American Translators Association (ATA): Agency Owner Responds

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American Translators Association (ATA): Agency Owner Responds

Agency Owner Responds to Article on Payment Reduction

The March Business Smarts addressed the question of what to do in response to a demand to reduce prices. Gordon Lemke of ITW Interpreting Services sent the following response.

Dear Business Smarts:

Regarding the March Business Smarts, "Getting What You Are Worth," I would like to offer another perspective. I own and operate a telephone interpreting agency and received a letter similar to the one mentioned in the column. Our largest client asked for a 15% reduction in fees beginning in January of this year. Also, unbeknownst to us, in January this same client began to process its Spanish-speaking calls in-house. Our Spanish business, once the core of our business, has declined 57% in the first three months of 2009.

In order for me to keep seven employees and 120 interpreters working, I had to ask for a reduction in what I pay our interpreters. Are our interpreters now worth less? No, but the market has definitely shifted.

I would offer the following advice for interpreters and translators who are asked to review their fees.

  1. Know the going rate for your services. As an agency, we try to track the market to stay competitive. We look at such sources as our county court system and what rates they pay interpreters.

  2. Look at the uniqueness of your language. For example, look at how many Cambodian interpreters are listed in ATA's online directories. A Cambodian interpreter can demand more than a Spanish interpreter.

  3. Evaluate the relationship with your agency. Does it pay on time? Do you frequently have billing disputes? Our agency consistently pays interpreters on the first and 15th of each month, regardless if the client has paid us. Are you willing to risk nonpayment by a client?

  4. Make an effort to visit your agency and meet the manager and owner. Our agency utilizes the skills of over 120 different interpreters. Being able to place a face with a voice on the telephone is very helpful in building a partnership with your agency.

The biggest negative I see to interpreters is the Internet. It does not take much to conduct an Internet search and discover others who will offer your same services at a lower cost. The challenge to an agency like mine is to focus on quality when searching for interpreters and to balance that with the cost.

Gordon Lemke
ITW Interpreting Services, Monrovia, CA

Dear Mr. Lemke,

Thank you for sharing your perspective on this matter. There is no denying that adaptation to new circumstances is an ongoing process for businesses of every size, especially in the current economic situation. Just as you had to respond to your client's demand for reduced prices and were forced to make the resulting decisions, independent contractors must constantly adjust to the realities of the market.

When a client is no longer willing to pay fees that were previously acceptable, interpreters are not suddenly worth less, as you correctly state. However, they may have to devise new strategies to maintain their level of income and expand their business options. While it is impossible for a Spanish interpreter to suddenly turn herself into a Cambodian interpreter, she would be well advised to specialize in less common fields, improve her qualifications, and broaden her client base.

"Another option for Spanish interpreters is to perfect their skills so they can take the federal court interpreters exam and get certified," advises Virginia Perez-Santalla, a Spanish translator and interpreter with many years of experience in the industry. "This allows them to quote federal rates when clients call. The federal certification upholds high qualification standards, which an interpreter can mention in response to requests for discounted prices."


Reprinted from The ATA Chronicle: July 2009, p 32