February 18, 2021 § 6 Comments
This is an article I wrote for the ITI. It was published several months ago, and I now reproduce it on my blog:
The pandemic has been an eye-opener on the future of the profession, and an opportunity to assess everything I was doing right before this crisis. During the last couple of months, I have strengthened my professional bond with my direct clients. Because of the uncertain future, and complicated present, I saw the need to contact my best clients with three objectives: To reassured them I am here to assist them at this time; to show them empathy and remind them I am going through the same difficulties they are facing to remain viable; and to advise them on their best options to deal with urgent matters using RSI until they meet in person again. COVID-19 showed me I did the right thing years ago when I looked for direct clients instead of waiting for the agencies to contact me. I validate this decision every time I hear how agencies are trying to lower interpreting fees; or how they are taking advantage by recruiting desperate or inexperienced interpreters willing to be paid by the minute. I see there is an RSI hype that, from the platform’s perspective is a total success. You can hardly spend a minute on social media without running into an interpreter bragging about their newly acquired skill. Unfortunately, I see how many of these colleagues believe that learning the platform translates into assignments and income. I feel sorry for them because nobody reminded them interpreters get hired based on the quality of their work and their professional experience. It breaks my heart to see how many are spending the limited money they have on expensive microphones, headsets, and even soundproof rooms. Isolation made me appreciate things I never considered before: genuine solidarity among professional colleagues, human contact, my time in the booth, talking to the client face to face, touring a venue before the event, crowded airports, hotel bars after the event, shaking the hand of a good technician in appreciation for making me sound good. Interpreters are social beings and there are many cultures in the world that will demand in-person conferences and meetings when it is safe to do it. Before the virus, RSI was a small business; now tech giants are pouring in their resources. It may be a matter of time before the RSI platforms interpreters are talking about are Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Finally, I learned two lessons: Some professional associations are helping us through these ugly days while others prioritized money over humans and are forging ahead with expensive conferences no one will attend. I learned RSI will get better every day and it will remain the choice for small and preliminary meetings. It will also be used by companies that could not afford in-person events before. We must decide the professional fees and work conditions we need and want. It must be the interpreter who gets the client, not the platform. If we do our job, there will be a bigger pie for all interpreters.
December 7, 2020 § 4 Comments
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.
September 15, 2020 § Leave a comment
These months of confinement have changed our lives in many ways, including how we teach and learn. Despite the terrible consequences the pandemic brought to the professional interpreting world, there have been positive effects: a profession more united than ever before, and the possibility to attend courses, workshops and classes remotely from every corner on earth.
Professional development, expensive and out of many interpreters’ league became affordable overnight. On line classes are often offered free or at a fee considerably lower than in-person training sessions; travel expenses are never an issue when attending a workshop from your kitchen table, and even Ivy League quality institutions are offering a learning opportunity to those who would have never considered enrolling in one of their courses.
On line education and training has been an outlet to deal with the lockup, lack of income, and fear of the uncertain. It has also given instructors, professors, and trainers, a way to make a living in a time of closed college campuses and zero conferences.
Online learning is not new, but, just like video conferences, came of age during Covid-19. Suddenly, interpreters’ appetite to learn how to work remotely, protect and grow their business in a crisis, and going back to relearn the basics, created an immense wave of courses, workshops, webinars, and instructors who now co-exist with the better-known trainers and programs from before the quarantine. As a consequence, some of what is offered online is very good… and some is not.
I have discussed this situation in the blog before. It is very important, but I will not deal with it today. My concern in writing this blog has to do with the benefits from online learning on a professional interpreter. Is this an effective way to continue our professional development? And if so, is it comparable to in-person continuing education?
Instructors, government agencies, professional associations, and individuals are joining online professional development classes by the thousands. Besides the obvious workshops on how to interpret remotely from home, two main groups of colleagues are resorting to online education in the interpreting world: The interpreters driven by an aspirational motivation, and those who take advantage of this inexpensive method of obtaining continuing education credits to keep their license, accreditation, patent, or certification current.
The first group, consisting of an overwhelming majority of community interpreters (court, healthcare, education, etc.) gravitate towards those workshops, courses, and webinars that promise to teach them how to become conference interpreters, improve their simultaneous rendition, shake off their fear to interpret consecutively, learn a better note-taking system, get tips on how to do research, join a conference interpreting practice group, and others.
The second group includes those interpreters, usually court and healthcare interpreters, who must log in a certain number of continuing education hours every year to maintain their ability to practice in their field. To continue to interpret in court and medical settings, many interpreters must prove to their government or professional association they have accumulated the minimum credits needed to practice one more year. The possibility to get these credits on line has been around for years in several countries, but until now, most interpreters preferred to meet their continuous professional development requirements by physically attending an international, national, or regional conference where they could get the credits and do networking simultaneously.
This are very difficult times, but it caught my attention how most professional associations, and government agencies, grant continuing education credits to those attending an online event at the same credit-hour equivalency they do for in-person education. I teach courses, webinars and workshops several times a month. I have been doing it for many years, and my many decades of experience as an interpreter trainer and Law School professor show me that the level of learning online is lower than sitting in a classroom. Attention span, multiple distractions, unsupervised behavior, lack of peer-pressure, computer fatigue, and other circumstances, keep the student from learning at the same rate as a traditional system.
There are studies that show that 65 percent of those taking a webinar, workshop, or course online are multitasking most of the time they are in class. It gets even worse when the individual is attending the webinar by phone. “people often find conference calls to be an opportune time to do many, many other things: 65% do other work; 63% send emails; 55% eat or cook during class; 47% go to the washroom; 44% send text messages; 43% are checking social media; 25% play video games; 21% do online shopping; 9% exercise during class; and 6% are on the phone talking to someone else… Part of the reason all of this is possible… is the magical mute function.” (Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2014/08/what-people-are-really-doing-when-theyre-on-a-conference-call?utm_source=Socialflow&utm_medium=Tweet&utm_campaign=Socialflow)
In 1913, Max Ringelmann, a French engineer, discovered why virtual meetings are often so unsuccessful. Ringelmann asked a team of people to pull on a rope. He then asked individuals (separately) to pull on the same rope. He noticed that when people worked as individuals, they put more effort into pulling than when they worked as a team. We call this the “Ringelmann Effect.” The bigger the group, the less responsibility each individual feels. If one does not feel necessary to the success of the task, it’s easy to tune out or put in less effort. In virtual learning the Ringelmann effect is magnified. When you are not in the room to help “pull the rope” for a class, you might feel less motivated to listen and participate. (Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2020/05/stop-zoning-out-in-zoom-meetings) It is easy to turn off the video and the instructor will never know what the student did during class.
Because of these peculiar circumstances: less attention to what is been taught online, and the lack of certainty that the students gave their undivided attention to the lesson presented online, it does not in seem fair that the same credits be awarded for an online and an in-person workshop. Less credits should be awarded for continuing education online.
A continuing education unit (CEU) or continuing education credit (CEC) is a measure used in continuing education programs to assist the professional to maintain their license, certification, accreditation, or patent as court or healthcare interpreters. Continuing Professional Development (CPD) or Continuing Education (CE) refers to tracking and documenting the skills, knowledge, and experience interpreters gain, formally and informally, when they work, beyond the initial education or training. This ensures interpreters maintain and improve their knowledge and skills needed to provide their professional services in their field. CPD or CE prove that an interpreter stays up-to-date in their field of professional practice.
When an individual takes a workshop in-person, there are forms to be filled and signed, attendance records to prove the person arrived at the beginning of the webinar, and stayed until the end. Those granting continuing education credits review these records before awarding anything to the student. As an attendee, I have signed an attendance list where I state the times I arrived and left countless times. I have filed continuing education forms to prove I attended the workshop on many occasions. As a teacher, I have filed an attendance record with the certification entity, showing who was in the classroom, and I have submitted an abstract of what I intend to teach, including the learning objectives, every time I teach. The question is: How to verify that a student stayed for the entire session during an online workshop?
The well-known CEU Institute, which facilitates the continuing education process to many regulated industries and professions in the United States and Canada, such as the insurance and healthcare industries, and the legal profession, has created a method to verify the integrity of the continuing education process.
The first thing they require is that online teaching must be live and interactive. Recorded webinars will not qualify as there is no way to corroborate attendance or that the person stayed during the lesson. There should be a way for the instructor or somebody else to verify attendance at the beginning, end, and periodically throughout the course. This attendance could be checked from dedicated software where students will be logged out if they do not periodically provide a keystroke, mouse click, or something similar, to periodic question and answer sessions, surveys and polling, to an old-fashioned roll call several times during the webinar. Unless the CEU Institute receives confirmation of attendance tracking from a method like the ones above, no credits will be granted. This is a sample of the webinar affidavit a monitor has to file with the CEU Institute: http://ceuinstitute2019-net.ntc6-p2stl.ezhostingserver.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Monitor-Affidavit-Webinar_Teleconference.pdf
There should be credits awarded for online continuing education only when attendance and participation can de documented and proved, and there should be fewer credit hours when continuous professional development requirements are met online because of the attention issues, distraction factors, and mental exhaustion caused by distance learning through a computer I mentioned before. This would be a matter of debate, but as a starting point, I propose online continuing education be awarded 70% of the credits granted to an in-person educational session of the same subject and duration. Interpreting is a fiduciary profession, and there are high interests on the balance every time court or healthcare interpreters provide their service. We must do everything within our reach to make sure these professionals truly meet all continuing education requirements, not just on paper, not only by going through the motions, but by actually learning and practicing their skill. I now invite you to share your ideas about online continuing education, how to police it, and how to determine the credit hours it deserves.