Thumper, the rabbit, said, “If you can’t say something nice….don’t say nothin’ at all.” –Walt Disney, Bambi, 1942. That was a smart little rabbit. There are times, though, when being silent is the same as accepting injustices committed against those that cannot speak for themselves –for example, the LEP (Limited Language Proficient) persons.
Although the interpreter profession has come a long way, we are still in the thrall of some severe and not so pleasant growing pains. We have the ‘professional’ interpreter –trained and certified, and we have the ‘proficient’ interpreter –trained, but not certified, and this may be because certification is not offered in their language, or they haven’t yet taken the necessary steps to become certified. There is also the ‘bilingual’ interpreter –not trained, but acts as an interpreter.
Many professional interpreters started as a proficient interpreter. My entrance into the world of interpreting started the same way. I took courses, studied my butt off, and, luckily, a few agencies gave me an opportunity. Some stay forever in this ‘proficient’ mode and many, like myself, decide to enter the ‘professional’ mode by continuing their education and becoming certified.
Being a professionally certified interpreter is not for everyone. Many interpret as a side gig for a way of earning some extra cash, and this is all fine and good. I have nothing against anyone earning extra money. Where I have an issue is the use of a ‘proficient’ interpreter or an untrained ‘bilingual’ interpreter to exploit the profession, undermine equal language access and diminish the profession.
Many play the ‘blame game,’ and I admit that it is effortless to get caught up in it. Interpreters blame agencies (hey, some agencies deserve it), and agencies place the blame on their clients, and the interpreters too. Both sides, too often, have legitimate gripes. The agencies and interpreters that have risen above these games are the ones that are leaving the others in their dust.
Here is one game played. The agency will ask the professional interpreter if they are available for an assignment, but say that this assignment only requires a qualified interpreter. Why? It is a message to the professional interpreter that the agency isn’t willing to pay the fees of a professionally certified interpreter. My questions. Is the professional interpreter supposed to turn off their certification for this one assignment? Are they to undo the personal investment in money and time becoming educated and trained?
Now, here is the zinger. These same agencies publicize to their clients that they only use ‘certified’ and ‘qualified’ interpreters. So, what does the client who is not familiar with the profession think? Not much. And why should they? To them, based on the marketing scam of the agency, believe they are getting the best because in their mind there is no difference between a certified or qualified. And, let us be real here. In most cases, the client doesn’t care because all they want is an interpreter to be at a specific location at a particular time to facilitate communication with an LEP.
The professional interpreter can accept the lower fee and take the assignment, or refuse it. Often interpreters refuse, and unless the agency is desperate (they can’t find an interpreter to accept the job), the agency moves on to the next interpreter on their roster until they do find someone that will take a lower fee.
Why would a professional interpreter accept a lower fee? There are several reasons, but the main one is financial survival. Interpreting is highly competitive, and there are absolutely no barriers from anyone entering the profession.
There are advertisements all the time that state if you are bilingual, you can be an interpreter. What these advertisers want is for the bilingual person to take a course, which is often overpriced, and upon completion, the student receives a ‘certificate of completion’ and zap, zing, zah the bilingual is now a ‘qualified’ interpreter. You don’t think these agencies are doing these classes because they are concerned about the profession, do you? It is a money maker. The agency makes money selling their courses to the wannabe interpreter, and then they make money from the same by paying a low fee for interpreting assignments.
In the various forums which I participate, there are constant requests not to accept assignments from XYZ agency. The goal is to force the agency to adhere to some business and moral ethics, and respect of the profession. Sometimes, not very often, the strategy works and the agency caves into the demands of the interpreter. Mostly the agency keeps looking until they find someone that will accept their ridiculous rate, and guess what? They do.
I, myself, stopped playing the games and for various personal reasons, transitioned into the world of OPI (over the phone interpreting). It was a good move for me, and the company pays a respectable per minute rate, respects the independent contractor status, and operates on the principle of continuous improvement. This, however, has not stopped me –as you can tell—from advocating for the profession.
Bad agencies hurt the good agencies, the interpreters, the profession and the LEP. There is a saying that one bad apple spoils the bunch or something like that. It is the same in the world of interpreting, and one lousy agency gives all agencies a bad name. Makes me wonder why the good agencies don’t advocate more for positive changes within the profession.
We are now back to Thumper, that cute little rabbit that says we should only say nice things. I am not the silent type. My wife tells me all the time, “sometimes it is better just to listen and be quiet,” which is her way of saying shut up already. Sometimes she is right. Sometimes not, and in the case of injustices against the interpreter profession, I think we should speak out.
My question to you is, should we start publically exposing the agencies, their owners and management for their practices? Some will say oh, be careful there. You could end up in a lawsuit. That is a possibility, but as long as we are only telling the truth –facts, just the facts—they really wouldn’t have much of a case. I, personally, am willing to take the risk if it means shutting down these unscrupulous agencies.
Here is what I am going to do (sometimes the rebel comes out in me), each month I am going to expose a bad agency. Oh yes, I will tell you all the dirt we can find. Why? Why not? These agencies need to be shut down and kicked out of the profession.
Equally (hey, I do play fair), I am going to highlight a good agency each month. What is a good agency? A good agency respects clients, the interpreters, the profession and the LEP. There are a lot of good agencies out there, but sadly they are not as well known, so I think it is time that we, as a profession, say thank you and promote them.
Do you know of an agency –good or bad—that you want to be exposed or highlighted? Drop me a line. Don’t worry, I will keep your name out of it unless of course, you want your name associated with the blog post, and in that case, I will happily give you credit for your contribution.
David Martin Tucker, Certified Spanish Medical Interpreter, CHI™, or “Spanish David” as he is known, is a certified medical interpreter dedicated exclusively to OPI (over the phone interpreting) whose passion for Latin American culture and language is second only to his desire to become a voice for his Spanish speaking clients. Conveying more than words, David’s continuous thirst for knowledge thrusts him into the culture of his clients.
David is an honor’s graduate from the Southern California School of Interpreting’s Medical Interpreter Program and holds bachelor degrees in both Modern Languages (Spanish) and Business from Metropolitan State College of Denver and the University of Southern Indiana respectively.
A founding member of the El Puente Bilingual Toastmasters in Denver, David is also a contributor to the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC), and is a member of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Health Care Patient Advisory Board.