Growing Pains

The article below is a pertinent repost from 2018. The question, “how much should I charge?” for a newcomer to the profession can feel daunting, as it can be difficult at first to get an idea as to how much interpreters and translators earn on average for a given service.

If anyone is asking, to determine how much to charge, good sources usually suggest factoring into one’s fees any combination of the following: a) the cost of living in a given area and what one’s individual budgetary needs are; b) the level of education and training and the quality of services provided; and c) the amount of time one dedicates to his or her work each week, translated into an hourly rate and reflected in fees charged, even if one does not charge hourly.


Growing pains in a profession, or an association, can manifest themselves in many ways. We at NAJIT seem to be experiencing one of those right now on the question of professional fees. When can we talk about them? With whom can we discuss and share them? Can fees be published? It is a bit of a mystery to some, for others, it is a painful wound that left a very nasty scar, and there may even be those for whom it is a non-issue.

Let me give you a bit of a backdrop for this recent discussion on NAJIT’s Listserve if you have joined the profession in the last 2 or 3 decades.

When judiciary interpreting was starting to form its own identity back in the late 70s and early 80s, separate from conference interpreting, there were concerns about those who had no formal training, or those working with no credentials other than being “bilingual”. How was this going to impact those interpreters who had been formally trained and now had to compete with those who were not? Would the homespun bilinguals infiltrating the field command the same fees as the newly-certified interpreters, or would they lower the market’s threshold for these highly specialized professional services? These were all legitimate questions and some organizations thought it was their role to address these questions by dictating who could get paid what and when. Some even had model contracts that, in the best-case scenario, interpreters were free to use or, in the worst-case scenarios, interpreters were required to use.

Well, it did not take long for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take a closer look at these comings-and-goings, but they did not circumscribe their investigation to those organizations dictating fees and working conditions for interpreters and translators. They investigated all professional associations for interpreters and translators, which at the time were basically AIIC, ATA(*), NAJIT, and maybe one or two additional and smaller U.S.-based organizations. The smaller ones succumbed to the financial burden and disappeared.

FTC emblemWhy did the FTC get involved? Because there are federal laws that prohibit price-fixing, which essentially impedes free market competition. They are known as anti-trust laws and the FTC thought interpreters and translators associations were violating these laws. The Department of Justice’s webpage offers a fairly easy to understand definition of anti-trust laws: “Essentially, these laws prohibit business practices that unreasonably deprive consumers of the benefits of competition, resulting in higher prices for products and services.” [https://www.justice.gov/atr/antitrust-laws-and-you] It was not enough to tell the FTC, “we’re not doing that!” The associations had to “show” they were not violating anti-trust laws, which, of course, meant hiring attorneys. Attorneys are not cheap, not even when defending non-profits. Membership dues that should have been used for concrete member benefits had to be diverted to pay these legal fees. The experience left those leading the organizations at the time with a very bad aftertaste.

Although NAJIT was cleared of any wrongdoing, a very expensive lesson was learned. The FTC issued an order to AIIC that every NAJIT board of directors has been careful to heed since then (1997). Here are some of the highlights:

Definition of “fee”: any cash or non-cash charges, rates, prices, benefits or other compensation received or intended to be received for the rendering of services, including, but not limited to, salaries, wages, transportation, lodging, meals, allowances (including subsistence and travel allowances), reimbursements for expenses, cancellation fees, recording fees, compensation for time not worked, compensation for travel time, compensation for preparation or study time, and payments in kind.

What the FTC ordered AIIC to cease and desist from doing, among other things:

(A) Creating, formulating, compiling, distributing, publishing, recommending, suggesting, encouraging adherence to, endorsing, or authorizing any list or schedule of fees applicable in the United States for interpretation, translation, or any other language service, including, but not limited to, fee reports, fee guidelines, suggested fees, proposed fees, fee sheets, standard fees, or recommended fees;

1. Entering into, adhering to, participating in, or maintaining any contract, agreement, understanding, plan, program, combination, or conspiracy to construct, fix, stabilize, standardize, raise, maintain, or otherwise interfere with or restrict fees applicable in the United States for interpretation, translation, or other language services;

2. Suggesting, urging, encouraging, recommending, or attempting to persuade in any way interpreters, translators, or other language specialists to charge, pay, offer, or adhere to, any existing or proposed fee for transactions within the United States, or otherwise to charge or refrain from charging any particular fee in the United States.

What the FTC did not prohibit in its order to AIIC, among other things:

1. Compiling or distributing accurate aggregate historical market information concerning fees actually charged in transactions in the United States that were completed no later than one (1) year before the date of such compilation, provided that such compilation or distribution begins no earlier than three (3) years after the date this order becomes final, and provided further that such information is compiled and presented in an unbiased and nondeceptive manner that maintains the anonymity of the parties to the transactions; or

2. Collecting or publishing accurate and otherwise publicly available fees paid by governmental and intergovernmental agencies or pursuant to a Negotiated Agreement, if such publication states the qualifications and requirements for a person to be eligible to receive such fees.

So, what is the danger of discussing fees on the NAJIT Listserve? If even a single one of NAJIT’s members suggests, urges, encourages, recommends, or attempts to persuade in any way (other NAJIT members) to charge, pay, offer, or adhere to, any existing or proposed fee on the ListServe, then NAJIT becomes exposed to an FTC investigation, with the resulting legal fees expense. Who pays those fees? All NAJIT members do, because that money necessarily comes from your annual dues.

While this is still a very neuralgic issue for those who still remember the FTC inquiry, I hope that those who don’t can now have a better picture of the parameters the NAJIT leadership has been trying to work with in order to avoid another unpleasant and unnecessary confrontation with the FTC.

You can access the full text of the order here and read it at your leisure. I’m pretty sure many of you will still have questions but let me just say that NAJIT does not have the resources to answer all your legal questions. Please seek legal counsel if you have any questions about the scope of the U.S. anti-trust laws and how they can affect your professional practice.

(*) AIIC: French acronym of the International Association of Conference Interpreters; ATA: American Translators Association.


Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in federal, state and immigration courts around the U.S. before taking a full-time job. Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a staff interpreter in April 2002 and retired in 2017. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas, embracing the joys of being a grandmother. She also enjoys volunteering for her professional associations, has been on the SSTI and TAJIT Boards, and is currently on the NAJIT Board of Directors. Contact: jpalma@najit.org

Main photo by Andrej Zeman from Pexels.

11 Comments
  • Fiorella Warger
    Posted at 16:20h, 13 August Reply

    Thank you, Janis. Your posts are always very, very interesting. I guess the only way to know if we’re charging a fair rate is to ask colleagues. The problem is that it seems like such an intrusive question….

    • JANIS PALMA
      Posted at 18:11h, 13 August Reply

      Hi Fiorella! I am so glad you enjoy my blogs. You may have noticed this was a repost. I wrote this back in 2018, but it is always good to remember why we do what we do. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás

  • Veronica Silvas
    Posted at 17:04h, 13 August Reply

    I love your webinars and all I have learned from them, as a medical interpreter i has helped me understand better. Thank you

    • JANIS PALMA
      Posted at 18:13h, 13 August Reply

      Veronica, you are an inspiration for me to always try to be better. Thank you!

      • George Gage
        Posted at 17:35h, 14 August Reply

        This is an important topic to revisit. I understand the misgivings of starting freelancers as they try to determine what their services are worth. I also remember joining NAJIT shortly after the FTC inquiry, when the ripples in the NAJIT pond were still large.

        As interpreters, especially freelance, we need to remember that we are running a business. We need to cover costs and make a living.

  • Jose L. Varela-Ibarra
    Posted at 19:22h, 13 August Reply

    I assume it is OK to point out that a Florida state agency is publishing ads offering interpreters pay that is lower than the $22.50 another ad offers to house cleaners. Drop your earphones and pick up your mops, Florida interpreters!

    • George Gage
      Posted at 14:22h, 15 August Reply

      Eeeeek!

  • Daniela Schmidt
    Posted at 20:46h, 13 August Reply

    What are the independent contractors of rare languages supposed to charge in this age of remote interpreting? Especially when the California Judicial Council established an hourly rate for remote interpreting of $44?

  • Michelle Gonzales
    Posted at 13:02h, 14 August Reply

    Janis, It is always helpful to understand the “why” behind a policy. Thank you so much for explaining this. Personally, I had no idea of this background. I didn’t see the article in 2018. So I really appreciate you for sharing this.

  • Gema Aparicio
    Posted at 14:03h, 15 August Reply

    Hi Janis and colleagues,

    Thank you for the repost. I very rarely comment on here, but this is a subject I am very passionate about. I believe the only solution to the continued pressure to lower our rates is to professionalize the industry and regulate barriers to entry, such as with attorneys, doctors, and other professionals. As long as anyone who is bilingual is able to offer and get hired to interpret and translate, our highly skilled, educated and professional colleagues will barely be able to make a decent living. Why is it so hard to require an industry recognized certification or a licence to practice our profession? Our lobbying efforts as an industry should focus on that!

  • Hal Sillers
    Posted at 14:30h, 15 August Reply

    Thank you, Janis. As is always the case, your writing is excellent and the explanation is very much on point. Great repost.
    Regards,
    Hal

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