Interpreters who follow these principles protect their market and earn higher fees.

May 4, 2020 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Just like many people around the world, I am one of those individuals who watch a lot of movies, feel they are amateur movie critics, and always watch the Academy Awards Ceremony on television. Unlike most them, for professional reasons, I am usually on the road on Oscar night. This means sometimes I get to watch the ceremony when people are sleeping, and on the local TV broadcast of the country where I am working. Because the show is in English, TV stations in non-English speaking countries use simultaneous interpreting services (that is great for the locals, but a little uncomfortable to those of us who try to hear the original sound feed, partly covered by the interpreters’ voices).

Occasionally, when I watch the Oscars in a Spanish-speaking country, I do what we all do when we know the two languages used on the screen: I compare the source to the rendition. Most interpreters are very good, but as a spectator, you miss quite a bit of the ceremony’s flavor.

This year I watched the Oscars while working in a foreign country. I looked for the original English broadcast on cable or satellite TV, but my hotel only offered the simultaneously interpreted voiceover broadcast by a local network. I paid attention to both, the rendition and the original speeches in the background. No doubt the interpreters were experienced professionals, their interpretation was spot on, until it was not anymore. The interpreters remained silent during many of the political and current affairs’ remarks by hosts and award recipients. First, I thought it concerned censorship by the local authorities, but after a while it became evident that they were not interpreting those exchanges because they did not fully know what was being said. The Spanish-speaking audience did not get the full Oscar experience because some astute, sharp criticism and very good jokes were left out.

I immediately thought of the globalized interpreting market and how cheap agencies have taken away assignments from local, excellent interpreters in the United States and Western Europe, choosing experienced and way less expensive interpreters from developing economies.

I have discussed this issue with potential clients in developed nations and the comment is always the same: “…but these interpreters (from developing countries) are really good and they work for a fraction of the money you charge…” This is my cue to bring up to the client my competitive advantage.

I take this opportunity to explain the importance of having an interpreter with the right acculturation in the booth so communication may flow between speaker and audience. I make them see the value of making sure their message comes across by eliminating any informational voids and misunderstandings not attributable to a bad interpretation of what was said, but to a poor command of the speaker’s culture and its equivalences in the target language of that specific audience. You cannot communicate if you limit what a speaker may say or do. Analogies, jokes, pop culture, politics, and country-specific rules of etiquette are essential to a successful event. Sometimes I present the testimony of the technicians who work with interpreters all the time, and even without speaking the languages in the booth, they can tell if a joke or a cultural remark got lost in the interpretation.

This is something all interpreters in developed economies must emphasize. We have to drive home that a person who does not live in a country lacks many elements needed for an accurate rendition. No academic degree can replace this immersion.

A proactive strategy is essential to protect your market, more so at this time when many are promoting and using remote interpreting services. You need to drive this point home as it is your leverage. Unlike in-person interpreting when agencies, colleges, or corporations bring interpreters from developing countries to the West to save money in professional fees, and you have the law to protect you from foreigners working illegally as interpreters in a foreign country, and you should immediately go to the authorities without hesitation so violators are sanctioned and removed ( this is your main line of defense in conference remote interpreting. Healthcare and legal interpreters have other defenses against telephonic, RSI, and VRI interpreting such as the certification or licensing requirement to interpret in such fields. State court interpreters in the United States can even use this argument against remote services by interpreters certified by another state. Interpreters in developing countries could argue the same when protecting their market from foreign interpreters.

The second principle interpreters need to enforce benefits us all, regardless of our country of residence.

Agencies are constantly looking for cheap interpreting services. To find them, they usually look south. Conference interpreters with similar skills and experience in Latin America will get paid about eighty percent less than their counterparts in the United States. Africa, many places in Asia, and certain countries in Eastern Europe are in a similar situation. If you stop and think about it, it is a bad situation for all interpreters; it is unfair to interpreters in developed economies, and it is insulting to our colleagues in the developing world. Let me explain.

When asked, agencies defend the microscopic amounts they pay in poorer countries with two arguments: Cost of living is lower, so interpreters in a country south of the equator do not have the same expenses as their colleagues in a rich country. The second argument is that their lifestyle is different, so an amount that looks low in the West, is actually pretty good, or at least good enough in an underdeveloped nation.

These arguments do not pass muster. That the electric bill is cheaper in a specific country has nothing to do with the professional service provided by the interpreter. Same work and same quality must get same pay.

Frankly, to say that a certain fee is “good enough” for somebody because of where they live is insulting. When clients or agencies offer a low fee to an interpreter in a developing country, what they are really telling them is “you are not sophisticated enough to appreciate a different standard of living, so this will make you happy.  A steak is too good for you, have a burger. Caviar is not for you, have a bowl of beans.”

Many colleagues in these countries agree to such discriminatory practices, and work for less than peanuts, because they are afraid there will be no work. This is a misunderstanding. If they do not take the assignment. Who will do it? Even if they are paid the same fee as an interpreter from the U.S. or Western Europe, it is way more expensive to fly another interpreter from abroad. Remember: same work must get same pay. It is your market, not the agencies’. Reclaim it!

Interpreters will not get paid the same in South America and the United States. These are two markets; two economies. Our goal should always be to get the highest fee a particular market can afford. If you get paid that way, you will be in good shape, even if the amount is considerably less than Western European fees. This goes both ways. If South American interpreters work a local event in their country, they will make less money than American interpreters working a local event back in their country. American interpreters working a local event in South America will get less that their usual fee back home. The reason: The client is in the poorer economy. That is what they can afford.

But if interpreters from an emerging economy work an event in the United States or Western Europe, in-person with the appropriate work visa, or remotely from their home country, they must get paid what American interpreters make for that work. To determine professional fees in a particular market, the interpreters’ country of residence is irrelevant. What matters is the country where the client is located. It is the client who will spend the money.

The task is difficult, and it will take time for you to accomplish it. Remember: to protect our market, we must use our competitive advantage by emphasizing the huge void in communication caused by interpreters who lack acculturation. To make sure we get paid what we deserve, we must quote our fees according to the client’s country of residence, not the interpreters’. I now invite you share your ideas as to how we can achieve these two goals.

Alert: They are interpreting illegally outside their country.

February 6, 2019 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

During my career I have experienced first-hand situations when people who live outside the United States interpret at the same convention center where I am working another event. I am not talking about diplomatic interpreters who travel with their national delegation to the United States, nor I am referring to the personal or company interpreters who travel to the States with a CEO to negotiate a deal. I am talking about foreign nationals brought to the United States to interpret a conference because their professional fees are lower than customarily fees charged by interpreters who live in the United States. One time I ran into some interpreters from a South American country at a convention center’s cafeteria. They were nice, experienced, and they did not live in the United States. After the usual small talk, I asked them how difficult was to get a visa to come to interpret in the United States, one of them dodged the question and the other one told me she didn’t know because she already had a visa she was granted when she took her children to Disneyworld. Just a few weeks after that episode, I got a phone call from a colleague who wanted to let me know that he was working at a venue in the mid-west where they were using other interpreters brought from abroad for the conference. He explained these foreign colleagues were having a hard time with the cultural references, and apparently had entered the country on tourist visas.

In this globalized economy, some agencies are hiring foreign interpreters, who live outside the United States, because they come from economic systems where a sub-par professional fee in the U.S. looks attractive to them. I have heard of interpreters brought to work in conferences and other events for extremely low fees and under conditions no American interpreter would go for: Two or even three interpreters in the same hotel room, no Per Diem or pay for travel days, often working solo, for very long hours without enough breaks, and without a booth.

The worst part of this scenario is that many of these foreign colleagues are very good interpreters who come to the United States to hurt the market by working for that pay and under those conditions, and they do not see how they impact the profession. Multinational and small-peanuts agencies love these interpreters because they just buy them the cheapest plane tickets, put them all in a budget hotel or motel, and pay them for a five-day conference a sum of money that would only cover the professional fees of local interpreters’ one or two days of work. Sometimes the agency’s client suggests interpreters be brought from abroad to abate costs; they even argue these colleagues’ renditions are even better because they “speak the same language the audience speaks, with all of its expressions, and dialects, unlike American resident interpreters who many times speak with a different accent because they do not come from the attendees’ country.” It is true that many of these foreign interpreters are very good and experienced; it is also true that, in my case, their Spanish accent and some regional expressions may be more familiar to their audience full of fellow countrymen; however, it is also likely that these interpreters may have a difficult time when interpreting references to local politics, sports, places, and general culture used by the speakers; what we call “Americana”. I would argue that professional interpreters, by living in the United States, are exposed to all language variations in their language combination because, unlike most foreign interpreters, they routinely work with multinational audiences. I also believe that it is more important to understand what the speaker is saying, after all that is why those in attendance traveled to the United States for. A rendition that puts the entire message in context, and is transmitted to the target language with all cultural equivalencies is a more desired outcome than listening to a rendition from someone who sounds like you, but does not get the cultural subtleities, not because she is a bad interpreter, but because she does not live in the country.

But there is a bigger problem: Most of these interpreters brought from abroad are in the country without a work visa.  Entering the United States on a visa waiver or a tourist visa does not give them legal authority to work in the U.S.

This is a serious matter: Whether they know it or not, the moment these interpreters step into the booth, or utter the first syllable of their rendition, they are out of status, and they are subject to removal from the United States. The moment the agency, event organizer, university, business or organization brings one interpreter to the country they are subject to a fine. Not to mention reactions to the illegal hiring of foreigners to the detriment of American professionals in the court of public opinion.

If these interpreters are really the best for the conference topic, agencies and organizers may hire them and bring them to the United States, but they would have to do it legally, through a work visa application; and depending on the visa needed, there are complex and lengthy legal steps to be followed before the Department of Labor (DOL), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Department of State (DOS) at the American embassy or consulate at the interpreter country of residence, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the port of entry. The process is lengthy and it requires of an immigration attorney. Dear colleagues, if the event requires the expertise and skill of the foreign interpreter, agencies and organizers will cover the costly process. If they were only retaining interpreters from outside the United States to save money, the visa process’ length and cost will make it more expensive than hiring top-notch interpreters living in the United States. (

These interpreters, even if they worked illegally in the United States, must pay U.S. federal income tax for the work performed within U.S. territory. An exception exists for certain amounts earned by foreign nationals not living in the U.S.; Under this exception, compensation for services performed in the U.S. is not considered U.S. source income if these conditions are satisfied: (a) The service must be performed by a nonresident taxpayer temporarily present in the U.S. for a period of 90 days or less; (b) The total compensation for these services does not exceed $3,000.00 USD; The services must be performed as an employee of or under contract (in the case of a self-employed contractor) with one of the following: A nonresident individual, foreign partnership or foreign corporation not engaged in a trade or business in the U.S., a foreign office or foreign branch of a U.S. resident, U.S. partnership, or U.S. corporation.

Always remember this, educate your clients, the agencies you work for, and if you are getting nowhere, when you see interpreters who do not live in the United States working an event, and believe me, you will know because of the cultural nuances, consider reporting the incident to the immigration authorities.

This is not an issue exclusively found in the United States, it happens all over the world, especially in first world countries of Asia and Western Europe. It also happens next door: Again, American agencies in their tireless quest to make money and destroy the profession, take American interpreters to work in Mexico, and if they are United States citizens, they take them with no visa. I have seen phone books, publications, and websites advertising interpreters from the United States for conferences, industrial plant visits, and depositions in Mexico. Among the most popular arguments to lure event organizers, businesses, or Law Offices in the U.S., they assure them that American interpreters are more familiar with their lifestyle, that they are certified by this or that U.S. government agency, and they even imply that somehow Mexican interpreters are less capable or professional than their U.S. counterparts.

This is total nonsense. Mexican interpreters are as good as Americans, interpreters living in Mexico possess American certifications, and there are probably more interpreters in Mexico with a college degree in translation or interpretation than those we have in the States. Let’s face it, the only reason these agencies want to promote American interpreters is because when a lawyer, company or event organizer hires the interpreting team in Mexico they do not need the agency; they make no money. Unless you travel as part of a diplomatic delegation, a business mission, international organization, or you are an employee of a firm that takes you to Mexico to exclusively interpret for the company you work for; If you are an interpreter living in the United States and you take an assignment to interpret for a deposition, industrial plant inspection, or other job, unless you are a Mexican citizen, or you have legal authority to work in Mexico, you will be breaking the law and are subject to deportation. It does not matter that you speak Spanish, you must be allowed to work in Mexico. (Art. 52 y sigs. Ley de Migración. D.O. 25/5/20111 There are fiscal obligations for those working as interpreters in Mexico, even if they had no authority to work.

Because often the agency’s client or the interpreters do not know they are breaking the law, you should educate them so they hire local talent. Please remember, this is a collective effort, we must try to bring up fees and working conditions in every country according to this economic reality and possibilities. This will never be achieved by killing foreign markets with illegally obtained, procured, or provided professional services at sub-par conditions. You probably noticed that I skirted around VRI services. Although it could be as harmful as in-person interpreting services when left in the hands of unscrupulous multinational agencies, that is an entirely different matter that requires more research and study of legal theories and legislation. I now invite your comments on this very important issue.

The new government could help interpreters in the U.S.

January 20, 2017 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

“We are sorry, but we will not be needing your services after all. We decided to hire some interpreters from the country of the people attending the conference…”  Does this message sound familiar? How about this: “…They decided not to retain me because they found somebody less expensive in South America.” (It could be Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe).

Every interpreter in the United States (and other countries) has been part of this situation too many times in their career. The reality is that many agencies and event organizers are trying to save a buck, and with globalization, it is now very easy to hire a team of interpreters in a foreign country, offer to pay them in U.S. dollars (or euros), and bring them to interpret an event in the United States (or Western Europe) for very little money, compared to what professional interpreters typically make in that market. The foreign interpreters may be excellent, good, or bad; most likely, they will not be acquainted with the local culture, geography, current events, humor, and idiomatic expressions of the place where they are going to interpret, but they will save the agency a lot of money. To them, the little money they will get paid, and the second rate accommodations provided by the promoter of the event will be acceptable because they will be earning more money (and in hard currency) than their typical fees in their home market. The result is not good for the American-based interpreters who cannot afford to work for so little just because of the cost of living and doing business in the United States. I believe that it is not the best possible outcome for the audience either because the foreign-based interpreters (even some of the best) will not be able to understand and therefore interpret all the nuances of the speaker’s presentation just because they do not live in the United States.  Every U.S. interpreter has had this experience when working with a colleague who comes from a different culture, and we have also suffered the painful, stressful situations when we do not get a geographic site, local celebrity’s name, or regional expression because we do not live in the country.

The only one who relatively wins in this situation is the agency or event promoter; and I say relatively wins because they will eventually suffer the impact of this culture-deprived renditions.

To complete the sad picture I have just described, we have the case of those “less expensive” video remote interpreters who provide services for events held within the United States from abroad, and the telephonic interpreting services agencies that have moved a big chunk of their business to foreign countries with little overhead, lax legislation, and much lower salaries. The result: a good number of U.S. based experienced conference interpreters, willing to do video remote interpreting for a fee set by the American market, and many telephonic interpreters, including many who are just entering that market often encouraged by the same agencies alien to the profession but part of the “industry”, will lose their jobs or find little work because the bulk of the interpreting services to American clients are now provided from calling centers in Asia and Central America, and quite a few agencies look for video remote conference interpreters abroad without even looking for them in the United States.

This week a new president takes the oath of office in the United States, and a very prominent part of his agenda deals with protecting American jobs. This is where we can take advantage of the current mood in Washington, D.C., and demand that the new government keeps its promises to the interpreters and translators in the United States.

A new tougher immigration policy will benefit U.S. interpreters if we move our chess pieces wisely.  We must demand Congress, The White House, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security to enforce the labor laws of the United States. You see, most foreign interpreters brought by the agencies enter the United States on a tourist/ visitor visa without ever disclosing the fact that they will work in the U.S.

Working with a visitor’s visa is against the law; misrepresenting your purpose to enter the United States is cause for denial of admissibility and in some instances it could be a crime. Agencies that bring foreign interpreters this way are also breaking the law and should be investigated and fined by the federal government. If the law is properly enforced to protect American workers (that is: all of us) the agencies would need to file a work visa petition with an immigration service center, show a business necessity to bring that individual to do the job, demonstrate that there are no United States citizen or lawful permanent resident interpreters in the United States who are willing and able to perform the service the agency needs in exchange for the prevailing wage or fee for that service in that part of the United States. If the petition is approved, the foreign interpreter would need to attend an interview with a consular agent at the U.S. embassy in his country, and demonstrate that he is qualified to do the job, that he will go back to his country after the assignment is over, and that he has no criminal record anywhere in the world, including any past affiliation to terrorist groups or prior immigration violations in the United States such as deportations, overstays, or having worked without legal authority. Only then, and not a minute earlier, these people could enter the U.S. to work as interpreters for that conference. As you can imagine, this takes time, costs money, and often requires of the services of an immigration attorney. You see, dear friends and colleagues, all of a sudden the U.S. based conference interpreter got a lot cheaper than the foreigner, even if the agency needs to pay market fees in America.  This is our chance to end the “interpreter smuggling” that is happening right now in the United States. Of course, this does not cover foreign interpreters who come as part of the team of a foreign diplomat, head of state, dignitary, or celebrity. Those interpreters will enter the country with their client and for a specific mission that requires of them personally based on other characteristics. They will be paid in their home countries for a service that would not be performed by anyone else, American or foreigner. Even though it has been treated as one and the same, it is very different to enter the United States as the interpreter of the president of Argentina, and enter the country to interpret a conference at the Honolulu Convention Center.

The new government advocates a policy that keeps jobs in the States and will likely sanction those businesses who move abroad and try to sell goods and services back to the American consumer. There is no question that all these interpreting agencies that have moved abroad will qualify for sanctions as long as they provide their services to people in the United States. I believe that the fines and the cost of litigation to keep their facilities abroad selling their services in the United States will be more expensive than closing shop in Costa Rica or India and moving the telephonic interpreting center to Arizona or California.

I understand that this entry may not be very popular with many of my friends and colleagues abroad, but I ask you to please pause and examine your market structure so you can strive for better and more professional conditions in your own countries.  I also believe that much of what I say here can be applied, and in fact has already been implemented in some countries. Only when these conditions even up across the markets we will be able to universally enjoy the advantages of globalization.

You see, dear friends and colleagues in the United States, there is plenty we can do to protect the profession and advance our working conditions under the philosophy of the new administration.  I now ask you to share your comments with the rest of us, and I beg you to please limit your participation to the issues subject matter of this blog, and refrain from politically charged comments either for or against the new government.

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