What we learned as Interpreters in 2021.

January 31, 2022 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2021 ended and we are working towards a better, “vaccinated”, and safer 2022, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months.  As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, last year was peculiar, but better than 2020. It was a year of change in all imaginable ways, and those changes included the interpreting world. Some were good, others were terrible; some are permanent, and others…well, the jury is still out.

Last year was the year of science and public health. It was the year when we were vaccinated, and in some countries, we were even boosted. Unfortunately, it was also the year of economic disparities, where rich countries protected their citizens, and poor nations still struggled to get public health policy in place and control the pandemic. It was the year of ignorance by science deniers and political zealots who refused to live up to the social contract and protect others even when choosing not to comply for their own benefit. In 2021 millions of people died of Covid; Delta and Omicron became household names; and just like the year before, millions got sick with long-term consequences, lost their jobs, or their business went under with no fault of their own. Some of our colleagues, many of them great interpreters, continued to leave the profession overwhelmed by technological changes, market uncertainty, and aggressive, ethically questionable practices by some of the language service providers.

2021 was the year when our profession finally came to terms and universally accepted distance interpreting as a permanent, new way to deliver our professional services, from now, depending on the circumstances and characteristics of the event, interpreting is to be delivered in person, remotely, or as a hybrid of both. The consolidation of these changes probably produced the largest adaptation efforts by professional interpreters in history. By the end of 2021 the norm was that conference and community interpreters had the infrastructure and basic technological skills to deliver their service from a place other than the venue of the event, whether it was from home, a hub, or someone else’s place of business. Because learning and adapting is always good, these were the brightest highlights of the year.

Unfortunately, not everything was good. Change brought along unfairness, abuse, and deception. The same changes that helped our professional market, provided the right circumstances to harm our profession.

Just like during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th. Century, today’s changes have brought a wave of bad practices that financially benefit some of those with the loudest voice while hurting conference interpreters and the users of their service. Some of those distance interpreting providers have ignored ethical and professional rules by opening the door to inexperienced, unqualified individuals, often from other fields of interpreting, whose main credential is to provide interpreting services for a ridiculously low fee and to do it under very poor conditions. By recruiting these interpreters and diverting the clients’ attention to technology instead of service quality, the post-pandemic market offers conference interpreting on-demand: interpreters on standby, willing to start an assignment with a couple of hours’ notice, without time to prepare, often working alone from their home thousands of miles away, and doing it during the night. Last year made it popular to sell conference interpreting as over-the-phone interpreting companies have always sold their services, with interpreters on-call getting paid by the minute or by the hour. The line got blurry, the message now is there is no difference between a business, diplomatic, or scientific conference and a phone call to say hi to a mail-order groom or bride half way across the world.

2021 changed the way we use professional social media. It turned it into a self-promoting infomercial by the big service providers, and a place where this new post-pandemic self-proclaimed RSI interpreters go to brag about the work they do, post their photos of the venue, and publicly opine about the event they just interpreted with no regard to the professional rules and canons of ethics they never heard about before becoming “RSI conference interpreters”.

Going back to the positive, I congratulate those professional associations that held their conferences online or had hybrid events. A special mention to ITI, OMT and NAJIT for holding big, high-quality conferences using creativity, technology, and thinking of their members’ health. My thanks to all smaller associations that had conferences remotely, and a tip of the hat to FIT and IAPTI for postponing their events until 2022. Unfortunately, an association had a hybrid conference, but, unlike all other associations above, did not allow speakers to present remotely, cancelling their participation unless they physically presented from the venue. There were many disappointed conference attendees who booked the event thinking they would hear certain speakers just to learn later these speakers would not present. There were no explanations, just a cancellation notice, leaving these presenters, who had agreed to present, in a bad situation as the association members were not told about the inflexible “present in-person or else” rule, even where speakers could not travel for medical reasons or due to the country they would be traveling from.

Another wonderful gesture that showed professional solidarity was the decision by most professional associations to freeze membership renewal fees, reduce them as it was the case of IAPTI, and even offer a solidarity fund to help those members who wanted to keep their membership but could not afford to cover these fees due to the pandemic. Here again, the largest, and one of the most expensive, professional association in the world, went the opposite way and decided to substantially raise its membership fees for 2022.

We proved to ourselves once again that interpreters are resilient, able to adapt to adversity to survive, and good humans. We saw how the professional unity with our colleagues found in 2020 continued last year. We now face an uncertain year, but we have a road map and a strategy that will help us thrive in these new circumstances. Fortunately, we are resilient, adaptable, courageous, and now we know that even though many things have changed, many others stayed the same. Let’s all focus on the good things to come while we guard against the bad ones. I wish you all a prosperous and healthy 2022!

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