By Philippe Muriel
Is public service interpreting the ‘poor relative’ of the interpreting profession, and how can we change that?
I must confess, I am a fan of interpreters’ chat groups on social media. Interpreting is a lonely job and it is rare for us to meet up with colleagues for a chat. Few of us have a mentor to whom we can turn for guidance or advice. Online chat groups are a good place to ‘talk shop’, rant, share tips or seek advice.
There is one question that surfaces quite regularly in those groups: how much should we charge for our interpreting? It’s a reasonable question – especially when you’re starting out in the business – and not an easy one to answer. It depends on so many factors: which type of interpreting is required, the ‘rarity’ of your language, the area of work, etc.
Recently a colleague shared a very helpful article entitled ‘Interpreting Salary and Rates: What to charge as an interpreter?’1 It covered quite a few topics, including how rates are calculated, what rates interpreters charge per hour, and the different types of interpreting involved: conference, consecutive and public service (PSI).
The author provided a handy comparison table detailing hourly, half-day and full-day rates, plus travel and expenses, for all three categories of interpreting. It came as no surprise to me that PSI was way down the list when it came to remuneration: the day rate was 45% lower than for conference interpreting; the hourly rate was 70% lower.
Reading that article reminded me of the time I attended a conference where some ‘leading lights’ interpreters from the European Parliament and United Nations were speaking to language students. They (rightly) extolled the virtues of conference interpreting, encouraging the students to embrace the profession and ‘make a difference’. PSI was never mentioned as a career option!
It seems to me that public service interpreting is very much the ‘poor relative’ of our industry, whereas conference and consecutive (business) interpreting come across as all glamour (meeting ‘important’ people) and foreign travel. Now, I know that’s not true: conference interpreting is highly skilled, extremely tiring and often not very glamorous at all, and my purpose here is not to criticise anyone. Conference and business interpreters do a vital job in enabling decision makers all over the world to do business, negotiate, establish policies, draw up legislation and much more. But I believe PSI is every bit as important yet less valued by some.
PSIs will assist a non-English-speaking person who has been arrested and detained in a police cell, or is the victim of a crime, to communicate with the officers. They will interpret for a hospital patient who is undergoing a major operation or in the maternity ward giving birth. They will be in the court’s consultation room where anxious parents are briefed by a barrister in a dispute with social services, or in the dock conveying the court proceedings to a defendant – often for hours on end. During the first lockdown, our PSI colleagues, in full PPE, were on the front line with medical personnel, enabling communication and often staying until the patient’s last moments.
We are there in times of crisis to enable communication in counselling sessions with deeply traumatised torture survivors, helping victims of domestic violence who are looking for safety, with mothers whose baby has just died, with homeless asylum seekers who no longer have recourse to public funding, with vulnerable unaccompanied minors in the care of local authorities. There is no doubt about it, the work of public service interpreters is just as important as that of any other interpreter.
In the world we live in, ‘value’ is usually calculated in terms of money (we occasionally read of celebrities and ‘how much they are worth’, for example) rather than in terms of human qualities. If we use monetary value as a criterion, PSI appears to be the least valued. This is not the interpreters’ fault, of course. Rates of pay are decided through a tendering process. The price is driven down as public services come under pressure to manage with less and less money and agencies are guided by profits.
So why do we keep doing this job? Ask any PSI and they will tell you that it’s very rewarding. They can’t be talking about money, so what makes it rewarding?
The reward is in the handshake from the man you interpreted for who has just been granted leave to remain in the UK and is safe at last; it is in the grateful thanks from a long-term cancer patient with whom you sat in the chemotherapy room; it is in the smile of a mother when you convey the judge’s words that her child will not be removed from her care. One of our colleagues recently stated: “I had a very good but hard interpreting appointment; it was a therapy session – one that I know changed someone’s world for the better and, consequently, a lot of other people too. I feel so grateful for my job!”
Yes, there is more than a monetary reward in PSI, but gratitude – heart-warming though it may be – is not enough, and certainly doesn’t put bread on the table. All interpreters should be equally highly valued, and as a non-executive practitioner director of NRPSI, I will do my best to push for better remuneration for public service interpreters as well as for recognition of our profession and protection of title.
1 Translation and Interpreting blog, 1/9/22; https://translationandinterpreting.com
Philippe Muriel MCIL CL is an experienced Public Service Interpreter and tutor for the CIOL Diploma in Translation.
The Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI) is the benchmark qualification for working as a Public Service Interpreter. The next exam sessions take place in November 2023 and booking is now open. Find out more here.
This article is reproduced from the Summer 2023 issue of The Linguist. Download the full edition here.