”Sorry. I do not interpret for free.”

May 8, 2017 § 32 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Recently many interpreters have been asked to provide their services for free. The current refugee situation in Europe, immigration policy of the United States, and other crisis around the world, including the awful repression of the people of Venezuela, have created a wave of foreign language speakers who seek help in countries where their native language is not spoken.

I have heard from colleagues asked to go to an airport to interpret for individuals denied admission into the United States. Others have been asked to provide their services during town hall meetings without pay. Several have received requests to work for free during asylum hearings or medical examinations at refugee camps or religious organizations-run facilities.

When asked to “interpret at no charge for these folks who have gone through so much”, many interpreters feel pressured to provide the service, even when this may represent a financial burden to them. Arguments such as “It will not take long, and it really is nothing to you since you speak the language… please help” are often used to corner professional interpreters into a place where it becomes very difficult to decline.

There are plenty of times when the only one asked to work for free is the interpreter. Many non-for-profit organizations have paid staff, and it is these social workers, physicians, attorneys and others who will assist the foreign language speaker. Everyone is making a living while helping these people in need, but the interpreter! Something is wrong with this picture.

Many of the people who work for these organizations do not see interpreters as professionals. They do not consider what we do as a professional service. They just see it as the acquired knowledge of a language that interpreters speak anyway, and they perceive it as something that should be shared for free. They believe that what doctors, lawyers and social workers do is a professional service and deserves pay. To them, we perform a non-professional, effortless task that should be volunteered.  Even if the interpreters questions this idea, and asks to be paid, the answers go from: “We are non-for-profit and we have no money” to “The entire budget will go to pay for doctors and lawyers, and you know they are expensive. There is no money left for you”. And then they go for the kill by closing the statement with: “but you understand; these are your people. They need your help”.

This is insulting. First, they see us, treat us, and address us as second-class paraprofessional service providers. Then, they claim there is no money when we all know that non-for-profits do not pay taxes because of the service they provide, but they have sources of income. Finally, they think we are not smart enough to see how they are trying to use us by playing the guilt card.

I systematically decline these requests because I consider them insulting and demeaning to the profession. Interpreters are professionals just like the other parties involved, their job is as important and essential as the rest of the professions participating in the program, and we must get paid just like the rest of the professionals.

There are instances when attorneys and other professionals provide the service without payment. The difference is that in some countries, lawyers and other professionals must perform some hours free of charge; sometimes several hours worked pro bono can be credited as part of the continuing education hours to keep a professional license current. Even court and healthcare interpreters receive this benefit sometimes. People see it as working for free, but it is far from it. The first scenario is a legal obligation to keep a professional license valid. The second one is a creative way to lure professionals into providing professional services at no charge for needed continuing education credits and an enhancement of their reputation in their community that will see them as willing participants helping in the middle of a crisis.

According to the American Bar Association, eleven states have implemented rules that permit attorneys who take pro bono cases to earn credit toward mandatory continuing legal education requirements (The states are: Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, Washington State, and Wyoming).

I have no problem with interpreting for free if the interpreter must comply with a compulsory social service, or can benefit by receiving continuing education credit.  When the legislation (or the lack of it) is so interpreters get nothing from their service while the others benefit, then interpreters are treated as sub-professionals and I believe they should say no to all those asking them to work under these disadvantageous conditions.

If these non-for-profit organizations want interpreting services for free, they should lobby their legislative authorities or administrative officials to provide continuing education credits to all interpreters who provide some hours of work for free.

Another possible solution would be to allow interpreters to treat these free professional services as a donation to the non-for-profit organizations, making them tax deductible. This would create an incentive and level the field with all other professionals already getting a paycheck, or continuing education credits.   American legislation does not allow interpreters in the United States to deduct the value of their time or services (IRS Publication 526 for tax year 2016).  An amendment to this legislation would go a long way, and would benefit both, non-for-profit organizations and professional interpreters.

Some of you may disagree with me on this subject. I am asking you to detach your professional business decisions, which we should make with our brain, from your emotional decisions that come from your heart.  We all have causes we care about and we willfully, with no pressure, help in any way we can, including interpreting for free. This is something else, and you should do it when nobody else is making a profit or even an income to get by. It is called fairness. On the other hand, we should protect our profession, and the livelihood of our families by refusing all “volunteer” work where some of the others are getting paid or receiving a benefit we are not. Especially when they insult our intelligence by resorting to the “emotional appeal”.

I sometimes donate my services under the above circumstances,   as long as I may advertise who I am and my services. This way I donate my work, but I am investing in my business by enhancing my client base and professional network.  I now ask you to comment on this issue that seems very popular at this time. The only thing I ask from you is to please abstain from the comments and arguments for working for free that appeal to emotions instead of professional businesses.

Interpreter fees and costs. Avoid misunderstandings.

March 1, 2017 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Many interpreters complain that clients do not want to cover their expenses; that they do not understand why we charge for costs separately when we are already asking for a well-deserved hefty fee.  The complaining seems to include agencies and direct clients alike, and it makes many of our colleagues uncomfortable.

Interpreters dislike the subject because they do not how to charge fees and costs, or because they do not really understand why we must be paid for both of these items.  As for the client, many agencies just do not want to pay because their business plan is to profit as much as they can get away with, and to keep the interpreter from the money for as long as possible, or for as long as the interpreter allows it. Direct clients have different reasons, but they can all be summarized in one: lack of knowledge. They do not know what the interpreter does.

As we just saw, they may have different reasons to dislike, and frankly avoid, paying for interpreter fees and costs, but most of their hesitation and reluctance to pay can be eliminated with some clarity and a simple system.

In the past, I have discussed the items we must consider when calculating our professional fee and what costs we need to pass on to our client. You can read these blog entries somewhere else in my blog.  Today we will explore a system that will help you educate the ignorant client and will protect you from the Draconian one-sided “job opportunities” that some agencies put on your table.

The first thing I do when I am contacted by a serious client who wants to retain my professional services, is to find out as much about the assignment as possible: type of interpretation that will be required, subject matter, name of the individuals giving the speeches or presentations, dates when my work will be needed, duration of the project, place where the services will be provided, work conditions, equipment to be used, languages provided, name of the other interpreters already retained or prospective interpreters who are being considered for the assignment, and I always want to know what it I exactly that the client expects to be covered by my professional services.

After a good chat, and sometimes more than one when the project is big and the client needs to get the answers to some of my questions, I inform them that they will hear from me within 24 hours. I explain that they will receive an email with an estimate for the professional fees and costs I would charge for the assignment as presented to me. Then I get to work.

I already have a format that matches my professional style and personality. This gives me the organization and coherence needed to be able to explain what I do and how much I charge.

I suggest you develop your own format for your estimates, and as always, everything that I suggest in this entry, and anywhere else in the blog, is not intended as legal or financial advice; these are just mere suggestions that in no way guarantee you any result. If you need to know financial, legal, or other consequences, please retain a professional.

Whether you prepare your estimate form on your own, or with professional help, I strongly encourage you to at least include the following:

On a nice document, formatted to your taste as far as font size and style, letterhead and logo, and color of both, background and font, start with your document’s personalized title: Something like “Estimate of Professional Interpreter Fees and Costs Submitted to XX Corporation for the XX Conference in XX City from X date to X date”.

Next, inset an introductory section where you go into more detail about the service you would provide to the client. Something like this: “This estimate is submitted at the request of XX Corporation, with its address at XX Avenue in XX City, regarding professional interpreting services XX language<>YY language in XX City, on the following dates: from X date to Y date, during the XX Conference of XYZ Topic”.

On the next section of your estimate, you need to talk about your professional fees, so start by including a section title such as: “Professional Fees”, or “Professional Interpreter Fees”, or something similar. I would always include the term “professional” to underline the fact that, if you are hired, they would be retaining the services of a professional just like a physician or an accountant, not an unskilled laborer. Then, I would describe my work with words like: “My professional daily (or hourly) fees for simultaneous interpreting, consecutive interpreting, and sight translation (depending on the service you are about to provide) is $XX (per day or hour) for a total of XX days (or hours). The total amount would be: $XX (unless there are other interpreting fees for additional hours (days) as described below. The professional fee for hours of service in excess of 8 per day would be $XX per hour in XX amount of minute increments.” After that paragraph, you can add:

“This professional service includes (telephonic) (in person) interpreting at the convention center (hotel, plant, law office, etc.) Other than the professional tasks above, I will not provide any other services such as (answering phones, making tea, hussle for customers, technical support), or any other service that goes beyond interpreting services and the cultural adviser function implicit in conference interpreting. Under no circumstance I will drive a vehicle for you or any of your clients, customers, associates, etc.”

At this point you will be ready to move on to your “expenses section” of the document. Start with the most expensive ones that the client has to advance you or reimburse you for. I always start with transportation expenses: Airfare or train tickets. Maybe something similar to this: Payment in advance for the flight from XX City to YY City and back”. If possible, do your research so you can include the total cost, including taxes and incidentals such as luggage, priority boarding, and similar services unless your frequent flyer status allows all those things for free. Always get suggestions based on the Airlines you want to fly, the airports you prefer, and the time of the day when flying is more convenient to your Schedule. Make sure to include something in case airfare or train ticket prices change because the client takes too long to approve the estimate and sign a contract. Saying something like this may come in Handy: “The ticket prices above are not guaranteed until purchased. For that reason, prices could increase. If this happens, it is your responsibility to advance the correct amount according to the price on the day the ticket is purchased”.  You can also include your arrival time and your departure time from the city where the assignment will take place. This way the client does not get any ideas about putting you to work before you get there, or up to 10 minutes before your flight leaves. You know your clients, and everybody is different, but for long trips I would require a business or first class seat in order to get to work fresh instead of tired from the trip.

I would then insert my ground transportation expenses. Many interpreters do not include these expenses. They should. Your client needs to pay for your ground transportation back at home from your office to the airport, and back; for your transportation from the airport to the hotel, and back, at your destination, and from all trips to and from the hotel to the venue where you will be interpreting. I do not believe that you have to charge for a stretch limo, but do not use the airport shuttle or the subway either.  Travel by Taxi, Uber, or something similar. Based on prior experience, include an estimated total amount for ground transportation, but explain to the client that this is an expense they will have to reimburse because at this time you have no way to know the exact amount of the expenses; unless you both agree to set a fixed amount ahead of time and that lump sum would be all you get. You may lose some money, you may end up with a little more than the expenditure, but at least you would include ground transportation in the same check with your fees and all other expenses.

Once you covered transportation, the next big expense is lodging. I would demand a room in the same hotel where the event is to take place, and I would never accept sharing the room with another person. No roommates, no motels of dubious reputation, not cheaper hotels outside the county an hour away from the venue. Besides the hotel room, I always ask for the internet service. As you know, must budget hotels include internet service (and breakfast) in the price of the room, but most top hotels (where you will be staying during the assignment) have an extra charge. The client must pay for it, as you will need access to the internet for professional reasons. I would insert something like this under “lodging expenses” on my estimate form: “Payment of hotel room for the following nights: XX, YY, and ZZ at ‘XX Hotel’ in XX City, plus any charges for internet access. As of today, the hotel rate for a single one bed room is $XX (plus taxes and internet service charges) but said amount is subject to change. If so, you must cover the hotel fare applicable at the time of the reservation”.  You can also agree with your client that they will directly take care of the hotel and internet service. This is common in big events because the client already has a hotel group rate and they will just add you to the same package.

An estimate can include many other things, but there is at least one more expense that is usually forgotten and should be included in all estimates. I am talking about your Per Diem.

Meals during professional trips are expensive.  Most venues offer costly restaurants, and many times interpreters have to eat at airports or order room service late at night when they finally finish work. These meals have to be paid by the client. In the United States, and in many other countries, the federal government has pre-set fixed Per Diem rates based on the particular city or town’s cost of living. In the United States, the IRS has a list on line for all towns and cities in the country, and the U.S. Department of State has the same thing for all destinations overseas. I usually inform the client that I have calculated my Per Diem based on said rates. It would be very hard for the client to argue against a Per Diem already established that is continuously adjusted and universally accepted.  I would put the following under “Per Diem”: “I will receive as Per Diem, the daily amount established by the IRS for XX City. This amount for the year of XX is $XX per day, for a total of $XX for XX days.”

The next section of my estimate would deal with cancellation charges, and I would spell it out in detail, even if it turns repetitive, and ugly for a language lover. I would cover different possibilities because the more advanced the notice of cancellation, the better chances I will have to get my income on another assignment somewhere else; the closer to the date of the event, the more money I need to get as compensation from the cancelling client.

Expenses are different. Regardless of the advanced notice, a client would always be obligated to reimburse me for all expenses already made up to that time, including cancellation fees in those cases where an expense allows cancellation, but this will generate a penalty or fee. For this reason, it is always better to get part of the fee and expenses in advance. It is better to prepare a statement explaining the client how much money you will return (if applicable) than turning into a detective and chase the morose, and now uninterested client half way around the world to get paid and reimbursed.

I would include something along these lines:

“Cancellation Policy:

Notice of cancellation XXX or more weeks before the event: No professional fees, but the client must reimburse me for all expenses already made, and for all expenses generated for returning the rest of the advanced payment to the client (because some banks charge for this service).  Said amount will be deducted from the amount to be returned to the client if there are enough funds available. Otherwise, the client must provide payment for the amount in excess of the advanced payment.

Notice of cancellation XX or more weeks before the event: XX Percentage of the total professional fee, and all expenses already made, and for all expenses generated for returning the rest of the advanced payment to the client (because some banks charge for this service).  Said amount will be deducted from the amount to be returned to the client if there are enough funds available. Otherwise, the client must provide payment for the amount in excess of the advanced payment…” And so on.

The next thing I include on my estimates is a table or a graphic with a summary of my fees and expenses, including totals. This makes it clear for the client. Besides the table, I would add the following so the estimate is crystal clear:  “The client must pay the total amount indicated, unless there are any changes due to an increase on interpretation hours (days) or changes to any of the transportation or lodging prices. Please keep in mind that some taxes and additional charges are yet to be included, and they must be reimbursed to me as soon as I inform you of their existence”.

Then comes the terms of payment. This is crucial and when you spell it out for the client to see from day one, you are saving yourself some headaches and extra expenses due to late payments or disputed amounts. Payment should be prompt and non-compliance should carry consequences. How about something that brings up important points like these ones:

“The client must pay all professional fees and expenses as follows:

Advanced payment: Once this estimate is approved, the client will have 48 hours to make the advance payment, which will include XX percentage of the total professional fees, airfare (according to the applicable rate) hotel charges at the applicable rate (including taxes and internet service) unless the client directly pays for the hotel and related charges, including internet access. The advance payment must be in cashier’s check or by electronic transfer to my account. The remaining professional fees and expenses must be paid in full no later than XXX date. Any delays on this payment will generate a XX percent late payment interest”.

Finally, I would include the date and a place on the document for me and the client to sign as proof of agreement to the terms of this estimate. Like this: “Delivered to the client for review and acceptance on this date XX”, followed by both of our signatures.

Dear friends and colleagues, I believe that there is much to be done. We have to educate the direct client and identify and exclude corrupt greedy agencies, but we can also make our lives a little less complicated by adding some clarity to our charges. I have found that it is easier to explain my fees, expenses, and the scope of my professional services to those clients who have seen my estimate on paper. It allows them to understand and ask questions, and it gives us a road map to organize all those items that perhaps we have been paying for when in reality it is the client who has to cover them.

I hope that you find this explanation useful, and it motivates you to be more organized, assertive, and (because the contents of this blog post are not legal advice) to visit your attorney or accountant if you need professional help to develop your unique, tailor-made estimate of professional fees and costs. I now ask you to please share with the rest of you any tips you may have to make this process smoother and faster.

Interpreting political debates: Before and during the rendition.

April 29, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every two years we have a primary election season in the United States where the two main political parties (Republicans and Democrats) pick their candidates for the general election in November. Two years after Americans elect a president, they vote again to renew the United States House of Representatives (425 members) and one-third of the United States Senate (33 or 34 Senate seats depending on the cycle because there are 100 Senators) Along with these national offices, many states elect governors, state legislators, and other local officials. Traditionally, before an election, all candidates running for a particular office in the United States publicly debate the issues. It happens within a political party during the primary elections and then again between the candidates from each party during the general election. Because the population of the United States is very diverse and complex, many voters do not speak English, or at least they do not understand it well enough to comprehend a candidate’s platform or position regarding specific issues. Add to this landscape the fact that many regions of the United States have very important concentrations of people from a particular nationality or ethnicity that may have issues that are relevant to their community even when they may not be as important for the general population. This happens with Hispanics and some other groups, and because of the number of people who are interested in a particular issue, there are debates specifically geared to these populations, often held in English because that is the language of the candidates, but organized and broadcasted by foreign language organizations and networks. This exercise in democracy means that we as interpreters are quite busy during political season.

Because of the number of elections and debates, primary elections tend to require more interpreters than a general election; also, due to the regional nature of a primary election, these debates are normally held in smaller towns and cities, increasing the practice of using the services of local interpreters.

This year has not been an exception. I have traveled to many cities and towns all over the country to interpret political debates in elections of all types: governors, senators, U.S. House members, local legislators, and mayors. Most debates have been live, in almost all of them I have interpreted for the T.V. broadcast, but there have been some recorded debates and some radio broadcasts as well. As always, when interpreting a debate I usually run into the same colleagues: the same local professionals, or the same national interpreters (meaning interpreters like me, who by decision of the organizers or the networks, are brought in from a different city) for the races that have a higher profile. Although I know that the pattern will repeat during the general election in the weeks and months before November, I also know that sometimes new interpreters are invited to participate in these events. This year I already worked with some interpreters new to the political debate scene, and I expect to encounter some others during the rest of the primary season and maybe even the general election. As I watched some of my new colleagues prepare for a debate and deliver their services, I reflected on the things that we need to do to be successful at this very important and difficult type of interpretation. These are some ideas on things that we should do and avoid when getting ready to interpret a political debate and when we are at the TV or radio station doing our rendition.

  • Know the political system. One of the things that will help you as an interpreter is to know why you are there. It is crucial to understand why we have primary elections in the United States. We as interpreters will do a better job if we know who can run and who can vote in the election. This requires some research and study as every state is different. In some states voters must be registered with the political party to be able to vote in the primary, while other states hold open primaries where anybody, as long as they are American citizens, can vote. Some states have early voting, others have absentee ballots and there are states that even allow you to mail in your vote. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work. Of course, the more states you work at, the more you have to research and study.
  • Know basic local legislation and politics. When interpreting a state legislators’ debate it is essential to know how is the state government structured: Does it have a unicameral or bicameral system? Are legislators full or part-time? Can governors be reelected? Are there other political parties in that state? A well-prepared interpreter needs to know the answer to all of these and similar questions.
  • Know the most relevant issues and people in that particular state, county, or city. Most questions during these political debates have to do with local matters, not national issues; for this reason, a professional interpreter must become acquainted with local affairs. Read local newspapers, watch and listen to local newscasts and political shows, and search the web. The shortest way to embarrassment is not to know a local topic or a local politician, government official or celebrity when they pop up during a debate. Know your local issues. It is a must to know if water shortage, a bad economy, a corruption scandal, a referendum, the names of local politicians (governor, lieutenant governor if the state has one, State House speaker, chief justice of the State Supreme Court, leader of the State Senate) or any other local matter is THE issue in that part of the country.
  • Know basic history and geography of the state, and please know the main streets and landmarks of the region. There is nothing worse than interpreting a debate and all of a sudden struggle with the name of a county or a town because you did not do your homework. Have a map handy if you need to. Learn the names of rivers and mountains, memorize the names of the Native-American nations or pueblos in that state.
  • Know your candidates. Study their bios, read about their ideology and platform; learn about their public and private lives. It is important to keep in mind that you need to know about all candidates in the debate, not just the candidate you will be interpreting.
  • Know national and world current events and know your most important national and international issues in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer. It is important to know if there is a war or an economic embargo, it is necessary to know the names of the national leaders and their party affiliation (president, vice-president, speaker of the House, Senate leader, cabinet members) and it is essential to know the names of the local neighboring leaders and world figures in the news (names of the governors of neighboring states, the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico, the secretary general of the United Nations and the OAS, and at least the names of the presidents, prime ministers and heads of state of the main partners, allies, and adversaries of the United States).
  • Know the rules of the debate. You need to know how long the debate will be, how much time a candidate has to answer a question and to refute another candidate, you need to know the order in which they will be questioned, who will be asking the questions and in what order. Try to find this information on line, and request it from the organizers or whoever hired you for the debate. Remember: it is a T.V. event so there is always a schedule and a program; you just need to get a copy.
  • Get acquainted with your candidate’s speech patterns, accent, tempo, and learn his/her stump speech. All candidates have one, and they gravitate towards these talking points every time they have a chance and the moderator lets them do it. The best way to achieve this is by watching as many speeches as you can, especially previous debates, ideally on the same issues, as sometimes debates in the United States are limited to certain issues such as education, taxes, foreign policy, the economy, etc. Most candidates, unless they are brand new, have speeches and debates on You Tube or in the local T.V. stations and newspaper electronic archives; just access their websites and look for them. If possible, at least listen to a couple of speeches or debates of the other candidates in the debate. You will not be interpreting them, but you will be listening to them during their interaction with your candidate.
  • When possible, participate on the distribution of assignments to the various interpreters. How good you perform may be related to the candidate you get. There are several criteria to pair an interpreter with a candidate. Obviously, T.V. and radio producers like to have a male interpreter for a male candidate and a female interpreter for a female candidate. After that, producers overlook some other important points that need to be considered when matching candidates and interpreters: It is important that the voice of your candidate is as similar to your own voice as possible, but it is more important that you understand the candidate; in other words, if you are a baritone, it would be great to have a baritone candidate, but if you are from the same national origin and culture than the tenor, then you should be the tenor’s interpreter because you will get all the cultural expressions, accent, and vocabulary better than anybody else. You should also have a meeting (at least a virtual one) with your fellow interpreters so you can discuss uniform terminology, determine who will cover who in case of a technical problem or a temporary physical inability to interpret like a coughing episode (remember, this is live radio or T.V.)
  • Ask about the radio or T.V. studio where you will be working; in fact, if you are local, arrange for a visit so you become familiar with the place. Find out the type of equipment they will be using, see if you can take your own headphones if you prefer to use your “favorite” piece of equipment; find out if there is room for a computer or just for a tablet. Ask if you will be alone in the booth or if you will share it with other interpreters. Because small towns have small stations, it is likely that several interpreters will have to share the same booth; in that case, figure out with your colleagues who will be sitting where (consider for example if there are left-handed and right-handed interpreters when deciding who sits next to who) Talk to the station engineer or technician and agree on a set of signs so you can communicate even when you are on the air. This is usually done by the station staff because they are as interested as you in the success of the event.
  • Finally, separate yourself from the candidate. Remember that you are a professional and you are there to perform a service. Leave your political convictions and opinions at home. You will surely have to interpret for people who have a different point of view, and you will interpret attacks against politicians you personally admire. This cannot affect you. If you cannot get over this hurdle then everything else will be a waste. This is one of the main reasons why they continue to hire some of us. Producers, organizers, and politicians know that we will be loyal to what they say and our opinions will not be noticed by anybody listening to the debate’s interpretation.

On the day of the debate, arrive early to the station or auditorium where the debate will take place, find your place and set up your gear; talk to the engineer and test everything until you are comfortable with the volume, microphone, monitor, and everything else. Get your water and make arrangements to get more water once you finish the bottles you brought inside the booth. Trust me; you will end up needing more. Talk to your fellow interpreters and make sure you are on the same page in case there is a technical glitch or an unplanned event during the debate. Once the debate starts, concentrate on what you are doing and pretty much ignore everything else. You will need all your senses because remember: there is no team interpreting, all other interpreters are assigned to another individual, it is live T.V. and if you count the live broadcast and the news clips that will be shown for weeks, there could be hundreds of thousands (if not millions) watching your work. If you enjoyed the experience and if you did a good job there will be more opportunities in the future and you will have enhanced your versatility within the profession.

I hope these tips will be useful to those of you in the United States and all other countries where there are political debates, and I invite you to share with the rest of us your comments and tips.

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