May 19, 2020 § 5 Comments
Remote Simultaneous Interpreting, and other forms of remote interpreting, will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis more popular and stronger. It is a great option and no doubt it will get better. There will be good and bad platforms, and interpreters shall continue to work for direct clients while they will continue to struggle with agencies, and defend the profession from existing and newcomer entities’ insatiable appetite for profit at the expense of interpreters’ pay, and at the expense of quality.
In a few short years, there will be a new generation of conference interpreters who never knew the profession without remote work. It will be similar to what we see with the generation that never carried a suitcase full of dictionaries to the booth, or went to the “other booth” to make a phone call from the conference venue.
I have no doubt, however, that in-person interpreting will remain the rule for the meetings and events of higher importance. RSI will take its place at the table, but not at the head of the table, just as the newest invitee to the feast, very popular and sought after for lesser exchanges and negotiations.
But even when the water goes back to its usual levels, there will be many events, such as preliminary business or corporate negotiations, urgent and emergency executive discussions, staffer planning discussions, and routine company and government meetings that will choose virtual events in considerable numbers. Add that to the smaller businesses, local government agencies with scarce financial resources, and non-for-profit organizations’ activities that rarely or never held meetings, workshops or conferences because they could not afford them, and you are left with a big market sector in need of remote simultaneous interpreting.
Many of these events will not retain professional conference interpreters, they will try their luck with community interpreters, court interpreters and others, very good and capable in their field of practice, but inexperienced in conference interpreting. Others will hire top interpreters to do the job.
With time, many new conference interpreters could prefer working from a local hub, and perhaps (oh, God!) from their own homes. Conference interpreting will be more attractive, and turn into a viable option to many interpreters who never considered it in the past because they prefer the home turf over constant travel. Interpreters who like gardening, or want to be involved in community theater, or play softball with their church’s team will happily embrace conference interpreting. We may see colleagues afraid of flying, or some who never had a passport working as conference interpreters without ever spending a night at a hotel.
No doubt these new conditions will attract many good capable people to conference interpreting. The question is: Will these interpreters of the not-so-distant future be like the colleagues who populated the booth all over the world before the pandemic? It is a complex situation, and it is difficult to give a straight answer. All I can say is that I am not sure the job description I included above would be appealing.
I decided to be a conference interpreter because I love interpreting. I enjoy learning and studying about language and communication among humans. I have a passion for helping people understand each other by providing my services; I believe in using the tools of my craft to better the world. If those were the only things that interested me, I could have been a translator, or remain a court interpreter as I was before.
A big part of what made conference interpreting attractive was that it was a place where I could do the above while being myself: extroverted, outgoing, constantly surrounded by extroverted people. Conference interpreting won me over from practicing law because of the traveling around the world. As an attorney I could have continued to travel to many places, but only as a tourist on a vacation. It was different. Conference interpreting allowed me to meet people from all cultures who literally live all over the world. It is appealing because of the opportunity to meet in person people I admire from government, science, sports, the arts, and ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. This has been possible not because of who I am, but because of what I do.
My life differs from the lifestyle of a translator or a community interpreter, from the little things, like never having to buy a bottle of shampoo because hotel rooms always have them, and thinking of doing laundry as putting your clothes in a bag you take to the front desk, to creating the most fascinating and valuable friendships with people who live everywhere. I joined the ranks of those who practice in-person interpreting because thanks to my job, when I say my goodbyes to my friend in Australia, or Japan, or South Africa, or Costa Rica, and I say “I’ll see you soon” I know it will happen. I travel all over, and I always have somebody to see everywhere I go. Finally, and in my opinion, more important, interpreting has allowed me to develop the greatest bond between humans. This will be hard to understand to people who do not work as conference interpreters, but the friendships and relationships with your fellow interpreters are precious and very strong. I am not sure I would be a conference interpreter without the possibility to work and in reality, live with a group of most interesting individuals. People you get to know better than anybody else in your life. You are together for extended periods of time, under stressful situations, with the most diverse backdrops planet earth offers. You travel together, eat together, work together, and socialize, and learn from each other.
Once I was attending a translators/interpreters’ conference somewhere in the world, and during the gala dinner, I got to sit at one of those big round tables with another 10 people or so. Most were translators, many I had never met before. Suddenly, a dear interpreter friend came to my table. I was very happy to see a “friendly face” so we said hi. I greeted my friend and said: “I am so glad to see you. I think I had not seen you since we had lunch in Greece”. My colleague kindly replied: “No. I think we saw each other in Beijing after that”. The translator sitting next to me made a comment I will never forget: “What a peculiar profession and interesting lifestyle. In my job I only go from the bedroom to the computer, and to the movie theater once a week”. To put it as a colleague told me a few months ago during lunch in Buenos Aires: “I love it that we see each other all over the world, and we never have to spend a penny to do it”.
Remote interpreting will change the profile of conference interpreters as a group. People who did not consider the profession, will enter the field. They will be very talented and capable; however, I am not sure that people with a current conference interpreter profile will stay in the profession. Many probably will, but many others will go somewhere else, lured by a profession where they can help better the world, and enjoy the pleasure of human relations, world travel, first-hand culture acquisition, and a profession where isolation will never be a part of the job description. Virtual boothmates are like watching a sports event on TV; it will never be the same as on the field with your teammates. Conference interpreters will not be better or worse than today. They will be different. We will see.
Please share your thoughts with the rest of us, and remember that this post is not talking about the good or bad things of remote interpreting, the platforms, or even the agencies. Its focus is you: the human element of the profession. Thank you.
May 4, 2020 § 1 Comment
Just like many people around the world, I am one of those individuals who watch a lot of movies, feel they are amateur movie critics, and always watch the Academy Awards Ceremony on television. Unlike most them, for professional reasons, I am usually on the road on Oscar night. This means sometimes I get to watch the ceremony when people are sleeping, and on the local TV broadcast of the country where I am working. Because the show is in English, TV stations in non-English speaking countries use simultaneous interpreting services (that is great for the locals, but a little uncomfortable to those of us who try to hear the original sound feed, partly covered by the interpreters’ voices).
Occasionally, when I watch the Oscars in a Spanish-speaking country, I do what we all do when we know the two languages used on the screen: I compare the source to the rendition. Most interpreters are very good, but as a spectator, you miss quite a bit of the ceremony’s flavor.
This year I watched the Oscars while working in a foreign country. I looked for the original English broadcast on cable or satellite TV, but my hotel only offered the simultaneously interpreted voiceover broadcast by a local network. I paid attention to both, the rendition and the original speeches in the background. No doubt the interpreters were experienced professionals, their interpretation was spot on, until it was not anymore. The interpreters remained silent during many of the political and current affairs’ remarks by hosts and award recipients. First, I thought it concerned censorship by the local authorities, but after a while it became evident that they were not interpreting those exchanges because they did not fully know what was being said. The Spanish-speaking audience did not get the full Oscar experience because some astute, sharp criticism and very good jokes were left out.
I immediately thought of the globalized interpreting market and how cheap agencies have taken away assignments from local, excellent interpreters in the United States and Western Europe, choosing experienced and way less expensive interpreters from developing economies.
I have discussed this issue with potential clients in developed nations and the comment is always the same: “…but these interpreters (from developing countries) are really good and they work for a fraction of the money you charge…” This is my cue to bring up to the client my competitive advantage.
I take this opportunity to explain the importance of having an interpreter with the right acculturation in the booth so communication may flow between speaker and audience. I make them see the value of making sure their message comes across by eliminating any informational voids and misunderstandings not attributable to a bad interpretation of what was said, but to a poor command of the speaker’s culture and its equivalences in the target language of that specific audience. You cannot communicate if you limit what a speaker may say or do. Analogies, jokes, pop culture, politics, and country-specific rules of etiquette are essential to a successful event. Sometimes I present the testimony of the technicians who work with interpreters all the time, and even without speaking the languages in the booth, they can tell if a joke or a cultural remark got lost in the interpretation.
This is something all interpreters in developed economies must emphasize. We have to drive home that a person who does not live in a country lacks many elements needed for an accurate rendition. No academic degree can replace this immersion.
A proactive strategy is essential to protect your market, more so at this time when many are promoting and using remote interpreting services. You need to drive this point home as it is your leverage. Unlike in-person interpreting when agencies, colleges, or corporations bring interpreters from developing countries to the West to save money in professional fees, and you have the law to protect you from foreigners working illegally as interpreters in a foreign country, and you should immediately go to the authorities without hesitation so violators are sanctioned and removed (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2019/02/06/alert-they-are-interpreting-illegally-outside-their-country/) this is your main line of defense in conference remote interpreting. Healthcare and legal interpreters have other defenses against telephonic, RSI, and VRI interpreting such as the certification or licensing requirement to interpret in such fields. State court interpreters in the United States can even use this argument against remote services by interpreters certified by another state. Interpreters in developing countries could argue the same when protecting their market from foreign interpreters.
The second principle interpreters need to enforce benefits us all, regardless of our country of residence.
Agencies are constantly looking for cheap interpreting services. To find them, they usually look south. Conference interpreters with similar skills and experience in Latin America will get paid about eighty percent less than their counterparts in the United States. Africa, many places in Asia, and certain countries in Eastern Europe are in a similar situation. If you stop and think about it, it is a bad situation for all interpreters; it is unfair to interpreters in developed economies, and it is insulting to our colleagues in the developing world. Let me explain.
When asked, agencies defend the microscopic amounts they pay in poorer countries with two arguments: Cost of living is lower, so interpreters in a country south of the equator do not have the same expenses as their colleagues in a rich country. The second argument is that their lifestyle is different, so an amount that looks low in the West, is actually pretty good, or at least good enough in an underdeveloped nation.
These arguments do not pass muster. That the electric bill is cheaper in a specific country has nothing to do with the professional service provided by the interpreter. Same work and same quality must get same pay.
Frankly, to say that a certain fee is “good enough” for somebody because of where they live is insulting. When clients or agencies offer a low fee to an interpreter in a developing country, what they are really telling them is “you are not sophisticated enough to appreciate a different standard of living, so this will make you happy. A steak is too good for you, have a burger. Caviar is not for you, have a bowl of beans.”
Many colleagues in these countries agree to such discriminatory practices, and work for less than peanuts, because they are afraid there will be no work. This is a misunderstanding. If they do not take the assignment. Who will do it? Even if they are paid the same fee as an interpreter from the U.S. or Western Europe, it is way more expensive to fly another interpreter from abroad. Remember: same work must get same pay. It is your market, not the agencies’. Reclaim it!
Interpreters will not get paid the same in South America and the United States. These are two markets; two economies. Our goal should always be to get the highest fee a particular market can afford. If you get paid that way, you will be in good shape, even if the amount is considerably less than Western European fees. This goes both ways. If South American interpreters work a local event in their country, they will make less money than American interpreters working a local event back in their country. American interpreters working a local event in South America will get less that their usual fee back home. The reason: The client is in the poorer economy. That is what they can afford.
But if interpreters from an emerging economy work an event in the United States or Western Europe, in-person with the appropriate work visa, or remotely from their home country, they must get paid what American interpreters make for that work. To determine professional fees in a particular market, the interpreters’ country of residence is irrelevant. What matters is the country where the client is located. It is the client who will spend the money.
The task is difficult, and it will take time for you to accomplish it. Remember: to protect our market, we must use our competitive advantage by emphasizing the huge void in communication caused by interpreters who lack acculturation. To make sure we get paid what we deserve, we must quote our fees according to the client’s country of residence, not the interpreters’. I now invite you share your ideas as to how we can achieve these two goals.