Interpreters’ new normal? Not so fast.

July 3, 2020 § 20 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Every time I open a social media platform or check my email I find a message from a distance interpreting platform inviting potential clients and interpreters to a free demo session, an advertisement from an interpreting agency announcing they offer the most affordable remote interpreting services, or they have opened an interpreting hub; and I see dozens of posts from interpreters (known and unknown) showing pictures of their laptops, headsets, and microphones while they smile and stare at the wall in front of their desks.

We entered the second half of the worst year in the history of our profession, and we did so full of uncertainty. The time when we will go back to the airport and work from the booth in a conference room is not on the radar yet. Financial losses in the private sector, tight budgets in governments and international organizations, travel restrictions in parts of the world, and an out of control pandemic in many places due to people’s ignorance and terrible performance by government officials in several nations, are testing our patience, bank accounts, and commitment to the profession and colleagues we must defend. I dislike everything I just described, but I understand why it is happening, and I adapt my practice to these temporary circumstances.

I do not understand how some of my colleagues are telling their clients that remote simultaneous interpretation “is pretty good,” and call it “the new normal.” As I was told by a client who spoke to one of these interpreters, not a platform or an agency, some colleagues have even explained to the clients that “…(RSI) can do almost everything an in-person interpretation can, and soon it will be as good and cheaper…” (client and interpreter names omitted for privacy and legal reasons).

Those statements are false, even responsible platforms and agencies agree that distance work has its limitations. RSI and VRI are “OK” for now, they are a resource to deal with a situation during the pandemic and its aftermath in extremis (Merriam-Webster: “In extreme circumstances.” Oxford: “In an extremely difficult situation… it is something to which (humans) will resort”).

Distance interpreting can be useful for certain events or encounters, but due to some factors from outside interpreting, such as technology and infrastructure, and others from inside interpreting, such as lack of support from a boothmate next to the active interpreter, and the deprivation of valuable information and clues gained only by the sensory perception of individuals’ physical presence (an RSI interpreter is at the mercy of the limited sensory information a bandwidth can convey). When not used in extremis, distance interpreting is just a way to hold a meeting or conference at a low cost but without the benefit of interpreting services the way they are meant to be provided. RSI is essentially some businessmen who got funding to develop something that pleases their clients, as long as you do not mention everything missing from the interpretation. To some it is a budget solution, just like Ryanair and Walmart.

Interpreters need to stop to think that by endorsing statements like the ones I mentioned above, they are doing the platforms’ bidding, not the professional interpreters’ community. Propagating such information is bad for the client, it is bad for the event, and it is bad for business. Eventually conferences will be back because nothing can replace the human need for human contact. The meeting after the meeting, a handshake to close the deal, a conference destination to reward the salesforce, the need to get out of the house, and yes, the burdens of distance interpreting on conference attendees will bring our work back, and when it happens we must be ready to embrace our profession the way it is meant to be. Singing the praises of distance interpreting, even though we know of its shortcomings, just because we want to work right now, and we fear falling out of favor with agencies and platforms, will make it harder to convince the end client and event organizer to offer in-person interpreting services again. Right now, you are making little money, but agencies and platforms are having a great year. They will oppose in-person interpreting in the future, not because they are bad awful people, but because it serves them poorly. No doubt distance interpreting is here to stay, there are certain events where it works fine: Corporate board sessions, planning meetings, preliminary business negotiations, and others can be interpreted remotely because of the savings to the company or organization. We will see distance interpreting for marginal court procedures and medical consultations. Government window clerks and airline ticket counter employees could use tablets with RSI. That is fine. Some people fly Ryanair and shop at Walmart.

For now, we need to focus on protecting the benefits of in-person interpreting while providing distance interpreting services in extremis. We also need to listen to our clients, they are the key element to our practice, not the platforms. Our efforts should go to the client; see what they need, help them to solve their problems, and accommodate their preferences. Clients will choose a remote platform that serves their needs, they already know, and saves them money. Be ready to work on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Blue Jeans, Go To Meeting, Skype for Business, Amazon Chime, Cisco Webex, Fuze, Adobe Connect, and others. Not all clients are willing or ready to spend money on an interpreter-dedicated platform and we must accept this for now. Things will change.

A year ago, remote meetings were a small business, used by few around the world. Today everybody with internet access has been to at least one. It went from an obscure unattractive business to a money-making industry, and that gets the big guys’ attention. Now that the lid is off, and the high tech giants know of its profitability, remote meetings, and so distance interpreting, will see so much money on research and development; and soon, the biggest players in the industry will offer their clients affordable, user-friendly platforms integrated to their already known and trusted services, under their well-known name brands. Don’t be surprised if two years from now we are talking of RSI platforms owned by Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Some names we see in the market today could be gone, and others may be part of an acquisition by one of the big leaguers. Nothing is certain, but… remember Betamax. That is why you must focus on your clients, give them advice, and adapt to their needs when needed. Eventually, they will decide where to go, not you.  Be flexible, without lowering your standards, adapt to what is out there today, and never sell short in-person interpreting. If not us, who will defend quality of service, and the profession?

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§ 20 Responses to Interpreters’ new normal? Not so fast.

  • Having just gotten my court interpreter certification a year ago, I admit that I used to find it a little “overkill” that the state court system used in-person interpreting almost exclusively, when in reality many court appearances such as an arraignment or a simple status conference take five minutes. Like, does it really make sense to pay me to drive for an hour each way, plus a two-hour interpreting minimum, to interpret for a very short appearance??

    Flash forward: remote interpreting is certainly convenient for the interpreter, and sometimes it has to be put in the “least-bad option” category, but there are also so many ways it can go wrong. I’ve had hearings where one party was driving (no kidding: “let me pull over so that I can write down the date of the next hearing”); hearings where it was so hard to hear that we had to postpone; family court hearings that are supposed to be confidential, but you can see a million people coming and going in the background. Everyone tries hard to make it work, but it’s pretty rare to get through a hearing where there isn’t an issue.

    Plus there are all of the issues with rights and access: if you don’t dial in to a phone hearing because your phone battery died or you can’t figure out how to use Webex, should that be considered failure to appear? How do the defendant and their attorney confer privately when you’re on Webex? And what about public access to the courts when everything is remote? Honestly I can’t wait to get back to in-person!!

    • Thank you, Corinne. Very valid points. The risk of unintentionally waiving client-attorney privilege in distance court interpreting is very real, and so far little explored by Bar Associations, and kept out of the conversation by agencies and other service providers.

  • Liviu-Lee Roth says:

    Dear Tony,
    I always read your posts with much interest. Most of the time you hit the nail in the head.
    Since I am not a native English speaker, I got the feeling that you meant the exact opposite when you wrote this sentence. ”Interpreters need to stop to think that by endorsing statements like the ones I mentioned above, they are doing the platforms’ bidding, not the professional interpreters’ community.” If I am wrong, I apologize.

    • Dear Liviu-Lee Roth. Thank you for your comment. I meant it exactly as it says. By endorsing statements like “the new normal” “ distance interpreting is pretty good”, “it will soon be as good as in-person interpreting,” our colleagues are helping the platform business, not the interpreters or the profession for that matter.

  • P Diane Schneider says:

    Thank you. We find courts trying to pay a per minute rate for video hearings which, if reaching the two hour minimum time frame add up to less than we were receiving for a two hour minimum assignment. We also encounter difficulties when there is no provision for interpreters to consult (if indeed two are contracted). There are many technical “bugs” to work out and many of us in this have begun to decline these jobs. When all parties are remote the situation becomes even more complicated as someone will have poor quality sound when not using earphones and microphone, whereas other parties will appear using a smart phone and others by telephone. We will likely have difficulty learning to function in the various modes available. This is extremely difficult even without fuzzy sound quality. We may all get better at this but we will never be as good as we are when working in a team, in person, while on site.

    • Diane, thank you for your comment. You are right. Court interpreters deal with freedom and financial issues in court. The outcome of these cases cannot be left to the quality of the technology used. Per-minute payment is insulting and no professional interpreter should agree to such work.

  • Victoria Kennedy says:

    Very well said, Tony. Thank you. I’m sharing your words.

  • Agreed Tony. We need to have a vision embracing the future of our profession. In the meantime, let’s be professional and codesign solutions with our clients. Thank you for taking such a clear stand!

  • I agree, nothing can replace the human need for human contact. And, I also don’t shop at Walmart.

  • Carmen L Saenz says:

    Tony, I whole totally agree with your comments. Most have readily accepted that this is the “new normal” and do not even contemplate the thought that things will go back to much less restrictions. It is very trying on the interpreter to not only focus on the interpretation as such, but also have to manipulate the platform to keep things flowing. We cannot accept to lower our rates, as I am certain that agencies would not lower the rates to their clients. In so doing, we will never be able to charge our pre-COVID-19 rates.

    I thoroughly enjoy and benefit from your insight.

    Thank you!

    Carmen L. Sáenz

  • Rebecca Garcia says:

    Tony, this was a great article. We are getting ready to do a murder trial in for a Spanish speaking defendant. The court is permitting in-person interpreting, but the issue of physical distancing is looming large. The attorneys asked for a continuance because they will have to sit 6 feet from their client and from each other, so they will not be able to confer. The judge wants them to communicate by cell phone, but of course they must conference call with the interpreter to be able to talk to their client! The defendant must have the headset to hear the interpreter as well as earbuds connected to the cell phone for when his attorneys want to speak to him!

    I absolutely detest remote interpreting. We have been doing it since March. With the interpreter out of sight, the person speaking forgets to stop talking so the interpreter can render. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been in a boxing match by the time I hang up!

  • Hedwig Spitzer says:

    Hello, Tony. I partially agree.

    Situations keep evolving and so technologies. We can’t say how things will work in the near future but RSI is here to stay, in all of its forms, as well as in-person assignments. They will resume at some point. It is just not black or white. There are a lot of shades of grade in-between.

    There will always be different markets, different kinds of events and different situations that will require one or another type of setting and interpreting. We, as interpreters, must be trained and ready to offer our clients the best advice and the best possible solution, as you say.

    However, if I consider that an in-person meeting could be better handled remotely I will certainly recommend my client to go for it. A colleague of mine insists that we should travel to an interpreting hub in another city for a hybrid event in November. It is just non-sense. We can work from a hub without travelling because the technology is the same where we are. But she is ‘forcing’ the client to fly us just to keep the ‘in-person’ setting alive. Ridiculous.

  • Beatriz Wright says:

    Mr. Rosado ~ Thank you for this post, as always, very helpful.

    I now want to direct your attention to yesterday’s meeting (7/30/20) between Vanessa Guillen’s mother and Donald Trump (see full video on YouTube, and warning: the details are gruesome).
    I’m wondering how this person ended up interpreting in such an important meeting… could someone with such poor skills work for the State Department??

    • Beatriz, thank you for your comments. There is a process to schedule White House interpreters. First, unless it is a meeting with a dignitary or head of state from a non-English speaking country, the party that requested the meeting must inform the White House that an interpreter will be needed. From watching the video, it seems the meeting was arranged through the family’s attorney and she probably did not request interpreting services because their plan was to have the English-speaking daughters talk to the president. In the past, she likely met with the family this way, with the mother occasionally participating through one of her daughters. This was an oversight by the requesting party. The White House has no way to know a non-English speaker will attend an event unless they get notice. The person interpreting was not a State Department interpreter. He did several things a diplomatic interpreter would not do such as standing to the side, not taking notes, and only interpreting part of the meeting. The individual had a tag which tells me he was support staff (probably bilingual) from somebody in the Texas Congressional Delegation who came with the visitors. Events at the White House requiring interpreting services are usually scheduled and planned months ahead, and the interpreters are assigned by the State Department’s Office of Language Services. Only the best of the best interpret at this level.

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