Co-op spotlight: Interpreters’ Cooperative of Madison

It isn’t hard to guess what the Interpreters’ Cooperative of Madison does: we provide interpretation for individuals and groups. However, we also do written translations of all descriptions and lengths, from half-page meeting minutes to 300-page books. And you might not guess that we also have experience with things like subtitling, voiceovers, website translation, and more.

Our co-op started off as a list. The Workers’ Rights Center found itself in need of interpreters on a regular basis, so it kept a list handy to call down. Over time, the list become a group in its own right, and eventually decided to form itself into a worker co-op. It took considerably longer than expected, but in October of last year, we were formally incorporated. Now we have a clear identity, with business cards, a website, and even a Facebook page!


Adam Trott of Equal Exchange (left) announces an award at the recent conference of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (see other article), as ICM member Martin Alvarado interprets into Spanish. Photo by the author.

As far as we can tell, we’re currently the only interpreters’ cooperative in the US, and possibly in the world. Organizations with similar purposes exist in several places, but as volunteer collectives and/or projects of non-profits. However, we’ve had contact with a number of people in different parts of the country who have asked us for advice on starting a co-op like ours.

Locally, a number of things set us apart from other interpreters and translators. First is our price range. We aren’t the very cheapest option available, because a lot of volunteer interpreters exist. But interpreting tends to be the sort of thing where you get what you pay for… up to a point. That point is where the big, corporate interpreting companies come in. They outsource all jobs to contractors, who do roughly as good a job as we do and end up taking home about what we do. The big, corporate interpreting companies, however, are charging their clients outlandish prices, and pocketing the difference. As worker-owners, we cut out the middleman, which means we’re affordable to organizations that operate on a shoestring. We also have a scholarship fund to support people who can’t afford even our lowest rate.


ICM members Graciela Laguna (in the black shirt) and Patrick Hickey (red shirt) serve patrons at a scholarship fundraiser thrown for us by Willy Street Cooperative at their not-even-open-yet store in Middleton. Photo by the author.

The next difference is our experience. Every one of us has been interpreting and/or translating for more than a decade, and we are all comfortable with simultaneous interpretation (in which the speaker does not pause, and the interpreter listens and speaks at the same time). Most of us have lived for years in Latin America. Most importantly, we all know firsthand what it’s like to work for the kinds of clients our co-op works with: community organizations, non-profits, small businesses, schools and government agencies, unions, other co-ops, and individuals.

As important as experience is, there’s always more to learn about a second language. We have three native Spanish speakers and five native English speakers, and we are constantly comparing notes on the best way to handle words and phrases. When we translate written documents, no matter how small, the final draft is always proofread by a native speaker of the target language. That’s because the best translation is one that doesn’t sound like a translation.

It bears mentioning that we do not interpret in court or in hospitals. Those needs are being pretty well met in our area. But that doesn’t do much for people who are healthy and not appearing in court. Note that we are still available for legal consultations outside of a courtroom setting, and to translate medical documents.

You might be wondering what languages we work in. Good question! Spanish is our biggest, by far. All the worker-owners of the co-op work primarily or exclusively between Spanish and English, and one also works in Italian. We also have associates who speak Hmong and Russian, and we have contacts who speak Portuguese, Croatian, and American Sign Language. Other languages have been more challenging for us to track down, such as Mandarin, Japanese, and Haitian Creole, so if you are an experienced interpreter of those languages, we’d be interested in talking to you.

You can find us on the web at interpreters.coop, or email us atinfo@interpreters.coop. We’d love to hear from you — in any language.

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