set-their-fees/). Today I will focus on what is behind an interpreter fee.

A good interpretation looks easy, even when you do not know the target language, you can almost hear a melody coming out of the booth and into your earpiece. It sounds fluent, firm, clear and pleasant. It leaves people with the idea that interpreters have an easy job: They travel around the world, get to meet famous people and visit important places, and they have only to sit in a booth for a few hours and speak one language they already know.

People think like this until the day they try to informally interpret for a friend or relative at a restaurant, hotel, or airport. They now realize it is hard to remember everything their friend said and repeat it consecutively. They experience how it is almost impossible to listen to their friend as she speaks in one language while simultaneously speaking the language of the hotel, restaurant, or airline clerk. They see it is very difficult to shadow a speaker even in their same language.

Interpreters do this every day, and they do it under gigantic pressure, and they do it on any topic, regardless of the complexity level. Now try to do what you did with your friend at the airport in a summit involving heads of state; a TV event watched by millions, a death penalty trial, or a highly charged multi-million-dollar negotiation. Then, without being a scientist, or a college professor, or a professional athlete, try to do it on a medical topic, a philosophy conference, or a FIFA World Championship press conference. Did you think that you will be interpreting for many people who do not understand the source language used by the speaker, but they are all specialists in the topics to be discussed during the event?

Finally, add the physical challenge of doing this shortly after arriving to the venue having traveled thirty thousand kilometers, and twenty time zones, in a different hemisphere.

Specialized, professional, expensive service.

Because of technology and globalization, interpreters have to fight for a compensation according to the skills needed to provide their services. The appearance of multinational and smaller local interpreting languages in the market has brought a new actor to the stage. Somebody with no linguistic or cultural link to the profession: the businessperson, or merchant whose main concern is the bottom line, and tries to lower interpreter fees by devaluating what interpreters do. Entrusting their profitability to recruiters and project managers who often know next to nothing about the profession, they have developed scams such as paying interpreters by the minute interpreted!

These guidelines, set by ambitious people foreign to the profession, convince the inexperienced and the needy interpreter to provide their professional services by the minute in telephonic interpreting, and by the hour in other situations, including conference interpreting. I have encountered agencies who wanted to pay for three and one half or four hours in the booth, instead of a full day, arguing that I had just interpreted half of the time and my boothmate had worked during the other half.

Interpreters must charge by the day because Interpreting is a professional personal service. Unlike a civil engineer who can build a bridge and a building at the same time, interpreters can only do one job at a time. If I am in booth “A” all day, I cannot work in booth “B” because I cannot cut myself in half. It is estimated that for each day of work in the booth (or elsewhere) interpreters need to prepare for at least another two days. That is three days the interpreter cannot work for anybody but the client who retained him for one day. If the assignment is away, and the interpreter needs to travel the day before, and go back home on the day after the assignment, it is now 5 days for a one-day assignment in the booth. If the other interpreter is actively working for the next thirty minutes, the passive interpreter is supporting his boothmate; and even if he leaves the booth to use the restroom, he cannot work for anybody else because he cannot cut himself in half. Thinking that an interpreter charges a certain fee for 7 hours in the booth is never accurate. In reality, he is charging much less. Divide that daily fee into all the days the interpreter invested in a single day in the booth. Interpreters do not charge exorbitant fees. You just need to scratch beneath the surface to notice.

The same applies to our colleagues working in courthouses, community centers, hospitals, schools, call centers, and remotely from home. They also need to prepare and travel (even if it is during rush hour in a big city). They can do no other work. They can procure no other income while they sit in court waiting for their case to be called, or in the hospital waiting area until they call the patient. There is not such a thing as interpreting by the minute. That is a mirage created by the multinational agencies. Smoke and mirrors. Interpreters who interpret for five or ten minutes have to be on call all day or at least half a day. They need to be paid a daily fee. It is up to the agencies to be more creative and program a schedule where they have an interpreter busy for a full day interpreting for different hospitals and doctors’ offices. Interpreters rather do this. They want to work; they just don’t want to be insulted with a per-minute fee. No other professionals who charge for telephonic services charge by the minute. Attorneys start the timer before answering a client’s call, and they charge for the time the telephone call lasted plus several minutes before and after the call with a minimum charge of thirty minutes even if the call lasted 2 minutes. Just like interpreters, attorneys sell their time, and it takes time to recuperate your concentration after the phone call so you can go back to what you were doing before. That is because the attorney can generate no other professional income. I know this. I used to practice law. Interpreters need to shake this per minute and per hour concept off their minds. Agencies argue this is the telephonic interpreting model and arguing against it is not knowing what we are talking about. Go tell that to a lawyer.

Court and legal interpreters need to charge by the day also. For once, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts was right when they implemented a full-day, half-day payment system. States and private practitioners must follow. It is up to the interpreter to educate and demand. You can start by charging by the hour, but requiring a four-hour minimum.

To conclude: Interpreters provide a professional personal service which requires of great skill and broad knowledge. They sell their services one client at a time, and their service goes well beyond the rendition itself. Because interpreters sell their time, they must be paid by the day, not by the hour, and never by the minute.

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.

In tough times: Raise your fees!

May 14, 2018 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Globalization has created a world market where we all compete, regardless of our location. Although this has raised professional fees for some colleagues in places with small economies, it has hurt most interpreters to a different degree, depending on whether they stuck to their local economy and clients, or they went to the international market and taking advantage of new technology acquired clients they would have never even considered before globalization. In a market like the United States, with very high speed internet, thousands of airports and flights to every corner of the planet, and a very reliable infrastructure, many of us felt no downturn in our business; in fact, we benefited from the change.

Unfortunately, and without getting into politics, some recent U.S. government decisions, and later changes to the way we did business and conducted our international relations, have created a state of uncertainty, and sometimes resentment, which have affected our profession.

Some of the conferences and international events we had interpreted for many years have been cancelled; others have been moved to other countries due to the uncertainty on the admission of visitors to the United States, as the organizers avoided the risk of investing on a project that a significant segment of attendees could not attend because of their country of origin. For the same reason, many international programs at universities, non-for-profit organizations, and government agencies have been considerably downsized or postponed. The situation for community interpreters is not any better, because less foreigners in the country means less litigation and less foreign investment, which impacts court and legal interpreters; and when foreigners visit the United States less frequently, they use hospital and medical services at a lower rate. This hurts healthcare interpreters.

Faced with this reality, it was time for me to decide how I was to continue to enjoy the same income level despite the new reality we are living; and turn this poison into medicine and even generate more income than before.

Many freelancers get scared when they find themselves in this position, and their first impulse is to lower their fees to keep the clients they have, and to advertise their services at a lower fee than before. They operate under the false idea that money is the main motivator in a client decision making process.

Fortunately, my professional experience has showed me that quality trumps price in everything a client values. That is why people spend more money on a better doctor, a safer airline, and a renowned university. All have cheaper alternatives, but with the things people value the most, there is always a thought that crosses their mind: “It is more expensive but, if not for this, what is money for?” At that point I decided to raise my professional fees.

With this in mind, I carefully studied my client portfolio and classified my clients according to their business value, considering the income they produce me, how frequently they require of my services, the affinity of the type of work I do for them to my personal interests, and the prestige a certain client brings to you in the professional world. I considered a separate category for difficult clients, but to my surprise these were very few, and I needed them for my plan to work.

I immediately realized there were clients on that list I wanted to keep no matter what, and there were others that I would lose regardless of my best efforts. They were in a category where my work was not one of those services that they value the most.

I approached my clients according to how badly I wanted to keep them. If I really wanted them, I would explain this change in person when possible, or by phone or Skype if they were abroad or if their schedule could not fit me within a reasonable period of time. Next, I decided to contact the rest by e-mail on a carefully worded communication that was clear, not too long, and that ended with an open invitation to discuss this raise in more depth in person or by phone if they wanted to do so.

It would be a conciliatory email. No ultimatums, or “take it, or leave it” type of notice. I was out to make friends, not to fight with my clients. I knew that I had two things working in my favor: They already knew my work, and I already knew how they like their interpreting.

For my strategy to succeed, I needed to present my proposal to somebody with the authority to decide. Talking to somebody down the totem pole would be a waste of my time. I decided that I would only talk or write to owners of small companies or agencies, and to senior management in larger corporations, organizations, and government agencies. (There is a video on this subject on my YouTube Channel).

I drafted a talking points memo to be used with my “A” list clients when I told them I was raising my fees. The points I would make to the client had nothing to do with globalization, current American politics, or the uncertain future interpreters were facing in the United States. I recapped the successes we had in the past, and I listed some of the professional things I do for them that are not always found in other interpreting services, but I was not heavy about it. I figured that if they had agreed to talk in person or by phone, it was because they already considered me an asset to their company. It was all about the quality of my professional service and the time and effort I would devote to the success of their conferences, projects, and other events.

I lost some clients, none from the “A” list, all those who stayed with me are now happily paying the new higher fees as they are now getting a more personalized service, and because of this new practice, I have acquired new clients, who were in part, referred by my old clients who stayed with me despite the raise. We now have a better working relationship because they know more about what I do, and their internal decision making process to continue working with me made them realize my true value for their organization.

The lesson learned, dear friends and colleagues, is to face adversity with a cool mind, refuse to give in to fears and peer pressure, and with confidence and self-assurance face the problem and win. It is always better to make more money when appreciated, and an added benefit is that instead of contributing to an even bigger depression of our market, you will do your part to pull it out of the shadows of uncertainty. I now invite you to share with the rest of us what you are doing to win as a professional interpreter in this new reality of globalization and political uncertainty.

Immigration interpreters: Show courage, or prepare to die!

December 5, 2016 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Last week many of our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States received written communication from SOSi, the government’s contractor, asking them to accept a new adhesion policy, which would require them to bid as low as possible in order to qualify for continuing sub-contractor status, as immigration court interpreters, after their current contract expires in a few weeks.

This notice, in the form of an ultimatum, required interpreters to provide their lowest possible hourly “rate” bid for the entire period of performance, and would become the sole basis for priority of case assignments in the future.  Moreover, the agency set top possible fees according to language combinations, and indicated that those bidding above said amounts would not be considered.

The maximum fees to be used as point of departure for this dive to the bottom of the barrel are insulting at best.  If you received the communication you saw the proposed maximum amounts, but for those of you who did not, it is important to be aware of the fact that these fees are way below the court interpreting fees set by the other federal courts (Article Three). The communication expressly mentions that SOSi will not honor the full-day or half-day rates policy that all other federal courts observe.  They also decided that travel expenses will be standardized with no room for negotiation, ignoring variations in cost of living, weather impact on travel, and so on. Finally, for obvious corporate reasons such as lack of candidates to be exploited at this time, and keeping up with this “serf-landlord model”, the agency gives interpreters a chance to extend their present fee conditions for a period of 45 days or until the end of January 2017.

The current Article Three federal court interpreter fees are: for a full-day of work $418.00, for the first half of the day: $226.00, for the second half of the day: $192.00, and $59.00 per hour or part thereof when the interpretation goes past 8 hours.

If you consider that the above federal court fees are for interpreters working under better conditions, such as team interpreting, access to court files for preparation, sometimes one or two cases for the day, reimbursement of travel expenses according to cost of living of the place interpreters travel to; and then you compare it to the conditions historically endured by immigration court interpreters: working solo (with bathroom breaks if you are lucky) hostile treatment in many courts, dozens of cases when interpreting Master Hearings, etc., then you come to the natural conclusion that immigration court interpreters should make the same fees as other federal court interpreters, or perhaps even more if working conditions do not improve. We cannot forget the difference in time elapsed before payment either.  As you probably guessed, immigration court interpreters have to wait longer to see their meager paychecks.

I am not going to go back to my conversations with many of you about a year ago when I warned you of future deplorable working conditions with this agency, and many of you assured me that everything was fine, that you had negotiated a better deal than ever before, and that SOSi had realized that interpreters should be treated as professionals. Well, it turns out that I was right, and that all those of you who refused to sign a contract and decided to look for other green pastures did the appropriate thing, broaden their professional horizons, and avoided having to deal with an agency that is so demeaning to all professional interpreters.

Obviously, as I said before, these posts are directed to those real professional court interpreters who are constantly improving their skills and pursuing certification (or qualification for those languages where no certification is available). I have nothing for those who refuse to pursue certification; that avoid continuing education, or argue that immigration court interpreting is so unique that no professional credential can benefit them.

But to those proud professional immigration court interpreters who view their occupation as a professional service and understand the importance of what they do, I invite you to consider this: Another year went by and SOSi continues its path to commoditization of immigration court interpreting; they moved ahead with their plan to transform you into language laborers who will blindly obey any order given without questioning. Their goal is to profit as much as possible (nothing wrong with that) by creating the illusion that they are providing a professional service while in reality delivering sub-standard interpretations without any regard for the consequences on the lives of those directly (respondents) and indirectly (American society at large) involved (this is wrong).

Dear colleagues, this is your last chance to act; by next year the monster will be too big for you.  It is clear that the agency’s goal is to get the cheapest possible “interpreter” available, and to continue to look for a cheaper one. It is also clear that they do not have enough of these language laborers at this time. Thus the reason for them to extend your current contractual terms for another 45 days or so. They need this time to find your replacement, not based in quality, but in bargain price.

As of today, without you they have to close shop. They just cannot provide the service EOIR hired them to do. Understand that you have leverage, keep in mind that by next year, with a more aggressive prosecution of immigration cases under a new White House, EOIR will surely need more interpreters than ever before. It is simple demand and supply. Today you control your destiny.

For this reason, it is important that you act, seize the moment, and protect your dignity. I invite you all to send a message loud and clear to SOSi, EOIR, and the immigration attorneys. Send your bids for a fee not lower than the federal court interpreter fee, and send it for full-day, half-day, and overtime. Tell them that reimbursement of travel expenses will be negotiated on a case by case basis, and do not sign the contract extension. Moreover, send your bids to SOSi, but copy the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), your local immigration courthouse, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Let them all know that you are professionals providing a critical service to the administration of justice.

Explain that you cannot accept the proposed conditions because of the complexity of what you do. Tell judges and lawyers that a SOSi certification is not a court interpreter certification at all; let them know that Spanish interpreters can obtain a federal court certification, that other languages can get state-level certifications, and that for those languages with no certification program, there are other options to prove your professional qualifications such as college degrees, translator certifications by the American Translators Association (ATA) or a passing grade on the translator or seminary-level interpreter exams by the U.S. Department of State (DOS).

During the last twelve months I learned how many people at EOIR were under the impression that a certification by SOSi was the same as the federal court interpreter certification. I saw the faces of many immigration attorneys when they learned that so many of the interpreters they regularly use in immigration court are not court certified, and I heard many of them telling me that, knowing now of this lack of certification, they understood why they never saw them in any other courthouse.

It would be unfortunate to learn that some of you decided to lower your head and take the extension, or bid according to their unconscionable terms. It would also be a gigantic waste of the greatest opportunity you will ever have to finally professionalize immigration court interpreting. Giving in, or giving up at this time would be the first step to your professional death. Immigration court interpreters, it is time to show courage and determination, or to prepare to die.

I now invite you to share your comments on this important topic at this crucial time.

Are they trying to fool the interpreters and translators?

September 20, 2016 § 17 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

We have been under constant and merciless attacks from the big multinational language “industry” corporations for several years. These uninvited guests at the professional language services table have stubbornly fought to take away the market from the professionals who should service the clients through systematically minimizing the role of the interpreter and translator, and dehumanizing the profession by launching a campaign to convince the weak and uninformed that what we do is an “industry”, not a profession.

In the past we have discussed the oddity of having pharmaceutical companies in the same professional associations with the physicians, and we have talked of the way attorneys defend their craft so it continues to be known as the legal profession, not the legal “industry”. Sadly, as you know, there are individual interpreters, translators, and even professional associations in our field that have decided to tear down that barrier erected by all professions to protect both: the end client of the professional service and the professional service provider, and have happily commingled professional interests and concerns with those of corporate entities whose sole objective is to cut costs, provide a borderline service, as long as it is legal and acceptable, and profit as much as possible.  This translates into often deplorable working conditions for interpreters and translators and substandard, often insulting professional fees.

There is nothing wrong with commercial entities following this model. It is legal and that is what they were incorporated for. The problem arises when greedy professional associations, government bureaucrats, trainers, and individual interpreters and translators begin to campaign for this corporate interests completely disregarding the profession and those who provide quality services.  It is very dangerous to have all of these members and peripheral members of the profession ceaselessly attempting to convince professional interpreters and translators, new and old, that the way of the future leads to a profession bastardized by an “industry” where professional interpreters and translators will have to take their marching orders from minimum-wage high school level coordinators and project managers whose only priority is to squeeze everything they can get from the interpreter and translator and pay a fee (that they cleverly refer to as “rate” to rhyme with the “industry” philosophy they practice and try to propagate) worthy of a hamburger flipper, not a professional service provider. For years they have used scare tactics and “there is no other choice” arguments to coerce many weaker colleagues to give in and drink the “industry’s” Kool Aid.

First they tried to shame and ridicule professional interpreters and translators by spreading unfounded and hateful rumors that the real reasons for our opposition to the crowning of these multinational language “industry” service providers were our ignorance of new technologies and our fear of globalization.  Using their very deep pockets, they took this message to all corners of the earth and repeated these lies until many believed them as true.

We all know that professional interpreters and translators are not opposed to technology; it is common knowledge among our peers that we all welcome the opportunity to work and learn from other high-quality professional colleagues who live somewhere else in the world.  The truth that these entities do not want the professional service user-beneficiary to know is that interpreters oppose the laughable fee (again, referred to as “rate” by them) system these outsiders to the profession propose, where they offer to pay by-the-minute of interpreting service over the phone or video outlet, lower interpreting fees for remotely interpreted conferences because the interpreter “does not need to travel” despite the fact that the service, preparation and effort are the same whether the interpreter is at the venue or twelve time zones away. They forget, or choose to ignore, that their savings are already impacted by modern technology when they save transportation, lodging, Per Diem, and travel day fees customarily paid to interpreters in case of travel. Those are the savings, not lowering the interpreter’s fee.

The same situation applies to translators who have welcomed new tools and best practices that enhance quality and reduce time and effort. The things that real professional translators will not accept, and the multinational language “industry” providers who propose no pay for repetitions, numbers, etc., while pretending to use the best of the best in the translation world as mere “post-editors” of the work that computer program algorithms and paraprofessional translators (who have been paid rock-bottom fees) did, so that the final product that the agency’s client sees is at least half decent. Professional translators know that this is not the way to provide a translation service; they know of the time and effort involved in rescuing a non-existent translation from a deformed text they were just handed by the so-called “project manager” (who have no idea of what they are asking the translator to do) is a professional practice that should never happen, but when it does, it should command an even higher fee than a translation from scratch. These translators are not afraid of technology and they are not against globalization; they oppose a job description that resembles more the work of a babysitter (of incompetent translators) than the professional service of a translator.

I know that I am not telling you anything new. We have all discussed these issues in this blog and elsewhere many times, and we have successfully defended our profession by educating the good clients and through pointing out the nefarious services and products that very often come out of these multinational language “industry” companies.  Yes, there are good agencies. We all know who they are, and we shall continue to work with them on a professional relationship based on mutual respect and understanding, but unfortunately, most agencies act as described above.

The reason I decided to write this new entry was to send you all a warning; to give you the heads up: These multinational entities are back, and they have a new strategy.

You see, they are now trying to convince interpreters and translators that they have changed; that it was all a misunderstanding. That they never meant any harm to the individual interpreters and translators. They want you to believe that they appreciate you and cherish you, and they will come up with very creative schemes.

All you have to do is to look at their conference programs to immediately notice how they are designing strategies to make interpreters and translators happy; to make you feel appreciated and respected, so at the end of the day you give up and agree to work for them under despicable conditions.  Look at the different conference programs and see how they are inviting as presenters of this new approach no others than their very own company executives, and interpreters/translators who have decided to abandon the defense of the profession and join the ranks of the “industry” in exchange for who knows what.

This is their new strategy, so we have to be alert. They must think that this time they will get us, but, dear colleagues, we are no Trojans. We will not welcome their “gift” disguised as a horse.  These are dangerous times and the “industry” has deep pockets that they rather use to destroy the “profession” than to attract high-level professional interpreters and translators by paying professional fees.  We cannot let our guard down. We are not “Little Red Riding Hood” but the big bad wolf is trying to get us.

I now invite you all to share your suggestions and experiences in dealing with these very serious problems; I only ask you not to post any comments defending the multinational language “industry” movement.  This is a forum for professional interpreters and translators. There are plenty of places in cyberspace where those who want to praise the qualities of these folks can ingratiate themselves with the “industry”.

Our work requires trust and a little respect.

March 7, 2016 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

In this era of high speed communications and world trade the function of the interpreter is of unquestionable importance.  There cannot be a globalized society without mutual understanding, and all efforts to understand another culture begin with the transmission of a proposal or an idea by means of the language they speak.

The interpreter is defined as a person who converts a thought or expression in a source language into an expression with a comparable meaning in a target language, conveying all semantic elements as well as the tone and register, and every intention and feeling of the message that the source language speaker is directing to the target language recipients. Basically, it is the action of transmitting ideas between two groups of people who are physically (or virtually) present, but do not understand one half of what is being said in the room.

The question that immediately comes to mind is: Why do these individuals, who have something important to communicate to the other group, believe the conveyed information, and base their decisions in what this interpreter said in their native language? What on earth makes them believe what the interpreter uttered, especially in the many instances when they had never seen this person before? In fact, when interpreting from the booth, the recipients of the interpreting services never get to see the interpreter.  The answer is complex, but it is also very simple: Because they trust the interpreter.

During their life, most humans will have many experiences with providers of goods and services. They will make decisions, some big and others small, based on their expectations as to the quality of some of those goods and services.  In some cases, because of the nature of the service and the characteristics of those who deliver it, they will select the provider based on trust. This is what happens when a person hires a physician, a lawyer or an architect. We put our lives in the hands of surgeons and airplane pilots because we trust that they will perform as expected. We trust that a civil engineer will build us a house that is safe for our family. We trust that an accountant will take care of our fiscal obligations according to the law.  We trust these individuals and their services because they practice a profession. They are professionals who have studied and demonstrated that they can deliver the service, perform the task.

On the other hand, we pick individuals or businesses for other services, or to get some goods, based on an expected result.  That is why when we go to a restaurant we hope that the food is as good as we heard it was, or when we go to the store we hope that the clothes we are going to purchase will fit, last, be comfortable.  We select the providers of these goods and services expecting a desired result: a fast car, an honest housekeeper, and so on.  These goods and services are commercial, they do not fall in the category of professional occupations.  People can join these industries and with skill and perseverance, not necessarily with a formal education or a scientific skill, get to the top of their trade.  A very capable individual can become the best laborer in any giver industry.  Of course there has to be some trust for these businesses to succeed, but this is on the realm of “trust but verify”. That is why we are not shocked when we see a homeowner by the side of the technician throughout the time he is at the house fixing the refrigerator, but we would never even think of joining the surgeon by the operating table while he performs a liver transplant. The second activity is a professional service and it requires absolute trust.

Interpreters fall into the first category. We are professionals providing a sophisticated, complex, and unique professional service.  Like the airplane pilot, we are a trusted professionals and people trust us to the point of letting us be the source of all information and exchanges when dealing with someone who speaks a different language they do not understand.

I have always believed this to be one of the most important characteristics of our craft. Ours is one of very few fiduciary occupations. It is for this reason that I reacted the way I did when I recently faced a situation where they questioned these essential characteristics of our profession.

I consider myself very fortunate because after many years of hard work, I have developed a portfolio of very good clients who value my work and show it on the way they treat me and remunerate my services.  It is not very common to see me accepting an assignment from an unknown source, but sometimes, because the gig seems interesting, or because I have nothing better to do, (provided that my minimum requirements are met), I accept one of these assignments.

Not long ago, I was sitting at my desk working on the blog when I received an email for an assignment that looked interesting.  It got my attention, so I checked my schedule to see if I was open on the date of the event and I was. I must say that the email came from a well-known agency, but with the exception of a job here and there many years ago, I had never really collaborated with them on an assignment.

I responded to the email providing the information they requested: my willingness to take the assignment, my availability on that date, and my fee.  The person from the agency got back to me very quickly to let me know that it all looked great, but they would need me to go lower on my fee. I immediately answered with a resounding: No!

At that point, I thought that this was the end of the story; that just like so many other times in the past, they were going to apply me the silent treatment.

To my surprise, the agency contacted me again on the following morning; this time it was a different person, a supervisor I was told, who wrote to me and stated that she had googled me, that they had asked around, and that after their little research, they had agreed to my fee, and if I was interested, they would love to have me as part of their team for the assignment. I said that I would do it, but that I needed to discuss payment terms with them before going any further. I explained that I have an invoice system that I use, and that I needed them to honor my invoice like the rest of my clients.  It was explained to me that the company’s policy was to use their payment system and invoice forms. I again emphasized the fact that I would only take the job if they agreed to a simple invoice by email process with no other hurdles. I explained that I sell my time and the hours or minutes I was going to spend working on their forms would not be paid by anybody.  The agency representative answered that my conditions were agreeable, and all I had to do was to email them an invoice after the assignment. I agreed and that was the end of the negotiations, which by the way, I have in writing.

Several weeks went by until one day I received an email with the materials for the assignment. Everything was fine to that point, but as I kept on reading until the end of the message, I discovered that they had sent me some forms to fill out, indicating the time I started and finished interpreting. On top of that, they requested that I call the agency at the moment I arrive to the venue, and that their client’s representative sign the form “certifying” that the assignment had indeed started and ended at the times written by me on their form.

I had never been asked to do anything like this before. I felt insulted and got very upset.  They were checking on me, just like they would on the Maytag Man, to make sure I had worked, and my word was not good enough for this folks; they needed me to prove that I was at the event, so they told me to call them; and my credibility was so poor that they needed another individual to vouch for me.

I took a deep breath, actually, I took several, and afterwards I thought of the absurdity of this policy. It was clear to me that they had this rules in place because they did not trust me, and did not trust any of my colleagues. The thing I could not understand is: If they have their doubts about the time I show up for the assignment and about whether or not I actually rendered an interpretation, how is it possible that they let me interpret from a foreign language that nobody in the room understands but me and my booth mate.  They got it all backwards. I felt disrespected by this “interpreting” agency, and I felt that they had insulted my profession.

After a few minutes I wrote them back, indicating that I was not used to be under the surveillance of anybody, that I was a professional who sells his time, skill, and knowledge by providing a professional service, and that I have always expected to be treated with decency, respect, and as a professional. I added that I could not agree to their corporate policy, and for that reason, I was declining the assignment.  It was not long before the person from the agency wrote back, and her email was very telling. It read as follows: “…We regret that (you have) declined the assignment. We agreed to pay you above our usual rate, but unfortunately, we cannot waive the other requirements. This is our policy and it is very similar to that of many others in the industry…”

That is the problem, dear friends and colleagues, these agencies expect to deal with us as merchants, not professionals. Key terms such as “rates” (like a merchant) instead of “fees” (like a professional), give us an idea of who they are looking for in the “industry”. To take one of the words this agency used on their final email: “Unfortunately”, interpreting is not an industry, it is a profession. We cannot work under mistrust, nor for a client (who they would probably call “customer”) who comes to our environment with the same hopes and expectations that you have when you enter the drycleaners.  I deal with clients who trust me to do my work just like I trust the dentist who drills holes in my teeth.  We are a profession. Industries deal with their service providers as laborers, I will stick to those businesses who deal with me as a professional.  I now invite you to share your comments or similar experiences when an agency or a direct client has viewed you as a factory worker and not as a professional.

An interpreter exam for a certification… or for a job.

February 29, 2016 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A controversial issue that has been around for years has become quite popular in the past few months.  The controversy surrounding the United States federal government’s contract award to Department of Defense’s contractor SOSi has put this corporation under the microscope of many individual interpreters and interpreter associations. This scrutiny has touched on the training and “blessing” (call it certification, accreditation or anything you want) provided to the individual interpreters contracted by SOSi to work in the immigration court system for the first time.  After reading some of the posts in social media and the numerous letters, emails, and phone calls that I received from many friends and colleagues on this particular issue, I thought about it, and arrived to some personal conclusions that I think put in perspective what is happening in the American immigration court system and what many friends and colleagues would like to see implemented.

The first thing we need to do is define what an interpreter certification program and examination really are.  A process that ends in a generally accepted and scientifically proven method of testing designs, after exhaustive detailed research and practice testing, a comprehensive exam that tests individual performance in all basic properties of the activity, in this case profession, that the applicant aspires to practice in exchange for a professional fee in the real world.  Those passing this examination have demonstrated that they meet the minimum requirements acceptable to be a part of a profession subject to professional and ethical rules, legal statutes, and subject to liability in the event of malpractice.

This exam has to be designed in a way that it is objective, measures all candidates the same way, includes all elements relevant to the rating of a person’s performance, and for security and equity reasons has multiple versions in case somebody tries to circumvent the certification process, or fails to pass on the first, and often limited subsequent, attempts.  For all of these reasons the exam has to be developed by a combination of peer professionals, in this case interpreters and interpreter educators, in addition to scientists that will apply a scientific method, including the application of a grading curve, to be able to offer a comprehensive and fair assessment tool which plays a key role in the issuance of a certification.  This process takes a long time and is very, very expensive.  Moreover, the administration of the examination to the candidates also requires a big financial investment for both, the actual testing and the rating of the completed exam.   This is the main reason why there are so few real certification programs that can deliver unquestioned professionals.  Law school graduates in the United States take the bar exam to be able to practice as attorneys, and despite the fact that each state has its own version of a portion of the exam, they all share a common universal test that is part of the final assessment of that student: the MBE or Multistate Bar Examination that has been developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners to be universally applied in all fifty states and territories (with the exception of Puerto Rico). The purpose of the test is to assess the extent to which an examinee can apply fundamental legal principles and reasoning to analyze given fact patterns.  The individual states decided to go to the NCBE to develop the test because it was extremely costly for any single state to come up with its own examination.

The same scenario applies in the court interpreting arena where the states looked for a similar solution when they went to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).  The result was the same as in the lawyers’ case. Each state can add any requirements to the certification process if considered necessary in that jurisdiction (written tests, ethics exams, background checks, good moral character, etc.) but they all administer the same examination in Spanish and other languages where a test is available.  There are many languages without any certification exam due to the huge expense this represents and the lack of volume that could justify such an investment (not enough speakers of a given foreign language).  Only the United States government has a different examination and process because it has the deep pockets to do it, but even the Administrative Office of the United States Courts tests candidates through the NCSC. In all scenarios the individual interpreters who rate the candidate’s exams are independent contractors or staff members of the judiciary.  At different levels, all applicants who successfully pass this interpreter certification test, currently being offered only in Spanish, are considered qualified to render their professional services in a court of law within the jurisdiction where they took the exam, or nationwide in the case of the U.S. federal court system.  Clients, agencies, government entities and businesses use this certification as an assurance of a certain minimum level of quality. These new certified interpreters have demonstrated that they can work assignments that may include sight translations, and simultaneous or short consecutive interpretations (when I speak of short consecutive I am referring to the very difficult consecutive interpreting that is used in court which requires short quick renditions, unlike consecutive interpreting in a conference or diplomatic setting where the consecutive rendition could take thirty minutes or longer).  This is the only credential in the United States that tests interpreters in such a scientific way and in all modes.

There are other certifications in the U.S., but they either vanished because of its prohibitive cost and lack of demand, as it happened with the very good testing program offered in the past by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) or their testing method and results are in my opinion questionable as is the case of the “medical” and healthcare certifications offered in the United States, not by a governmental entity but by the private sector. These exams do not test in all modes of interpreting or the content of the exam is of lesser level than the one desired for a widely-recognized credential outside of the scope of a patient-physician interview at a hospital or medical office.  This is not to put these certifications down, but to illustrate the fact that a universal scientific test is a complex and expensive matter. I know how difficult and time consuming this process is because I had the opportunity to participate as one of many individuals involved in the development and field testing of an interpreter test for military and conflict zone interpreters a few years ago.

Because the process is so long, difficult, and costly, most organizations resort to another solution: they develop a program to assess individual interpreters in the field that will be relevant for that organization, and sometimes, if the target applicants require it, the program also includes some training or at least basic orientation.  These quicker and less expensive solutions can assist in determining the level of an interpreter in all modes, and sometimes are way more difficult than a certification program like the ones described above, but for the most part they are confined to the assurance of a certain minimum quality of service in the specific field or area where they operate.

The first example that comes to mind are the exams by the international organizations, or the United States Department of State conference level exam to assess the skill, knowledge and ability of the candidate. These are difficult tests that are rated by top interpreters who guard the quality of the service provided, and for this reason to pass these examinations, even though they do not confer a certification strictly speaking, means to the professional community that the candidate who just passed the assessment has a quality level that clients can rely on.

There are other exams of this type by both, government entities and the private sector that are nowhere as prestigious or difficult as the ones I mention above, but exist for commercial and legal reasons. Commercially because it is the way to get big contracts and important clients; legally because it is a certain protection against civil liability lawsuits that the entity offering the service, and the exam, might face down the road.  Most of the multinational interpreting agencies administer a training, orientation or test (call it evaluation, exam, or anything else) to their prospective interpreters to be able to market themselves as providers of “certified” interpreters and to defend from potential malpractice or negligence lawsuits as discussed above.  This practice is expensive (nowhere near a real certification program of course) but necessary to remain in business, and to a person not familiar with the profession it can create a sense of professionalism that could be the factor needed to get awarded a big contract. Although many of these entities ask their in-house interpreters to put together a quick assessment of those applying for interpreter assignments, some retain reputable institutions or renowned interpreters or educators to develop a training and evaluation program.  Needless to say, the individuals passing this evaluation may be ready for the limited work they will have to do, but they will never be considered or treated as a certified interpreter or an individual who passed an exam with the U.S. Department of State or an international organization.

This brings me back to the communications I have been getting about the immigration court interpreters in the United States and the training that defense contractor turned language service provider SOSi is offering to those new individuals who want to work under this new contract awarded last year by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).

The first thing to say is that SOSi has a temporary contract at this time, and even if extended to the maximum agreed to in the original contract, it will be for just a few years.  Moreover, to win the bidding process, SOSi had to bid really low and that ties their hands as far as the size of the financial investment they can justify to their board.  As precedent, you should know that all contractors have opted for the same type of solution in the past. There is no logic in investing the time and money developing a certification program that if they are lucky, might be ready by the time their EOIR contract expires.

I now want to talk about the program they are offering to their new interpreters, and I say new interpreters because I assume that those veteran colleagues who decided to go back despite all the problems with the contract terms and SOSi’s conduct during these months do not need to undergo the training and evaluation.

SOSi contracted out the development of this training and assessment of their candidates to an affiliate of an Interpreter training school. The program is offered on line and it includes 27 hours of on-demand training, 40 hours of on line interpreting practice, live sessions and random monitoring by an instructor, a mentoring service, and two assessments, with the second one being the final exam that according to SOSi and the trainer follows the U.S. Department of Justice and Executive Office for Immigration Review testing requirements. The program is supervised, and I assume developed in a significant part, by the director of the interpreter training school who happens to be a very well-known and recognized instructor. I have personally attended some of his talks when we have coincided at a conference and I must say that his presentations are of a very high quality. Moreover, this institution has been preparing interpreters to take court and healthcare interpreter certification tests for many years and with very good results.  I do not know how the trainer got the contract from SOSi, but whether it was through a bidding process or by negotiation, I see no wrongdoing.  If anything, I would say that the reputation of the interpreter training school is taking a big risk (calculated by their front office, I am sure) by working with such an entity as SOSi.

Some colleagues have also raised the fact that the exams will be rated by the training entity’s instructors as a potential conflict of interest.  I do not see it that way.  The National Center for State Courts also outsources the rating of their certification exams to independent contractor interpreters and court staff.  Most law students who are preparing for the Bar (including myself a long time ago) enroll in the Bar Bri courses to get ready for the exam. Bar Bri is no different from the trainer in this case.  As to the argument that interpreter trainers will “pass” those attending the training to keep SOSi happy, I do not believe that a reputable institution like this one would play that game. In fact, as an interpreter trainer and certification exam rater myself, I have to tell you that it is in your best interest to stop those who are not qualified from entering the professional ring.  Others have raised as a problem the fact that some of the raters may have never worked in immigration court. I do not see any validity to this argument either. Interpreting skills are the same for any court. The terminology and procedure may be different, but that can be learned by the student.  This happens every day with conference interpreters who have to research and study multiple subject matters throughout their career.

In conclusion, I do not believe that it is practical nor feasible that a government contractor such as SOSi invest the time and money required to develop a certification program when all they have been awarded is a temporary (renewable at best) service contract.  I think that, regardless of all the problems faced by the immigration court interpreters and the lack of competency shown by SOSi until now, they did what any contractor, capable or not, would do regarding its interpreters.  I think that the interpreter trainers in this case did what they had to do to get the contract and now that it has been awarded to them, they will act as the professional institution we all know they are.  Therefore, dear friends and colleagues, I do not believe that there are grounds to be concerned for this reason as long as we view this evaluation for what it is: an assessment of limited skills learned for the sole purpose of meeting a client’s needs, in this case SOSi and the EOIR, who apparently set the guidelines as to what needed to be tested.

This does not mean that we should give SOSi a pass. Our colleagues are still waiting for their services to be paid, people are still wasting time trying to get answers from an organization that does not respect its interpreters, and we cannot abandon them, but the “certification exam”, regardless of the skills it may evaluate, is not, in my opinion, something we can criticize.   The only way to change the immigration court interpreter exam is to get the United States Department of Justice and the Executive Office for Immigration Review to follow the same path that their counterparts in the judicial branch of government are following, and implement a real interpreter certification program, or join the federal court interpreter certification program that already exists; but in order to do this, you will have to convince them of three things associated with this change:  (1) That they need to go to Congress and ask for the resources, a tall order in our current political season, (2) That a real certification program will attract interpreters that will be better prepared, who will, after passing the examination, demand a higher pay and more professional conditions than the current interpreters,  and (3) That a real certification program will mean that many of their current interpreters will not pass and they could face a real interpreter shortage never seen before.   I now ask you to share with the rest of us your opinion about this issue.

How should interpreters set their fees?

February 19, 2015 § 15 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Not long ago I heard a colleague ask another interpreter how she should set her fees as a freelancer in order to remain competitive and make a living. Basically, the answer was: “figure out your expenses (office, equipment, dictionaries, utilities, etc.) and then make sure you set a fee that covers all that plus an extra amount for you to make a decent living.” I heard that answer, and although at first it seemed to make a lot of sense, upon reflecting on the concept I knew it was wrong, or at best incomplete.

You see, when I decided to be an interpreter I was motivated by two equally important issues: My love for language of course, but also my indomitable desire to have a great and comfortable life. I never thought about making a “decent” living. I wanted to make as much money as I could, and I have devoted the rest of my life to better myself and broaden my horizons in order to make this happen.

It is true that when setting a fee, and please pay attention to the semantics: I always say fees and never rates, because we are professionals, just like a physician or a lawyer, and professionals charge a fee for their services, not a rate or a fare. As I was saying, when figuring out our fee schedule it is absolutely necessary to factor in all our fixed business expenses, and as interpreters this should include your personal appearance: clothing, grooming and so on, advertising expenses: conventional and social media, travel expenses, professional insurance, and other similar expenditures that we all know are necessary to get the good assignments, the important clients.

This however, is just the tip of the iceberg of what we need to consider when quoting a fee. We are in a profession where we provide professional services that are personal; in other words, unlike the engineer who can be working on two different projects at the same time, we can only do an assignment at a time. Once in the booth we cannot make any money somewhere else. This means that we have to consider a reality of our work: we sell our time one client at a time, and that time is precious; it includes not just the hours we spend in the booth or the meeting room doing a rendition, it also encompasses the time it takes us to get to the assignment, sometimes up to two days if the job is half way across the world.

Well then, after factoring in all these elements, we have to factor in the time and cost invested in formal education, and not just interpreting and other related disciplines; we also need to consider other professional education such as medical school, law school, engineering, chemistry, biology and so forth. Then, we must add the time we spend in preparation for the assignment, research study, glossary development, meeting with colleagues, speakers, agencies, technicians and others, and the time we devote to improve our skill by staying informed of what is going on in the world, learning history, technology, science, arts, and all other subjects that directly or indirectly contribute to the formation of that well-rounded individual that an interpreter needs to be to provide a first class service. I am not saying that you have to keep time records for every one of these things and then invoice them to the client. What I am saying is that you must allocate an economic value to that time and effort and include it as part of your fee. “My professional work for two days of interpreting costs “X” plus “0.1 percent for all the years of constant, and ongoing studying and learning”

Next, you need to decide what should be your compensation for the lifestyle that your profession requires you to have. This is particularly important for those interpreters who already are at the top of the profession and for the ones who are devoting their entire life to get there. This may not be that relevant for some interpreters, but I know that most elite interpreters in the world did not get there by accident. They had to work (and still do) very hard to reach that status, and very often it means that they need to have a lifestyle that most people would not want to have. I am talking of all those evening events, those assignments on a holiday, the ones that keep us away from home for weeks and even months at a time, the jobs that represent a danger to our lives and physical integrity like conflict zones, epidemics, and others where the interpreter rushes into the bad situation to do his job at the same time that most regular people are leaving the place. It is no coincidence that so many interpreters at this level have no family, they are single or divorced, they have no children, and the majority of their friends are other interpreters who have embraced the same life. Of course those who devote most of their lives to their profession do it because they love it, because that is the life they chose for themselves, but regardless of this motivation, the fact that you are doing things most people would not, has to be factored in when setting a fee.

Now that you have taken into account all of these fixed expenses and personal conditions as part of the fee, you must move on to the next phase: You must consider the market where you will be providing these services. Most experienced interpreters who work in many countries know that they cannot expect the same pay everywhere. There are economic realities that will set limits to a particular region. We need to be aware of this factor. Our goal needs to be to command the highest possible fee that a particular market can pay us. If you get this fee you cannot complain, even if it is lower that the fee for the same service somewhere else in the planet. You are making top money for that part of the world. Of course, we cannot forget the original goal: to have an income that will let us live a comfortable life. For this reason, we need to plan our assignments very carefully. You will not afford the Ferrari if you do all your work in a lower-fee region of the world, but you can mix the events so that at the end it evens up. For those colleagues who do not practice this kind of interpreting, the ones who do all of their work in the same location, they will have to make a choice at some point during their careers and stay where they are, or move to another region where fees are higher.

Finally, you need to address the needs of your “regular” “preferred” “top of the list” clients who give you a lot of work. In that case I would suggest offering “extras” as part of the service, but never lowering the fees. There are many other ways you can save money to your client without impacting the interpreters’ fees. They are untouchable. We will probably discuss those other “cuts” on a different post at a later time.

My friends, there are many ways to set your professional fees and we are all unique. I expect that most of you will do it differently. I am aware that not all elements mentioned above need to be considered by every interpreter; I also know that there could be many that I left out. All I am doing is bringing to your attention all the things you need to consider when setting your fee schedule, so that by going beyond office rent, utilities, computers and dictionaries, you consider other elements you bring to the table and are essential to provide this professional service that we call interpreting. I now invite you to share with all of us your ideas about the elements that you believe need to be factored in when setting your fee schedule.

Where Am I?

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