Many Interpreters Don’t Understand the Value of the Service They Provide.

July 18, 2022 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

When interpreters you never heard of take to social media, even LinkedIn, to talk about their many RSI assignments, bragging about how they work long hours at odd times of the night, just to be “congratulated” by others doing the same thing, and by people known for hiring interpreters for little pay and poor working conditions, and next you look at what our European Parliament colleagues are doing, you must conclude it is admirable, and worthy of our full support.

These brave interpreters are fighting to protect their health and to work under the conditions previously agreed to, but they are also fighting for the profession. If an institution like the Parliament gets away with violating a collective agreement, and resorts to hiring cheap interpreters, even from places outside the Union, all other interpreters will be next. Those of us who mainly work in the private sector, and as individual contractors with some institutions, must understand that the rules broken somewhere else, and the disregarded agreements, will happen in our market not long from now. These are some of the reasons why we should all support our EP colleagues; but there is another reason we should admire them, respect them, and use them as an inspiration and role model: They understand the value of the service they provide, and they use it as a tool to protect the profession.

It is funny how at the same time these colleagues are fighting this battle, many others have quit, decided not to act, or chose a strategy that does not let them negotiate as equals with those who impact their interpreting practice.

Recently, the court interpreters of an American State, who have been paid one of the lowest professional fees in America, and have not seen a fee raise or cost of living adjustment for years, asked for a $10 USD per hour fee increase, set a deadline for the authorities to respond, and threatened with a walk off if those dates were not observed and their demand for a raise was not honored. First, the action had a lot of support, it got precious media coverage locally and nationwide, but a few days later, after the State gave them questionable reasons, basically denying the raise and telling them they would “consider” their petition for the 2024 budget, despite the determination of some interpreters to go ahead with the walk off, most interpreters gave in and continued to work. They feared not being scheduled to work (for peanuts) anymore.

A few weeks ago, a nationwide association of judicial interpreters held a conference in the United States. Among the guests to speak about their successes on language access to the courts, an individual who has repeatedly lowered court interpreters’ work conditions in one of the States in America was scheduled to participate and praise the accomplishments of the program he is responsible for. I learned of this situation when an interpreter who works in that State reached me in Europe to share the news and to ask me why in my opinion that person had been invited to speak, despite his actions as an administrator which have resulted in leaving approximately 20 or so state-certified court interpreters (a considerable number in a small State like this one) out of work, because of his practice of hiring interpreters without a court certification, and interpreters from other States who work for a pay lower than the one State court interpreters must get paid.

I immediately suggested all interpreters in the State take this opportunity, when the interpreting universe of the United States is paying attention to this conference, to publicly denounce these practices for the world to know. In other words: to bombard the conference Twitter account with stories of how the practice of these government officials is not to observe court interpreter state policy, and to deny court work to those who complain. Even though this was a unique chance to pressure the State, except for a few colleagues, who I salute, the rest of the interpreters decided not to go to war with the State government to protect their profession. They feared retaliation and not being “called to interpret anymore”.

Finally, a few days ago I was asked to sign a petition to the authorities asking for a fee raise for a group of specialty interpreters in the United States. These are the only interpreters authorized to practice at this level; they are an elite group, and considered among the best in their field. Unfortunately, they are also known as the interpreter group that has not seen a raise, or cost of living adjustment in over 6 years. Even though I knew from the start I would sign the letter in solidarity with my colleagues (I rarely work in that system because they pay very little), I read the letter and was sad to see it was a very timid letter applying no leverage. My first reaction was: Why is a government agency that has not cared enough about its interpreters for so many years going to change policy after reading a letter with no teeth? Unlike the interpreters’ letter in the first case above, which at least had a deadline and a threat of strike, these federal court interpreters exercised no leverage. They put no pressure on the authorities.

The European Parliament interpreters showed us the value of our work. If the interpreters in other organizations or public service agencies stopped working, the system would be crippled. The authorities know this and know they would need to avoid such labor stoppage no matter what. All government agencies in the world operate within a budget and it takes time to modify it, but all government agencies in the world have additional emergency funds to be used to keep the government running. Had these interpreters exercised their leverage, their raises would be coming right now.

Interpreters everywhere must understand that communication among those who don’t share a common language is impossible without their services. They need to see there is a great demand for what we do elsewhere; that during the time of a stoppage they can interpret in other fields and venues, especially in these days of distance interpreting. The day most interpreters shake off their fears, doubts, and lack of confidence, and do as our European Parliament colleagues did, their fees and work conditions will finally be as they should. It is a matter of understanding they need us more than we need them.

Like President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “The only thing to fear is fear itself”.  

In tough times: Raise your fees!

May 14, 2018 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are professional conferences and organizations valuable?

May 21, 2012 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

After the success of this weekend’s NAJIT conference in Cambridge Massachusetts,  just like every time a big professional event takes place, many colleagues question the value of attending a conference or workshop.  I must confess that I was not able to attend this weekend’s conference due to professional reasons, but  I attended the American Translators Association conference this past October in Boston. It was one of the best conferences I have attended in my life, and believe me; I have attended many of them. For many years it has been my practice to attend at least the ATA, NAJIT, and other two or three conferences or workshops every year.  I also attended the FIT conference in San Francisco last summer. To me, attending these conferences and workshops, and belonging to our professional organizations has tremendous value.

Despite the ever-increasing quality of these conferences, I have run across some colleagues who do not go to these events because they claim that these conferences are boring and have little academic content.  They believe that the professional organizations do very little for their individual practice and therefore they are a waste of money. I would like to hear what you have to say.  Are professional conferences and organizations a valuable tool for the interpreter, or are they simply an unjustified expense?

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