Interpreters, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, hit the ground running out of their four-year degrees. Passionate to work, they focus on passing their RID certification (or, BEI, or state-administered licensure test).

A newly certified interpreter might start their freelance rate around $30.00 an hour. Fast-forward 10 years. That interpreter has a lot of experience in different environments, has improved their skills in interpreting, looks more natural, and might even have a specialty certification or two. Now the interpreter is looking for higher rates.

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They are looking in the mid-$40s per hour (some, higher), and feel that their work experience and skills have earned it. The market, however, may not allow them to grow-- partly due to the commoditization of interpreters. The cap on interpreter compensation around $48-$52 per hour in many markets means that as a professional, you’ve hit your maximum earning potential relatively early in your career.

Beyond the Peter Principle that I wrote about earlier, this problem has several ramifications:

  1. The lack of experienced, professional interpreters means that there are fewer mentors and seasoned interpreters stay in the field, which means fewer interpreters to lead their communities and speak from the wisdom of their years.
  2. The profession, on average, will be less mature if it is consistently serviced by younger & cheaper interpreters.
  3. Where do interns go beyond VRS/VRI call centers?
  4. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the outcomes from this issue!

Law enforcement and legal interpreting communities will continue to maintain an older and more experienced provider pool. While educational interpreting (particularly, ECE-12) is the opposite (with, potentially, the most vulnerable and disempowered consumers).

Imagine working as an attorney — we often like to compare our profession to other professions— and after 10 years of work, you max out your hourly billable rate? That would be ridiculous. There are prestigous and high-level firms that charge much more than other firms charge. But, in the interpreting world, a $5 or $10 difference is about as much extra as you can try to bill for your services, even if you offer a “premium” service.

How can our profession make a space for a life-long interpreter that can continue to grow professionally, in their experience, and financially?

As fas as I can tell, there isn't one right now. The route to climbing the ladder higher, and increasing your earnings, is by detouring away from working as a community interpreteter.

Emory David Dively

Emory is an NIC: Master ASL interpreter, has operated small and large agencies, and consulted with agencies across the US. He has an MA in Communication & Leadership from Gonzaga University.