I was recently interviewing to hire freelance interpreters, thankful that I was able to participate in a miniscule way to lower the high and static U.S. unemployment rate. One of the applicants took the initiative to tell me she was regularly employed as a freelancer, interpreting insurance claims for a well-known carrier that pays her an exorbitant amount of money to work throughout the state. I was happy to hear that because I thought she might be good, if she commanded those prices, and we would be able to use her services for a normal fee during her down times. That was before I read an article in the Economist that put this in perspective. Apparently, institutions and companies with very deep pockets do not always behave rationally.
Much to my surprise, when I tested her with a simulation of consecutive discourse similar to that used in the work she allegedly does, her performance was very poor. And I keep these tests simple to get a general idea of breadth of vocabulary, types of assignments one can do and what training candidates may benefit from. There was no saving this baby. I tactfully informed her that she needed to improve her performance to work for us. I did not expound, but unfortunately for her, I don’t think she will keep her current job long. Sooner or later, someone who can tell the difference will inform the powers that be of her incompetence.
My pronouncement did not faze her. She didn’t skip a beat and blithely offered herself as a conference interpreter no less, which she deemed was more her style as in that mode, she doesn’t have to rely on memory because she interprets simultaneously. I was mesmerized by the woman’s cheek as that skill is much more demanding than consecutive. I couldn’t resist asking her what experience she had in that field. She gamely answered that she had only done one conference, three months before—her trial by fire. Undaunted, I asked her about payment and how it had gone. She informed me that she had been recruited by phone, sight unseen, by an agency from another state, to work in Florida. She was only informed at the last minute that the end client was a well-known company that sells health/weight-loss products and the extent of her preparation was to visit their website the night before. The day in question, lo and behold, her booth partner, because simultaneous interpreting is done in pairs, never showed and she ended up actually doing the conference by herself the full day. She did admit that by the afternoon her brain was fried. I cannot but wonder about her audience’s, as interpreters, albeit experienced ones, switch off between one another every half hour to be able to maintain the integrity of the interpretation.
Our intrepid candidate went on to say that she had not yet been paid—some incredibly substandard wage—and that her employer had recently contacted her to do another conference two weeks hence. She must have seen the incredulous look in my eyes and hastened to say she would not do it unless she was paid for the prior work by the day before the new assignment… I only nodded, and asked her if she knew the subject matter for the new conference and what colleague she would be working with. She did not know and could not have cared less. Her only concern was being paid for the first assignment.
That, dear readers, is the seamy side of the current economy. It’s myopically penny-wise and pound-foolish. In one case, the insurance company is paying this “interpreter” more than trained certified interpreters for something she cannot do properly. I assume her employer does not know either the cost for said service nor the quality he is getting. In the other, this same “interpreter” is paid peanuts to do something she most definitely cannot do. The language company that hired her is getting cheap labor to secure the bid, and the final user is wasting his money, not to mention the time of the attendees, but in this second scenario everybody thinks he is nominally “saving” money.
This is one little example I happened to witness in my field, of the type of practices that are keeping us in a vicious circle and that will not help us come out of our economic doldrums. And it seems to not be an isolated instance. I have been told by several familiar with this situation in our state, that many end users are foregoing their historical language providers in search of bilinguals who may be able to do the job for less. The only way to grow the economy is by adding value to our offerings doing whatever is needed to improve our skills and in tandem, encouraging the entrepreneurs in our midst to create jobs for us, which role is more important than that of the often touted innovators according to Gallup research. All of us working together will lead the way out of this lost decade.