What are really interpreter fees?
There seems to be a mystique around interpreters’ fees; how do interpreters set them, how they charge, what they charge for; what is it that they do. I thought that, as head of IAPTI’s Interpreters Committee, and practicing professional interpreter, I should cover the issue. This will clarify what we do, and educate the public.
First, because semantics matter, and they carry a tremendous psychological weight, notice I am referring to interpreters’ fees, not rates. In legal terms, a fee is “a charge…for an official or professional service…” (Black’s Law Dictionary Sixth Edition, West Publishing CO. 1990 p. 614). A rate is an “…amount of charge or payment… for a service open to all and upon the same terms…” and it goes to say: “a rate which applies to… a specific commodity alone…” (Black’s Law Dictionary Sixth Edition, West Publishing CO. 1990 p. 1261). Interpreting is a professional service, and professional services are remunerated by the payment of fees. Rates apply to much commercial services offered to the public, such as airfare rates for example. Rates are paid for commodities. Interpreting services, just like translations, are not commodities. While a consumer pays a rate for a service within an industry, a client pays a fee in exchange of professional services. Interpreting is not an industry; it is a profession.
I will not deal with the concept of how much an interpreter should charge. Because we do not want to get in a controversy about fixing interpreting fees, we will leave that issue alone. It is not relevant to describe an explain what interpreter fees really are.
Each professional interpreter has to decide how much to charge, we have to individually consider what we will consider when setting our fees. Some may include certain concepts that others may not. Formal education, continuing professional formation, years of experience, cultural knowledge specific to a certain nation or social group, and other elements could be considered by many. In the past I have dealt with these issues on my blog: “The Professional Interpreter” (“How should interpreters set their fees.” The Professional Interpreter blog. 2/19/2015 https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2015/02/19/how-should-interpreters-set-their-fees/). Today I will focus on what is behind an interpreter fee.
A good interpretation looks easy, even when you do not know the target language, you can almost hear a melody coming out of the booth and into your earpiece. It sounds fluent, firm, clear and pleasant. It leaves people with the idea that interpreters have an easy job: They travel around the world, get to meet famous people and visit important places, and they have only to sit in a booth for a few hours and speak one language they already know.
People think like this until the day they try to informally interpret for a friend or relative at a restaurant, hotel, or airport. They now realize it is hard to remember everything their friend said and repeat it consecutively. They experience how it is almost impossible to listen to their friend as she speaks in one language while simultaneously speaking the language of the hotel, restaurant, or airline clerk. They see it is very difficult to shadow a speaker even in their same language.
Interpreters do this every day, and they do it under gigantic pressure, and they do it on any topic, regardless of the complexity level. Now try to do what you did with your friend at the airport in a summit involving heads of state; a TV event watched by millions, a death penalty trial, or a highly charged multi-million-dollar negotiation. Then, without being a scientist, or a college professor, or a professional athlete, try to do it on a medical topic, a philosophy conference, or a FIFA World Championship press conference. Did you think that you will be interpreting for many people who do not understand the source language used by the speaker, but they are all specialists in the topics to be discussed during the event?
Finally, add the physical challenge of doing this shortly after arriving to the venue having traveled thirty thousand kilometers, and twenty time zones, in a different hemisphere.
Specialized, professional, expensive service.
Because of technology and globalization, interpreters have to fight for a compensation according to the skills needed to provide their services. The appearance of multinational and smaller local interpreting languages in the market has brought a new actor to the stage. Somebody with no linguistic or cultural link to the profession: the businessperson, or merchant whose main concern is the bottom line, and tries to lower interpreter fees by devaluating what interpreters do. Entrusting their profitability to recruiters and project managers who often know next to nothing about the profession, they have developed scams such as paying interpreters by the minute interpreted!
These guidelines, set by ambitious people foreign to the profession, convince the inexperienced and the needy interpreter to provide their professional services by the minute in telephonic interpreting, and by the hour in other situations, including conference interpreting. I have encountered agencies who wanted to pay for three and one half or four hours in the booth, instead of a full day, arguing that I had just interpreted half of the time and my boothmate had worked during the other half.
Interpreters must charge by the day because Interpreting is a professional personal service. Unlike a civil engineer who can build a bridge and a building at the same time, interpreters can only do one job at a time. If I am in booth “A” all day, I cannot work in booth “B” because I cannot cut myself in half. It is estimated that for each day of work in the booth (or elsewhere) interpreters need to prepare for at least another two days. That is three days the interpreter cannot work for anybody but the client who retained him for one day. If the assignment is away, and the interpreter needs to travel the day before, and go back home on the day after the assignment, it is now 5 days for a one-day assignment in the booth. If the other interpreter is actively working for the next thirty minutes, the passive interpreter is supporting his boothmate; and even if he leaves the booth to use the restroom, he cannot work for anybody else because he cannot cut himself in half. Thinking that an interpreter charges a certain fee for 7 hours in the booth is never accurate. In reality, he is charging much less. Divide that daily fee into all the days the interpreter invested in a single day in the booth. Interpreters do not charge exorbitant fees. You just need to scratch beneath the surface to notice.
The same applies to our colleagues working in courthouses, community centers, hospitals, schools, call centers, and remotely from home. They also need to prepare and travel (even if it is during rush hour in a big city). They can do no other work. They can procure no other income while they sit in court waiting for their case to be called, or in the hospital waiting area until they call the patient. There is not such a thing as interpreting by the minute. That is a mirage created by the multinational agencies. Smoke and mirrors. Interpreters who interpret for five or ten minutes have to be on call all day or at least half a day. They need to be paid a daily fee. It is up to the agencies to be more creative and program a schedule where they have an interpreter busy for a full day interpreting for different hospitals and doctors’ offices. Interpreters rather do this. They want to work; they just don’t want to be insulted with a per-minute fee. No other professionals who charge for telephonic services charge by the minute. Attorneys start the timer before answering a client’s call, and they charge for the time the telephone call lasted plus several minutes before and after the call with a minimum charge of thirty minutes even if the call lasted 2 minutes. Just like interpreters, attorneys sell their time, and it takes time to recuperate your concentration after the phone call so you can go back to what you were doing before. That is because the attorney can generate no other professional income. I know this. I used to practice law. Interpreters need to shake this per minute and per hour concept off their minds. Agencies argue this is the telephonic interpreting model and arguing against it is not knowing what we are talking about. Go tell that to a lawyer.
Court and legal interpreters need to charge by the day also. For once, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts was right when they implemented a full-day, half-day payment system. States and private practitioners must follow. It is up to the interpreter to educate and demand. You can start by charging by the hour, but requiring a four-hour minimum.
To conclude: Interpreters provide a professional personal service which requires of great skill and broad knowledge. They sell their services one client at a time, and their service goes well beyond the rendition itself. Because interpreters sell their time, they must be paid by the day, not by the hour, and never by the minute.