Our options when the client does not pay.

May 3, 2021 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Sometimes freelance interpreters face a scenario where a client agrees to pay a professional fee, and after the interpretation they refuse to pay, make a late payment, or try to pay less than the fee agreed by the parties. It is not unusual to hear from a colleague struggling to stay afloat as a business because of morose or dishonest clients.

The first thing we must do is assess the client before agreeing to the service, we have to do our homework, find out who the client is, what is their track record. This due diligence is essential to decide if we want to enter a professional relationship or not. The next step should be a negotiation where you listen to the potential client’s needs, establish your conditions, and give expert advice to the client. Once an agreement is acceptable to both parties, you must sign a contract, preferably your own, or the client’s when they require it, as long as all your negotiated conditions are included.

Many times, there is not enough time for a lengthy negotiation, especially when this assignment is short or urgent. When you find yourselves in this situation, negotiate by email, text, or over a telephone or video call. Do noy skip this step. Many times, there is no time to draft a lengthy, written contract; some clients have a less formal approach to their hiring practices. That is fine, but there is something you must do regardless of the situation or the client: You must have proof of the essential terms of the negotiation, in case you have to take action against that client.  Let it be very clear I am not giving you legal advice; if you need legal assistance, please see an attorney in your jurisdiction. I am only sharing what I do in these cases:

Email or text your client, even if you were just retained and you are on your way to the assignment; even if you are on the phone with the client. Just let them know you are sending an email spelling out the conditions just discussed because you need it for your internal paperwork. This text or email must include all relevant terms of the agreement, and it should be short and straight to the point. Something like: “Per our recent conversation, this is to confirm that you have retained me to interpret “X” Conference (or other event) to take place in (city and country, or on “X” platform to be used if RSI) on (dates and times of the event). My fee will be “X” amount per day (up to 4, 6 or 7 hours, depending on the type of service: distance or in-person) with an OT hourly rate of “X” amount after that, payable within (30, 45) days from the time I send my electronic invoice to this same email address, and a late interest payment of “X” percent if not paid on time. Please confirm these terms by responding to this email the word: “Confirmed”.

Then, in small print (to keep the email short) but before my signature, I add: “It is agreed by the parties that the recipient of this communication has 48 hours from the date of this email to reject its terms, and not responding to this communication within that time will constitute agreement to all the terms in this communication.” Once again, remember this is not legal advice. Please consult an attorney if you have questions.

When a client does not pay by the date agreed in the contract, send them an email (never a phone call because you want to have proof of this communication) attaching your invoice with a legend stating “Overdue.” And politely “remind” them of the payment. This is enough in most cases. If the client cries poverty, or ignores you, wait 30 days or whatever is customary in your country but charge late payment interest. After that, you repeat the same 30 days later. If the client does not pay, then retain a collection agency. They will charge you to collect, but that is better than nothing. Finally, if this does not work, or if you prefer to skip the collection agency step, take the client to court. Sue for payment of your fees, late payment interests, court costs, and attorney’s fees (when retaining a lawyer). Most morose clients will settle at this time, but if they do not, move ahead with the lawsuit and get a judgement against the client. This does not guarantee you will collect any money, but will go to the client’s credit report. You should also take that judgement to the Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, and local Consumer Affairs authority where the client resides. Next, report the incident and provide copy of the final judgement to the client’s professional associations (for disciplinary action) and to your local, national, and international interpreter associations so this client can be included in all black lists to benefit your colleagues. Finally, if applicable, share this information with the ethnic media target of that client’s business, and share it on your social media, just stating the facts, without editorializing to avoid any future complications. This will get your money most of the time, and will teach a lesson to those who violate your professional services contract. It will also send a message to others that you take your work seriously. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your policy to avoid this breach of contract, or to collect unpaid fees.

Our current market and the fearful interpreter.

April 19, 2021 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The post-Covid interpreting market looks very different from what we knew before 2020. Distance interpreting brought in globalization at an unprecedented pace, and with that a new set of rules that for now look like the Wild West. Much remains to be done, and many things will happen before the market settles down and we have a clear view and understanding of a more permanent, stable workplace; but for now, misrepresentations, ignorance, and opportunism, coexist with professionalism, quality, and experience.

The impact of false advertisement and entry of inexperienced individuals has been such, that even well-established working relations between professional interpreters and long-time clients have been affected to a degree.

My professional practice is now strong and steady, but in the last twelve months I experienced first-hand, three times, what this chaos and confusion can do to my business.

First, I was contacted by a long-time client to let me know that the annual assignment I have been doing for seven years was no more. When I asked if the event had been cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic, I was told the conference would be held on line, but it would be interpreted by other interpreters from a developing country charging less than half of my fee. The client told me that to them costs were THE priority, and no argument about quality, experience, cultural knowledge would make them change their minds. I understood. I had lost my first long-term client to a group of inexpensive interpreters with (in the words of the client) had zero experience in these events, but were “enthusiastic, energetic, and cheap.”

Several months later, I was asked by another client who has worked with me for over fifteen years to interpret a one-day event. It was a distance interpreting assignment on a topic I have interpreted often before. The event took place without incident and I invoiced my client. To my surprise, this client’s accounting department contacted me a few weeks later asking me to explain and justify the fee I had charged. The invoice was straight forward; in fact, it was identical to many other invoices I had submitted for similar services. It was a full-day fee. Nothing else. I replied to the accountants, and two weeks later I was contacted by my client. I was told my service rendered on that date did not justify a full-day fee because there was a 2-hour intermission after the first 2 hours and before the final two. I explained that such a service is a full-day because the interpreter is dedicating the full day to the event, including interpreting when the event goes over the first two hours. I also reminded them they had paid this way for years without ever questioning the charge, and the contract obligated them to pay for a full-day of work. The client listened carefully to my arguments and replied that they appreciated my services, but other interpreters who they had been hiring for other language combinations, all court or healthcare interpreters, were charging them by the hour, and they did not charge for the hours in between. We had a good conversation about conference interpreting, quality of the service, and meeting their needs. At the end of a long conversation, we agreed to continue our professional relationship as always, but the client express their hesitancy about replacing their other language combinations court and healthcare interpreters with conference interpreters in the immediate future.  I did not lose the client, but it was clear they were moving away from conference interpreters in other less-commonly used languages.

My third experience concerned another very good client that comes with less frequency, but always with multi-day, high-profile assignments. This client sent me an email asking for my availability for a multi-day assignment. After I replied telling them I was available, they responded by asking me if I would do the assignment for a full-day fee about twenty percent below what I usually charge. My answer was no. I got another email a few days later asking me if I was still available, and willing to work for a full-day fee about fifteen percent below my normal fee. I said no again. A few weeks went by and I received a third email informing me that if I was still available, they had “found the funds” to pay me my usual full-day fee. I was available (the assignment was months later in the year) so I agreed to do the job. After signing the contract, I wondered what had happened, and it came to my knowledge from other sources (in the world of interpreting we discover everything sooner or later) that they had “auditioned” other interpreters willing to work for the lower fee, but the client was not satisfied with their performance. I was fortunate the client was looking for quality and they valued my services, even though they hesitated for a moment as they were tricked by the social media mirage we see every day.

These episodes make me wonder what is going on that interpreters will accept worse conditions than the ones offered 20 or 30 years ago. I believe it is fear:

Interpreters fear the client. Instead of starting a negotiation from a place of power, knowing the service they offer has quality, they fear clients will never call them again if they raise any issue. Interpreters fear saying no to a shrinking fee because they think all the work will go to those diving to the bottom, instead of shedding those clients and focusing on quality-seeking organizations. Interpreters fear saying no to long RSI hours because they think the platform will never call them again. They agree to these market-devastating conditions instead of considering taking the client to another platform or even staying with the same one, but working directly for the client without an agency-like platform in the middle. They are equally afraid of charging full fees for RSI cancellations; afraid of asking for team interpreting on depositions and other legal community interpreting events; they will not dare to charge overtime, or a higher fee for complex assignments that require many days of preparation, because they do not understand they do not need the agency if they go to the client directly: There can be interpretation without the agencies, but there cannot be interpretation without interpreters.

Even when there is a contract, interpreters are afraid of charging full-day fees when retained to interpret a few hours throughout the day, and they are afraid to stand up for their rights when the client cuts their fee after the service was rendered as I did in my examples above. Many interpreters sacrifice quality, and put their reputation at risk, hurting their opportunities in the future because they are afraid the client, and more frequently the agency, will be upset if they keep asking for materials, programs, and the name of their boothmates. They do not dare to raise their fees when everything else is going up, including their cost of doing business. Some colleagues willingly take low-paying jobs to post their assignments on social media, and keep quiet on the fee issue because they are ashamed to admit they worked for peanuts, instead of having the courage to denounce the job offer. When offered a rock-bottom fee or despicable working conditions, interpreters must turn down the agency or de-facto-agency platform and, unless contractually impaired, contact the client directly, offer their services and eliminate the middle man. When harassed by a platform or agency for not agreeing to draconian terms, interpreters should move on and look for a better option. There are thousands of agencies, and many interpreting-dedicated platforms that basically do the same. Yes, you may lose clients, as I lost one of three, but you will keep, and find better ones; clients that will let you provide a quality service, protect your health, and develop your reputation and brand for a better future. Let’s get rid of the fear and face the Wild West with courage, determination, and convinced that, unlike agencies, we are an essential part of the process. I now invite you to share with the rest of us how you have protected your market and reputation.

Remote interpreting in complex depositions.

March 18, 2021 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:
By now we all know of the challenges interpreters face in remote depositions, but when the deposition to be interpreted remotely involves high profile individuals, a large sum of money, and difficult legal and jurisdictional issues, additional considerations need to be addressed. I was recently involved in one of these cases.

I was part of a team of interpreters retained to interpret the deposition of a well-known individual involved in a very important multi-billion-dollar litigation with an army of attorneys virtually attending the event from three continents. A job of this nature presents very specific issues that can be grouped into three categories:

Issues with the deponent.
There are certain factors to consider when deponents are celebrities in the world of politics, sports, business or entertainment; things that would not be an issue when the person to be deposed is an ordinary citizen of the world. Tight schedules, avoidance of media coverage, deponent’s convenience, and star power have to be discussed and resolved before the interpreter commits to a date and time. Here, the complexity was exacerbated because the attorneys involved in the case were in three continents, with some physically participating in-person from the same city the deponent would appear. On top of multiple professional agendas and all factors above, time difference had to be addressed. At the end it was decided the deposition would take place at a time of the day when the deponent would be rested and alert. Because of the status of this individual, it was agreed to block ten straight workdays for the deposition. The event itself was expected to last one day, but there was no way to pin it down to a specific date. A ballpark date was all the parties could agree to. This had to be scheduled twice. The deponent could not appear during the originally scheduled ten-day period, so the event was rescheduled for another ten straight workdays two months later.

The second factor to remember is these deponents are difficult to interpret because they are very resourceful. It is expected that regular deponents be smart individuals with a sharp mind, and a sophisticated varied vocabulary; after all they are usually company executives or government officials. Celebrity, high-profile deponents have the above, plus years of experience with previous litigations, giving impromptu speeches, and they have the “star factor.” It is not uncommon to find attorneys who cannot get over the fact they are deposing their childhood heroes, role models, or favorite athletes or stars. This complicates things for the interpreter when deponents answer a question with a long, winded speech full of half-truths, equivocal affirmations, and little substance.

Issues with the interpreters’ client.
There were many attorneys involved in this activity, but only a team of lawyers from one firm required interpreting services. Some of these attorneys were physically present at the site of the deposition, most were virtually attending it from their home country. Because the deposition was scheduled to be taken in the deponent’s first language, and most attorneys shared that language with this person, even if they were not all from the same country, most interpreting details were overlooked until we raised them. The fact some attorneys are the gold-standard in their profession, they are known around the world, and they command a hefty fee, does not mean they know more about remote interpreting than a modest solo practitioner representing the victims of a traffic injury. We soon realized the attorneys had not even considered that the interpretation would be rendered simultaneously by three interpreters sitting at their own respective studios thousands of miles away. We explained how this works, and gave them the reasons why this could not be done over the phone with a long-distance conference call. This does not differ from the conversation interpreters have with their clients everyday all over the world, so why am I singling it out as an issue specific to high-profile depositions? I am mentioning it, because after we listened to our client’s concerns, and the comments and objections from the other attorneys that were not our clients (remember: we were working for one of three law firms) based on the multi-billion-dollar nature of the controversy, we could have easily recommended the most expensive RSI platform. We did not.

We did not ask for one of the dedicated, more costly platforms because it was unnecessary. This was a bilingual event with no relay. We saw what was the platform all law firms had in common, we agreed to communicate among ourselves through a separate platform like WhatsApp or Facetime, and we selected Zoom for this assignment. We had to request headphones and good microphones for all those involved, and everybody complied. The only other wrinkle we encountered concerned the lack of familiarity with the way interpreters work when providing distance interpreting. The client expected the interpreters would have their video cameras on during the deposition until we explained that in-person simultaneous interpreters work from a booth where nobody sees them, and when simultaneously interpreting remotely, the off video is the equivalent to the in-person booth. There were no issues or complaints after we gave the explanation.

Issues with the interpreters’ preparation, availability, and compensation.
Because of the complexities in a proceeding that started over a decade earlier and has been through different countries’ jurisdiction no less than three times; the amount of study materials; the needed research on the deponent’s career, personal life, and speech style; all terminology research and development of glossaries; possibility of last-minute cancellations; and number of days needed to be set aside for this deposition, even though the event itself would not last longer than one day, it was decided that all interpreters would be paid for full interpreting days on all booked dates, regardless of cancellations, postponements, or days of actual interpreting. There was no bargaining or hesitancy by the client. They immediately agreed to these terms because they perceived them as fair. Another critical issue was the availability of study materials early in the case; fortunately, the client provided all materials, and a list of internet links to more information early in the assignment, and they did it without us having to request it. Because the interpreter team has worked similar cases for a long time, coordination, assignment of tasks, and collaboration was not an issue this time, and it underlines the importance of working complex assignments with trusted, compatible, capable colleagues.

I know many of you are now facing these high-profile, complex assignments with RSI. I hope this experience and suggested pointers are useful and valuable to your professional practice. I now invite you to share your own experiences and suggestions when dealing with complex or high-profile remote depositions.

How COVID-19 affected interpreting.

February 18, 2021 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This is an article I wrote for the ITI. It was published several months ago, and I now reproduce it on my blog:

The pandemic has been an eye-opener on the future of the profession, and an opportunity to assess everything I was doing right before this crisis. During the last couple of months, I have strengthened my professional bond with my direct clients. Because of the uncertain future, and complicated present, I saw the need to contact my best clients with three objectives: To reassured them I am here to assist them at this time; to show them empathy and remind them I am going through the same difficulties they are facing to remain viable; and to advise them on their best options to deal with urgent matters using RSI until they meet in person again. COVID-19 showed me I did the right thing years ago when I looked for direct clients instead of waiting for the agencies to contact me. I validate this decision every time I hear how agencies are trying to lower interpreting fees; or how they are taking advantage by recruiting desperate or inexperienced interpreters willing to be paid by the minute. I see there is an RSI hype that, from the platform’s perspective is a total success. You can hardly spend a minute on social media without running into an interpreter bragging about their newly acquired skill. Unfortunately, I see how many of these colleagues believe that learning the platform translates into assignments and income. I feel sorry for them because nobody reminded them interpreters get hired based on the quality of their work and their professional experience. It breaks my heart to see how many are spending the limited money they have on expensive microphones, headsets, and even soundproof rooms. Isolation made me appreciate things I never considered before: genuine solidarity among professional colleagues, human contact, my time in the booth, talking to the client face to face, touring a venue before the event, crowded airports, hotel bars after the event, shaking the hand of a good technician in appreciation for making me sound good. Interpreters are social beings and there are many cultures in the world that will demand in-person conferences and meetings when it is safe to do it. Before the virus, RSI was a small business; now tech giants are pouring in their resources. It may be a matter of time before the RSI platforms interpreters are talking about are Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Finally, I learned two lessons: Some professional associations are helping us through these ugly days while others prioritized money over humans and are forging ahead with expensive conferences no one will attend. I learned RSI will get better every day and it will remain the choice for small and preliminary meetings. It will also be used by companies that could not afford in-person events before. We must decide the professional fees and work conditions we need and want. It must be the interpreter who gets the client, not the platform. If we do our job, there will be a bigger pie for all interpreters.

The Super Bowl: Interpreters, American football, and a big day in the United States.

February 2, 2021 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Because Americans love to bring up sports in a conference, and due to the acquired taste needed to enjoy a sport popular in the United States and few other places in the world, every year I write a post on the biggest sporting event: The Super Bowl.

On February 7 the United States will hold the most watched TV event in our country, a game played on an unofficial holiday, more popular than most holidays on the official calendar.   The Super Bowl is the national professional football championship game in the United States of America; and it is not football… at least not THAT football played in the rest of the world.  This popular sport in the United States is known abroad as “American football,” and even this designation seems troublesome to many who have watched a little American football and do not understand it well.  Although it is mainly played holding a ball, the sport is known in the United States as football for two reasons:  (1) Because this American-born sport comes from “rugby football” (now rugby) that came from soccer (football outside the United States) and (2) Because it is football, but it is not British organized football, which when American football invented was called “association football” and was later known by the second syllable of the word “association”“socc” which mutated into “soccer.”  You now understand where the name came from, but is it really football? For Americans it is. Remember that all other popular team sports in the United States are played with your hands or a stick (baseball, basketball and ice hockey). The only sport in the United States where points can be scored by kicking the ball is (American) football. So, even though most of the time the ball is carried by hand or caught with your hands, sometimes, a team scores or defends field position by kicking or punting the football.   Now, why is all this relevant to us as interpreters?   Because if you interpret from American English you are likely to run into speakers who will talk about the Super Bowl, football, or will use examples taken from this very popular sport in the U.S.  

On Sunday, most Americans will gather in front of the TV set to watch the National Football Conference champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers battle the American Football Conference champion Kansas City Chiefs for the Vince Lombardi Trophy (official name of the trophy given to the team that wins the Super Bowl) which incidentally is a trophy in the shape of a football, not a bowl.  It is because the game was not named after a trophy, it was named after a tradition.  There are two football levels in the United States: college football played by amateur students, and professional football.  College football is older than pro-football and for many decades the different college champions were determined by playing invitational football games at the end of the college football season on New Year’s Day.  These games were called (and still are) “Bowls.”  You may have heard of the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and many others.  When a professional football game was created to determine the over-all champion between the champions of the American and National Conferences, it was just natural (and profitable) to call it the “Super Bowl.”

The game, which involves two teams representing two regions of the country, will be played in Tampa, Florida. It will be the first time in history that one team playing for the famous trophy will play in its home stadium.  Every year the Super Bowl is played in a venue where the weather at this time of the year is more welcoming. Because of the pandemic, there will be very few people at the stadium, but there will be millions watching the match from home, and there will be hundreds of millions spent on TV commercials during the game.  

As I do every year on these dates, I have included a basic glossary of English<>Spanish football terms that may be useful to you, particularly those of you who do escort, diplomatic, and conference interpreting from American English to Mexican Spanish.  “American” football is very popular in Mexico (where they have college football) Eventually, many of you will face situations where two people will discuss the Super Bowl; as you are interpreting somebody will tell a football story during a presentation; or you may end up at a TV or radio studio simultaneously interpreting a football game for your own or another foreign market. This year, I suggest you learn the name Tom Brady, the superstar quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, considered by many the best football player in history. He will be playing in his tenth Super Bowl.

The following glossary does not cover every term in football; it includes terms very common, and where there were several translations of a football term, I selected the term used in Mexico by the Mexican media that covers the sport.

 

ENGLISH

SPANISH

Football

Fútbol Americano

National Football League

Liga Nacional de Fútbol Americano

NFL

N-F-L (ene-efe-ele)

American Football Conference

Conferencia Americana

National Football Conference

Conferencia Nacional

Preseason

Pretemporada

Regular season

Temporada regular

Playoffs

Postemporada

Wildcard

Equipo comodín

Standings

Tabla de posiciones

Field

Terreno de juego

End zone

Zona de anotación/ diagonales

Locker room

Vestidor

Super Bowl

Súper Tazón

Pro Bowl

Tazón Profesional/ Juego de estrellas

Uniform & Equipment

Uniforme y Equipo

Football

Balón/ Ovoide

Jersey

Jersey

Helmet

Casco

Facemask

Máscara

Chinstrap

Barbiquejo

Shoulder pads

Hombreras

Thigh pads

Musleras

Knee pads

Rodilleras

Jockstrap

Suspensorio

Cleats

Tacos

Tee

Base

Fundamentals

Términos básicos

Starting player

Titular

Backup player

Reserva

Offense

Ofensiva

Defense

Defensiva

Special teams

Equipos especiales

Kickoff

Patada/ saque

Punt

Despeje

Return

Devolución

Fair catch

Recepción libre

Possession

Posesión del balón

Drive

Marcha/ avance

First and ten

Primero y diez

First and goal

Primero y gol

Line of scrimmage

Línea de golpeo

Neutral zone

Zona neutral

Snap

Centro

Long snap

Centro largo/ centro al pateador

Huddle

Pelotón

Pocket

Bolsillo protector

Fumble

Balón libre

Turnover

Pérdida de balón

Takeaway

Robo

Giveaway

Entrega

Interception

Intercepción

Completion

Pase completo

Tackle

Tacleada/ derribada

Blitz

Carga

Pass rush

Presión al mariscal de campo

Sack

Captura

Run/ carry

Acarreo

Pass

Pase

“I” Formation

Formación “I”

Shotgun Formation

Formación escopeta

“T” Formation

Formación “T”

Wishbone Formation

Formación wishbone

Goal posts

Postes

Crossbar

Travesaño

Sidelines

Líneas laterales/ banca

Chain

Cadena

Out-of-bounds

Fuera del terreno

Head Coach

Entrenador en jefe

Game Officials

Jueces

Flag

Pañuelo

POSITIONS

POSICIONES

Center

Centro

Guard

Guardia

Offensive Tackle

Tacleador ofensivo

Offensive line

Línea ofensiva

End

Ala

Wide Receiver

Receptor abierto

Tight end

Ala cerrada

Running Back

Corredor

Halfback

Corredor

Fullback

Corredor de poder

Quarterback

Mariscal de campo

Backfield

Cuadro defensivo

Defensive end

Ala defensiva

Defensive tackle

Tacleador defensivo

Nose guard

Guardia nariz

Linebacker

Apoyador

Cornerback

Esquinero

Free safety

Profundo libre

Strong safety

Profundo fuerte

Place kicker

Pateador

Punter

Pateador de despeje

Penalty

Castigo

Even if you are not a football fan, and even if you are not watching the big game on Sunday, I hope you find this glossary useful.  Now I invite you to comment on football, sports interpreting, or maybe you would like to share a “sports interpreting anecdote” with all of us.

What we learned as Interpreters in 2020.

January 12, 2021 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2020 ended and we are working towards a better and safer 2021, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months. As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, last year was like no other. 2020 was garbage. It was a terrible year for humanity, and for the profession, and it was even worse for the interpreters.

Stating the facts does not make me a negative individual. This post acknowledges reality because that is the only way we can move forward and leave this awful year in the trash can. To those who say the year was not so bad, because it made us realize what is truly important, I say this is a self-defense mechanism that keeps us from dealing with the horrendous truth; and to those claiming that 2020 was a good year for them, all I can do is ask them how can you celebrate a year when so many millions of people died, many more millions got sick with long-term consequences, lost their jobs, or their business went under with no fault of their own? The year was a dark moment in human history. We saw how many of our colleagues, some great interpreters, left the profession just to feed their families; we saw how the sound technicians, our professional partners, lost their source of income, and with that their homes, cars, health insurance. I was left wondering about the lives of airport, hotel, and airline workers who I used to see several times a week and were left with the sad option of collecting unemployment insurance and visiting food banks to feed their children. I often think of my colleagues enduring the hardship of not working remotely as they now have their children at home because schools were closed many months ago; I see how many colleagues, some top-tier interpreters, are struggling to learn technology, and install the infrastructure at home to enter the world of distance conference interpreting, and literarily suffer as they try to understand a technology that appeared too late in their lives, or cut essential expenses so they can pay for high speed internet, or noise-cancelling headphones. I feel so sad when I see my elderly colleagues getting COVID-19, and sometimes passing away. I had a hard time, like we all did, but fortunately, I was technologically ready to jump on the distance interpreting bandwagon, and even though I am working at home, missing all those things that make life worth living, such as traveling, and enjoying human contact, I was lucky enough to work, remotely, with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession saw its conferences migrate to a virtual mode, allowing us to learn and practice, but depriving us from the opportunities to do networking and renew friendships with those colleagues we only see once a year. I congratulate those professional associations that cancelled, postponed, and moved their conferences online, and I shame those associations that put money ahead of their members’ health, and waited until the last moment to switch to virtual. That we will remember.

2020 was the year of fraud and misrepresentation of credentials where sadly, many great instructors and presenters shared cyberspace with unknown, self-proclaimed experts who made money by designing a nice website, attractive advertisement, and nothing else. We saw the growth of our profession in distance interpreting: Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) video remote interpreting (VRI) and over the phone interpreting (OPI). Unfortunately, much of its growth was due to questionable advertisement by some platforms and agencies who scared clients and naïve interpreters by making them believe that in-person interpreting was forever gone, and selling them the false idea that distance interpreting was of the same quality as in-person traditional work. We learned the value of real interpreter-centric professional associations that defended our interests when platforms, agencies, and many clients tried (and continue to try) to lower our standards by retaining unqualified interpreters, violating the rules of professional domicile, and recruiting interpreters and para-professionals willing to work long hours, solo, and for little money. We saw how not even a pandemic can bring us a one hundred percent pariah-safe year.

One of the few good things that happened in 2020 was the defeat of ATA’s Board initiative to decouple membership from certification. I applaud the members who made it possible with their vote.

Finally, to end on a positive note, I say we proved to ourselves that interpreters are resilient, able to adapt to adversity to survive, and good humans. We saw more unity among our colleagues than ever before. This was a welcome development in the ferocious assault by the agencies demanding work for lower pay, and platforms demanding work under substandard conditions. I disagree, however, with the idea that we “learned” how to do this. We just remembered how to do it. It is Darwinian that humans adapt to changing circumstances. That is natural selection.

We now face a new year full of uncertainty, with a poor distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, new mutations of the virus, a world economy in shambles, a hospitality sector, vital to our profession, looking at a long term come back that has not even started, and the usual agencies and their associates looking for a way to make a quick buck at the expense of the interpreter. As you can see, dear friends and colleagues, there were terrible things in 2020, many of us lost family, friends and colleagues; our income was affected, and some of our clients closed. Fortunately, we remembered we are resilient, adaptable, and courageous; we discovered we can work together as interpreters regardless of our geographic location, and we saw there is technology to keep us going during the crisis. Much changed and sadly much stayed the same. I will focus on the good things to come while I guard against the bad ones. I wish you all a better and healthy 2021!

Interpreting during the holidays: Santa Claus in other cultures.

December 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

Sometimes when interpreting during the holiday season, getting acquainted with the subject and terminology of the assignment is not enough. Speakers often bring up the holiday spirit and mention phrases, tell stories, share anecdotes, and convey best wishes to their audience. Sometimes, these names, stories, or traditions are unknown to the interpreters because they are not part of their culture, and to prevent those situations, we must incorporate them to our study materials. Often when we begin our research, we recognize the story or tradition, it just goes by a different name, or the characters are slightly different because they have been adapted to the foreign country. Speakers include this “holiday talk” in their speech because their goal is to project a sense of caring, to convey their well wishes. We must do the same in the target language.

As I was interpreting one of these holiday stories involving Santa Claus a few days ago, I thought it would help to compile some names and portrayals of the jolly bearded man in different cultures. It is true that, thanks to Hollywood, Disney, and Coca Cola, everybody knows the American version of Santa Claus as the white bearded guy in a red suit who leaves his home in the North Pole on Christmas Eve, and travels the world in a slay pulled by flying reindeer, enters your home through the chimney, leaves presents for nice kids and coal for the naughty ones, eats the cookies, drinks the milk, and off he goes, laughing out loud, and yelling “Merry Christmas.” Most Americans know nothing about Santa in foreign culture. These are some of the better-known traditions involving a gift-giving character, or characters, sometimes very similar to out Santa, sometimes very different.

Argentina and Peru. Like most Latin American countries, Argentina and Peru have adopted the American Santa Claus in image and deed, but they call him Papá Noel. He brings presents to those kids who behave, and co-exists with the Día de Reyes tradition Latin Americans inherited from Spain. To read more about this tradition, please read under Spain in this post.

China. During the “Holy Birth Festival” (Sheng Dan Jieh) children hang their stockings hoping that Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas Old Man) leaves them a present. In some parts of China, they refer to him as Lan Khoong-Khoong (Nice Old Father).

Chile. Chilean children are visited by el Viejito Pascuero (Old Man Christmas) on Christmas Eve. He leaves presents to those kids well-behaved during the year. The tradition is a mixture of the American Santa Claus, Colonial influence, and Chile’s culture and traditions.

Colombia, Bolivia and Costa Rica. On Christmas Eve, good kids get presents from “El Niño Jesús” (Baby Jesus). The Niño looks like most images of an infant Jesus, but his role is the same as Santa’s: To reward those children who behaved during the year.

Finland. Here, Joulupukki, a nice man, goes door to door delivering presents to all children, but it was not always like that. Before Christianity, there was another character: During the mid-winter festival, Nuuttipukki, a not-so-nice young man, would visit people’s homes demanding food and alcohol, scaring the children when he did not get what he wanted.

France. French children have Père Noël, or Papa Noël (Father Christmas) who wears a long, red cloak, and on Christmas Eve leaves presents in good children’s shoes. Unfortunately, he does not travel alone, he comes with Père Fouettard (the Whipping Father) who spanks those children who misbehaved during the year.

Germany, Austria and Switzerland. On Christmas Eve, Christkind (the Christ Child) visits all homes of Lutheran children in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, leaving presents for those who were good during the year. His appearance resembles that of Baby Jesus, with long, blonde, curly hair. Because of the required “angelical look,” this character is often portrayed by females. There is another character in Austria and other Alpine countries: Krampus, a horned, anthropomorphic figure in Alpine traditions who scares bad children during the Christmas season.

Greece. On New Year’s Day, Greek children are visited by Agios Vasilios (Saint Basil) who, in his Greek Orthodox Church tradition of generosity, leaves them presents. Notice how Greek kids know Saint Basil, not Saint Nicholas, as non-Orthodox Christian children do.

Iceland. During the thirteen days before Christmas, Icelandic children are visited by 13 gnomes called Jólasveinar (Yule Lads) who leave candy in good children’s shoes, and rotten potatoes in the shoes of the naughty ones. These gang of 13 trolls do many tricks during those thirteen days, such as stealing food, slamming doors, and peeking through windows.

Italy. Italian kids have to wait until the eve of January 5 when La Befana, a friendly witch comes to their homes on her flying broomstick and leaves toys and candy to the good ones, and coal to those who were naughty. She flies around on January 5 because she is looking for the Three Wise Men to join them to see baby Jesus, as she cannot find Bethlehem on her own.

Japan. On New Year’s Eve, Japanese children good during the year get presents from Hoteiosho, a jolly fat Buddhist Monk who has eyes in the back of his head to see those kids who were naughty. Because of the big American influence over Japanese culture in the last half a century, Japanese added their version of the American Santa Claus to their festivities. His Japanese name is Santa Kurohsu, and he is part of this acquired celebration in a non-Christian country with no turkeys, where the Christmas tradition is to have KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), which Japanese simply call “Kentucky” for Christmas dinner, and they often confuse Santa Claus with the image of Colonel Sanders.

Mexico. Mexican kids are neighbors to the United States and as such, they observe the same traditions as American children. They are visited by Santa Claus who looks exactly as the American version, lives in the North Pole, and has the same reindeer. He even gets inside Mexican homes through the chimney, although most Mexican homes do not have a fireplace. Maybe for this reason, Mexican Santa leaves the presents under the Christmas Tree instead of the stockings hanging from the fireplace. Like other countries in Latin America, Mexican children are also visited by the “Reyes Magos” from the Spanish tradition.

The Netherlands. The Dutch name for the Christmas visitor is Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and if you recognize the name, it is because the American Santa Claus took his name from this Dutch Bishop, the patron saint of children and sailors, who arrives from Spain by boat on December 5 every year, and makes his way to the homes of Dutch children to leave them a present. The Sinterklaas tradition was taken to the United States by Dutch sailors, and in recent times the American Santa Claus has entered Dutch culture as Kerstman (Christmas Man) so well-behaved kids in The Netherlands now get two presents from two different characters who started as one.

Norway. On Christmas (Jul) a mischievous gnome with a long beard and a red hat named Julenissen visits the children and plays pranks and leaves presents. He is said to be the protector of all superstitious farmers. A similar character exists in Sweden and Denmark, where he’s known as Jultomte and Julemand, respectively. In Sweden, an adult man wearing a mask goes to kids’ homes and asks: “are there any good children who live here?” before distributing his sack of presents.

Russia and Ukraine. Children in these countries are visited on New Year’s Day by a tall, slender character dressed in blue who arrives in a wagon pulled by horses and goes by the name of Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). He now gives presents to good children, and he is assisted by his granddaughter Snegurochka, but he was not always that nice. A descendant of Morozko, a Pagan Ice Demon, long ago, he used to freeze his enemies and kidnap children, but that is all in the past.

Spain. On the eve of January 6, children in Spain (and most Latin American countries) expect a visit from the Reyes Magos (the Wise Men) Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltasar, who will visit their home on the date when they got to Bethlehem to see baby Jesus, and leave presents by the shoes of those nice kids who wrote them a letter. That night, before they go to sleep, children leave sweets for the Reyes Magos and hay for the camels they ride on.

United Kingdom. British kids’ Father Christmas, and American children’s Santa Claus may be almost the same, but they have a different origin. While Santa Claus comes from a Dutch tradition (see The Netherlands in this post), Father Christmas results from a merger of a Germanic-Saxon character: King Frost, and a Viking tradition: Odin, the Norse father of all gods who had a long white beard and distributed presents and privileges among those who deserved them in his judgement. Father Christmas, born from those two characters, brings presents to nice children all over the United Kingdom on Christmas eve.

I hope this list will help you prepare for your assignments during the holiday season, just in case, somebody brings up one of these characters when you are in the booth, or at this time, working remotely. I also invite you to share with us other countries’ traditions around Santa-like characters, or to give more details about the characters mentioned in this post. I wish you all a restful holiday season, and a healthy, plentiful, and in-person New Year.

Interpreters in the driver’s seat: Distance interpreting need not be from home.

December 7, 2020 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Conditions worldwide continue to keep us isolated. Lack of travel, conferences, and all human gatherings have left us without in-person interpreting work, and business, government, and scientific needs have pushed all events that could not be cancelled, or postponed any longer, to remote meetings. By now, most interpreters have worked with distance interpreting platforms, or at least some other less desirable remote option. RSI Platforms have aggressively pursued all markets, and language agencies have found and adopted a way to remain in business while increasing their margins by hiring less-experienced interpreters from developing countries willing to work for fees lower than well-established, renowned colleagues from developed economies. To many of these newcomers to the profession, distance interpreting from home does not look like a problem, and adding the roles of unpaid technician, mechanic, and telephone operator does not seem out of place. They have not work under other conditions.

The rest of us have adapted to distance interpreting; our previous work in the booth lets us see what different platforms offer, and what they do not. With a constructive, critical eye, we can opine as to the better platforms depending on the assignment. We can also understand the enormity of the challenge, the very serious liability exposure, and the added cognitive load that may affect the way we provide our interpreting services.

Platforms and agencies have asked us to interpret from home, and to do it, we had to invest on equipment, training, and a physical space within our homes. Some colleagues had to pass on this work because of where they live. If you cannot avoid a noisy environment you are out of luck, regardless of your interpreting knowledge and skill.

Stressful weeks, dissatisfied clients, and lawsuits can be minimized (not eliminated) by working from a hub. Distance interpreting is not as reliable, and its quality is not as good as in-person work, but there is a world of difference between interpreting from home: by yourself, without a boothmate, with no technical support, and praying the neighbor does not mow the lawn during the conference, and working from a hub with a boothmate (for now) in the booth next door, a technician on site, and all the hardware and software needed to provide the service successfully. Because of the pandemic, interpreters in many countries cannot travel to the hub, even if in the same city, so interpreting from home continues as an in-extremis solution, but even with these restrictions lifted, those colleagues not living in big cities where hubs are will not take advantage of this option. Interpreters in hub cities will also face the obstacle of platform-run hubs where they will always be limited to certain platforms, hardware, and working conditions such as agency or platform-imposed boothmates and lower fees.

The outlook looks grim, but it need not be. There may be a solution.

Like everyone else, most of my work this year has been from home. Pandemic restrictions, and health concerns have kept me in my place for nine months; however, I did not have to do distance interpreting from home twice. That opened my eyes.

Earlier this year, a client hired me to do a multiple day event for one of the largest firms in the world to take place live from many countries around the world in several continents. The assignment would require interpreting services in four languages and relay interpreting would be needed.

This was too big of an event to organize a group of colleagues to work from their home over Zoom and a combination of social media platforms and telephone lines to hear boothmates and do relay. It was clear the complexity of the event required professional technical support. To avoid the solution above, there seemed one option: The client would need to choose one of the local hubs for the event. The problem was that picking a hub would mean using the platform they offered, and having to negotiate the interpreter roster as some hubs push for the interpreters in their “lists.”

Faced with these facts, we brainstormed long and hard, and suddenly, a solution emerged. We live in a big city where many movies and TV shows are filmed; many artists record their music here also, and there are interpreting equipment companies that have suffered even more that interpreters during this conference-free Covid season. We realized that these studios have the infrastructure to hold a multi-lingual interpreting event: physical facilities such as soundproof stages and studios; sound and video equipment with many consoles and tons of microphones, monitors, computers, etc.; and technical staff with years of experience in show business. Not exactly as working with interpreters in the booth, but with enough knowledge and skills to catch up quickly. I even knew some from voice-over and TV interpreting work.

We contacted one studio and voila! They agreed. The cost was way lower than a traditional hub, and they were flexible and eager to learn. They had been dark most of the year, and the staff had been out-of-work, struggling to make ends meet on unemployment insurance checks.

First, we explained our needs; not just our technical needs for the event, but first our public health conditions. There were no problems, the studios underwent a deep cleaning process, ventilation was brought up to health department standards, everybody’s temperature was checked, and we all answered health-related questions before entering the facility, there were plenty of sinks to wash our hands as needed, hand sanitizer was found at every interpreting booth, office, and technician station, and everyone wore masks all the time.

There was a learning curve, but they were quick learners. At first, they expected our work to be similar to a voice-over assignment, and they thought the event would be recorded with the possibility of editing picks. It was explained to them the event would be broadcasted live to many time zones around the world; we put them in touch with the broadcasting company that would provide that service, and I happily saw how the spoke the same language as far as cameras, lighting, sound at the two venues where the speakers would be addressing the audience from, and so on. All interpreters worked from individual booths built with plexiglass dividers so we could see each other and communicate during the rendition. Even during the breaks and lunch time all interpreters socialized keeping a safe distance from each other and separated by plexiglass dividers so we could eat without wearing masks.

The experience was great and since then I have spoken to other studios in my area willing to do the same when the opportunity arises. This temporary hub solution is great because it keeps interpreters in the driver’s seat, not the platforms, not the agencies. We can select our trusted technicians and pick our interpreting team. This brings top interpreting services to the client, reduces interpreters’ stress, liability, and cognitive load during the event, and because you may choose the interpreting platform that better suits the needs of that event, it saves the client money. Distance interpreting as it should be: between interpreters and direct clients, with platforms playing their real supporting, not protagonist, role, and without agencies.

I understand this solution works for all of us who live in big cities, and even some midsize cities with movie, TV, or recording studios, but even towns without these facilities, or big cities where studios are not willing to work with us can create a temporary hub for an event if they have a conference interpreting equipment busines in town. Some of us have spoken to one of such companies in our area, and we have agreed to create a temporary hub whenever it is needed at the company’s warehouse where they can easily erect the same temporary booths we have used at hotels and convention centers for years. Here we will even work with the same trusted technician friends who know us personally from other assignments.

As interpreters we should control our profession and the way we provide our services. Relinquishing these functions to other supporting actors will diminish the quality of the interpreting services, and will affect interpreters’ fees and working conditions. I now invite you to share your opinions and other possible solutions to make distance interpreting better for the client, and safer for the interpreter.

Thanksgiving Post: Interpreters make possible a scientific & diplomatic mission over 200 years ago.

November 23, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

Once again, despite the pandemic and warnings from the Health Authorities, unfortunately, on Thanksgiving Day millions of Americans will gather with friends and relatives to celebrate the most American of all holidays. It is difficult to comprehend how so many of our fellow citizens will put self-interest above society’s public health, but that is not the topic of this post. Just as we know indoor gatherings are not cool this year, we know many think of Thanksgiving as a symbol of the oppression and abuse Native Americans endured when Europeans arrived in the continent. Both perspectives are valid, but this blog is about interpreting, and like every year, I chose this week to reflect on the contributions the first interpreters made to the birth of our nation. This time, we will remember the interpreters that made possible America’s expansion to the west.

Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson organized a scientific and diplomatic mission to the newly acquired lands with the goals of mapping the territories, explore the flora and fauna, find a passage to the Pacific, and to establish diplomatic and commercial ties with local inhabitants of these lands, now part of the United States. The expedition was entrusted to renowned explorers, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Lewis and Clark organized a group of 45 members named the Corps of Discovery, which included officers, 29 military personal, civilians and servants. They left Camp Dubois (in present Illinois) on May 14, 1804. From the beginning, Lewis and Clark knew diplomacy in the new territories would require of the services of interpreters, as most people they were about to encounter would speak French, Spanish, or one of the many indigenous languages. A top priority, they initiated a campaign to recruit interpreters who spoke French, Spanish, and the known indigenous languages, knowing well they would need to incorporate additional interpreters along the way to communicate in other languages they would be discovering along the trip.

The native inhabitants of the Great Plains spoke many languages and dialects. Even those from the same language group were not mutually intelligible all the time. Besides oral communication, Native Americans on the plains communicated through an elaborated system of hand signs to communicate with other nations when they did not know the others’ language. This way they were able to negotiate peace, create military alliances, and trade with one another.

French, Spanish, British, and American trappers and traders living along the Missouri River had interacted with the natives for years, some had married local women, and their children, a product of both cultures, often spoke the language of both parents. George Drouillard, the son of a French father and Shawnee mother was one of them. Captain Lewis recruited him, and Francois Labiche and Pierre Cruzatte. These two spoke French, English, and Omaha.

Although he could speak no Native American language, Private John Baptiste Lapage spoke, and had interpreted between French and English, a valuable resource when communicating with French traders and trappers who lived in the region. Drouillard and Cruzatte were conversant in the Sign Language of the plains, and later, Private George Gibson was also recruited for his knowledge of this Sign Language. Anticipating contact with the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, or Great Sioux Nation, Lewis and Clark realized Cruzatte’s knowledge of Sign Language was limited. Luckily, they ran into a Frenchman named Pierre Dorion, who was married to a Sioux woman, had lived among the Yankton for decades, and was fluent in their language. Captain Lewis hired him immediately. His services proved valuable since Lewis engaged his services to communicate President Jefferson’s peaceful intentions to the local leaders.

By late July 1804, the Captains were eager to hold their first meeting with the representatives from the Oto, Missouri, Omaha, and Ponca, or Pawnee nations. They retained the services of a Frenchman known as La Liberteé, or Barter, who spoke the Oto language. This interpreter deserted before he could provide any services, but another Frenchmen, Fairfong, who lived among the Oto and Missouri, and spoke their language, accompanied the Captains to a summit later known as the “Council Bluff.”

At the summit, Fairfong interpreted consecutively from Oto into French, then Droullard and Cruzatte took relay from French, and interpreted consecutively into English for Lewis and Clark. Because of the interpretation, all parties could communicate and negotiate, and the Council was deemed a diplomatic success.

In September 1804, the Captains held a Council with the Teton Sioux without competent interpreters. This proved to be very difficult, as Clark recorded in his journal: “…we feel much at a loss for the want of an interpreter… the one we have can Speek (sic) but little…” (after a meal) “…Cap. Lewis proceeded to deliver a Speech which we (were) oblige(d) to Curtail for want of a good interpreter.” (Lewis, Meriwether and Clark William. The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Bergon, ed. New York, NY. Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1989. P. 52) The lack of quality interpreting nearly ended in tragedy when after the meeting, one of the Chiefs became “…Verry (sic) insolent in words and justures (sic), pretended Drunkenness & staggered up against (Clark)” (Ibid p. 52, 53).

On October 1804 Captain Lewis visited an Arikara village, and Captain Clark stayed behind to talk to some Frenchmen who arrived by pirogue. Among these men there were two traders named Joseph Gravelines (who Clark always called “Gavellin”) and Antoine Tabeau. Later, Lewis described Gravelines as “…a man well-versed in the language of this nation…” (Ibid p. 61). These new interpreters explained that the Arikara spoke different languages because of a merger of different tribes: They “…do not understand all the words of the others…” (Ibid p. 67). Without the interpreting services of Gravelines and Tabeau, Lewis and Clark could have never held a successful and productive summit with the Arikara. In late October, helped by these two interpreters, they had another successful meeting with the Mandans. At this village the Captains met another Frenchman: René Jessaume, who lived with his Native American wife in the village and offer his interpreting services for as long as they stayed among the Mandan and Hidasta. Jessaume turned into a most valuable assistant as he provided information on the leaders’ personalities, local politics. and local culture. This information helped Lewis and Clark in their efforts to negotiate a peace treaty between neighboring tribes. These actions made Jessaume the first interpreter and cultural broker of the expedition. (Ibid p. 69-72).

At this village the Captains considered the possibility that the northwest passage did not exist. There, they would need to continue by foot, and they would need horses. Learning the Shoshone possessed quality horses, Lewis and Clark decided to meet them and negotiate the acquisition of some. To accomplish this objective, they knew a competent Shoshone interpreter would be essential not just to get the horses, but to communicate their peaceful intentions and fulfill the diplomatic mission ordered by President Jefferson.

On November 4, a Frenchman named Toussaint Charbonneau visited the expedition at the place that would become Fort Mandan and offered his services as an interpreter. He did not speak Shoshone, but one of his two wives, Sacagawea, who had been captured by the Shoshone as a child did. He offered his wife as an interpreter from Shoshone into Hidatsa, and his services from the latter into French, leaving open the need for a French-English interpreter. For this task, the Captains hired Private Francois Labiche who spoke both, English and French. Charbonneau was hired “as an interpreter through his wife.” (Ibid. p. 77, 78). At this time, the Arikara Chief and his men, along with interpreters Gravelines and Tabeau wished farewell to Lewis and Clark and their now 33-member “permanent party” as they sailed up the Missouri River.

In August 1805, while looking to buy horses, crossing the Continental Divide, Captain Lewis and Drouillard encountered some Shoshone. The interpreter communicated through Sign Language as recorded on the journals: “…The means I had of communicating with these people was by way of Drewyer (Drouillard) who understood perfectly the common language of jesticulation (sic) or signs which seems to be universally understood by all the Nations we have yet seen. It is true that this language is imperfect and liable of error but is much less so than would be expected. The strong parts of the ideas are seldom mistaken…” (Ibid. p.98). After the rest of the party joined Lewis, it was discovered that the Shoshone leader, Cameahwait, was Sacagawea’s brother who she had not seen for five years. These circumstances made the purchase of the horses easier, but negotiations had to be carried on through relay interpreting: Lewis and Clark spoke to Labiche in English, Labiche interpreted the message into French for Charbonneau; Charbonneau interpreted into Hidatsa for Sacagawea; and she interpreted into Shoshone for her brother. When Cameahwait spoke, the process was reversed. (Ibid. p. 275). This was the regular interpreting system followed during the expedition. The extensive, consecutive relay interpretation must have taken a long time.

Perhaps the most complicated interpreting session took place in April 1806 during the return trip near the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia Rivers when the expedition found members of the Walla Walla Nation. The Captains had no Walla Walla interpreter, so they relied on Drouillard’s Sign Language, but the communication was not going as desired. Fortunately, at this time, Sacagawea found a Shoshone woman among the Walla Wallas. This woman had been taken as a child by the Walla Walla and spoke their language. They could now negotiate with the Walla Wallas. Lewis and Clark spoke to Labiche in English; he interpreted into French for Charbonneau; Charbonneau then relayed to Sacagawea in Hidatsa; she interpreted into Shoshone for the captive woman, who in turn interpreted into Walla Walla for the Head of the tribe.

Most people think of Sacagawea as the interpreter of Lewis and Clark. Her contributions were key to the success of the expedition and the survival of the corps; but communication was only possible thanks to the services of all other interpreters of Lewis and Clark: Toussaint Charbonneau, Francois Labiche, Pierre Cruzatte, George Gibson, George Drouillard, Pierre Dorion, Fairfong, Reneé Jessaume, Josepg Gravelines, and Antoine Tabeau. The Lewis and Clark expedition, and the transformation of the American nation, may have failed for “want of a good interpreter.” Fortunately, they had plenty of capable individuals who bridged the communication gap, and made science and diplomacy possible, by interpreting consecutively, offering cultural advice, working relay into several languages at a time, and using sign language.

On this Thanksgiving Day, let’s remember and celebrate the work of these often-forgotten pioneers who did their best for two bosses who knew from the beginning that having good, reliable interpretation was essential for the success of the most famous expedition in American history.

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.

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