As interpreters we want new technology, but we need to be very careful.

March 19, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Imagine that you just received a phone call from a very prestigious organization that wants to hire you to interpret a conference in Tokyo next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The subject matter is very interesting and the fee is extraordinaire. For a moment you stop to take it all in, smile, take a deep breath, and then it suddenly hits you: You have to decline the assignment because a few minutes earlier you took another job with your most consistent, best-paying client who retained you to interpret a conference on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of the same week in Chicago. You hang up the phone and wonder why this is happening to you once again. Why do all good assignments have to be so close in time and so far in space from each other?  I am sure the scenario sounds familiar to all of you, because at one time or another, we all face these situations and are forced to make choices. It is obvious that you have to fulfill your contractual obligation to the client who has hired you to interpret in Chicago from Tuesday to Thursday. It is also evident that you needed to turn down the Tokyo assignment because it would take you a full day of nothing but traveling to get to Japan from the United States. Even with the time change you do not have that extra day needed to travel, because, assuming that you make it to Tokyo on Friday afternoon, by the time you get from Narita Airport to the conference venue, it will be too late; never mind the fact that you would be exhausted and in no shape to work three full days at the conference without any rest or time to adjust to the time change.  The events and places may be different, but until recently, that has been the story of our professional lives.  Every time you think of these missed opportunities you fantasize about doing both events.

What if I tell you that you can do both conferences without changing any dates, and therefore, keeping both clients happy and doubling your income?  It is possible! In fact, I have done it myself.

On Tuesday morning you wake up in Chicago, go to the event venue and do your job. The same thing happens on Wednesday and Thursday. Then, very early on Friday morning, because of the time change, you either go to a local studio in Chicago, or sit in front of your computer at home, and do a remote interpretation of the event in Tokyo. Afterwards, because you will be exhausted, you go home and rest until the following early morning when you will remotely interpret again. You do the same for three days.

The result of this technological advantage is that you can do something that until recently was impossible.  This is a wonderful example of how technology can help the interpreter.  You will make twice as much money that week, because you will work two full conferences, you will not have “dead time” while traveling to and from the venue (usually the day before and the day after the event, and sometimes even longer) and you will keep all your clients happy because you took care of them all. Remember, they wanted you to do the job, not just any interpreter.  At the same time the client in Tokyo in this case, ends up a winner, because they didn’t just hire the ideal interpreter for the job, they also spent less money to get you. Yes, my friends and colleagues, the organizers will save money because they will not have to pay for your travel expenses and they will not need to pay you a professional fee for the traveling days (usually at least half of your full-day fee). Everybody wins! As interpreters, we love this kind of technology that helps everybody. You make more money because of the two separate assignments that you will cover, and the organizers will save money as I highlighted above.

We as interpreters want new technology in our professional lives. We cannot deny the benefit of having an interpreter providing services in a remote hospital’s emergency room while she is physically hundreds of miles away from the patient. We cannot argue with the advantage of being able to interpret a trade negotiation between two or more parties who are virtually sitting at the same table even though they are physically in another part of the planet. We cannot ignore the positive outcome of a legal investigation when the investigator can interview a witness in a foreign country while the interpreter is here at home saving the client time and money.

That is the bright side of what is happening right now. Unfortunately, there is also a dark side that we as interpreters have to guard against.

It is a reality that this new technology costs money. It is not cheap, and for the most part, the ones who can afford it, at least on a bigger scale, are the huge multinational language service providers who have recognized all the advantages mentioned above, but for whatever reason, instead of fostering a professional environment where my example above can become the rule instead of the exception, they have seen the new technology as a way to increase their earnings by lowering the professional fees they pay to the interpreters.

It is of great concern to see how some professional interpreter organizations have been infiltrated by these multinational language service providers. It is discouraging to look at a conference program and realize how these entities are paying for everything the interpreter will hear or see at the event.  These agencies turn into big corporate sponsors and attend the event with a goal of recruiting as many interpreters as possible, for the smallest amount of money that they can convince them to accept.  Just a few weeks ago during a panel discussion at an interpreter conference in the United States, the association invited the CEO of one of these multinational language service providers to moderate the debate, and for that matter, to decide what questions were going to be asked.  This individual is not even an interpreter. The real tragedy is that this is not an isolated case, there have been other events, and there are others already planned where the gigantic presence of these conglomerates creates, at the very least, the impression that they decide everything that will be happening at the conference.

As professional interpreters we must be vigilant and alert. Some of these corporations are now propagating on the internet a new strategy where these entities are separating themselves from the machine translation “reputation” by making it clear, to those naïve interpreters who want to listen, that the technology they are using is not to replace the human interpreter, that it is to help interpreters do their job; part of the argument states that thanks to this new technology, interpreters will not need to leave home to do their job, that they will not need to “waste” time going to work or waiting, sometimes for a long time, to interpret a case at the hospital or the courtroom. They argue that thanks to this technology, interpreters will only spend a few minutes interpreting, leaving them free to do whatever they want to do with the rest of their time. Of course, you need to dig deeper to see that they are really saying that with the new technology, they will only pay the interpreter for the services rendered by the minute. In other words, their interpretation of the technological developments is that they can save money, but the interpreter is not invited to the party. My example at the beginning of this post is not an option for most of these multinational language service providers.  This is what we have to guard against so that we do not end up making money for 20 minutes of interpreting a day.

Obviously, as you all know, these minute-based fees are ridiculously low, and therefore unappealing to good interpreters. The agencies are ready for this contingency as well. After the exodus of good interpreters, they will continue to advertise their services as provided by “top quality interpreters” because they will mask the lack of professional talent with their state-of-the-art technology. That is where we, as the real professional interpreters, need to educate the consumer, our client, so they see the difference between a good professional interpreter and a paraprofessional who is willing to work for a little more than the minimum wage.  These “mass-produced” so-called interpreter services will be the equivalent of a hamburger at a fast food restaurant: mass-produced, frozen, tasteless, odorless, and cheap.  We all need to point this out to the world, even those of us who never work for these multinational service providers, because unless we do so, they will grow and reproduce, and sooner or later they will show up in your market or field of practice.  Remember, they have a right to be in business and make a profit for their shareholders, but we also have a right to fight for our share of the market by giving the necessary tools to the consumers (our clients) so they can decide what kind of a meal they want to serve at their business table.  I invite you to share your opinion on this very serious issue with the rest of us.

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§ 4 Responses to As interpreters we want new technology, but we need to be very careful.

  • hcazes says:

    I congratulate you, Tony, on addressing this concern!

    As an interpreter, I warmly welcome technology.

    But as interpreters, we must also be able to have a say on how we will use and take advantage of new technologies.

    We have to remain firm in making our clients understand that we are not selling time, minutes, or words. We are professionals providing a service using our learning, experience and expertise.

    We also have to be sure we remember this, and not start penny-pinching ourselves agreeing to large reductions in our fees (which we have worked so hard to gain) under the “pretext” that we are “spending less time” traveling so it all “balances out”…

    We must remain aware at all times that any savings that come from the use of technology should be reflected in the expenses surrounding our professional services, NOT in our professional fees.

    I believe that our professional associations should be concerned about this issue and seek to look out for the interests of the bulk of their membership (even though, as individual freelancers, our only financial contribution is our dues)

  • Perfect timing again, Tony. Thank you for this opportunity to speak. I have tons of technology: about 10 computers, some purposefully ancient to accommodate some of my clients’ old 16 and 32 bit software in which they give me transcription material. I also have THE most advanced gadgets–, BUT! BUT… technology is just a tool… and, like all tools, they always fail at some point or another, and usually at the worst time! Let those multi-nationals who hire the remote interpreters, suffer the consequences of being cheap (saving money) by not bringing the interpreter in person. They often come back to me later crying with stories of: The fiber-optics system went down, the internet went down for 15 minutes during the main speaker, we had a problem at the microphone level and couldn’t send the sound to the interpreter, etc.

    As an in-person interpreter, I have solved the most mind-boggling technical difficulties right before a conference was to start, that even the “sound guy” that they sent could not solve. Remote interpreting will never be able to solve last minute problems. Some may say: It’s not my job to figure out technical problems, I’m “just” the interpreter. Well, they’re right, in a sense. But we are each still an entire human being and not just a voice inside headphones. We bring SO MUCH MORE when we are physically present.

    I was told by a COO of a large multi-national that they charged their client between $4.00 to 7.00 per minute. That’s not what they offer us, not even close. Also, I have noticed that these companies do not hire us professional interpreters, they cheapen the service by using anybody, any bilingual. I’ve heard their HORRIBLE interpretation in court!

    Not everybody can afford a Lamborghini or Ferrari. Lo barato siempre sale caro. Cheap always ends up being expensive.

    We should resist the temptation to put ourselves in a situation where we cannot see those for whom we interpret, where we cannot ask them to please use the microphone or hold it up closer, to repeat, etc.

    Hospitals are getting sued due to enormous errors. I once literally saved a person’s life because I sight translated the discharge instructions. The nurse handed that English document and wanted the patient to sign it BEFORE I read it, but I insisted that the insurance company that hired me mandated me to do a complete job, so I read it. It talked about the patient NOT taking a particular medicine if he was a diabetic. Well, they prescribed it to him! That type of situation cannot be resolved by a video/audio interpreter. I wasn’t advocating, I was just doing my job.

    Some interpretation companies only care about MONEY, not you the interpreter, or the client, or the patient, or anyone. They are not worthy of us.

  • […] Source: As interpreters we want new technology, but we need to be very careful. […]

  • Katty Kauffman says:

    Spot on, Tony! It’s also important that interpreters recognize the added difficulties involved remote interpreting and ensure that their clients provide the conditions needed to perform to the best of their ability. While it may sound simple to interpret via Skype for example, reality is very, very different. A clear, quality sound feed is vital to doing our job. That quality is often absent in the type of technologies our clients expect us to use, like Skype and some videoconferencing systems. See for a layman’s description of some of the challenges, explained in terms that even the most technologically-challenged client (or interpreter!) can understand.

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