Lessons from the Pandemic: Give Freelance Interpreters a Seat at the Table

Some dear friends and colleagues of mine from Washington State dropped this article from Crosscut, a local publication, into our group chat:

COVID-19 delays justice for King County inmates who need interpreters: Non-English speakers are receiving substandard legal representation because interpreters won’t appear in person, attorney says

As I read the article, I began to feel my colleagues’ indignation over what can only be characterized as a scapegoating of Washington’s freelance court interpreters. This article is timely, as I was preparing my next post about the “Invisible Freelancer”. While this article made me and my colleagues fume, it serves as the perfect example of problems I see time and again when it comes to any state court providing their interpreters with the working conditions they need to practice professionally within a state judicial system.

The problem is rarely the interpreters themselves. Every interpreter worth his or her salt whom I know wants to provide professional grade services and will turn down work when they cannot do that. In state compensated cases, the culprit tends to be the court administration and their tendency to leave out interpreters from the conversation when setting up interpreting services. Those airing their grievances in the article may be surprised to learn that pandemic friendly solutions already exist and are in place across the country so court interpreters can provide a truthful, complete, and accurate rendition without having to risk getting COVID-19.

From the article, there seems to be a huge misunderstanding of how court interpreting works shaping the outside perception of the problem. The two main complaints in King County are: 1) a backlog is being created because interpreters do not want to accept in-person assignments, especially those in jails and prisons; and 2) the remote interpreting set up in King County is faulty, unorganized, and cumbersome to the point of affecting the quality of the legal representation Limited English Proficiency Defendants are receiving.

Those cited in the article are correct in stating that many court interpreters across Washington have assessed the risks and benefits and decided that they cannot risk getting sick by taking these assignments. This is not unique to Washington State and is happening nationally. Unfortunately, as the rising number of cases reflects, even with all the precautions in place you cannot eliminate the contagion factor. Thus, many professional freelancers have opted not to take in person work, knowing that their business will take a financial hit. Remember, most court interpreters are freelancers. Like any other independent professional, they have no safety net or employer to support us if they get sick, can no longer work, and as a result, no longer afford health insurance or our other living expenses. While freelancers can’t work in person, they still want to work and have taken the time to quickly get up to speed on the technologies and protocols we need to put in place on our end to provide professional grade services from home. It’s not ideal, but it works and it works well.

The individuals quoted are also correct in their assessment that Washington’s current ad hoc system for remote interpreting in client meetings is downright awful. Interpreters have also noted these factors and have decided to decline these remote assignments because under those conditions they cannot uphold their duty to provide faithful, complete, and accurate renditions. Again, interpreters aren’t refusing these conditions because they don’t want to work. It’s because we cannot comply with our professional responsibility; when this happens, we have to let you know that we can’t continue in the current conditions and decline the work.

Attorneys need to understand two things. First, there is absolutely no reason for remote interpreting to be this ineffective. As I read through the “make-shift solutions” a defense attorney cited, I asked myself why on earth is it being done this way when there are plenty of acceptable solutions already in existence? The jails and prisons in my home state of Alabama, which is not exactly known for being at the cutting edge of technology or social progress nor for having deep pockets, seem to have figured out how to get an appropriate set up. Between Zoom, WebEx, interpreter/attorney prep sessions, and good ole fashioned 3-way calls, I have had close to no problems providing interpreting services to inmates remotely. Sessions are a bit slower because we’re working remotely, but attorneys and their clients still manage to get in a full session and I feel satisfied with the level of service I provided. These sessions also include going over paperwork, like plea bargains or pre-sentencing reports. Sometimes, the attorney will share the document on their screen in a session. Other times, they’ll send me a copy of the document to be either returned or destroyed after the meeting. And some will go over the document with me in a pre-session so I can have terminology prepared ahead of time. Each jail and attorney’s office have their own system, but so far it seems that the jails have provided the resources needed in order to interpret successfully without risking the attorney or interpreter’s health. I will concede that quality still varies a little, but so far everyone is doing what they need to for me to be able to uphold my oath and professional responsibility as an interpreter.

Second, and most importantly, the freelance interpreter is just one side of the equation and has very limited power in shaping the system the state chooses to adopt for remote interpreting. All a freelancer can do is tell the state, “I have all of my equipment, am now familiar with the platforms, and am ready to go.” It is up to state and local governments to make sure that courthouses, prisons, jails, and any other court facility have the proper equipment and conditions in place to make remote interpreting successful. Believe me, if it were up to freelancers, we would always be included in the conversation. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Rarely are freelancers, as the professionals in the field, asked what they need in order to do their job even though we do have existing solutions. If freelancers were asked, we would immediately shut down holding up a cellphone to thick plexiglass in a room with poor acoustics.

I spoke to my friends and colleagues in Washington, and every single one of them is ready to work with the courts to get the proper set up in place. Washington State need only ask for this. But as is the case in other states, freelance interpreters are rarely given a seat at the table to shape policy and procedure. When we try, we’re usually shut down because, as the interpreter coordinator cited in the article stated, our profession is seen as a mere “side-gig”. As a whole, we are constantly trying to get recognition as working professionals, not gig economy workers. Contrary to the interpreter coordinator’s comments, we actually do this work full time; our respective state courts are just one of our clients. Right now, Washington appears to be acting like a bad client for their interpreters. The bottom line is that, as freelance professionals, all we can do is look at the working conditions any prospective client may offer us and weigh the risks. If they outweigh the benefits, then we have no other option than to decline the offer. As long as our client, the state courts, refuses to consult its interpreters and make the necessary changes, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we’ll keep turning down the work.

As an attorney who used to work on the other side of the equation, I sympathize with how the pandemic has upended defendants’ constitutional rights. It’s, quite frankly, disgusting and infuriating that the administrative office of courts in many states have really dropped the ball in terms of language access. I support any action to hold the courts accountable for their lack of consideration that has resulted in a violation of rights. However, suing to get judges to order freelance interpreters to take on work they’ve declined due to dangerous working conditions is not the answer. I’ll even go so far as to say that suing to get judges to order staff interpreters to work in jails also isn’t the solution. It’s not only disrespectful to our profession, it’s a completely baseless request. All this will do is infuriate court interpreters and make them even more reluctant to keep the courthouses as clients, even after the pandemic is over.

Mischaracterizing professionally interpreted legal proceedings as “lost or fragmented” communication based off of a “simulation” also doesn’t help. When done by a trained certified court interpreter, an interpretation is smooth, complete, and pleasant to hear. Yes, there are small aspects that do get lost in translation; that is just the nature of cross-lingual communication. And yes, remote interpreting does complicate things. In past posts I’ve even emphasized how once we’re out of the pandemic, we need to make sure interpreting in person goes back to being the norm. However, we are in an exceptional situation where being there in person is not possible.

Rest assured that certified court interpreters make sure that as little as possible is lost in translation. They cannot pass a certification test if they can’t do this. They work very hard to continue improving their renditions and make sure that they are using the best terminology so that the exact idea being expressed is communicated to the LEP. While I understand how relying on an interpreter in court proceedings can be scary for both the attorney and the LEP client, you must trust certified interpreters to do their job. I understand that this aspect is out of your control, but I promise you that we want to do the best professional quality job possible.

Court interpreters are not the enemy. As professionals, all we want to do is provide faithful and accurate interpretations so that any Limited English Proficiency Speaker going through our justice system can access it as equally as English speakers. We also want the justice system to move as efficiently as possible. Remember: when we can’t accept a state assignment, that also affects our livelihoods. Interpreting is not a “side gig”; it’s our career. However, we also do not want to get COVID-19, risking our lives and those of our loved ones.

Attorneys, the solution to your problems isn’t trying to force an interpreter to work in person against their will; nor is it lamenting perceived interpreters’ reluctance to risk their wellbeing. You have the power to demand that the state consult with its freelance professionals to make sure the proper set-up is in place so that interpreters can start taking these assignments.

Much like this article, the professional freelance court interpreter’s voice is nowhere to be found. The spokesperson of the King County Department of Adult & Juvenile Detention is quoted as saying, “Going forward, we’ll continue to work with public defenders, the courts, and other criminal justice partners to ensure that people in our temporary custody have their rightful access to legal counsel and interpreter services, given the considerable constraints and health concerns we face during the COVID 19 pandemic.” Demand that the state makes their freelance court interpreters a part of that conversation, as they will be your best ally for professional, competent remote interpreting solutions.

Note: Our staff interpreter colleagues in many states also face these problem and are often left out of the conversation when it comes to remote interpreting protocol during the pandemic. Courts everywhere will benefit from consulting both staff and freelance interpreters. They are the only experts that will understand what successful remote court interpreting entails.

Lessons from the Summer of COVID-19: How to Assign Monetary and Professional Value to Your Work

Dear Colleagues,

It’s been a minute since I last posted a blog entry. I apologize for my absence, but despite the current pandemic and being a COVID long-hauler, I have had an incredibly busy and productive summer. I am fortunate enough to be someone who is okay but still coping with lingering and recurring symptoms. I am also lucky that I did not lose a lot of work during the pandemic, despite the state court closures and Alabama dragging their feet in figuring out how to conduct business virtually. I hope all of you are healthy, COVID free, and still earning a good paycheck without having to compromise your health & safety.

Being thrown into a pandemic and seeing how our profession in the States has reacted to it has allowed me to reflect on some important aspects of working as a court interpreter. As we head into a fall season that is already promising, for better or worse, to be eventful, I’d like to share my thoughts in a small series of posts to aid my colleagues as they move through the new (if temporary — hopefully) normal for interpreters.

I’m starting off with a topic that was already in the works pre-COVID but whose relevance has been brought to light by the pandemic: assigning monetary and professional value to your interpreting work, i.e., salary setting. Now, in order to avoid accusations of price-fixing or discouraging market competition, I will not be telling anyone how much to charge. I wouldn’t be able to give you a hard number anyway because, as you’ll see, there are many factors that any certified interpreter should consider when assigning value to their work.

As you go through these recommendations, you may get the sinking feeling that you have been significantly underpricing your work. Do not be ashamed – this is something that almost every working professional interpreter is guilty of doing. It’s also not unexpected since there are practically no guides on how much current interpreters are charging. On top of that, certain actors actively discourage wage transparency amongst interpreters to aid their bottom line. This is why I’m outlining common sense suggestions that any fresh university graduate needs to know when entering the job market. I’m passing these suggestions along to give you the space to evaluate and appreciate your professional worth. If you suspect that you have not been setting your fees correctly, I’ll also share some tips on how to correct course so that you can start to earn the living that you deserve as a professional interpreter.

Stop Thinking in Hourly Wages, Start Thinking in Yearly Salaries

Many, though not everyone, who are starting out as interpreters are entering a true profession for the first time. In past jobs, they’ve been compensated by the hour and are used to thinking about their income in those terms. When transitioning to a professional career, it’s crucial to drop that mentality because it could cause you to underprice yourself. A lot of the numbers that third-party service providers will throw at you will seem incredible, especially in the United States where the Federal Minimum Wage is $7.50/hr. and more progressive living wages are $15/hr. Don’t be fooled by these initial numbers by thinking in terms of hourly work.

An interpreter, like any other professional, is not providing an industrial service that can be valued and calculated by the hour. As many interpreters will tell you, the day of the actual interpretation is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the 10% of our work that clients actually see. The remaining 90 happens before and after the assignment is complete.

Remember: though we can be treated as such, we are not Uber, Lyft, Task Rabbit, or Grub Hub. That’s not how professional interpreting work functions.

Instead, when sitting down to determine what your professional fees will be, ask yourself this: What salary do I need to earn on a monthly and yearly basis to cover the costs of practicing interpretation and provide me the comfortable living of a working professional?

Where working hours come into play is when you are looking at a proposed project or assignment and need to calculate how much time will be dedicated to complete it. This is different from thinking in terms of an hourly wage. Instead, you’re breaking down how much of your workday is being dedicated to the project and calculating your proposal based on that time. Once you’ve set a target for your salary, you can then begin to outline your pricing guide for assignments that can be used when submitting a proposal to a client. Setting a salary will also help you determine whether an assignment pays enough for it to be worth your time.

What to Consider When Calculating Your Salary

But what do you need to think about when setting salary? Being independent can be daunting because in traditional employment, the prospective employer will outline everything that’s included in their offer. Free-styling it, by comparison, is overwhelming.

If it helps, think of this as bringing yourself to the negotiating table. What terms would an employer need to offer you, in additional to your salary, to make the job of professional interpreter worth taking? If, before interpreting, you’ve worked as an employee, you may forget to include these additional benefits provided by an employer. You didn’t have to think about it in the past, but now it’s crucial that you don’t forget them! We have to build these things into our pricing. These are the things interpreters need to consider when building a successful practice:

Overhead Expenses

Even though we don’t work in a brick & mortar office, interpreters still have a lot of overhead that we need to successfully run our businesses. Let’s start with the basics. First, you’re going to need a way for your clients and the courts to contact you. That means a fully equipped smartphone with a solid data & minute plan. You’ll also want a professional website to advertise your services. Remember, you can’t get clients if they don’t know you exist. At an assignment, the average medical or court interpreter will need a writing medium to take notes, which means notepads, pens, or, if you’re tech savvy and environmentally conscious, a reusable tablet like a Boogie Board. You also need access to your corresponding dictionaries, both general and field-specific. These dictionaries will need to be a combination of hard-copy and electronic, because you won’t always be working in a place where you have your cellphone and a reliable signal to access electronic/online sources. For instance, in the legal world I have two main dictionaries I work with: Tomasi’s Law Dictionary (Hard Copy) and Diccionario Javier F. Becerra (online). I always have my hard copy with me because when I’m in jails and prisons, I can’t take a cellphone with me or can’t get any service. Some of the best resources require an annual or monthly membership fee. You’ll also need your own personal interpreting equipment, especially when there’s a pandemic.

If you do telephonic interpreting, you’ll need a landline or an internet to phone converter. In order to successfully provide virtual interpreting services, you’ll need a high-speed Broadband line (not Wi-Fi), up to date computer, and appropriate headset with a noise-cancelling microphone and Acoustic Shock Protection. You’ll also need separate storage space for all client documents to protect their confidentiality. (You can use a cloud, but I’m still not a fan because of the security vulnerabilities. I still prefer an old fashioned external hard drive.) If you provide transcription/translation services, you’ll need to purchase the appropriate software.

The overhead costs don’t end there. Medical and court interpreting mean a lot of commuting, even if it is just within county or state boundaries. In the United States, that means driving for the most part. Driving means you’ll need a reliable car, which will need regular maintenance, car insurance, and money for gas & parking. If you use mass transit, you’ll need to pay for the appropriate metro cards, bus, and train passes.

Do not go into this profession assuming there’s no overhead. There’s a ton of it and we need to make sure we’re making a good enough living to cover all of it without affecting our personal monthly budgets for living expenses.

Health Insurance

You’re going to need to make enough to afford a good health insurance plan. The quality of plans and financial aid to afford insurance vary by state, which is why it’s important to look at what you’ll really need to afford decent healthcare. Interpreting is incredibly taxing on the mind and body. You can’t do the mental gymnastics required of us, not to mention the traveling, if you’re unwell. We are also constantly exposed to people in poor health or less than sanitary conditions. It’s important that we have easy access to a primary care physician and a network of specialists to protect ourselves and others when exposed to sick individuals.

Interpreters are talking more and more about the psychological stresses that come with our job, especially when you’re working in the legal and medical field where we encounter harsh realities and hear difficult stories. As interpreters, we are supposed to be able to compartmentalize these, but we are also human, and sometimes we need to talk to a mental health provider. There is no shame in that and in order to prevent any lasting effects from secondary trauma, we should be able to financially access mental health services.

Professional Liability Insurance

So many wonderful interpreters that I know are currently working without an Errors and Omissions liability insurance. I would encourage you to please protect yourself and get a good E&O plan. Whenever someone files a lawsuit (which is their right), the typical strategy is to sue everyone involved and then eliminate parties to the lawsuit during discovery. This is done so that no potential defendant is missed and the aggrieved party doesn’t lose the opportunity to file suit. If you get caught up in a lawsuit defendant sweep, you want to make sure you’re well protected until you can be eliminated as a prospective defendant.

If you currently contract with agencies, their E&O policy does not usually protect you as an independent contractor, just them. Especially since interpreters aren’t always given the best working conditions by courts and referral agencies, it’s crucial that you buy this to protect yourself in the future. I sleep easier knowing I have this safety net.

Private Disability Insurance and Pensions

Interpreters are at risk for disability, because we rely on our minds, voices, and hearing to do our work. Take one out of the equation and we can no longer work as interpreters. Again, the social security offered in each state varies and is often not enough to cover your living expenses. While this may not be something you immediately invest in, it’s a good idea to consider buying a private disability insurance plan. It will help to supplement your income in the case that you suffer a bodily injury that takes you out of the interpreting field.

A private pension plan, however, is something you need to open right away. It’s virtually impossible to live off of your social security check alone. There are different kinds of plans that available, so explore your options. Once you pick a plan, start contributing a monthly amount. It doesn’t have to be much at first, and you can increase your deposits as you start earning more.

Cost of Certification Exams & Continuing Education

As professional interpreters, we have to pay to get certified in our respective fields. This is not just limited to the exams. You’ll need to study to prepare for the exams, which means several hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars in materials and courses. You’ll also likely travel, sometimes overnight, to take your exams. Like attorneys and physicians, we also need to do continuing education courses and pay our certifying bodies the fees they charge to maintain that certification. You may start out in one field and then pursue another certification to expand your client base.

All of this needs to be something you can afford from what you’re earning. You don’t have a boss, a company, a firm, court, or hospital paying for these things. These come out of your own pocket, so you need to earn a paycheck that can cover them.

Professional Association and Union/Guild Dues

While not required, it’s a good idea to be a part of a professional association, not just because it helps lend you credence as a professional but because it gives you opportunities to network with colleagues from all over the country and the world, as well as access to continuing education classes and additional professional resources. If in your state there’s an established professional union or guild, explore joining one so that you can make sure you have a voice and collective power in legislative matters and in addressing the injustices faced by interpreters every day. These memberships come with fees that you’ll need to pay annually to support their work.

Administrative Work and other Business Expenses

In order to be paid by clients, the courts, and agencies, we need to be able to bill them. Whether you choose to handle the administrative work yourself or hire someone, you’ll need to account for the time and money it takes to do this work. Depending on how you want to get paid, you’ll also need to pay for a payment service or for the fees they charge for fund transfers. Other administrative work includes following up with clients whose payment deadline is coming up, following up with project inquiries and finalizing project contracts. Project contracts mean that you’ll consult with an attorney at some point to make sure the contract language you’re using is up to date and the best for your business. Additionally, you’ll have to do the taxes for your business, whether a corporation or a sole-proprietorship. That means hiring an accountant or accessing the appropriate software to do your taxes.

Speaking of taxes…

Income Taxes

If you’re mainly filing 1099s that means your clients are not taking out all income taxes from your paychecks. An employer, even at restaurants or retail stores, will take these out of their employees’ checks; but you don’t have this employer. This means it’s up to you to set aside enough money to pay these taxes, either quarterly or at the end of the year. If not, you may be slammed with an unforeseen tax bill. Remember, all of the money in the paycheck isn’t yours until the local, state, and federal governments have all gotten their appropriate cut. (Note: This is why I encourage you to look into either becoming an LLC or incorporating to cut your taxes and be able to expense more business costs. Consult with your accountant or tax attorney to see what would be the best fit for you.)

Vacation, Sick Leave, and Family Leave

In the United States, paid time off is seen a luxury and not a necessity to make sure we have a strong, healthy workforce. This does not mean that you should dismiss the importance of taking time off, be it for vacation or out of necessity. In order to take that time off, you’ll need to make sure you have something to live off of, because once you block off that time you won’t be getting any compensation. When determining your salary, make sure you’re making enough to “pay yourself” during that time.

As an independent contractor, you should not have to give up going on vacation, having a family, or taking care of yourself and your loved ones to work as an interpreter.

Cost of Living in Your Area

You have to make sure that you are earning enough to live like a professional wherever you are. If you’re in New York City, make sure you can actually survive on your salary. If you’re in a much more affordable place, like Alabama, you still have living expenses that need to be covered. Interpreting is a unique profession in that we don’t always work where we live. Being conscious of that, we need to make sure that we aren’t unintentionally undercutting the earnings of our colleagues in more costly parts of the country. This means, if you’re a Tennessee interpreter taking a job in Washington DC, make sure you’re paid like a DC interpreter would be for that same job. Make sure your client is hiring you for your skillset, not for being cheap.

Expertise

Expertise and experience are both bargaining chips at the employee contract negotiation table and should not go unappreciated by us just because we are independent. If you’re someone with the credentials and years of experience, you shouldn’t still be charging like a newbie. If you have a higher certification, get paid like someone who earned that certification. Don’t undervalue what you’re offering your clients.

Emergency Savings Fund

Expect the unexpected. Sometimes, things happen in life that will end up costing you money. In the United States, too many people are one car repair or hospital bill away from not making ends meet. Make sure you’re prepared in case something happens and have enough in a savings account set aside strictly for these emergencies to cover you.

All of these factors, in addition to your credentialing and experience, should be included in your price setting.

Don’t Fear Wage Transparency

Salary transparency is gaining popularity in companies that have a traditional employer/employee model as a way to combat wage disparities because of gender and race. It can be uncomfortable to discuss how much you make with colleagues because of how “gauche” we’re taught it is to discuss money. In the independent contractor world, this is further amplified by our desire to avoid being accused of price fixing. However, just as our colleagues in other fields have discovered the advantages of salary transparency, we too can benefit from talking to our colleagues.

How can we use salary transparency as independent contractors? You can always approach a trusted colleague and ask what they believe would be fair terms for a certain assignment. If you have a concrete example from a recent offer, tell them about it. Get their thoughts. This will allow you to gage whether your fees are appropriate. This is exactly how I realized that I was severely underpricing myself when I first started out. Having this knowledge empowered me to charge fees that I feel meet my professional worth.

This is not the same thing as giving someone full access to your price sheet. There’s this huge fear that any information we provide may be used against us in order to steal a client. I understand this fear and my best recommendation is to talk to someone you really trust. If you fear sharing what you’re currently charging, then get thoughts on concrete offers that were made to you by prospective agencies or clients. It’s enough to hear feedback like, “this looks about right”, “no, they’d need to double it for me consider” or “absolutely not because they’re not compensating x, y, and z”.

Alternatives to Slashing Prices in Order to Attract Clients

You don’t need to market yourself as a Blue Light Special to get clients. Again, you want clients that value the service you’re providing, not your low, low price tag. There are plenty of other ways to sell yourself to the client. One is to explain what services your fee includes. For example, when I do a deposition, I’m not only working for the client on the day of the actual deposition. I spend the days leading up the deposition getting a history of the case, what will be covered by the deposition, preparing terminology, and also make myself available to meet with my client in a pre-session if he or she so desires and after the deposition to follow-up with the client on how things went and if they will need me for further services relating to the case. My clients also know that if something does come up, I will do everything I can to prioritize them and their needs over other work. They know that they are also paying for my availability. 

My clients also know I have a referral network of trusted colleagues if I am unavailable to provide services. In turn, my colleagues will also occasionally refer me to their private clients when there’s something they can’t cover. Whenever we cover assignments for each other, there’s never a referral fee. There’s also never a sense of obligation to take the assignment. Sometimes, they’ll call me about an assignment that I feel doesn’t pay enough or that I’m simply not interested in. In those instances, I turn down the work and there are no hard feelings. We also never purposefully undercut the other’s fee to steal a client. Trust me, when you’re an unscrupulous interpreter, word gets around fast and it will be hard to find colleagues willing to work with you. Don’t be shady.

I also have a set of clients in the non-profit/public interest sector to whom I offer special pricing because of the nature of their work and budgets. This is not something you have to do, but it’s something that I feel comfortable doing. The fees I offer them do not undermine my professional worth, because I’m choosing to offer them. And if the day arrives where I no longer want to do the work or we cannot agree on a fee renegotiation, I have no problem walking away. But for now, they also provide a reliable stream of income as great clients.

Your experience and expertise are also great selling points. When you’re looking for a doctor or an attorney, what do you consider? Typically, you look at credentials, how long they’ve been in the specialty, and patient satisfaction. If I need an important surgery, I’d rather get on the waitlist for the best doctor I can afford with my insurance. Same goes with an attorney. If I find myself in a legal situation, then I want to make sure I have the best, most trusted attorney that I can afford. You’re offering the same as an interpreter.

If you’re new, don’t worry. Your certifications are very much still a selling point in a market where non-credentialed bilinguals are still allowed to interpret. Once someone experiences the difference of working with a professional, credentialed interpreter, they rarely go back to the cheaper alternative. Additionally, if you have other credentials and work experience that complement your interpreting work, do not be afraid to use those to sell yourself.

Troubleshooting Underpricing

After reading all of this, you may be getting the sinking feeling that you’ve been undercharging. Again, do not feel ashamed of this. It’s happened to virtually everyone. You’re also not stuck working as a bargain-priced interpreter. You can still fix this and work towards your salary goal.Once you figure out your pricing guidelines, you’ll need to pick the ideal time to announce these price changes. New clients will be easy, because they’ve never known anything different. Here’s how you can ease breaking the news to your existing clients:

Find the right time to make a price change

A good time to announce fee increases is before the New Year. You want to give your clients enough time to process the news and to possibly come back and negotiate with you. The last time I did a price increase, I let me clients know at the beginning of November. I simply sent an email letting them know about the changes and that they were free to get in touch with me to ask any questions. If you have a contract with a state or federal agency, you may want to do this a few months before the end of the Fiscal Year (October) so that they can have the appropriate budget in place.

Justifying the Increases

There are plenty of reasons you can use to justify the fee increase. First and foremost, you can always use your years of experience. Many professionals who are employees will get opportunities to renegotiate their contracts every one to two years. Use your experience to “renegotiate” a higher fee for yourself.

You can also use any new certifications to up your prices. For court interpreters, if one year you earn federal certification, use that as a reason to bump up your prices because now your clients will be getting the services of a federally certified interpreter, which is a certification that only 5% of test takers achieve. For LOTS languages, you can pursue the accreditation that Federal courts will accept to allow these interpreters to work on their cases. LOTS language speakers that don’t have available credentialing exams need to pursue every step of interpreter training and language testing available to them in order to separate themselves from everyday bilinguals. And if your language is rare but in high demand, use that as a selling point.

And if all else fails, good old fashion inflation and cost of living expenses are more than good enough to justify an increase in prices. What was considered a good living 30, 20, or even 10 years ago wouldn’t cut it today.

Most importantly, you do not need to feel guilty or greedy for increasing your fees. Every business does this. Doctor’s offices, attorneys, and even hair dressers will increase their fees according to these same criteria. There’s no reason for interpreters to be treated differently.

“Special Fees” for Existing/Loyal Clients

Making an offer of a special fee to your most loyal clients is a completely valid tactic. Just make sure you’re not lowballing yourself. This special fee demonstrates that you value them as a client and are interested in keeping their business.

Final Thoughts:

What I covered here is pretty extensive, but it’s by no means exhaustive. Please also keep in mind that it may take a while to meet your salary goals. Just because the results aren’t immediate doesn’t mean you should give up on earning a professional salary. Remember, interpreting isn’t just a job; it’s a professional career. I hope that after reading this, you’ll feel empowered to start working towards this goal.

Feel free to share any tips or experiences in the comments.

In Times of Crisis, Watch Out for Predators

Right now, COVID-19 is touching everyone’s life in one way or another. If any of you or your loved ones have come down with the virus, please know that I’m wishing each and every one of you good health, strength, and a speedy recovery. A lot of us have, luckily, not succumb to the pandemic and have our health intact. For that, I am grateful.

However, as many have felt with the rolling out of social distancing mandates and guidelines, the corona virus is not just affecting our physical health, but our professional health. All freelancers are feeling this right, especially in the interpreting and translating professions. With courts closing, event cancellations, and saturated hospitals, many interpreters are facing an unprecedented situation of having their work schedule vanish into thin air. Here in Alabama, our court system just decided to push back every LEP case indefinitely and has still failed to put a remote interpreting system in place for those of us working here. Understandably, this has sent many of our colleagues into panic mode as they try desperately to adjust to a new financial reality. While all interpreters are facing this, those of us that are new or work with state court certification are most vulnerable.

True to form, when a crisis hits the snake oil salesmen and predators come out of the woodwork to prey on our weakened state. For some, these scammers are people selling magical “cure-alls” against the virus in order to make a quick buck. For interpreters and translators, it’s the familiar actors feeding on our panic to try and denigrate the financial worth of our work. I’m, of course, talking about the bodies that are calling on us to be compensated by the hour, quarter-hour, and even minute, at a “lower rate”, for our services just because they are now being done remotely instead of in person.

We’ve heard calls from many well-known, respected interpreters at the top of our profession pleading for everyone to not succumb to these offers as it hurts both the individual accepting the work and the profession as a whole. But when you’re lower on the food chain, it’s easy to scoff and say that these interpreters are out of touch with what we’re facing down the totem pole. Of course, you can afford to stick by your prices or even ask for more! You’ve got the goods to back it up, but I’m just a lowly state-certified court or healthcare interpreter! I don’t have a leg to stand on!

I completely understand this sentiment. It’s easier to be a stickler about fees when you’re a top conference or federal court interpreter. While they face a lot of competition, we face even more, not just from our fellow certified colleagues but from the organizations that hire and sell the services of untrained, undereducated paraprofessionals. The businesses soliciting our services for dirt cheap, insulting compensation already lay on the guilt trip thickly by saying that they are “graciously offering new opportunities” in order to “give work to interpreters” so we can “do our duty during the crisis”. They want to make you feel guilty for even questioning the terms and conditions of these supposed opportunities.

However, I want to remind everyone working at the bottom of the proverbial certification totem pole that, contrary to these feelings of worthlessness, we absolutely do have just as much of a leg to stand on as the most celebrated members of our profession. If anything, we are the legs of the profession and as such our profession is only as strong as its base. So, as a fellow bottom-dweller and relative interpreting newbie, let me help clear the fog a bit and refresh your memory on why your professional value has not been eradicated by the virus.

1. Remote Interpreting Does Not Eliminate Your Certification and Education

Your level of expertise does not go away just because you’re interpreting over the phone or internet platform. Whether in person or remotely, you are still providing the services of a certified interpreter. Physically being in court or at a hospital is not what qualifies someone to interpret. Imagine if it were! We would not have to spend so much time and money mastering our working languages, training, keeping up with ethics and best practices, and studying for certification exams. For those of us that are doing remote interpreting for the first time, we’re making sure to train quickly so that we can comply with best practices for our new working conditions.

All of this does not magically go away because we’re interpreting from our home office instead of driving down to the courthouse, law office, or hospital. For the newly minted Federal Interpreters, your hard-earned federal certification and the prestige it is afforded did not go away just because this pandemic shut everything down a month after results were posted. We all have every right to remind clients that they are paying for this expertise, not our physical presence.

2. Remote Interpreting Requires Additional Equipment and Multitasking

The biggest misconception amongst laymen that is purposefully promulgated by those who would see our profession turned into an industry for personal profit is that working from home magically makes interpreting easier and more convenient for us. For anyone that has worked as a professional interpreter, you know that this is the furthest thing from the truth. If anything, not being physically present is much harder.

We’re not only coping with all of the challenges that come with interpreting, but adding internet and phone connection management, remote audio tech, echo chambers, and protecting our hearing. All of this is being done while trying to interpret and making sure that all parties speak in a way that allows the interpreter to give a correct rendition. The visual cues we get from body language and facial expressions are also gone (even with video, it’s not as good as in person). And as the cherry on top, we have to make sure we have the right equipment to comply with best practices (USB headsets with audio shock protection, highspeed broadband connection, a land line, the right computer, and software).

If we’re doing more when remote interpreting and having to invest in the right equipment and training, then why on earth should we accept a lower fee?

3. Other Professionals are Receiving the Same Compensation for Remote Services

Attorneys are still billing their same fees for the same services done remotely. If any are offering discounts to their clients, that’s on them.

Insurance companies are still paying doctors the same for in-office services done via telemedicine. (My parents are mental health professionals and are being paid the same. They just have to make sure they’re using the right equipment to comply with regulations.)

Those who are employed in other sectors and are working from home are not having their salary docked just because they’re working remotely.

Again, if interpreters are professionals and other professionals are still being equally compensated for work done via telecommuting, then should it not follow that interpreters also be compensated equally for their remote services?

4. Our Everyday Expenses Aren’t Disappearing

The United States does not have the greatest social safety net and a majority of us are finally feeling this reality. At the end of the day, we still have bills and expenses to pay even in a pandemic. I still have to pay for my healthcare, food, and household expenses. At the same time, I want to make sure that I do not fall behind on student loan or credit card payments, even with the grace periods being offered. The more debt I can take care of now, the less of a financial burden I’ll have once this is all over.

I understand how many of our colleagues look at these financial responsibilities and think they are reasons to accept lower pay. At least these “opportunities” help pay the bills, right? It is absolutely fine to be grateful for work and, at the same time, ask for the right terms, conditions, and compensations for the job you are doing. The two are not mutually exclusive. If a client or agency is truly interested in hiring a professional for professional grade work, then they’ll be willing to listen, negotiate, and compensate accordingly. It takes some extra work and reaching out to your personal clients, but I promise you that good paying work is still out there. You just have to remind your clients that you are here to help them.

When I saw the writing on the wall, the first thing I did was strategize with my colleagues to reach out to our private client network and remind them that we were there to help should they need any of our services remotely. As the stay-home mandates started going out, we started getting emails from them about what we could do to help them during this time. This work is what’s keeping me booked these days. 

I also took this opportunity to remind my clients that, though we are doing everything in our power to make this go as smoothly as possible, remote interpreting is not and should not be the new normal for our profession. I can already see the same predatory actors getting ready to use the COVID crisis to sell remote interpreting to those outside of our profession (and new to our profession) as the new, more affordable normal. Being there in person matters and though remote interpreting offers an avenue to provide services when or where it cannot be done in person, it cannot replace the value of in-person interpreting.

[UPDATE: I want to take a second to clarify my point on remote interpreting not becoming the new normal. This is not an anti-technology stand; on the contrary, I fully believe that as professionals we have a responsibility to be trained and up-to-date on the tools we may be working with. Remote interpreting is a great tool when in-person interpreting is not possible. However, it should not be the first option given to a client for several reasons.

First, non-verbal cues inform very important aspects of our interpreting choices. When I’m interpreting in the courtroom or a law office, I’m paying just as much attention to the nonverbal cues of the speaker as to what they are saying. These become even more crucial as a healthcare interpreter. As previously stated, a video image will never be as good as being there in person to read the room. When non-verbal cues are removed, making the correct interpreting choices become harder, which leaves the client, LEP, and the interpreter more vulnerable to liabilities.

Second, it also still is not clear if liability insurance policies for interpreters covers remote services. Keep in mind that when it comes to new technologies, a lot of the time Silicon Valley’s motto is “roll out the technology first, worry about liability issues later”. Make sure to get in touch with your policy providers to make sure this is covered.

Third, remote interpreting from our home offices means we lose the important teamwork aspect of interpreting in person. In the courtroom, I do a lot of spur of the moment problem solving with my colleagues. Even conference interpreters who do an RSI assignment all work together in a remote studio. If I’m interpreting from my home office, I lose this teamwork aspect. The new technology does allow for communicating via chat with other interpreters when you’re working remotely for an agency or company, but for hearings and the like, it gets a bit more complicated.

Finally, there are very real risks to our hearing because of Acoustic Shock Syndrome. We have to make sure all of the appropriate technological protections are in place to protect our hearing. If you lose your hearing, there goes your interpreting career.

I will encourage everyone to read two important blog posts by Tony Rosado where he explains these issues more in-depth. You can read them here and here.

Remote Interpreting Technologies are great and we should work closely with the tech leaders developing these to make sure they are the best tools for us. However, since we are still in the nascent stages of this technology we cannot yet sell it as the professional default. Maybe one day we’ll get there, but we have to proceed with caution and adapt appropriately as these technologies are rolled out.]

If you are still falling behind on work and these low-paying solicitations are beginning to tempt you, I want to encourage you to remind yourself of everything you are bringing to the table as a professional and play hardball. If someone asks you where you get the “audacity” to demand your regular (or higher) fee, use the points I outlined as a basis for your argument. If longtime clients approach you about discounted services, proceed with caution. Assess each client and assignment carefully in order to decide whether the situation merits a discount. Feel confident and justified in your decision to still charge full price. Do not settle for terms that will leave you feeling dirty and unsatisfied. If we all do this, then we will be stronger as a profession and receive good work opportunities during the crisis.

This new normal is temporary. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Stay strong.