Interpreters: Staying in the Profession

In an earlier blogpost discussing Interpreters and Economics and asking if interpreters should Unionise or Unite there were a series of questions listed for consideration. One in particular is worth further discussion here:
What workshops do we need to provide to empower interpreters to run themselves as businesses earning reasonable fees and enabling them to stay in the profession?
There have been some excellent workshops run already but not all interpreters will have been able to access them. It is noticeable that some interpreters who are struggling are good interpreters but perhaps need to learn some new skills in order to stay in the profession. Most interpreters know some or all of this information. The intention is not to teach interpreters to suck eggs but rather assist those that could do with these skills or knowledge or provide some food for thought.
Business skills – an interpreter reliant on agencies in one geographical area for limited settings may find themselves without work with mini-oligopolies created by holders of contracts and the way the contracts have been commissioned. Increased flexibility, marketing, negotiation and setting your correct fee are some of the points discussed below.
Marketing including use of social media and the Internet – Do you have business cards and a website? Are you on directories such as NRCPD and ASLI and other local websites with groups of vetted interpreters? Do you go to events? Do Deaf people know who you are? More jobs are coming up on Twitter and Facebook now as news spreads quick and people need to reach a wider network of interpreters quickly. LinkedIn is vital.
Calculate your correct minimum fee – Write down all of your expenses per year including: professional membership and registration, insurance, conference attendances, training costs, travel (both car and public transport), phone, office, Internet, stationery, postage, other computer expenses, equipment, accommodation and meals, advertising, web hosting, books and journals and accountancy fees. Remember all are tax deductible. Decide what your years of expensive training, hard work and experience amount to as an income and do not sell yourself short. This is your gross income that you need to achieve. Take off those annual expenses. That will be your net income. Divide by 52 weeks and if you want six weeks worth of time off times by 46. Adjust according to preference and remember to account for eight days of bank holidays where you may not be able to or want to earn. That is your average weekly figure that you need to earn. Decide how many days per week you want to work. Remember you need time to do invoices, admin, chase bookings and payments, attend events, keep up with Deaf and interpreting news and complete CPD. Once you have divided your weekly figure by days worked you should be left with your daily charge. Many interpreters charge by full or half days or by a general sessional fee which can be changed according to ease of booking. If you want to check the hourly rate divide your day rate by seven hours to account for lunch. You should then have a clearer idea of what you need to charge in order to earn a decent living wage in accordance with your skills or even to stay in the profession.
Negotiate and have nerves of steel – You are a business. Know your product (that’s you), your value, your unique selling points. Don’t settle for less and do not automatically drop fees without negotiation. Ask what the budget is or set your fee higher so you can reduce it if necessary. Often agencies, especially for last minute bookings, will pay your fee. Remember that some agencies charge a lot to broker your services and do not necessarily drop their fee for clients. Negotiate hard… If an agency has fixed a fee for a job you may still be able to negotiate. Get on the phone.
Know how to protect your business – Factor in rest and leisure time. It’s a harsh economy out there which adds to the difficult situations we may find ourselves in. Avoid trauma, burn out and Upper Limb Disorders.
There are certain traits that a workshop may not be able to teach but are nonetheless important considerations:
Commitment to Deaf and Interpreting communities – Do you do your job and head home? Do you ever go to the Deaf club or Deaf events? Are you up to date with news about the Deaf community? Do you help campaign for Deaf rights or volunteer your time to interpret or otherwise? Research shows Deaf people tend to prefer interpreters who are committed to the community.
Flexibility – Many interpreters are now travelling further to get work if local contracts are being filled with unregistered, unskilled and inexperienced signers. Flexibility is also important in terms of being able to work together with clients. Being able to have a good open working relationship with clients is vital for the happy working life of both of you. Symbiosis is often used to describe the relationship between interpreters and Deaf people. We need each other. We work so much better together when we all remember that.
Being personable – or what we all might term as ‘good attitude’. Napier’s research showed how it was a top priority for Deaf people over and above signing skills.
Networking – Know your colleagues and reciprocate favours. Interpreters are more likely than ever to pass work to each other, to source other interpreters for Deaf people to save everyone the cost of additional fees or a reduction in fees or to cover sickness or double bookings. Knowing the gatekeepers of bookings helps i.e. agency booking staff. It was reported recently that one interpreter put themselves out of work in one area when they had tried to undercut all of the local interpreters. These tactics do not make friends. Obviously networking with potential new clients too, Deaf or hearing. Use social media to expand your contacts: LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook amongst others. Register with every reputable agency known to you and work on creating direct contacts with organisations or Deaf people so you can diversify where you work.
Publicise standards – Wherever you go wear your registration badge. Educate consumers about the importance of registration whether this is with the Deaf community or with other people that book us such as doctors, other medical staff, social services, trainers, police and court staff. Unless we are constantly reminding people of why registration is important how are they going to remember?
The strategies above represent a quick run through of how interpreters facing difficult times can empower themselves. It should be said that some regions are more affected than others and it can very much depend on an interpreters’ level of experience as to whether they may be facing difficulties and whether these strategies may even help if your region is particularly bad.
There are excellent workshops that explore the above strategies further and plenty of resources on the Internet for the self-employed as well as services such as Business Link. Many interpreters are finding the current climate hard so remember you are not on your own. When we consider ourselves as stand-alone businesses it becomes a little bit easier to fight your corner.

Interpreter Cost Cutting: A False Economy

In these times of fiscal belt tightening funds have to be cut. It’s a given. For statutory bodies it must be hard. So where does the funding get cut and how can they save money?
Cut the stationery budget. There will be fewer pens. Don’t provide sandwiches at meetings. Staff and visitors will feed themselves. Take away the water cooler. There’s a tap.
Say you’re a nurse or a doctor within an NHS trust. Or you are staff in a local authority, the police or the courts. How about trying the following options. What would happen if you did?
Don’t provide an interpreter:
We know the US has a more litigious culture. Here’s what happened there:
Failure to use an interpreter ended in a $71m malpractice lawsuit in the U.S where a Latino boy was suspected to be a drug user but actually had a brain aneurism. A late diagnosis left him a paraplegic.
£400k was awarded to a Deaf woman who was not afforded an American Sign Language Interpreter and could not understand the side effects of her Lupus medication.
Last year, a Sheriff was sued for keeping a Deaf man in custody for 25 days without an interpreter.
What about here in the UK?
In 2004, Mr Tran Quang Tung died at Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre. He hung himself. There was a continued lack of interpreters used by doctors and other members of staff even though they could have done due to systems that were in place.
In summary, a professional is breaking their own code of conduct if they cannot communicate with their patient or service user. Guesswork does not amount to being able to care, treat or diagnose them. Crossing your fingers will not work either. Primum non nocere is the benchmark of medical ethics: “First, do no harm”. If you are court staff, justice is unlikely to be achieved. Local authorities, you are not filing your statutory duty.
Use an unqualified or unregistered interpreter:
It is quicker and cheaper to get someone who you think can do the job but is not qualified or registered. Perhaps use someone’s spouse or another member of family?
In 2000, in an A&E department, the wife of a profoundly Deaf man, Sarwat Al-Assaf, was used to interpret questions to her husband such as do you have thoughts of harming your wife or children? Mr Al-Assaf was suffering from severe mental illness. He later went on to kill his wife’s new partner.
Perhaps you get someone who says they have some sign language qualifications or in the case of a spoken language get in, say, the Polish-speaking porter.
One interpreter points out that “The English translation for the word ‘hit’ in Punjabi and Hindi is ‘maar’, but it also means ‘to kill’,” she explains. “So if I’m in court I have to ask the person: are you saying ‘I’m gonna hit you’, or ‘I’m gonna kill you’?” You don’t want to mess around with that distinction, whether it’s in court, for the local authority or a medical appointment.
Every registered interpreter has a tale of how there was an ‘interpreter’ booked but they got called in a week later to sort out the mess, usually to find out that the ‘interpreter’ was someone unregistered who took the payment because they could. It is obvious that in these cases, the service provider has to pay out more. Like getting in a cowboy builder, it ends up costing twice as much to get the mess sorted out afterwards.
It is illegal to employ an unregistered nurse or doctor who will not have to adhere to a Code of Ethics. It is not yet illegal for an unregistered ‘interpreter’ to work as one. Still, it stands to reason that if you use someone who is untrained and unregistered there is no legal recourse when it all backfires as it did in the cases above.
Commission an agency to do it for you:
Perhaps you are an NHS trust, a council or the MoJ and your commissioners are responsible for purchasing interpreting provision. In times of financial austerity, commissioners of services generally tend to care more about costs than quality. In that case, allow them to award an agency a contract or framework agreement with built in standards to ensure quality but ultimately, said agency will not follow them. The agency can not, as it is too costly to get in the appropriate practitioners, i.e. registered interpreters. In order to win the contract, they had to go in too low. The unit costs, if too cheap, can not add up to someone who does the job right and in a professional manner.
So what do you end up with? See the first two options. Rather than not providing the interpreter or getting in someone who is untrained and unregistered, the agency will be doing that instead. You’ll still be paying for it anyway. Freedom of Information requests show agencies are charging the cost of a registered interpreter but not necessarily providing one.
Not much of a cost saving then. Unless the commissioner chose a reputable agency. They normally charge more though so the likelihood is the statutory organisation or commissioner did not make that choice.
The Solution:
Pay for a trained and registered interpreter to:
Avoid – malpractice, misdiagnosis, wasted time, wasted cost orders, being sued and the distress of those to whom you are supposed to be providing a service.
Ensure – you are abiding by the code of ethics of your profession, you are providing the service you are supposed to, you are getting value for money, and you are able to complain or simply to trust that the proper communication is taking place.
How to save money:
Book and pay for a trained and registered interpreter.
How to check if an interpreter, from an agency or one that is booked direct, is registered:
Check the interpreter’s name against the lists held by NRPSI (spoken languages) or NRCPD (sign language). On their arrival ask to see their ID card.
These registers have been in existence for a while for good reason. Avoid the cowboy, avoid the lawsuit, avoid paying out twice.