Interpreters in the driver’s seat: Distance interpreting need not be from home.

December 7, 2020 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Conditions worldwide continue to keep us isolated. Lack of travel, conferences, and all human gatherings have left us without in-person interpreting work, and business, government, and scientific needs have pushed all events that could not be cancelled, or postponed any longer, to remote meetings. By now, most interpreters have worked with distance interpreting platforms, or at least some other less desirable remote option. RSI Platforms have aggressively pursued all markets, and language agencies have found and adopted a way to remain in business while increasing their margins by hiring less-experienced interpreters from developing countries willing to work for fees lower than well-established, renowned colleagues from developed economies. To many of these newcomers to the profession, distance interpreting from home does not look like a problem, and adding the roles of unpaid technician, mechanic, and telephone operator does not seem out of place. They have not work under other conditions.

The rest of us have adapted to distance interpreting; our previous work in the booth lets us see what different platforms offer, and what they do not. With a constructive, critical eye, we can opine as to the better platforms depending on the assignment. We can also understand the enormity of the challenge, the very serious liability exposure, and the added cognitive load that may affect the way we provide our interpreting services.

Platforms and agencies have asked us to interpret from home, and to do it, we had to invest on equipment, training, and a physical space within our homes. Some colleagues had to pass on this work because of where they live. If you cannot avoid a noisy environment you are out of luck, regardless of your interpreting knowledge and skill.

Stressful weeks, dissatisfied clients, and lawsuits can be minimized (not eliminated) by working from a hub. Distance interpreting is not as reliable, and its quality is not as good as in-person work, but there is a world of difference between interpreting from home: by yourself, without a boothmate, with no technical support, and praying the neighbor does not mow the lawn during the conference, and working from a hub with a boothmate (for now) in the booth next door, a technician on site, and all the hardware and software needed to provide the service successfully. Because of the pandemic, interpreters in many countries cannot travel to the hub, even if in the same city, so interpreting from home continues as an in-extremis solution, but even with these restrictions lifted, those colleagues not living in big cities where hubs are will not take advantage of this option. Interpreters in hub cities will also face the obstacle of platform-run hubs where they will always be limited to certain platforms, hardware, and working conditions such as agency or platform-imposed boothmates and lower fees.

The outlook looks grim, but it need not be. There may be a solution.

Like everyone else, most of my work this year has been from home. Pandemic restrictions, and health concerns have kept me in my place for nine months; however, I did not have to do distance interpreting from home twice. That opened my eyes.

Earlier this year, a client hired me to do a multiple day event for one of the largest firms in the world to take place live from many countries around the world in several continents. The assignment would require interpreting services in four languages and relay interpreting would be needed.

This was too big of an event to organize a group of colleagues to work from their home over Zoom and a combination of social media platforms and telephone lines to hear boothmates and do relay. It was clear the complexity of the event required professional technical support. To avoid the solution above, there seemed one option: The client would need to choose one of the local hubs for the event. The problem was that picking a hub would mean using the platform they offered, and having to negotiate the interpreter roster as some hubs push for the interpreters in their “lists.”

Faced with these facts, we brainstormed long and hard, and suddenly, a solution emerged. We live in a big city where many movies and TV shows are filmed; many artists record their music here also, and there are interpreting equipment companies that have suffered even more that interpreters during this conference-free Covid season. We realized that these studios have the infrastructure to hold a multi-lingual interpreting event: physical facilities such as soundproof stages and studios; sound and video equipment with many consoles and tons of microphones, monitors, computers, etc.; and technical staff with years of experience in show business. Not exactly as working with interpreters in the booth, but with enough knowledge and skills to catch up quickly. I even knew some from voice-over and TV interpreting work.

We contacted one studio and voila! They agreed. The cost was way lower than a traditional hub, and they were flexible and eager to learn. They had been dark most of the year, and the staff had been out-of-work, struggling to make ends meet on unemployment insurance checks.

First, we explained our needs; not just our technical needs for the event, but first our public health conditions. There were no problems, the studios underwent a deep cleaning process, ventilation was brought up to health department standards, everybody’s temperature was checked, and we all answered health-related questions before entering the facility, there were plenty of sinks to wash our hands as needed, hand sanitizer was found at every interpreting booth, office, and technician station, and everyone wore masks all the time.

There was a learning curve, but they were quick learners. At first, they expected our work to be similar to a voice-over assignment, and they thought the event would be recorded with the possibility of editing picks. It was explained to them the event would be broadcasted live to many time zones around the world; we put them in touch with the broadcasting company that would provide that service, and I happily saw how the spoke the same language as far as cameras, lighting, sound at the two venues where the speakers would be addressing the audience from, and so on. All interpreters worked from individual booths built with plexiglass dividers so we could see each other and communicate during the rendition. Even during the breaks and lunch time all interpreters socialized keeping a safe distance from each other and separated by plexiglass dividers so we could eat without wearing masks.

The experience was great and since then I have spoken to other studios in my area willing to do the same when the opportunity arises. This temporary hub solution is great because it keeps interpreters in the driver’s seat, not the platforms, not the agencies. We can select our trusted technicians and pick our interpreting team. This brings top interpreting services to the client, reduces interpreters’ stress, liability, and cognitive load during the event, and because you may choose the interpreting platform that better suits the needs of that event, it saves the client money. Distance interpreting as it should be: between interpreters and direct clients, with platforms playing their real supporting, not protagonist, role, and without agencies.

I understand this solution works for all of us who live in big cities, and even some midsize cities with movie, TV, or recording studios, but even towns without these facilities, or big cities where studios are not willing to work with us can create a temporary hub for an event if they have a conference interpreting equipment busines in town. Some of us have spoken to one of such companies in our area, and we have agreed to create a temporary hub whenever it is needed at the company’s warehouse where they can easily erect the same temporary booths we have used at hotels and convention centers for years. Here we will even work with the same trusted technician friends who know us personally from other assignments.

As interpreters we should control our profession and the way we provide our services. Relinquishing these functions to other supporting actors will diminish the quality of the interpreting services, and will affect interpreters’ fees and working conditions. I now invite you to share your opinions and other possible solutions to make distance interpreting better for the client, and safer for the interpreter.

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§ 4 Responses to Interpreters in the driver’s seat: Distance interpreting need not be from home.

  • Jesse L. says:

    Have to admit, at first I thought this article was going to wind up being a promotion for a particular platform… so very happy to be wrong! Your idea, (and its reasons) are phenomenal! Thank you!

  • Raghu Krishnan says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful, practical post. I just had a question about the sentence “ventilation was brought up to health department standards”. What does this mean concretely? My sense is that insufficient attention has been paid to ventilation, given that the virus seems to spread primarily through aerosols, which pose a particular threat given the small, closed spaces interpreters usually work in. This recent study by German scientists points to the kinds of things that have to be done to ensure a safe working environment: http://ow.ly/kWVZ30ro9Nd
    Thanks and keep up the good work.

    • Raghu Krishnan, thank you for your comments. The local public health authorities set minimum requirements for indoor activities during the pandemic. Ventilation among them. We rely on these guidelines by our scientists and I use them to decide if an assignment should be accepted or declined.

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