The biggest danger to the interpreting profession.

June 15, 2015 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreters face many challenges every day; some are professional, some are technical, and some are market-related.  Today we are going to talk about this last category, and we will particularly devote some time to what I consider to be one of the greatest dangers to our profession.

Many times, you have read, heard and complained about the huge bad agencies and the backwards government offices you have encountered during your career. We all know they are there and we should be extremely careful when dealing with them so that our best interests as freelance professionals are protected.

There are other entities in our environment that could be more dangerous because they seemed harmless and deal with many interpreters more often than any other client. I am talking about the small interpreting agencies that exist all over the world in huge numbers. I am referring to those agencies that are individually owned and operate in small markets where so many of our colleagues live and work.

We all heard of the big interpreting agencies, but the truth is that most interpreters do not live in New York City, London, or Chicago. They live in smaller cities and communities where the big agencies rarely take over the market; and they don’t do it because, by their standards, there is not enough money to be made. There are no big conferences, there are no international organizations, and there are no Fortune 500 corporate headquarters.  The void left by these big players is occupied by “mom and pop’s agencies” that find these smaller markets attractive, and free of competition against the big language business organizations.

Although there are some honest businesses owned by people who know and care about the profession, many small interpreting agencies are individually or family owned, often times the company owner knows nothing about interpreting or translating, and is monolingual.  These individuals come from other professional backgrounds such as sales, computer design, or public relations, and they just happened to stumble upon our profession due to marriage or a change of residence to a more linguistically diverse community.  Because of their personal characteristics, and often (but not always) because they are native speakers, they can produce an adequate sales pitch for their not very sophisticated market, and the next thing you know, and without any real knowledge of what we do, they start offering interpreting and translation services and booking interpreters for assignments such as administrative law hearings, medical office visits, and “second-tier” conferences in their own region.  So far it sounds bad, but not horrendous. Allow me to continue.

The reason why the get government offices, medical doctors, and small event planners to hire them is twofold: They have enough knowledge of their market to access the places where these clients look for language services (internet search positioning, chambers of commerce, local fairs, etc.) and they offer translators and interpreters for a lower fee.  This is the sale!

Remember, when they first started their business they knew nothing about our profession. By now they have learned one thing, the only one they ever cared to learn: You can get translators from poor countries, and local interpreting talent (mediocre at best) for rock-bottom prices. Because of their “sales skills” they are able to convince their client, who is eager to find the cheapest service provider ever, that their professional services are provided by “adequate”, “qualified” native-speaker interpreters. The bureaucrat, doctor, or businessperson who is hiring the small interpreting agency, does not know anything about interpreting experience, certifications, degrees, licensing, patents, or any other interpreter credentials, and they are so thrilled to get the interpreter so cheap, that they will believe anything this ignorant will tell them.

Of course, due to the rickety pay, the agency owner will have these (mediocre at best) interpreters working under deplorable conditions such as obsolete equipment, bad interpreter location inside the room, no interpreting booth, and no team interpreting.  Sometimes they will brag to their interpreters that they got them a table-top booth to do their job, and every once in a blue moon they will provide a real technician to be by the interpreter’s side throughout the event.

After the interpreting services are rendered, these agencies will take their sweet long time to pay. Many times a “standard” payment policy will be 90 days, and even then, some of these raiders of our profession will tell the interpreter that “their client has not paid them yet” and will use this as an excuse not to pay the interpreter, who erroneously, will feel sorry for the abusive agency owner, and will gladly agree to wait until the agency gets paid. Never mind the house mortgage payment, the kids’ school tuition, and the family medical expenses. The interpreter will now wait for the “poor agency owner” who will console himself in the meantime with a trip to Hawaii, tickets to an expensive sports event, or at least a fancy dinner.

Dear friends, interpreters will take these terrible assignments, wait forever to get a tiny paycheck, and go back to the same abusive agency owner mainly for two reasons: (1) Because the interpreter is so incompetent, that he knows deep inside that no one else will ever hire him to work, and (2) Because they are so afraid of never working again for this same individual.  Not because they are bad interpreters (although each day they will be worse if they stay with the agency and continue to work under those unprofessional conditions) but because they do not know how to get their own clients; because they believe that the clients belong to the abusive small agency owner, and they cannot take them away.

The thing is, dear colleagues, that it is precisely because of the second reason above that these dangerous agencies exist. They are in business because interpreters are too afraid to go directly to the client and explain that the agency is run by a person who knows very little about interpreting, that the service they have been providing through the agency is second-class because they have been asked to work without any technical and human resources, not because they are second-tier professionals. Many times when these interpreters offer their professional services directly to the client, they find out that the agency was keeping more of the paycheck than they thought, and sometimes the government agency, doctor office, and event organizer will realize that they could even save money when they pay the interpreter his full regular fee.

I know that some of you are thinking: (1) What about interpreter services in other languages different from yours? The agency finds and provides all these “exotic” language interpreters on a regular basis. The answer to that is very simple. Although it is not of your concern because you are an interpreter, you can teach the client how to get other language interpreters. If you have been around for some time, chances are that you will be able to provide a name list to the client, and this will satisfy most of his needs. For the others, you can suggest professional associations’ membership directories such as ATA, IAPTI, AIIC, NAJIT, IMIA, etc. and perhaps for those occasions, the client can reach out to one of the big international language agencies. I see no problem because this would help your client without harming anyone. After all, there is nobody in town who could do the job. (2) What about that contract we signed that states that we cannot even look in the direction of the small agency’s client? Many of these agency owners included this provision to discourage interpreters from talking to clients. The best thing to do is to take the contract to an attorney and ask if the provision is enforceable (not legal). If it is not, you know what to do, and if it is, then you just have to wait for the provision to expire, after all none of them is forever.

I know that my colleagues in the big world capitals have little to do with these “family businesses”, but they have appeared here and there from time to time, so please be very careful, avoid them, and remember, in the big city there is always another way to get work.  The solution is, my friends and colleagues, to reject work from these entities, fight over the market so they cannot keep it or take it away from you, and observing the law, act like a business. You have an advantage: you know your profession.  As you can see, in my opinion we have to separate the big multinational language service providers from these “mom and pop’s” agencies. The big ones meet a market need that we cannot meet individually. Although we have to be firm and careful when negotiating with them, we need them for the big events and conferences.  These small ones, these apparently harmless local business are a real danger to the profession. The good news is that in this case you do not need them. You can fulfill the needs of your market.  I now ask you, the interpreters, to please share with the rest of us your opinion about these small and dangerous agencies that are all over the place.  Please do not reply if you are one of the rare exceptions among this business entities. I already mentioned you as some of the few good guys at the top of the post. And please do not bother to comment if you represent one of these agencies and you want to defend what you do. You have your own forums where you “make your case” all the time.

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