Interpreter Service Providers: The stewards of lives and livelihoods


Are you an interpreter service provider?

If you own a company that is completely dedicated to providing language services, then I’d say you are. Also, if you run an organization that provides language services as part of the organization’s full portfolio of services, I’d say you are too. Likewise, if you run the language services department that is encompassed in a larger organization, then – you guessed it – you’re an interpreter service provider (ISP), too. At least you are insofar as this post goes.

If you answered “no” to all of these questions, but are still reading this, I’m betting you know someone who is an ISP. Maybe it’s your boss, your colleague, your spouse or that person you just met on the bus ride to the office.  You’re most welcome to continue reading, and if you deem valuable, pass this along to the ISP in your life.

The next question is what does stewardship mean?

According to Merriam-Webster, stewardship is “the conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially:  the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care.” Sounds like a lot of responsibility. It is.

To piece it together, ISPs are entrusted with the careful and responsible management of people’s lives and people’s livelihoods. Whoa. That sounds like a big deal. Again, it is.

The ISP as caretaker of people’s lives

At first glance, that statement might seem like a stretch. Aren’t people responsible for taking care of their own lives? Well, yes, of course. However, people also depend and rely on the interpreters involved in their care. They rely on the interpreter to faithfully transmit messages so that they can correctly follow their treatment plan. They rely on the interpreter to use effective infection control practices so that they don’t become ill because of an interpreter who didn’t wash his or her hands. They rely on the interpreter to demonstrate professionalism in all ways and always so as to foster an environment wherein everyone can be who they are and say what they want.  Remove any of these things, and people’s ability to take care of their own lives gets more complicated.

People’s lives depend on the interpreter you have screened, hired, and entrusted with interpreting. How confident are you in each one of the interpreters you send on assignments? If you’re not sure, try the grandmother test. Ask yourself if you would want this person interpreting for your grandmother. (I’m assuming you love your grandmother and want only the best for her.)  If you can’t say “yes” to that question for each one of the interpreters who works for you – whether directly employed or contracted – then you might want to take a serious look at making some speedy changes. I’m not saying fire someone. (I’m not not saying fire someone, either. That’s your call.) You might at least analyze the root concern and implement a plan to correct or improve whatever area needs improvement.

Whatever you do, please don’t settle for warm-bodied people whose bilingual skills are questionable and whose interpreting skills are scarce. When people’s lives are on the line, the stakes are just too high.

If you want to avoid attracting warm-bodied-semi-bilingual-interpreter-wannabes, you’ve got to be a good steward of the second part: livelihoods.

ISPs as caretakers of people’s livelihoods

Guess what? Your interpreters rely on you for their livelihood. That’s kind of a really big deal. With the exception of interpreters who happen to be independently wealthy (I noticed not a lot of hands went up right then.), their ability to be and remain in your employ has a lot to do with whether or not you can (or choose to) provide meaningful and gainful employment.

The vast majority of interpreters that I’ve met are not in the profession because they desire to accumulate vast sums of wealth. However, that doesn’t mean that interpreters don’t need, want, or deserve just and fair compensation. Compensation, of course, has to do with the financial compensation – the paycheck, so to speak. It also includes other things, such as reliable income, good working conditions and support in the area of professional development. For example, if you require interpreters to be available to you at your beckon call 24/7/365 or if you can only offer sporadic assignments, then you cannot provide interpreters with a livelihood. You might be able to provide a hobby or a pastime, but not a livelihood.  Likewise, if you do not provide a means for professional development, you’re missing an opportunity to demonstrate not only your support but also your commitment to the individual interpreter’s professional career and success.

Without a livelihood, even the most talented professionals cannot continue in the profession no matter how much they might desire to do so.

Finally, if you are not fiscally responsible – remember, it’s about stewardship, not draining the coffers – you can’t expect to keep your business afloat or your department’s doors open.  That is not good for anyone.  Stewardship comes with the need to make difficult decisions and find creative solutions to problems day in and day out. 

No pressure, esteemed LSP’s. There’s just an incredible amount riding on how good you are at the careful and responsible management of the things that impact people’s lives and people’s livelihoods. No one said stewardship was easy.

If you’re not an ISP but you know someone who is an excellent steward of lives and livelihoods, go give that person a hug – or other suitable sign of appreciation.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few hugs to give out. . .