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.

When clients do not provide information in advance.

February 10, 2020 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We are expected to accurately interpret all subjects from one language into another, often to an audience that knows the topic, sometimes to people who have devoted their lives to that subject. We meet these expectations and deliver the rendition by performing many complex tasks, among them extensive preparation, including research and study of the topics to be presented during the conference, lecture, workshop, business negotiation, press conference, court hearing, diplomatic summit, etc.

We are professionally trained to research a subject, understand it, prepare glossaries, and study it, but this is not enough. Knowledge in any subject is infinite and it must be narrowed down to the specific themes to be presented or discussed at the event we were hired to interpret. Speakers have different styles and many have done their own research, written books or papers that will be presented, or at least alluded to, often for the first time, during the dissertation.

Due to these facts, the only way we can deliver the best quality service is by studying the presenters’ materials ahead of time.  This means our client must provide this information: documents, videos, audio recordings, for us to prepare, and we need to get them as far in advance as possible.

Documents are very important because that will be the main portion of the lecture; it often includes power point presentations we must review for several reasons: We need to make sure we understand the contents of every slide, that we find the best equivalent terms in the target language; we must pay attention to the information each slide contains because we need to tell the presenter how long the slide needs to stay on the screen before moving on to the next one, to give the audience time to listen to the interpretation and then see the contents of the slide (words, figures, charts, images, quotes, etc.) This is time consuming and it could take interpreters several days to go through the power point presentation.

Videos are difficult to interpret. Sometimes the sound is not very good, or words get lost behind the sounds of very loud music or noise; the speakers on the video may talk too fast, have a heavy accent, use regional expressions, tell a joke or share a sports story. Many speakers choose movie or TV show clips with nothing to do with the conference, because they were chosen as icebreakers or to drive a point across. There are videos of songs also. Interpreters need to study these videos; some must be watched many times. They have to assess the jokes, idiomatic expressions, cultural differences, and sports analogies, and then decide what to do: find a similar joke in the target language, use an equivalent sports story on a sport the audience will relate to, find the best idiomatic expression on the other language to convey the same message using the same register. Sometimes the best solution is to recommend the speaker not to use the video, particularly when there are cultural concerns.  Then, on the day of the event, interpreters need to make sure the video’s volume and quality of sound is the right one for both: the room and the booth.

Audio recordings could be an interpreter’s nightmare, especially in court interpreting where the quality of the sound is less than desirable because many of these audio recordings come from wiretaps, hidden microphones, concealed body microphones, and so on. These recordings are plagued with obscenities, slang, low register speech, and powerful background noises. Interpreters devote endless hours to listening and sometimes decoding what was said. This time-consuming task must be performed ahead of the event so the interpreter knows the recording’s contents and determines what words to use during the rendition. After reviewing the recording an interpreter can suggest to the client to use a transcript of the audio recording, with a written translation into the target language, and either project it on the screen at the same time the audience listens to the recording and the interpreters simultaneous rendition, or to distribute paper transcripts and translations for the audience to follow along the recording.

These arguments should be sufficient for all clients to provide these materials to the interpreting team ahead of time; many knowledgeable, experienced clients do so and the results are evident: a great interpretation. Others are more reluctant, and there are some who unfortunately neglect the interpreters or clearly decide not to provide an iota of information before the event.

Interpreters need to convey to the client the reason they have to see the materials before the assignment; they have to explain that interpreting is a fiduciary profession, that we are bound by a strict duty of confidentiality, and make them see we have no interest in the information past the day of the interpretation. When the client is concerned about intellectual property rights or national security, Interpreters can offer flexibility to the client, and for an additional fee, they can agree to review said materials at the client’s place of business, but always ahead of the event.

All interpreting services contracts must include a provision stating that the client assumes the obligation to provide all requested and needed materials to the interpreters as early as possible, and always before the event.

Even with such a clause, sometimes, interpreters get no materials, get part of them, or they get all materials, but a video or a slide were added at the last minute and the interpreting team learns of this change at the venue, right before the start of the event, or even worse: during the rendition when the slide is shown on the screen or the video is played.

In these cases, professional interpreters have two reactions coming straight from their gut simultaneously: “I will stand up and walk away. I am not interpreting this”, and “I am a professional, the client’s incompetence or negligence it’s not the audience’s fault. I’ll stay and try my best”. Both reactions are good and have value. Let me explain:

The good client will always deliver materials on time, you need not to concern about them, but there are other clients late with the materials, deliver only part of them, and sometimes forget to provide needed information altogether, but they have potential, you want to keep them, and they will improve if you try a little harder. I say give these clients a second chance.

As soon as it is evident they will not provide materials, talk to them and clarify that what they did was wrong, but, because you are a consummate professional, you will try your best and stay and interpret the event even though the final result will not be nearly as good as it would be if the materials were provided. If they fail again on a second event: drop them, you are wasting your time with them, and time is money.

Finally, if your contract calls for client to deliver all requested and needed materials and the client did not comply, when you are not interested on that client, and it was a nightmare dealing with them during the preparations for the event, I would walk out without interpreting, demand payment of my fees, explain to them they breached the professional services contract they had with you, and if they refuse to pay, sue them for your fee plus damages and your attorney’s fees.

On both cases you taught the client a lesson: To the client you want to keep, you tried to educate them and keep them on your list. To the client you never want to see again, you showed them that interpreters are professionals they cannot take advantage of.

I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this important subject.

We should act more like professionals and less like merchants.

April 29, 2019 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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