cherry blossoms through magnifying glass

It finally happened… to me!

It’s one of those things that comes up all the time in social media discussions and listserves, even during courses and conferences. You have discussed it so much you know exactly how you are going to react, even if it has never happened to you. You’re ready with all the right answers. And then one day, it happens! A client challenges you: “Why are there two interpreters working when I only needed one? I’m not paying for two interpreters!

Oh, thank goodness for all those dry runs during courses, conferences, listserves, and social media! I knew exactly what to say (although I confess it was a little hard to keep my voice calm as I explained).

Well, sir, we were interpreting for your client in the simultaneous mode during a trial that lasted several days. Simultaneous means that we are processing information non-stop from one language into another, all day long. If one interpreter does this alone, by the end of the day she won’t know what she’s saying. That is why we need two interpreters.

Yes, but I am not paying for two of you. One of you wasn’t doing anything while the other one worked.

My blood is starting to get a little hot at this point, but I continue to explain as calmly as possible.

Sir, that is how this works. While one of us is actively interpreting, the other one is resting but still paying attention in case the partner needs help with a term, can’t hear, or gets choked all of a sudden and needs to stop talking. We are both engaged and working all the time, sir.

Then I add as an afterthought:

I’m sure your client did not ask for two attorneys, yet there were two of you during the trial. You of all people should understand the need for teamwork.

We do not charge the client extra for any additional attorneys present during the trial.

Okay, so I lost that argument. But I move on.

I don’t know who you have been working with, sir, but this is what professional interpreters do. We work as a team. It is for your client’s benefit. And you had two fully qualified, federally certified and experienced interpreters providing you with high-quality services. If you had told us you were not going to pay us if we worked as a team, we would not have accepted the work.


We received authorization to work as a team and the time to say something was when you saw the two of us in court, not now, when our invoices are over 60 days past due!

Yes, we did make a couple of mistakes. We did not have the attorney sign a contract ahead of time stipulating all our conditions, and we did not state on our invoices that the payment was not contingent upon the attorney getting paid by a third party. Shame on us!

To make a long story short, we did get paid after a lot of going back and forth with this very unreasonable attorney who even had the gall to say he would pay us each 30% less than what we had invoiced, “take it or leave it.” I said, “No, it is not ‘take it or leave it’. You have a contractual obligation to pay us.

One of the advantages of working with lawyers for so many years is that you learn about things such as verbal and implicit contractual obligations. Then again, I would have filed a complaint with the State Bar if he had not paid, and filed charges for theft of services, which is a crime in the State of Texas.

It felt good to get that check in the mail. It felt even better to know I was ready for this because of all my fellow interpreters’ and translators’ continuous networking, and all of them freely sharing their experiences and knowledge for the common good. You know who you are. This small victory is yours, too!


18 thoughts on “It finally happened… to me!”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    Yes, Janis, that’s one thing I keep hammering on: we cannot put a price on the collective knowledge we find in groups and associations. We don’t have time to go out there commit every mistake in the book – and some original ones, and we don’t have to. We can learn from our colleagues and can prevent unsavory situations from developing or face them from a position of strength because we learn how to handle them in a chat or blog post.

    And thank YOU for sharing so much and teaching us so much.

  2. Janis Palma says:

    Thank you, Gio!

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with the position.
    Sometimes the least reasonable are the ones who are supposedly trained in the use of reasoning
    Glad you won the argument, and yes it’s a lesson for all of us to spell it out in our contracts or at least in discussion prior to starting a job
    Tomas Leon

  4. Helen Eby says:

    One workaround: The interpreter who gets the gig can charge the price for the team, instead of having them pay the price for person a and person b separately. That makes things a bit less visible and it is more difficult to argue. “Sir, we said we would work as a team, and you hired a team. Here is the invoice for the team, as specified in the contract/purchase order/estimate.”

    Your thoughts?

    1. I can see this solution getting complicated when it comes to taxes. If one interpreter is paid the full amount for the two-person team, the tax liability on paper rests fully on the interpreter whose name is on the check. This would not be the case if the interpreter is operating as a corporation, LLC, etc. rather than as a sole proprietor.

      If this is not the case, please fill me in.

  5. Rosabelle Rice says:

    This was a gem of a post! I could almost visualize this snarky attorney trying to back pedal and only pay for one interpreter. I will certainly incorporate a few if not all your suggestions into my written or verbal agreements. Thank you for the post!

  6. Armida Hernandez says:

    Bravo, Janis! And extra applause for including the “mistake” you made. That was a huge chunk of education for many of us I’m sure. Even after so many years in this profession, it is still shocking when lawyers and other purportedly educated folks behave in such an ignorant and unprofessional manner. You handled this incident magnificently and are a shining example to us all on how to handle similar situations. Mil gracias!

  7. Janis, ohh girl! I truly enjoyed reading your post… fun, fun.

  8. Susana Gee says:

    Wonderful article, lots of great advice to keep in mind. You go girl!

  9. Kathleen M. Morris says:

    Well-done! Been there many times.

    Increasingly, Federal and state certified colleagues are not accepting interpretation jobs of over 1/2 hour in length, unless a fellow certified partner is hired to form a team. Sticking to our guns on this is essential

  10. Sylvia J. Andrade says:

    I’m having problems with a small agency with getting paid for four translations, one of which was a rather difficult T&T. (Bad sound quality) The present owner just recently got rid of the original owner, with whom I had worked for more than 10 years and never had a problem with getting paid. I’m considering Small Claims if they don’t pay within the next few days and have warned him of this.. To my knowledge, the present owner was not involved when I started the projects back in January, February and March.. I also have considered warning interpreters and translators not to work work for him and posting on Yelp.

    1. Gio Lester says:

      Sylvia, in a similar situation, I went to the Better Business Bureau and registered a complaint. It required providing a full description of the situation and attempts at correcting the issue, copies of communications, and a statement as to what resolution was expected (this is form memory, forgive me if I’ve forgotten details). It was simple and I got a case number. I then wrote to the company providing the case number and they responded immediately. We made arrangements and I got my payment within a few days. And I asked them to remove me from their list of vendors and release me from the contract I had signed, with cause.

  11. Rebecca Murcia says:

    Thank you Janis! I always enjoy your articles. But I don’t understand. Maybe I am naive, but why was a lawyer paying for you in a trial? I would think you would have been paid by the court.

  12. Evelyn Armenta says:

    I’m with Rebecca. Was the court not paying for the interpreters?

  13. My first thought too was why the court was not paying for the defendant’s interpretation team.

  14. Janis Palma says:

    I have enjoyed all your comments, thank you! I should have clarified that it was a civil case. Very few courts, to my knowledge, pay for interpreters in civil matters. And since neither my colleague nor I are a company or LLC, separate invoices were in order, However, the idea of charging for the “team” in a single invoice in the future did cross our minds.

  15. Katty Kauffman says:

    Rebecca, Evelyn, Michelle….I am assuming this was a Civil trial. At the Federal level, the Court Interpreter’s Act is only binding in cases instituted by the United States.

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