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The Complex Ethics of Siding Scale Translation Rates

In a budget meeting yesterday with my primary employer, NOFA (the Northeast Organic Farming Association), we were reflecting on interpreting expenses from our recent summer conference. As we looked ahead to our winter conference budget, a colleague asked, “Is there a way we could get more affordable interpretation in the future?”


“No,” I explained, “Not really. At least not ethically.”


Interpreters from Just Words Coop charged a rate of $50 per hour, with two interpreters present for each 1.5 hour workshop, so NOFA paid a total of $150 total per workshop. I explained to my colleague that Just Words offers a sliding scale of $50-$120 per hour, with a 2-hour minimum and a requirement that there be two interpreters for any event of over 45 minutes. This is standard policy in the field. Negotiation is allowed, at the discretion of the interpreters. In this instance, the standard policy would have meant NOFA paying a total of at least $200 per workshop at the bottom of the sliding scale, but the interpreters waived the 2-hour minimum, since NOFA is a repeat customer.


I explained that Just Words used to offer a lower sliding scale option and no minimums. Interpreters would take a half hour gig at $30 per hour and end up with $15, not accounting for time spent traveling or preparing, or the administrative costs of lining up our services. Or they would interpret solo for an hour and a half with the promise of a break midway through, only to find that the break came 20 minutes later than promised and they were completely exhausted and unable to speak clearly by that time.


When the world went virtual due to COVID, we sat down to talk with language justice coops across the country, because we had all essentially become colleagues and competition due to all events taking place on Zoom. It became clear that Just Words was undercutting our colleagues by failing to have standard policies and rates in place, and exploiting our interpreters by violating best labor practices in the field. As a language justice coop, this was unacceptable.


My NOFA colleague listened to this explanation and understood, and agreed that $50 per hour was a bargain, given that she has seen rates of $100 per hour in the past. However, she then asked whether perhaps we could employ students in need of experience at a slightly lower rate.


Well, we’ve tried that too. And it works. Sometimes. In fact, I had proposed this scenario for the NOFA conference as well. The only reasonable way I’ve found for students to gain on-the-job experience is to take brief turns with experienced interpreters. We sometimes set interpreters-in-training to give 5 or 10-minute breaks to the primary interpreter. This enables the student to try out interpreting without dealing with the fatigue of a longer stint, while also limiting the amount of time that the listener needs to put up with a less experienced interpreter.


Sometimes this is ethical, especially in low-stakes situations and smaller groups of folks who already know each other. For example, it may be unethical in a legal or medical situation where someone’s life or freedom hinges on the results of the interaction. It is more ethical in a small, internal committee meeting where there is time and space to pause, clarify, or deal with some slight awkwardness among friends.


Now let’s add a lens of race and culture to the mix: First off, many Spanish interpreters in the US are Latinx and immigrants. So although many Just Words interpreters are white, if Just Words interpreters undercut the professional standards as a whole, they are likely causing harm to members of a historically marginalized community.


Looking at power dynamics in the context of colonization, it is often members of the colonized culture that end up serving as translators, because they are the ones forced to adopt the language of those in power. With English as the dominant language in the US, many native English speakers are not bilingual, while native speakers of other languages often learn English and end up in the role of interpreter, either informally or formally. Devaluing the profession of interpretation almost inherently devalues the work of immigrant and BIPOC workers.


Next, with that same lens, language direction matters in the context of student interpreters. For example, I’ve arranged for inexperienced interpreters to interpret into English for white volunteers at a committee meeting of Spanish speaking workers. In that case, if the white volunteers miss out on a key detail, their lives are not worse off. Were the scenario reversed, offering poorer quality translation into Spanish would potentially be further marginalizing an already marginalized group.


Finally, my colleague pointed out that members of another language justice coop may have charged less than Just Words at that same conference. I was not sure of their rates, but they were in a slightly different situation. The other coop was interpreting for a workshop track led and funded through the Pocasset Pokanoket Land Trust (PPLT), a small, newly formed, BIPOC-led nonprofit.


Would it be ethical if PPLT paid less for their interpreters than NOFA? Yes. NOFA is a primarily white-led, established, 50-year-old organization with a budget of millions of dollars between its 7 state chapters. Just Words interpreters would almost certainly have been open to a lower sliding scale rate for PPLT than for NOFA, due to its budget, history, and leadership. On the other hand, many interpreters for the PPLT workshops were Latinx, so while it would be ethical for PPLT to pay less, it may not necessarily be ethical for the interpreters to receive less.


Making translation and interpreting accessible and affordable is tricky business, with sometimes conflicting rules. Pro-bono translation sounds great at first, and certainly benefits a population that often cannot afford access to professional interpreting. However, when you think of how much the average interpreter makes compared with a lawyer, you realize that unlike free legal advice, pro-bono interpreting is often one marginalized group offering a discount to another at their own expense.


It may sound at this point that I am against free or sliding scale translation and interpreting, but I am not. I have worked hard over the past several years to develop nuanced policies with Just Words Coop. I believe that there is a time and place for discounts and volunteers, and we have built that into our system. At the same time, I am not going to ask Just Words interpreters to provide deeply discounted interpretation for NOFA. As the executive director of NOFA/Mass, it is my job to go out and raise the funds necessary to pay our interpreters what they are worth, and make space in the budget to offer language access to the many non-English speakers who grow the food that we eat across this state and country.


For a basic overview of best practices for translation and interpreting clients (setting complex ethics aside), see our client handout: Best Practices for Translation and Interpreting Clients.

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