Promotion or Demotion? The Perceived Value of Interpreters

My heart is racing and the more I think about it, the angrier I get. I was in court, and when the judge called my case, she misspoke and said “Attorney Reme Bashi” instead of “Interpreter Reme Bashi.” The bailiff quickly corrected the judge (an unusual thing), so the judge chuckled and said to me “Oh, I gave you a promotion.” I, in turn, smiled and said, “I actually think it was the opposite, Your Honor. If it were easy to become an interpreter, there would be more of us.”

Looking back on that day, although there were only a handful of people around us, it may have been wiser to keep my thoughts to myself. Luckily, the judge and the attorney who were present did not take offense to my comment, and I later had the opportunity to speak to them and expand on my idea. After my conversations with them, they seemed to understand the complexity of our profession a little more. I have been pondering the actions interpreters can take to make our profession seem more valuable in the eyes of others.

At one point in my interpreting career, I interpreted for Jay Bildstein, a public speaker and sales expert from New York City who offered training sessions in Mexico. I learned a few lessons as I interpreted for him. I often think of how these business ideas apply to how we sell our language services and how they’re perceived.

Consider, for example, if a product or service is scarce, it’s considered more valuable. Since I’m in Wisconsin, let’s think, beer. The famous Milwaukee beer with the blue ribbon is sold at every gas station, and you can find it beyond Wisconsin’s borders. It’s anything but scarce, and the perception of its value is low, as is its price. On the other hand, craft beer made in Dane County, sold only in Wisconsin, is scarce. People perceive that it’s special, and the money they pay for it mirrors that perception.

Let’s now consider perceived value and price. Imagine you’re looking for a birthday cake. You find very similar cakes in a range of prices.  The main variation between the cakes is the price, and you have no point of reference to know which cake is tastier than the other. If you were trying to get the tastier cake for your birthday, you would likely base your choice on price and buy the more expensive one. We tend to perceive more expensive items as being of higher quality.

Going back to the beginning of my story, the judge did not know there were only around forty certified Spanish court interpreters living in Wisconsin, in contrast to thousands of attorneys. What’s more, Spanish-language interpreters in our state don’t make a lot of money, so the perception of the value of interpretation is not high. I thought to myself: Instead of getting angry about how people perceive interpretation, I will take action to change that perception.

This is my dual action plan. First, I will take every opportunity to sing the praises of interpreters and explain how specialized our art is. If we don’t market our talents, no one else will do it for us. Second, I will price my services according to the scarcity and quality of my professional abilities. All professionals establish their fees according to their perception of value. We are no different.

Reme Bashi has been a certified court interpreter in Wisconsin since 2008.  She began her career as an interpreter and translator in Mexico, at the University of Veracruz, where she majored in pedagogy. Being bilingual in English and Spanish lead her to language teaching and then to translation and interpreting.  She was a conference interpreter for several years, interpreting for the media and government events in Mexico.

In the Midwest, Bashi has interpreted in a variety of settings – education, manufacturing, legal, and community. When she’s not interpreting, she likes to learn about new subjects, something that she considers pivotal to becoming a more proficient language access professional. Recently she has immersed herself in hospitality, urban gardening, and ancestry research. Contact:

Featured photo taken from “Business coaching: Employee benefits” by Jeremy Dawes at Complete Business News, under a CC BY 4.0 license. Text-body photos: “Craft beer paddle” by Crystal Luxmore at flickr, under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license; from “Maple Syrup Cake” by Evelyn Chartres, under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

23 thoughts on “Promotion or Demotion? The Perceived Value of Interpreters”

  1. Ruth G. says:

    Ditto! Bravo!

    1. Reme Bashi says:


  2. Sandra N Arthur says:

    Very interesting! At this time I would like to mention that it does not fail to sometimes upset me?…when an Attorney, a Court Reporter, and even the Judge calls us: The Translator. Just once I had the chance to tell the Judge -I do it to other when given the chance- that we should not be called -in that setting- a Translator but an Interpreter and went a bit further explaining the difference. I am sure it happens to most of us!

    1. Reme Bashi says:

      Good point, Sandra! I correct people every chance I get, For me, it’s part of educating the public about our profession.

  3. Carmen Mustile says:

    What a creative way to point out the reality of our misunderstood profession! Thank you, it is a very complex task to interpret in court! Only the highest standards of performance is expected at all times! No excuses…that is why I spend 50% of my income, as a court interpreter in continue education, not to mention my personal time investment.

  4. Ganna Gudkova says:

    The passing rate for court interpreters is definitely much lower than for the Bar exam. But whose job is more difficult? My first thought is an attorney’s, even more so a judge’s job. And time needed to become one (potentially a University degree + 3-4 years of law school). But I might be wrong. To be honest, for me it would be a promotion. But do I want to go through the difficulties of becoming one? Maybe I’m lazy. 🙂
    But I agree about the advocacy for our profession.

    1. Remedios Bashi says:

      Thanks for commenting, Ganna. I wouldn’t say you’re lazy at all. Becoming a certified interpreter requires a lot of study, practice and talent. Even if you have not had formal education to become an interpreter, you have had to gain language skills and interpreting skills through experience and independent study. This takes much longer than getting a law degree and passing the bar exam.
      If you decided to become an attorney and later go on to becoming a judge, I’m confident you have the intelligence needed, you’d need persistence. Not many attorneys or judges could become certified interpreters even after years of study.

  5. Carlos Benemann says:

    I am sorry to hear that interpreters do not get paid very well in Wisconsin.
    In California the pay scale for court work is “relatively” fair. (depending on location, since the Statewide rate is uniform but living expenses such as housing in the SF Bay area are outrageous). Of course those of us that are not court employees have considerably better income from Depositions, Qualified Medical Examinations and such other non court procedures. (Of course no benefits either). We independent contractors are free to set our own rate in spite of the pitifull bleating about “market rate” by the insurance companies and such.
    They can pay what I stipulate and that’s that. (As you correctly pointed out there are precious few of us interpreters even here in California so good luck to them on finding someone cheaper).There is plenty of well paid fulltime work for any interpreter even in adjacent States (which I also cover at times because they too do not have enough interpreters)

    Getting now to your point regarding Respect..
    I have had several lawyers point out that I make more money than they do.
    My immediate response then is:
    What is your point?
    Of course they retort that they are Law school graduates with a Law degree.
    I then tell them that If I wanted to be a lawyer I could certainly pass the test within 3 years. (40% first try, pass rate)
    However if the lawyer wanted to be a certified court interpreter even in piglatin he would be unlikely to EVER pass the test. (minimal fractional pass rate even with the current dummied down tests).
    The bottomline is that I discovered early in my career that in the United States the level of respect is not based on education, degrees and knowledge. It is just measured and ranked according to the perceived income level one appears to have.
    Ergo. keep on trucking but invoice as much as you can without overstepping the “market rate” too far in your particular area.
    I get all the respect I ever need.
    Carlos Benemann (Military, Court, Medical and Administrative Spanish/German Interpreter)

    1. Reme Bashi says:

      Thanks for commenting, Carlos! For how specialized our profession is, I think most of us are underpaid in the USA.

    2. Ganna Gudkova says:

      Colleagues, why do you think we have such a low pass rate? I know that my mistake was not taking any training, but only practicing. In comparison to attorneys who spend 3-4 years in law school, and then prep for the Bar exam. Especially if “the current tests are dummied down.” Is it lack of training or practice?

  6. Georganne Weller says:

    BRAVO, couldn’t agree more and while I often sing the virtues of interpretation and the difficult cognitive task it represents, I am going to try to be even more proactive than to date, thanks for the reminder!

    1. Ruth says:

      Totally agree. Most people have no clue as to how intense our profession is. Just because you are bilingual does not mean you have the ability to do the job.

      1. Reme Bashi says:

        Exactly! Bilingualism is just the tip of the iceberg.

  7. Johanne Colon says:

    They should also be reminded that contrary to the other participants in the proceedings, the interpreter does not stop he/she does not rest as we have to speak for all present from one language to the other. This requires concentration, skill and the ability to go from one language to another. 1+1 for every person who speaks.

    1. Reme Bashi says:

      Johanne, I agree! There are many misunderstandings surrounding our profession. That’s why I think it’s so important to constantly educate people about what we do.

  8. Rebecca says:

    That reminds me of the time some one asked, are you “just an interpreter or are you also a lawyer?” And I in my mind I said “just an interpreter? Lawyers are a dime a dozen and we interpreters are as rare as hen’s teeth and constantly running hither and yon.” But I really just smiled and said, “Yes only an interpreter.”

    1. Reme Bashi says:

      Rebecca, next time, I encourage you to take the opportunity to politely educate people!

  9. Sadly there is a lot of ignorance regarding our qualifications and all the sacrifices we make, not only to get certified, but to keep the certification.
    My story: After a one-week trial, and in front of everybody the judge told me: “You made enough money to pay for a home”. I was so furious I blurted: “I already own a home. Another one on the beach will be great”.

  10. Betty Atkinson says:

    So very well said! Greetings

    1. Remedios Bashi says:

      Greetings, Betty! Thanks for reading.

  11. Zonia M Armstrong says:

    Your story, clarifying to the Judge your value, is priceless. As well as all the interesting and thought provoking comments by all these wonderful people who responded to your narrative!! Thank you to you and all of you who responded. Zonia Armstrong

    1. Remedios Bashi says:

      Thanks, Zonia! I’m glad you joined the conversation.

  12. Cristian Saenz says:

    Great article! It is unfortunate that to this day some of the professionals with whom we work make such comments. When these comments are made they think they are being funny and that interpreters will take them lightly, and maybe we would, except for the fact that ever since its inception, the Court Interpreter profession has always been fighting for recognition in every sense of the word. So, it is not funny to us. On the other hand, I think each profession has its own level of difficulty. I will say though, that I know more interpreters that have become lawyers, than lawyers that have become interpreters! Lol… Interpreting is truly an art form and like we all know, just being bilingual is not enough. What we do is simply amazing, and there are articles that speak to the wondrous neurological process that takes place in the brain when we do simultaneous interpreting. Luckily for us, there are many professionals that we work with that do recognize the difficulty and importance of our jobs and value it. So… we say in Spanish, “no hay mas remedio (pun intended ) que seguir adelante” “there is no choice, but to keep going”….thank you for the great article…

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