MATI President Christina Green connected with Saul Arteaga, Director SWITS, Ltd. to discuss some big challenges LSPs face when trying to hire quality interpreters.
1. One of the challenges many language companies face is finding quality interpreters. As a seasoned language professional and as a business owner. Can you explain why that is?
We interpreters are as good as our last interpreting assignment. I can answer from my experience as a language company owner for almost 20 years, and still learning along the way, that finding quality interpreters, when needed, at an agreement rate and terms that a contract allows, is one of the main challenges because interpreting is a profession that has been built by different levels of credentials, aptitudes, skills and expectations.
You have interpreters for specific languages, such as ASL, that you need to be licensed in your state to work in specific settings, like schools and courts. Then, you have some language interpreters who are working on the command of their second language, in the same exact settings. And to make things more complicated, professionals who have been hired under good intentions are not understanding the role of the interpreter. Many times the demands dictate how much an interpreter can get paid. Furthermore, professional standards vary from location to location. I also feel that there is an existing sentiment of “anti-company” that may affect the decision of some qualified interpreters to collaborate with language companies.
2. How difficult is it finding interpreters for Languages of Lesser Diffusion (LLDs) in today's market, why do you think that is?
I think that we can divide the answer by separating large language companies and smaller ones. The former may have the ability to offer many hours, a variety of modalities, and settings that attract LLD interpreters. The latter may not have as much volume and modalities to keep the interpreter busy enough to reach their professional goals. As a result, the interpreters may try to find more consistent employment with other language companies or organizations that hire interpreters directly such as hospitals or businesses. In a way, it is just a shift of limited resources and puts the interpreter and language company in a situation that may be more difficult to manage and causing language companies to struggle to fill appointments. Let us keep in mind that most interpreters hired by language companies are freelancers; however, because of the IRS classification guidelines, some language companies hire interpreters as staff; this is clearly another big topic in the industry. The current labor market for interpreters has significant new realities. The pandemic has put us all in unprecedented situations that we are still learning to navigate. There are other options outside interpreting in the general labor market, and hey, this is America, the land of opportunities and dreams. We generally must work hard to accomplish our goals.
Spanish is the main language requested for most language companies making LLD requests come in at less volume. It is difficult for LLD interpreters to make a living solely on interpreting. Many times, they have to add translations to the mix, hold second jobs or rely on other income. There are great LLD interpreters in the profession. Sometimes one is fortunate to find them and believe me, language companies try to hold on to them as much as possible. Another factor is that language skills are only a part of the whole service, and reliability and professionalism needs to be included for the service to be premier.
3. How can a language company staff assess interpreters of other languages understanding what your customers and the market demands?
This is a difficult situation especially for LLD, since there are so many languages that do not have any available certification or assessments. Thankfully, we have some certifications available by the NCSC and certification for medical interpreters. The United States is a huge melting pot and the laws mandate language access to LEP persons for many settings. Companies generally rely mainly on the interpreter's resumes, affiliations to language organizations, reputable national rosters and interviews. As a company, SWITS has developed some commonly used language assessments that give us an idea of the level of skills of the candidate we are going to hire. This is not a psychometric test. These assessments do not always happen since having assessments for all languages would be a huge task. The assessments are reviewed by more seasoned and credentialed interpreters when possible. The assessment can be taken in person or remotely. SWITS has also put together a 60-hour training accredited by the IMIA Accreditation Commission for Medical Interpreting Educational Program and one of the requirements is passing language fluency tests. The market is very demanding and sometimes the buyers of language services do not understand the interpreters are not just sitting in a room waiting for a call to take or to go to an assignment. There are fewer requests for LLD compared to Spanish. The amount of work they receive many times does not encourage them, or justify the expense, to seek further training, certification or be part of interpreter associations. The other part to keep in mind is that LLD interpreters are a very diverse group, coming from different parts of the world, having different cultures, different perceptions about providing services, and speak some languages that may be more complicated to interpret into English and vice versa. There is also a wide generational and educational spectrum among interpreters of this language group.
4. How do you ensure that your staff and freelance professionals attend continued education programs? How difficult is it to make sure they improve their knowledge?
It is difficult to pinpoint what motivates people in a workplace. There is a common denominator that could be the pay and benefits, but ultimately people can sit at conferences or trainings and not pay attention. We cannot force them to be attentive. One can see who are the motivated interpreters that are willing to learn on their own and/or seek training opportunities. We must be careful what we demand from interpreters because if they are independent contractors, they are responsible to keep up with the standards of the industry. When interpreters are staff, the employer has to ensure they are trained and keep up with the standards. We offered free training opportunities but some interpreters do not find the time to attend or feel they already know the subject matter. However, there are others who take the opportunity and run with it, and those are the ones willing to accept constructive criticism and ask questions. Asking interpreting related questions is a great practice in regard to language and assignment situations. Otherwise, how do we learn? The internet has made it possible to learn a great deal about our profession. I remember the days where one had to carry dictionaries to our assignments, now we bring our phones as a consultation tool. In the past, we have had to drive or fly to conferences and now we can learn from the comfort of our home. In order to be a committed interpreter you must think about interpreting in your daily life, use your surroundings and interactions to challenge yourself to learn the best way of communicating concepts in different languages, listen to people who use their native language and read in your working languages if there is material available. It is a rewarding career from the standpoint that we can use all learned skills in edifying our lives. At least that is how I view it. Certifications and credentials are an excellent way to ensure that the interpreters are improving their knowledge. Certification and credentials are hard things to achieve but it is not the end all, or reaching the summit of Mt. Everest, and remember, you still have to keep up with your skills for the rest of the journey.
5. What do you think language company owners and trainers should consider when working with LLD interpreters?
Language Company Owners need to make sure that they are communicating effectively with all their interpreters, which can be a difficult task because people in general communicate differently and when communicating interculturally it can be even more challenging. So finding a way to pass information and expectations is paramount. That also involves training your operations staff about the different ways that people communicate and making sure your operations staff are aware of the possible challenges. It is an extra step of check and balance in a very diverse workforce. We cannot spell out every aspect of an interpreting job or what it entails. Having LLD of materials to read is not always the answer. Some people do not read much. You can incorporate short videos in your communication training tools and simplify the process as much as possible. I heard one time that interpreting is a professional practice. Interpreters practice their own service with some variations and they must be responsible at all times to manage the flow of the interpreting assignment and foster good professional relationships with their clients. For the trainers, I would say that we have to present things in a simple, clear way, not so academically, because not all interpreters are interested in that or at that level of learning, especially when the material is presented in their second, third, or fourth language. The trainers have to be open-minded interpreters with experience because while training there are many what ifs and the instructors will have to provide a sounding response or guidance. The instructors will not be there when the interpreters are performing the assignment. I always ask the participants of my training, if you do not subscribe to any of the standards that I am presenting or discussing, I want you to challenge me because you must believe in the concepts to be able to practice them naturally.
I want to thank you for the interview. It has been a pleasure and has given me the opportunity to share my observations with my colleagues. I think that all interpreters share different challenges but at the same time we have a common goal which is to be as accurate and professional as possible with our interpretations; no more, no less. Many times we allow the clients to dictate the speed, the setting or terms and conditions, and sometimes we have to educate the clients that there will be some adjustments in the agreement for the interpretation to happen or discuss this after it has happened. We have to respect everyone involved in the interpreting assignment. Being flexible is also a big factor when it comes to interpreting. Many times we have to work with the interpreting service stakeholders and find a common ground.
Saul Arteaga was born and raised in Lima, Peru. At 19 years old, he immigrated to the US where he worked while attending a community college. He further pursued his academic career by receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Spanish and completing classes toward a Master’s Degree in Translation Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In 2002, Mr. Arteaga established SWITS, Ltd., a language service provider based in Delavan, Wisconsin which provides all language services, including signed languages, to healthcare organizations, law enforcement, circuit and municipal courts, and educational institutions.
In 2004, Mr. Arteaga passed the Wisconsin Certified Court Interpreter examination. Soon after, he became a member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Committee to Improve Court Interpretation and Translation in Wisconsin Courtrooms.
In addition to legal interpreting, Mr. Arteaga also pursued medical and community interpreting, passing the Medical Interpreter Competency Examination offered by the National Center of Interpretation at the University of Arizona and attending classes at the Agnese Haury Summer Institute for Court Interpretation and Medical Interpretation at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 2004 and 2008, respectively.
To further demonstrate his commitment to providing high-quality interpretation services, Mr. Arteaga passed the National Board of Certified Medical Interpreters and the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters examinations. He also completed the Leadership in Language Access in Healthcare advanced certificate program offered by the IMIA Language Access Leadership Academy.
As a believer in interpreter education, Mr. Arteaga acted as an adviser for several community college interpreter programs in Wisconsin and Illinois. He originally developed Equal Footing to ensure SWITS interpreters had a better understanding of the role of the interpreter as well as best practices. This seminar grew into the 60-hour medical and community interpreter training that is now offered.