Susan* felt lucky to land her first job as an interpreter a few months after settling in Ottawa. But the rollercoaster ride that followed – leaving her without payment after more than six months – left a bitter taste in her mouth.
Having emigrated from China two years prior, she had tried to find work through many employment agencies to no avail – despite her experience back home translating for several book clients and the New York Times’ Chinese-language website.
“I was so excited. I also felt anxious [about] some medical terms I might not be able to interpret . . . Instead of checking reviews on this company, I started checking my dictionary.”
Not only was she delighted with the pay rate of $25 an hour, but also the fact that she was able to work even without an interpreter licence, which is required by many other companies in the language interpretation industry.
“Although I’m a professional in translation back in China, I have not yet had a licence here. I [had only been] here for a short time; I [needed] to find a job,” explains Susan, during a phone interview with New Canadian Media.
Able Translations sent an assignment on January 13, asking Susan to interpret at a physiotherapy clinic in Ottawa the next day for an insurance-related issue.
“I was so excited. I also felt anxious [about] some medical terms I might not be able to interpret . . . Instead of checking reviews on this company, I started checking my dictionary,” explains Susan, admitting not doing a background check on Able was her biggest mistake.
According to Susan, the assignment went well – she satisfied the expectations of both the client and Able. She then signed a time sheet, filed an invoice, and waited for her first payment of $50. Upon signing the original agreement, she had opted for immediate payment versus the company’s default pay schedule, which issues earnings every two months.
Montero dismisses accusations Able tries to take advantage of bilingual immigrants hungry for professional jobs.
“I haven’t received any payment even right now,” she claims. “From sending them emails every two to three days to every week, I never got an answer. Every time [I called] someone [would] forward my calls to nowhere.”
Several other translators have posted comments narrating their experiences working with Able Translations, however, NCM was unable to corroborate their claims independently.
An unregulated industry
Julio Montero, in charge of Able Translations’ compliance and regulatory affairs, tells New Canadian Media the company never fails to pay anyone.
“When an interpreter doesn’t receive payment, it may be for a number of reasons,” he explains. “Some might not file the invoice properly, others may not sign the time sheet, or they unfortunately engaged in unprofessional [conduct].” He adds interpreters who are biased or show up late for a job are not compensated.
As for why the company would hire someone without a license, Montero explains: “Unfortunately, the language industry in Canada is not a regulated profession. It is not illegal for you to work as an interpreter. We have certain standards . . . We hire accredited interpreters. It is someone who has a combination of knowledge, experience and certain accreditation.”
He also explains that, based on a client’s urgency to hire an interpreter as well as the availability of the interpreters, Able will sometimes opt for less qualified candidates.
Montero dismisses accusations Able tries to take advantage of bilingual immigrants hungry for professional jobs. He stresses that the company has hundreds of freelance interpreters and translators and most of them are second-generation Canadians.
“No one is perfect. We recently went through a transition in [our] accounting system. Sometimes payments may slip through cracks,” Montero explains. He encourages people who have payment issues with the company to contact him directly.
Not ‘an industry for new immigrants’
Lola Bendana, president of national member organization Language Industry Association (AILIA), stresses the importance of gaining proper training and licensing in Canada.
“Being bilingual doesn’t necessarily mean being able to interpret or translate . . . you also need to understand many social contexts and Canadian culture.” – Julie Li, interpreter
“We don’t have legal authority to arbitrate a financial settlement,” Bendana says.
Professionalization and professional practice is what AILIA usually recommends to people, continues Bendana.
“Sign a contract with an organization, stop working for the company if you don’t get paid,” she advises, adding people claiming not to be paid can decide to go to small claims court and file an official financial dispute.
Bendana also indicates that, back in 2006, Seneca College launched the first of its kind training course for the language interpretation industry, and since then many other colleges have started to offer the program.
The Language Interpretation Training Program, a 180-hour certificate course to train interpreters designed by the Ontario Council on Community Interpreting, is a step toward professionalization and standardization of the industry.
Julie Li (pictured left), a Toronto-based interpreter, has finished one and a half years of the training program at Seneca College and has already obtained a basic Community Interpretation Licence. She currently works with MCIS Language Services and 911 Emergency Services.
“Being bilingual doesn’t necessarily mean being able to interpret or translate,” Li says. “I don’t even think this is an industry for new immigrants because you also need to understand many social contexts and Canadian culture.”
Hearing about Susan’s case, Li says it should be treated as a common labour dispute like in any other industry, but adds, “Unlicensed job seekers are prone to be ripped off because there are always companies [that] want to target them.”
*Susan’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Shan is a photojournalist and event photographer based in Toronto with more than a decade of experience. From Beijing Olympic Games to The Dalai Lama in Exile, she has covered a wide range of editorial assignments.