Trials For Freelance Interpreters Are As Risky As Roulette

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If freelance interpreters were in a casino, trials would be the roulette table.

Okay, I finally got burned enough on trials to realize I am gambling with my livelihood. If freelance interpreters were in a casino, trials would be the roulette table.

This past Monday, I worked one of the first in-person trials in Hays County. After having worked for 14 months via video, being back in the courtroom, with excellent professionals all around, I received a much needed shock to my passion for working in the judiciary. COVID has been a low blow for almost everyone I’ve spoken with during the lockdown. I’ve fortunately built a great freelance business in interpreting over the last several years. It’s not an easy business to thrive in.

My success, pre-pandemic, allowed me to experience stability and security for my young family. I was able to depend on my scores of clients to call me for jobs,. I was booking my calendar out a month at a time. But during the pandemic, however, I was quickly reminded how financially dysfunctional my line of work can be. I went from hero to zero. By March 18, 2020, the day after COVID protocol announcements, my calendar was wiped clean. That sounds pretty bad. And it is, except for the thrill factor. Speaking of thrilling, have you ever played roulette? (Excuse the deus ex machina.)

The first day of the trial was Monday: voir dire. I happened to be working with a judge who had, at one point when starting out, sent me away for arriving a few minutes late. Now, standing in front of him he asks, “Mr Hammock will you be able to attend for the next 2 weeks?” The ball drops on the table. What’s the wager: $1,000. “Yessir, I will make arrangements.” It was nice to have earned my place in the judge’s courtroom. It was my duty, I thought, to up the ante. Think about it. Had I replied, “Judge I can only commit if I have a guarantee I get paid for more than just today,” I probably would have gotten strange looks from the court staff. “No one cares about your financial matters. It’s a trial!” they’d be thinking. Like the pandemic did then, I now wipe my calendar clean.

I cut the cord on $1,000 in bookings. Why? Because the payout would be 9x. I’m all in at this point. Through out the stormy morning, I listened to jurors answering the prosecutors questions. One juror after another holding their number high. Strike after strike. It was like the tiny roulette ball bouncing over the wheel.

During a break it dawned on me that this first attempt at an in-person trial was a risky move for me. I’m freelance. I only get paid for the hours I work. Moreover, only recently have courts had to deal regularly with freelance interpreters, and in many instances don’t have reasonable policies for protecting interpreter’s financial well-being. In fact, they’re outright ignorant about our risk. I cannot go out and suddenly fill my calendar in. For freelance interpreters, trials really are a boom and bust situation. We need a system where interpreters can be found and booked automatically across organizations. But not through some overlord agency. A freelancer platform where the interpreter is in charge. This is what GoSignify is doing.

So what is the risk anyway? So a 1-to-9 payout on a roulette wheel means you’re betting on the the Street. How appropriate. 

Streetany three numbers horizontal (1, 2, 3 or 4, 5, 6, etc.)

However, this roulette table I  don’t get to play all that often. Only 2% of cases ever go to trial, so it’s a rare opportunity for me to fill in the calendar solid for a couple of weeks. Feel that security and safety, right. It’s appalling freelance interpreters are asked to drop everything for the court, to do our duty proudly, and then face financial difficulty if a mistrial is declared. And that’s what happened. The wheel stopped and I went bust.

Seth Hammock, MLCI

Seth Hammock, MLCI

Seth Hammock is a licensed court interpreter for Spanish speakers in Austin, Texas. Since 2017 he specializes in personal injury and criminal law. He has a B.S. in Computer Science from Baylor University and serves as the Director of Professional Development for the Austin Area Association of Interpreters and Translators (AATIA).
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