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.
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.