Interpreting in the U.S. #3 – Struggles and Working Conditions

Greetings from sunny Columbus, Ohio. My name is Allyson and I work here as a conference interpreter. Over the next 8 articles, I will be giving you an honest, at times critical, overview of the Japanese interpreting market in the US. This time, we are going to dive head-first into the thorny topic of working conditions. Compared with a conference interpreter based in Tokyo, how is the life of an interpreter working in the U.S. any different? What about the work environment of in-housers? What do we struggle with on a daily basis? What can we do to support each other through these struggles?

The Rate Fight: Supply and Demand

While the interpreting and translation industry in Japan is essentially based primarily around Japanese and English, the U.S. market is extremely diverse in terms of language combinations. It goes with out saying that the highest demand for interpreting is in languages which are highly represented in the population; such as Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese. With higher representation in the population comes a higher likelihood that there is a bilingual somewhere who can work as an interpreter. There are also more interpreter training programs and community service providers that work in those languages. In short, interpreters are not generally hard to find. As any economist would tell you, when supply is up, prices go down. Hence, you will find the income range for interpreters in the US varies wildly from about $24,000 to almost $90,000[i]. Despite those statistics, Japanese interpreters are almost always on the high end of the scale, often exceeding the top averages, because of their rarity compared to other language interpreters.

Nonetheless, many agencies who need our services are not familiar with our rates. They will quote their customers a very low rate, but then will not be able to find a Japanese interpreter who will work for that. I have known colleagues who were offered as little as $12/hour. The agent was shocked when the interpreter refused.

A related problem we face is that many of the high-supply language interpreters take jobs on an hourly rate, rather than the conference standard of half-day or full-day rates. This requires Japanese interpreters to explain to clients the reason why they are justified in charging a half-day when the client only needs you for two hours.

The Mode Fight

Where are the booths?

I’ll be honest with you. I have never set foot in a booth. However, that is not uncommon among professional interpreters here. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. simply does not have many interpreting booths. There are a few meeting facilities with permanent booths for the State Department, U.S. Patent and Trade, and World Bank in Washington D.C. Obviously, there are booths for the U.N. in New York. However, in the rest of the country, including major cities like Chicago, LA, and San Francisco, if you want a booth, you have to rent one and have it set up in the venue. Most conference organizers will forgo that expense if they can get away with just using portable interpreting equipment. In an informal poll I conducted on a multi-language interpreters group on Facebook, 72% of respondents said they had never or only rarely worked in a booth.

Let’s call it what it is

While many conference interpreters pride themselves on their simultaneous interpreting skills, we must face the reality that, at least according to what I am going to call the “European definition”, we are not actually doing simultaneous! Conference Interpreting: A Complete Course gives a thorough definition of the types of interpreting. According to this definition, true simultaneous can only be done in a booth. The type of interpreting done with a portable transmitter in close proximity to the speaker so the interpreter can hear the speaker’s raw voice, is actually bidule. The other form of simultaneous that Japanese interpreters are often asked to perform is chuchotage or whispering. These two forms are far more common than the true simultaneous due to the unavailability of booths.

Which mode do you want me to use?

Another issue with the industry, which I mentioned in my article on training, is the lack of understanding about how the different modes work. Many agencies understand that simultaneous is done with two interpreters. To get around the added cost, some agents or clients request “Consecutive Interpreting” in an environment which is not suited to that. The request goes something like this. “Our client doesn’t really want to hear every word, he just wants a gist of the meeting. Could you do this consecutive and just give him a summary every few minutes?” This is not how consecutive works. Yet, it is a common request. It actually takes a lot of mental strain because every time you interpret, the speaker is still going. You end up missing half of the speech, and the client is almost never satisfied with the result. It also places the burden on the interpreter to decide what should be included in the “gist” and what should not.

Another common expectation is a hybrid whispering and consecutive. Imagine a one-on-one meeting between an American and a Japanese. The American begins rambling on without stopping for interpretation. The Japanese client looks at the interpreter with a “Hey, do your job!” and the interpreter is forced to begin Whispering E>J. Then, when the Japanese participant speaks, the interpreter must go back to normal consecutive due to acoustic concerns (for example, sitting across the table from the American which makes Whispering very difficult.) For the meeting participants, this may be just fine, but switching between modes adds a mental burden to the interpreter that should be avoided whenever possible.

Fighting for Better Working Environments

Meetings aren’t designed to be interpreted

Many of our American clients do not have experience working with an interpreter or have only worked with an untrained interpreter. This means that the flow of meetings is often unconducive to interpreting. If the needs of the interpreter are not explained to the client in advance, the result is often disastrous (multiple people talking at the same time, speeds too fast to follow, few or no pauses for Consec, etc.) One of the easiest and quickest ways to address this is to assess the client’s understanding of your services before going into the meeting. Jonathan Downie, a UK-based French interpreter, has come up with a marvelous one-page interpreter briefing sheet that covers all the basic information that you will need to know about an event. I have edited this form to include a question about whether the clients have worked with an interpreter before. This tells me how much information they need in advance. The other thing that helps is to drop in a comment about the mode of interpreting while you are shaking hands. Mine goes something like this. “Hi. My name’s Allyson and I’ll be interpreting your meeting today. I’m going to be doing consecutive interpreting, so please just remember to stop ever few sentences and give me a chance to interpret what you said. If you get too far ahead, I may raise my hand to ask you to stop if that’s necessary. Thanks.”

Hours are not humanly feasible

We all struggle with long work hours. However, the mental strain from having to interpret all day, for multiple days in a row is one that our clients, agents, or employers often do not understand. The struggle is even greater for those who perform simultaneous in-house. Often, their work hours are well beyond the suggested limits of our field. Personally, my longest day was 9 hours with two 10-minute breaks. No lunch. All simultaneous. No partner. In fact, working without a partner is the norm in most in-house jobs. The mental and vocal strain of this type of working environment is outright dangerous. However, the employer is usually not aware of the potential dangers. Overuse of the voice can cause multiple types of vocal cord injuries which are well documented. Some of them will go away with vocal rest, while others can cause permanent damage. While the average manager may not think of an employee’s voice going hoarse as a worker’s comp level issue, these dangers are well known in the call center and teaching industry. One teacher in the U.K. even sued for the damage to her voice and was awarded £150,000. That’s enough to scare most employers into changing their ways.

We are our Biggest Enemy

I would say that one of the biggest problems we struggle with is not our industry or our environment, but ourselves. While there are wonderful interpreters who are great to work with and actively support their colleagues, Japanese is the language of a 内・外culture. This can lead to a rather exclusionary working environment. For example, Japanese interpreters working in-house often do not interact with the interpreters in the company next door. Freelancers do not network with other freelancers. We do not join or actively participate in professional organizations to the degree that our other language colleagues do. The elite Japanese interpreters who work for diplomats and executives are rarely involved in training the next generation. This can be seen both in our universities and in our conferences. While the other languages can find experienced interpreters who are willing to teach, it is not so easy for Japanese.

Let’s fight for each other!

What can we do to make better working conditions for ourselves and our colleagues? One of the biggest things we can do is not put up with bad conditions! If I refuse to take the low rates that agencies are offering, I will raise the standard rate for my colleagues as well. If I train my client to slow down in meetings or give me the presentation beforehand, it will not only help me if I work with them again, but it will also help the next interpreter they work with if that is not me. If I work in-house, I can’t put up with 9 hours of simultaneous with no lunch. Even if I am physically able to do that, I am morally obligated to insist on breaks for the sake of the next interpreter they hire. The more we stand up for our rights, the better our situation will become.

[i] Based on AIIC Statistics 2012 report, converting estimated annual gross interpreting income from EUR to USD.

Allyson Larimer

Allyson Larimer is a freelance conference interpreter based in the U.S. She worked for two Honda suppliers for 7 years doing in-house translation and interpretation before branching out on her own in 2017. She is dedicated to promoting training opportunities for translators and interpreters in the Midwestern states of the U.S. She founded and chairs the Midwest Activities Committee for JAT.

Allyson holds a BA in International Studies with an East Asian focus and an MA in TESOL. Her Japanese language study began at age 16 when she was dreaming of becoming an animator. While that dream faded, she continued to study the language throughout her post graduate schooling. She did a short home-stay in Okinawa during high school and 2 half-year study abroad trips in college and graduate school (both in Aichi). Despite having a TESOL degree and Japanese proficiency, she did not end up working in Japan. During the economic downturn, she found an opportunity working for a U.S. based Japanese company and has continued down the interpreting path ever since.