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Do we see ourselves as interpreters or as providers of (conference) interpretation? How do others see us, inside the industry and out? Do we bridge a gap, further communication, on the strenght of who we are - all we are - as persons and professionals or just churn out a contract product?

asked 25 Jan '12, 14:54

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edited 26 Jan '12, 10:30

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I do not consider my work a commodity no more than I consider the work of a doctor a commodity.

While living in Asia, however, I saw medicine being turned into a commodity through medical tourism. It's becoming just another 'thing' to be sold for profit by companies, much like a hotel room or a fake Real Madrid jersey. The tragedy is that it is neither.

I see something similar happening to interpreting. It's being increasingly seen as just another 'thing' that can be sold by anyone - as long as they can find a person (subcontractor) somewhere who says they'll do it.

To me this is indeed commoditization. We're seeing this in the current controversy regarding court and police interpreters in the UK (covered under another question on this site).

Here's an interesting take from a sign language interpreter. I am pleased that professionals are starting to talk about how intermediation and outsourcing are commoditizing our profession.

As professional interpreters who offer a service we respect certain ethical rules. One of them is to refrain from accepting a job for which we know we are not qualified. That can too easily disappear with commoditization, as can the very nature of a profession, a concept which implies training and qualifications as well as certain rules governing practice.

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answered 30 Mar '12, 18:37

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Thank you very much, Luigi... your words are music to my ears :-). Do you have any hints we might do well to follow with a view to enhancing our non-commodity status? For instance, I steadfastly refuse to give a firm quote for a conference until I have colleagues under option and always explain that interpreters are not interchangeable and only accept offers they feel up to, a decision only each interpreter can therefore make, ie also their "cost" will depend on who/"what"/where they are.

(14 Apr '12, 15:30) msr

That is a difficult one - perhaps you should post it as a question. I think it begins with recognizing that it is not just a matter of how we see ourselves, but of economic dynamics. The current efforts of public service interpreters in UK (see link in Linda's post on this page) is an example, and I fear a harbinger. One thing we can do is to support colleagues willing to fight back no matter where they are located. Then we can add on little but important things, like learning to put a watermark on a CV indicating that it is not authorized for use without permission (to avoid it being used without our knowledge to bid on contracts). Another area that is beginning to get the attention it deserves is calculation of time and cost. We need to get beyond the idea of "a" rate. When intermediaries ask me for my rate, I tell them that I don't have one - it all depends on the assignment. More could be said - essentially it's about developing ways to respond to new situations.

(15 Apr '12, 07:49) Luigi

Thank you very much again, Luigi :-).

Let's hope we will indeed "support colleagues willing to fight back" and perhaps even go the extra mile by joining the good fight ourselves, collectively - perhaps even preventively, and consider the impact on the commoditization front of what we do and plan on doing, professionally.

It's indeed about "developing ways to respond to new situations", also by having clear lines drawn in our minds that we are not willing to cross, and thus actively looking for ways of responding to those situations w/o crossing them, as opposed to crossing them and chalking it up to inevitability.

(18 Apr '12, 12:52) msr

Hi Luigi! There seems to be some error with the link. Could you please repost or tell us the key words to do a search? Thanks!

(06 Mar '15, 18:40) Anyuli Ináci...

Yes, that must have been it. This thread has been resurrected form the dead. Commoditization of interpreting has gotten worse and in my opinion is a greater challenge than technology.

(07 Mar '15, 23:54) Luigi
showing 5 of 6 show 1 more comments

Great question. I think as interpreters we need to find ways of adding more value to our work in our clients' eyes. Perhaps we should think about training ourselves in new skills akin to interpreting, adding more languages to our combination, helping our clients with ancillary concerns such as recycling the PET bottles used during their conferences...

While we decide on the above, effective immediately perhaps we could be more mindful of our users and clients by making less noise inside the booth, speaking more directly into the mic, looking more involved in the proceedings, seeking more frequent feedback on our performance from colleagues and clients, monitoring ourselves through recordings of our own work, and taking action to correct any bad habits we may have fallen into or aspects we may have neglected, such as intonation, enunciation, wealth of vocabulary, speed of delivery.

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answered 30 Mar '12, 14:58

Laura's gravatar image


Thank you very much, Laura... dunno about adding PET recycling to our professional offer ;-), though! Of course all of your pointers are both sensible and of the essence... my concern is however more in connection with (self) perception and (negotiating) stances than with proper booth habits.

(14 Apr '12, 15:24) msr

Seems to me that if we allow our work - and ourselves- to be used unscrupulous agencies who see us as a commodity to sell and get rich quick themselves (see UK court controversy mentioned by Luigi) then that's what we'll become. More power to those who've stood up for their profession. But there's no harm in seeing yourself as a professional service provider,even as a doctor or a dentist provide a service, as long as you recognize your own value and try always to give the best service but in the best possible conditions. If we can't show the clients - and the world at large- that we're useful professionals, then we'll continue to be seen as having no more value than the flowers around the conference table or in the doctor's waiting room: a (sometimes) pretty but generally useless adornment.

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answered 31 Mar '12, 13:33

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Thank you very much, Linda :-).

You are of course right in what you say, but I fear unscrupulous agencies are not the only ones commoditizing us, we may have somewhat disregarded the vital importance of preserving the "purity" of what, IMHO, should be the permanent paradigm of the profession, changing times notwhitstanding... and thus allowed if not fostered a modicum of confusion between "crankshafts" and interpreting, across the many fronts where we wage our battles, from less than optimum balance between philosophy/knowledge and ethics vs. know-how, in training, to the proper, not just union-like, relevance of working conditions in negotiations - collective and individual.

(18 Apr '12, 12:34) msr

Hi Linda, I fully agree with what you wrote, with one exception. The flowers are sometimes seen as more valuable than our services because the client knows exactly what he'll be getting from the flowers: something decorative that will cause few problems and shows a welcoming attitude and an attention to detail. We need to be better at showing what value we bring or create, and what problems we solve, or the flowers will always win.

(03 Mar '15, 20:20) JuliaP

I think there is a certain degree of commoditization in interpreting and I don't think that's necessarily the Bad Thing the title of this thread implies it to be. Maybe the issue needs to be seen from 2 sides - that of the client/recipient of our work, and ours. I think it’s fair enough for clients to see our work as a commodity. They take it for granted that we are well-trained, experienced professionals and that we arrive prepared and work with a minimum of fuss and hand-waving. That is what they pay us for. If the proceedings go smoothly and everyone’s happy, then we’ve done a great job behind the scenes. It doesn’t mean we need recognition beyond maybe a handshake from the client when we go home (and, if we’re really lucky, a few public words of thanks from the chair!) By contrast, if the service we provide is substandard you can be sure that there will be words had, and that the client will reconsider their choice of interpreter if communication goes down the drain. So no news is good news, if you like.

Commoditization acquires a nasty taste when it begins to mean that (unprofessional) interpreters perceive themselves as machines who can function in any environment and on any subject - and that’s dangerous because that’s when the service (and the interpreter) becomes entirely replaceable and exchangeable. They suggest to the client that they can do any job no matter what, no questions asked.

And to go back to the original question, I think it’s a tough call because our work is influenced by who we are as people and vice versa. I admit I don’t really have an answer. Luigi's analogy (interpreters vs. doctors) is interesting. I expect ANY doctor to be capable of doing the job so yes, their service is a commodity to me. What will tip the scales in a certain doctor’s favour is the „value added“ - do I feel I can trust them, do they look me in the eye, do they speak my language... That will keep me coming back and by extension, our clients coming back to us.

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answered 02 Apr '12, 10:02

Rhinelander's gravatar image


Thank you very much for your reply :-). Does the fact that one is not the only provider around make what one does a commodity, interchangeable at will?

(14 Apr '12, 15:13) msr

Professionalism is a key concept to me. That's what separates us from the bilingual man-in-the-street. As stated by Holz-Mänttäri in her dissertation Translatorisches Handeln (1984), our natural ability to communicate has been brought to a professional level, in most cases through training, to meet the communication needs of our clients. We have been trained to perform an extremely complex task in order to allow people to communicate even when they do not speak each other's languages. Most conference interpreters I know actually love their job - but what counts is that even on days when we're feeling not so great, have personal problems, after a sleepless night - when we press the microphone on, we do a professional job.

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answered 26 Jan '12, 18:52

Sirpa's gravatar image


Thank you very much for your reply, Sirpa :-). I take it for granted that we love our job, irrespective of which view we take of the nature of what we do, just like professional lathe operators must take pride in every well-turned crankshaft they produce. My question however, aimed not at what sets us apart from "people who know languages" but at perception, self and from third parties, of what we deliver: crankshafts are indeed a commodity, is our product too?

(27 Jan '12, 08:49) msr

I think Julia hit the nail on the head. We need to do a better job at explaining to the general public what our job entails, the skills sets we bring to the table (years of training/studying/linguistic and cultural knowledge), and what is our value added.

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answered 06 Mar '15, 18:41

Anyuli%20In%C3%A1cio%20Da%20Silva's gravatar image

Anyuli Ináci...

Thanks Anyuli, for the vote of confidence. Personally, I think that if we let ourselves be treated as a commodity, then we are open to being compared to anyone or anything out there that does what we do, i.e. moves messages from one language to another. The other person or thing (who else is thinking Star Trek or Hitchhiker's Guide?) could do it better or worse than we do, but how will the client know? They will only sometimes see how professionally we act, and will always see how much we cost.

If we don't want to be compared only on cost, we have to become not just a thing, not just a service, not just a microphone, but a full-blooded human being with a multi-faceted personality, who is a communications specialist. It is a fine line to walk, as we have all been taught to be self-effacing, never outshine our principal, stay in the booth and don't talk to the clients; but at the same time, we still need to show that we are people who have studied long hours to be able to do what we do, and that we bring our own ideas, knowledge, skillsets (including those not having to do with interpreting per se) to bear on the task at hand.

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answered 07 Mar '15, 13:35

JuliaP's gravatar image


Hear, hear Julia :-)

(07 Mar '15, 13:40) msr

I agree about the need to make our real expertise shine. But it is not us that is being commoditized, but the process of interpreting. Coming back to the USA I see that more clearly than ever before. Agencies now send text messages like "Spanish interpreter monday 9:30, two hours, reply 1 if available, 2 if not." Organizations staff meetings with no sense of continuity for even a 3-day meeting - A&B get Monday, C&D get Tuesday, etc. The same is happening to other professions too. I sometimes feel a compulsion to comfort my doctor when I see that she finds it difficult to practice medicine in the way she would like because "medicine" is being redefined by managers.

(08 Mar '15, 00:07) Luigi

But again, that is us willing to play the agencies' game, rather than taking the (ok, huge amount of) time and effort to find direct clients who will value us for what we bring.

And we may be partly to blame on the organization front if they are part of the agreement sector, as our own rules say we cannot work every single session in a week without killing ourselves. Granted, that's because our conditions mirror the staffers' in the same organizations, and it is true that we need the rest/preparation time/etc., but in other sectors we can work every session and no one moans. Of course, were we to change the conditions of the agreement, there is no guarantee that the heads of section wouldn't still probably cut up the jobs anyway, so we'd lose out on both fronts.

My doctor has the same constraints, as well, but doesn't play the game and just books me in for more than one appointment, choosing not to earn for more patients, and also choosing not to charge me double as well. He's too pissed off with the system.

(08 Mar '15, 04:41) JuliaP

In sum, a profession is defined by the professionals. Today that model is under attack. It's up to us to act, individually and collectively.

(08 Mar '15, 08:58) Luigi

Luigi, you raise an interesting point about jobs being split up. I have noticed this too. Often, some of the large employers in DC will have large several day conferences, but split up up the days between several teams. What's the point of doing this? I always feel like I have a better grasp on the terminology and the subject matter after woking on an assignment for a few days, rather than the piece meal approach.

(12 Mar '15, 18:58) Anyuli Ináci...

Anyuli, I can't find any point in it. It didn't used to happen.

(24 Mar '15, 21:52) Luigi
showing 5 of 6 show 1 more comments

There is no clear-cut distinction among the different alternatives posed in the question. Not all interpreters view themselves under the same light. I can speak for myself and say that I am a professional interpreter who provides a service. I do not consider we are like machines, churning out assignments and invoices one after the next. We indeed bridge a gap in communication. Our work is very rewarding as we immerse ourselves in a different culture and try to convey the nuances such culture can impose on the spoken word. People who are not familiar with the work of interpreters -or translators, for that matter- underestimate our work. They believe anyone who can speak both languages can interpret.

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answered 26 Jan '12, 14:56

Vero's gravatar image


Thank you very much for your answer, my question was a true question :-) , ie one asked for the questioner to learn from answers given. The lights we view ourselves under are indeed different, to which must be added the light we're viewed under by other industry actors and consumers at large... hence my question :-).

(27 Jan '12, 08:40) msr

Hi Vero, that is true, none of us who have answered see ourselves as a commodity or a machine. The issue is more how the clients see us, and many of them do see us only as a commodity.

I remember one client told me that once we had passed the exam to work at that institution, we were all pencils, and they just picked the cheapest pencil to fill the need. We do the exact same thing when we look to buy commodities like pencils - we look for the cheapest ones too.

So the issue is how to convince the client that we aren't just pencils. Unfortunately, enough of our colleagues do consider themselves to be pencils/commodities, so that it is very difficult to change the client's mind.

(13 May '16, 09:44) JuliaP
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question asked: 25 Jan '12, 14:54

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last updated: 13 May '16, 09:44

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