Technology, modernity, and globalization are great for interpreters, it’s just that…

April 19, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are very fortunate to live at a time when there are so many developments that make our lives more comfortable; this includes our profession. Most interpreters realize that there are many positive changes: From the way we now research our assignments, to the social media we use to get more clients, to the places where we work, to the things we now take to the booth. All improvements to the way we used to work just a few years ago.

Nobody wants to go back to the days when you had to go to the library to research and study for an assignment, we now google the subject matter, the speaker, and the venue where we are going to render our services, and we do it from our office, our home, an airplane, and even the beach. Our research library went from the nearby branch of the local library system to all of the Ivy League libraries combined. We now keep up with all developments in the profession, and with current affairs in general, by using the web, and particularly social media. We find out about conferences, online courses, webinars, and business trends with Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, and many others that we also use for getting new clients and keeping the good ones we already have.

Many interpreters who did not have access to important assignments in the past, because of the place where they live, can now interpret remotely using a virtual booth without having to go to the big city or travel half way across the world. This has helped them become better interpreters and broaden their perception of the profession.

I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the days when we used to drag heavy suitcases full of dictionaries, glossaries, and textbooks to the booth. Now, if we have an I-Pad or a tablet in the booth, we have all the libraries in the world, everything the speaker ever said or wrote on a particular topic, and all the information on the subject matter of the presentation updated to the very last minute. Nobody wants to give this up.

You see my friends, interpreters want technology, and they want globalization, but we need to be very careful. I think that sometimes people get confused and mix two separate concepts: (1) Technology and those who create, develop, and improve it, and (2) The big language service providers who are in a race to get all possible benefits out of these developments and are ready to leave nothing behind for the human asset in this equation: the interpreter.

The creators, call them researchers, developers, scientists, or engineers who are constantly giving us new tools to make our lives and careers easier and more comfortable are not the enemy. They spend most of their time trying to find ways to deliver a quality product (or service) to those who are and could be our clients.  They are the ones who brought us all of the positive changes I mentioned above, and many more. This is a crowd we want to be with, we need to.

We must engage these entrepreneurs because they know the science and the engineering, not because they are acquainted with the interpreting profession. We are the experts in this field, the ones they need to hear from, the ones they must listen to, the ones who will tell them what is needed and how. We cannot afford to ignore them, attack them, or dismiss them; we have to sit down and talk to them.

We also have to come to terms with globalization, and I believe that most interpreters have done so. Everybody understands that globalization is here to stay, we cannot (and should not) wish it away. We know that globalization broadens the pool of interpreters that can have access to an assignment, it opens all world markets to the profession. This translates into more opportunities for the good quality interpreter to have more and better work, and it gives the client the possibility to get the most knowledgeable interpreters in a particular field or subject matter, regardless of where they might be physically located.  Obviously, a clear effect of globalization is the ever increasing need to communicate with others who will often speak a different language, thus emphasizing the need for interpreters and translators. The verdict is in: Globalization is great for interpreters because it gives the client access to more and better professionals, and it allows us to get more complex, interesting, and profitable assignments. My friends, we face no threat from new technology or from globalization. Let’s not buy into this argument. We need to stop wasting our time fighting against windmills.  We must concentrate our efforts somewhere else:

We already know what many interpreting agencies are doing under the banner of globalization and technology: They want us to spend our energy fighting against them, they want us to look obsolete and reluctant to change, that is the image they are selling to their clients.  Why would they do that? Because it helps them. By silencing the interpreters’ voice, they get the clients’ undivided attention, and once they have the client in their pocket, they can convince them to do as they recommend. Their goals are different from ours. There is nothing wrong with that, as they owe their loyalty to their shareholders, and we cannot lose sight of it.  The large (sometimes publicly traded) language service agencies’ goal is to generate a big profit by minimizing their expenses as much as possible. They will spend huge amounts of money acquiring this new technology in order to lower their cost of operation. Once the new system is in place, technology will allow them to control the market and offer interpreters a very sad choice: “take very little money for your services, or get out of the way”.  They are banking on their clients’ trust (remember, they have their undivided attention) and they rely on new technology that will let them work with mediocre interpreters as these new technologies will do much of the work that interpreters used to do.  The result will be a very low quality service, but because of this strategy, the clients will never know, or at least it will take them a while to discover the poor choices they made.   Now, the agencies I usually work for do not fall into this category. In this article I am not talking about some big companies who work big conferences and events; I am not including some small agencies who do a great job and pay interpreters very well either. They all understand the importance and value of a quality interpretation.  Here I am referring to those enormous agencies that control a big chunk of the market, and hire thousands of interpreters for laughable rock-bottom fees every day. These are the agencies many of you reading this post work with on a regular basis.

I also want to make it clear that I am not calling them evil. They do what they are supposed to do, and do it very well. The important point for us, as interpreters, is to understand that we do have opposing interests in the profession, and with this realization, we must deal with them not as criminals or monsters, but as antagonistic forces in our professional market, who, in my opinion, bring in less value than the interpreter, as the profession can exist without them, but it cannot without us.

This is what major multinational language agencies are doing at this time. We should not take the bait. Instead of arguing against globalization and technology, we must change the debate and take it to the human talent: The interpreter.

You see, we need to have a two-front approach:

(1) We have to talk directly to those developing the technology, and we need to do it now before the agencies take ownership of the whole issue. The scientists and engineers will talk to us: We are the equipment users. We have to create forums where we can discuss interpreting technology with those developing it; we have to talk costs, service, preferred platforms, software, and many other things. We need to do it as soon as possible, and we need to do it in an environment free of the interests of the major language agencies. In other words, this will never happen if we believe that results can be achieved within an environment controlled by these language service providers. We cannot bring these issues to the table and speak directly to the scientists and engineers in events sponsored by the agencies. There cannot be real progress in a discussion panel where the moderator is the CEO of one of these huge agencies who clearly, and logically, have goals that are different from ours.  Does this mean that we will not sit down and talk to the agencies? Absolutely not. It is just that before we do that, we have to be in a better position to be able to negotiate from strength. The last thing we need right now is to hear fantastic stories from some of these agencies trying to convince interpreters that the technology they now use is great for us because “instead of having to drive downtown to do your work, and instead of having to sit down and wait for a couple of hours before interpreting, you can now devote forty five minutes to the interpreting task from your own home, and then do something else with the rest of your life like mowing the lawn or playing with your kids”.  Of course, this means that instead of paying the interpreter for a full day of work, their intention is to pay for forty five minutes of work. On top of being insulting to the professional interpreter, nobody can make a living that way. They are offering a salary lower than a fast food restaurant and they are doing it with a big smile on their face.

(2) We need to educate the client by speaking directly to them.  Most clients rely on the agency’s knowledge and expertise as far as selecting the interpreters for an assignment. They never really stop to think what it is needed to properly interpret, and the agencies do not want them to spend much time doing that, as it would provoke uncomfortable questions about the quality, training, education, and experience of so many of the interpreters they presently offer to their clients, as these agencies make their decision to hire based on one issue alone: Who is willing to work for less money.

The client needs to know that a good interpreter has years of education and experience, and only after that, interpreters can deliver an impeccable, accurate, clear, and pleasant rendition; they need to be made aware of the fact that real professional interpreters do a comprehensive research of the subject matter, and do not take assignments two hours before the job when the agency representative calls them desperate because they cannot get anybody to cover the event. The client needs to hear how a really good interpreter goes beyond the rendition, works on problem prevention and solving during the event. Once the client understands that a good interpreter sells peace of mind, and especially after they realize that working with the interpreter directly, instead of through an agency, will be more cost-effective, as agencies pay rock bottom fees to the interpreter, while at the same time they charge their clients handsomely, they will become more knowledgeable and will demand good interpreters from the agencies. This is where you, my dear colleagues, need to hold your ground and demand top professional fees from these agencies. I suggest that as part of this education you target the legal department and insurance office of the client, and share with them some of the tragic results of hiring poor quality interpreters. We all know about these unfortunate incidents. I am convinced that these individuals will advise their clients to retain quality interpreters, as they will understand that good professionals are like an insurance policy: More expensive in the short run, but money savers at the end of the day.

Do not be shy about explaining to the client how it does not make sense to spend a lot of money hiring an expensive speaker for a keynote address, a top-notch caterer, and a beautiful venue, if at the end of the day the people who paid to listen to the speaker will not get much out of the presentation because they could not understand the foreign language speaking presenter due to poor quality interpreting.  Your job is to convince them that an expensive interpreter is not an expense, it is an investment.

Never forget that as the human talent in this operation, interpreters are indispensable to deliver the service, just like you cannot benefit from an MRI without a physician’s reading of the results, you cannot have quality interpreting without good interpreters. We can join forces with the technology provider and do a magnificent job. Agencies cannot do the same without good interpreters, unless we let them change the subject so that their client does not see the importance of our service. At this point we will have many options: we will be able to decide if we want to work with large agencies, smaller ones, directly with the client, and even as a professional group, association, or cooperative where we may be able to acquire the needed technology and offer our services bypassing the low-paying agencies.

At this time we will be ready to sit down and negotiate as equals with these gigantic agencies. They are doing a good job at what they are supposed to do; now it is our time to do the same.  Please share your thoughts on this extremely important issue, and when doing so, please abstain from mentioning all the things that agencies can do that we cannot, because we know the things they do, and we understand that although difficult, we could ultimately do them all.  I invite you to contribute to this discussion without defending the agencies. We all know there are already plenty of forums where they can defend themselves.

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§ 10 Responses to Technology, modernity, and globalization are great for interpreters, it’s just that…

  • Iveta Kopankina says:

    Thank you ever so much for this publication. It really is both sincere and well-meant. However, the longer I have to deal with agencies, the more I understand that they (at least in my country) are interested only in their profits. Naturally, to do this they belittle the role of the interpreter/translator. Had I known how I would be treated as a professional, believe me, I would have never ever chosen my profession. When I started working as an interpreter, we were really valued and respected. Well, after more than 30 years of work I have to draw a conclusion that the only good clients are direct clients.

  • Katarzyna Diehl says:

    McDonaldisation of our exciting industry, whose most precious asset are untiring freelance T&Is, has developed gradually since at least the late 1990s. In my opinion, it has reached its peak now, gracefullly combined with the peak of fascination in T&I technologies.
    Overworked and stressed-out freelance T&Is do not always have the time to take action. However, translators’ associations, which are still very much there, continue to publish working conditions and remuneration rules for freelance interpreters. These should be observed by both agencies and direct clients if they want to be treated seriously. These should be observed in public tenders for T&I services. The work is in progress on the ISO standard “Interpreting – General Guidelines”. It would be good if interpreters’ organizations were more active there. Otherwise, agencies will take things over and get their way the way they want it.
    Not that I assign too much magical importance to such documents, but they should exist. Like a lighthouse.

    • oxana says:

      The only complaint I would have with this piece is the sore neck I ended up with from nodding in agreement through the whole thing.

      The final two paragraphs might very well offer the key to the solution of the problem. Whereas the individual effort of consciousness raising amongst our clients and standing firm against the race to the bottom is an indispensable element, it alone will not suffice. An organized collective effort is needed. The individual quality leaders of the profession will have to join forces and devise the means by which we harness the emerging and already available technologies to deliver the convenience and services the agencies provide but a single interpreter simply cannot.

      Cutting out the middleman will only succeed to the degree we manage to offer the talent aggregating and scheduling services the agencies have always traditionally offered with equal or greater efficiency. Basically, what it comes down to might have to be an agency run by interpreters for interpreters where the administrative burden (we interpreters typically so love to hate) is shared across all participants in the project with massive support from optimized technology.

    • oxana says:

      “However, translators’ associations, which are still very much there, continue to publish working conditions and remuneration rules for freelance interpreters.”

      Yes, they are still very much here. However, what appears not to be very much here, in the U.S. that is – meaning the ATA and NAJIT- are those working conditions and remuneration rules for freelance interpreters.

      Their existence would indeed be magical. Even more magical would be to actually see those associations advocating for the implementation of such standards. Making the pledge to upholding a prerequisite for membership.

  • First of all, thanks for this nice post. Translators must certainly use technology. It always helps and opens new point of visions. But, it is again important to know the difference between a translator and machine. Some people do not understand, and perhaps will not understand this issue.

  • “Your job is to convince them that an expensive interpreter is not an expense, it is an investment.”
    Excellent sentence! I would say the same to translators…

  • […] Dear colleagues: We are very fortunate to live at a time when there are so many developments that make our lives more comfortable; this includes our profession. Most interpreters realize that there…  […]

  • Didier Fourcot says:

    “At this time we will be ready to sit down and negotiate as equals with these gigantic agencies.”

    This time could be now:
    – they resell our services
    – they advertise on the quality and professionnalism of the people they reseel to their clients
    – they are in the position of hiring people when we are in the position of being hired, and we have an other job with the other agencies: one specificity of this industry is that all agencies pretend to compete with the best people while all of them share the same workforce!

    The best agencies deserve the best translators: if the client is educated enough, agencies should compete to get the best talents onboard, and the best talents are very much in demand these days.

    • oxana says:

      Thank you for your observation. What do you propose interpreters do to leverage their position to where they don’t continually end up getting the short end of the stick?

      Recognizing and describing the issues is a fundamental first step that we must all engage in. Or, at the very least morally support those rare individuals who stick their neck out to do this as Mr. Rosado does in his blog with a depth, rigor, precision and commitment rarely seen amongst our colleagues. Many of whom remain willfully oblivious or content just to timidly pass on the platitudes purveyed by our professional T&I associations. Organizations supposedly “established to advance the translation and interpreting professions” but don’t even offer a platform where these problems are allowed aired.

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