Voluntary / Pro Bono Work

We are often requested to provide interpreting services at no cost. While we strive to work in an understanding manner with clients who have genuine budgetary constraints, for the vast majority of cases, we do no interpret for free. The email below from an English interpreter outlines the reasons why like any other professionals, we charge for our services.

Reasons Why Qualified Interpreters Cannot Work for Free

Dear potential interpreting service provider,
If you have been directed to this page, it is likely that you have requested the use of an interpreter or interpreters for free or minimal compensation.

As professional interpreters, we receive requests for free services on a regular basis. In a perfect world, each of us would love to be able to respond in a positive manner and assist, especially with projects or efforts related to areas such as education, social issues, and conservation of natural resources. It is fair to say that in many cases, we wish we had the time and resources to do more to assist than just interpret.Image of penniless man

Unfortunately, such are the practicalities of life that we are often unable to respond, or that when we do, our replies are brief and do not convey an adequate sense of the reasons underlying our response. Circumstances vary for each situation, but we have found that there are a number of recurring themes, which we have set out below with the objective of communicating more clearly with you, and hopefully avoiding misunderstandings or unintentionally engendering ill will.

Please take the following points in the constructive manner in which they are intended. We certainly hope that after you have had a chance to read this, we will be able to talk again and establish a mutually beneficial working relationship.


Interpreting is Our Livelihood.

Providing an interpreting service is the way we make our living. If we give away our services for free, or spend too much time responding to requests for free services, we cannot make a living.


We Do Support Worthy Causes with Interpreting Services. 

Most of us do contribute pro bono services, sometimes more, to support certain causes. In many cases, we may have participated directly in projects that we support with services, or we may have a pre-existing personal relationship with key people involved with the efforts concerned. In other words, each of us can and does provide interpreting services without compensation on a selective basis.


We Have Time Constraints.

Making a leap from such selective support to responding positively to every request we get for free interpreting, however, is impractical, if for no other reason than the substantial amount of time required to respond to requests, exchange correspondence, prepare and deliver, takes a lot of time to respond to requests, and time is always in short supply.


Pleas of “We Have No Money” Are Often Difficult to Fathom.

The primary rationale provided in nearly all requests for free interpreting services is budgetary constraint, meaning that the requestor pleads a lack of funds. Such requests frequently originate from organisations with a lot of cash on hand, whether they are publicly listed companies, government or quasi-government agencies, or even NGOs. Often, it is a simple matter of taking a look at a public filing or other similar disclosure document to see that the entity concerned has access to significant funding, certainly more than enough to pay interpreters a reasonable fee should they choose to do so.

To make matters worse, it is apparent that all too often, of all the parties involved in a project or particular effort, interpreters are the only ones being asked to work for free. Everyone else gets paid.

Given considerations like this, you can perhaps understand why we frequently feel slighted when we are told that: “We have no money.” Such claims can come across as a cynical ploy intended to take advantage of gullible individuals.


We Have Real Budget Constraints.

It is a commonly help misconception that interpreting is a highly remunerative profession. We have chosen this path in large part due to the passion we have for visual communication, and the subject matters in which we specialise. The substantial increase in unqualified interpreters entering the market, uneducated service purchasers not understanding differences in quality and accuracy of service provision from qualified-v-unqualified interpreters and unscrupulous penny pinchers thinking they are being wise, very often with someone else’s money coupled with reduced budgets of many service purchasers, means that our already meagre incomes have come under additional strain.

Moreover, being a qualified interpreter involves significant monetary investment to gain qualified status over an extended period of time, usually between 7-10 years. Our profession is by nature is time intensive as we need to stay linguistically current with new and on going subjects and specialisms and best practices.

In addition, travel is a big part of many of our businesses. We must spend a lot of money on transportation, lodging and other travel-related costs.

And of course, perhaps most importantly, there is a substantial sum associated with the time and experience we have invested to become proficient at what we do, as well as the personal risks we often take. Interpreting between two languages may seem like a simple process to the lay person, but providing clear accurate communication both ways requires skill, experience and judgement. So the bottom line is that although we certainly understand and can sympathise with budget constraints, from a practical point of view, we simply cannot afford to subsidise everyone who asks.


Getting “Credit” Doesn’t Mean Much.

Part and parcel with requests for free interpreting premised on budgetary constraints is often the promise of providing future bookings, or perhaps even a specific mention and recognition, as a form of compensation in lieu of commercial remuneration.
There are two major problems with this.

First, getting a mention isn’t compensation. We did, after all, provide the service, so visual recognition is automatic. It is not something that we hope a third party will be kind enough to grant us.

Second, a mention or recognition doesn’t pay bills. As we hopefully made clear above, we work hard to make the money required to reinvest in on going development and to cover related business expenses. On top of that, we need to make enough to pay for basic necessities like food, housing, transportation, etc.

In short, receiving credit for a service we have provided is a given, not compensation, and credit is not a substitute for payment.


“You Are The Only Interpreter Being Unreasonable”. 

When we do have time to engage in correspondence with people and entities who request free interpreting services, the dialogue sometimes degenerates into an agitated statement directed toward us, asserting in essence that all other interpreters the person or entity has contacted are more than delighted to provide services for free, and that somehow, we are “the only interpreter being unreasonable”. We do talk with each other and we do know that is not true.

We also know that no reasonable and competent interpreter would agree to unreasonable conditions. We do allow for the fact that some inexperienced interpreters/communicators or people who happen to know some sign language may indeed agree to work for free, but as the folk wisdom goes: “You get what you pay for.”


Please Follow-Up.

One other experience we have in common is that when we do provide an interpreting service for free, we often do not receive updates, feedback or any other form of follow-up letting us know how the event or project unfolded, what goals (if any) were achieved, and what good (if any) our service did. All too often, we don’t even get responses to emails we send to follow-up, until, of course, the next time that someone wants free interpreting.

In instances where we do agree to work for free, please have the courtesy to follow-up and let us know how things went. A little consideration will go a long way in making us feel more inclined to take time to provide additional services in the future.


To Wrap Up.

We hope that the above points help elucidate why the relevant interpreter has sent you to this link. All of us are dedicated professionals, and we would be happy to work with you to move forward in a mutually beneficial manner.

Alan Haythornthwaite RSLI, MVLP, RBSLI

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