Overwhelming Majority of Interpreters and Translators Are Self-Employed and Independent. In Fact. By Choice.

A new study of the language profession finds that 75 percent of interpreters and translators are freelance or self-employed. The comprehensive study reveals that independent contractor status is the norm throughout California, in all categories in the profession, and even across nations. 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are depending on interpreters and translators to make sense of official announcements and apply evidence-based guidance to slow new infections and save lives. But thousands of practicing linguists are facing an extraordinary challenge, compounded by the public-health emergency, that threatens their ability to survive professionally and serve their communities.

For linguists in California, since January 1 a new state law, AB 5, has thrown their profession and capacity to operate into grave doubt. The law fails to include linguists among its exemptions for occupations or traditionally independent professionals, even though the official labor code recognizes translators and interpreters as “professionals and kindred occupations.”

By providing no recourse to thousands of interpreters and translators to operate independently in guiding millions of Californians across language divides, the law threatens to impose an erroneous definition of employee as a condition for working in the state. It has triggered a cascade of terminations of service throughout our state that was devastating linguists at all levels even before the coronavirus hit the country. 
 
The large-scale survey of language professionals shows how mistaken and dangerous that definition of employee is. Any effort to impose it on language professionals is like the tail wagging the dog. 
 
Only 6 percent of translators and interpreters are employed in-house for clients, consistent with a definition of “employee.” That is less than 1/12 the number who are self-employed or a freelance operator of a small business.
 
The comprehensive analysis by CSA Research encompasses more than 7,300 respondents. Its finding reinforces what hundreds of practicing linguists have been telling California lawmakers: 1) the vast majority of translators and interpreters are independent in fact and by choice; and 2) AB 5, which has misclassified linguists and put in jeopardy language access for millions of Californians, must be fixed promptly, lest Californians lose their livelihoods, access to language service, and this crucial sector of our economy, contributing about $2 billion annually. 
 
State lawmakers in 2019 passed a version of AB 5 that ignored the concerns of thousands of highly trained professional linguists who guide Californians in overcoming language barriers. The wave of cancelations of work throughout our state unleashed by the law is endangering translators and interpreters who are truly independent contractors. 
 
To learn more about why independence works for linguists, the 75 percent finding by CSA Research, and the challenges facing interpreters and translators, read this InterpretAmerica article by CoPTIC advocates Barry Slaughter Olsen and Katharine Allen here:

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