Is RSI better when we share the same space? …not really.

May 17, 2022 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

From the beginning of the pandemic, and the spread of distance interpreting, interpreters have questioned the modality, and more specifically remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) when interpreters are “non co-located” because they are working from home or in the same building but in individual booths. Critics say this physical separation eliminates, or greatly diminishes, the role of the passive interpreter as it precludes teamwork, opens the door to terminological inconsistencies, not having a boothmate next to you affects the quality of the rendition, and it contributes to anxiety and stress because of the handover and the sensation of lack of support from our boothmate. To many, the solution is clear: If you are working remotely, do it from a hub. Interpreters will have “co-location”, there will be technical support, and working conditions, at least in the booth, will be similar to in-person interpreting.

I must confess I endorsed this belief and defended it for months, until reality, market conditions, the pandemic, and my fellow-interpreters showed me what I now believe is a more accurate description of our reality, and a better solution to the “non co-location” matter.

We must begin our analysis by looking at the map of the world. We soon realize that geographically, continents, and the countries within the continents are very different. While countries in Europe are small (most of them smaller than a state in Australia, the U.S., or a Canadian province) and close to each other, distances in the Americas, Africa, and Asia are longer. This important difference has two relevant consequences: most people, interpreters included, will live and work farther away from the big cities; and the distance between countries that speak a different language will be greater. Because of geography, fewer languages will be needed to communicate in a region, reducing the number of interpreters working in many language combinations, including widely used languages in Europe, to almost non-existent, and hubs will be very far from most interpreters.

Most of the world has no hubs and, in many countries, there are a few hubs, but they all are in big cities. Let’s take the United States: The largest economy in the world, the home of most Fortune 500 companies, and the site of many International Organizations. There are only a handful of hubs in the country, all in 5 or 6 cities in a country that spans 8 time zones from Guam to Puerto Rico. Unless they live in one of these cities, an interpreter in the United States would need to fly 6 hours or drive a day and a half to get to a hub. That is impractical, and undoable.

Interpreters living in many of these cities outside or Europe, and even in some European cities, will need an additional two to four hours to go from home to the hub and back, often to interpret for two hours. Mexico City’s traffic could keep a hub-going interpreter inside a car for five hours any day. Many colleagues throughout the planet turn down assignments from a hub. That is impractical, and undoable.

We could fly for hours over a huge chunk of continent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and never fly over a city with a hub. Even interpreters with one hub in their city and willing to put up with the commute cannot use it because the hub can be used only when using a specific platform and nothing else. Temporary hubs are also impractical because there is no equipment, technical support, or enough local interpreters to meet the requirements of an event in all needed language combinations.

There are cities in Asia with hubs, but without interpreters in the language combination needed for an assignment; or there is one interpreter with the required language combination for the event, but the closest boothmate lives 8 hours away by plane in a different country and even continent. Sure, there will be many interpreters with English in their repertoire, but they lack the second language needed for the conference.

Distance interpreting services from home is the right strategy, the appropriate solution, and at this time, “non co-location” is no longer an issue. Let me explain:

As long as there is technical support, and the right infrastructure, RSI from an interpreter’s home provides quality, reliable interpretation at the same level as a hub.

After years of pandemic and distance interpreting, conference interpreters worldwide had time to learn, practice, familiarize, and work many RSI events. Professional conference interpreters have acquired the knowledge to interpret from their home with no one sitting next to them, and have set aside a space with the appropriate equipment to do it.

By now interpreters have used a variety of platforms and have realized that they all function similarly. In 2022 an interpreter can see a platform for the first time and figure out how to use it in a matter of minutes. Everywhere in the world, our colleagues are multitasking and handling 2, 3, and even 4 screens simultaneously to use the RSI or conventional remote platform, to communicate with their virtual boothmate 5 time zones away, handover the microphone at the end of their shift, and perform the duties of a passive interpreter such as writing notes, assisting with term search, communicate with tech support, monitor the active interpreter’s rendition to support them, and see each other on the virtual booth or through a back channel when using a conventional or dedicated RSI platform. These tasks scared many interpreters in 2020. Today they perform them regularly and by doing so, they reproduce the in-person booth in their home-based virtual booth just as a hub would. Of course, RSI from hub or home will never be the same as in-person interpreting for many reasons, but with the same limitations, risks, and potential problems, there is no difference between interpreting from home with a virtual boothmate somewhere else and “co-location” in a hub. I concluded that professional interpreters should do RSI from the place they feel more comfortable, and according to the available infrastructure. Our colleagues who live in a place where hubs are accessible, and prefer to work “co-located” should do it, and interpreters who do not, should work from their home studio with no feelings of guilt or inferiority because there are no hubs in their part of the world. Interpreter performance and the quality of the rendition are the same, except that working from home will eliminate travel and commute stress to the interpreter.

This must be a priority to all interpreters worldwide.

June 8, 2021 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

September 11 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the terrible terrorist attacks in the United States that shook up the world and ushered an era of war and armed conflicts in several regions of the world. This year the date will mark the end of NATO’s military occupation of Afghanistan. The departure of the armed forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and The Netherlands closes a sad chapter of the 21 Century which lasted twenty years; it also shows a vow of confidence in the Afghan authorities, expected to govern the war-torn country on their own (with minimal foreign support) and unfortunately, simultaneously it opens the door for the Taliban to return to its fanatic, inhumane practices, bringing back the terror suffered by the people of Afghanistan before September 11, 2001.

These conflict zone and military interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers are our colleagues. They aided Western armed forces in military operations risking (and often losing) their own lives; they helped NATO forces and international organizations in their efforts to bring peace to cities and villages throughout the country; translated intelligence-packed documents and everyday paperwork; provided language support to contractors in charge of developing infrastructure and construction works that benefitted many soldiers, marines, and civilians (some your family members perhaps); they accompanied Western governments and international organizations’ representatives during campaigns to improve the health, education, administration of justice, and welfare of millions of Afghan citizens. They did the same work you do back in your countries. They just did it under death threats while watching how fellow interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families were imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the Taliban.

The Taliban has clarified it: they will retaliate against our colleagues after the West leaves on September 11. They will be declared “traitors” and many will be executed. This is not new. It has happened throughout history. Interpreters and translators have been targeted for killing in every war, everywhere. Even when they never held a weapon, even when they did not share ancestry or ethnicity with their victimizers. Even today, after 500 years, many Mexicans refer to Malintzin, Hernán Cortés’ interpreter, as a traitor, and they use the term “malinchismo” (Malintzin-like) to describe a treasonous act. This, even though Malintzin was not of Aztec descent, and her own people were enslaved and oppressed by the Aztecs. Fortunately for Malintzin, Cortés won the armed conflict and was never abandoned by the victorious Spanish empire, even after the war ended.

Some question the motivation that drove Afghan interpreters, translators and cultural brokers to work with the West. Undeniably some did it because they needed the income to provide for their families devastated by the years of Taliban rule; others joined because of the adventure, and even hoping to move to the West at some point; others did it because they were tired of the injustices committed by Taliban authorities, they wanted to end discriminatory practices affecting their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters; others were angry with the way their religious beliefs were hijacked and distorted by those in power, and frankly, others did it because their sympathies were with the West. It does not matter; motivation aside, these courageous men and women risked their lives and their families’ to provide a service needed to protect our friends, neighbors, and family members deployed in Afghanistan. They provided their services knowing of this tremendous danger because the West, our governments, promised them protection. They worked understanding that at some point, if they were still alive, when the Allied Forces left Afghanistan they would take them, and their families, with them. This counts. We have to see them as fellow humans.

Some of these conflict zone colleagues have made it to the West, very few, and it has not been easy. Red tape, political posturing, policy changes, and lack of interest, have made it a nightmare, and have caused many dead colleagues, killed while waiting for a piece of paper, or an interview, or a policy change. If not for the pressure exercised by civil society, many more would have died. It is thanks to the efforts of some organizations, especially thanks to Red T and its allies, and the drive and inspiration of its leader (my admired) Maya Hess, that governments have acted. Most NATO members are currently planning and processing the evacuation of many of these interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families. That is great, but it is not enough. Some are slipping through the cracks. And they are running out of time. September 11 is less than 100 days away and there is much to be done; so much, that some of us fear many colleagues will be left behind.

This can be done. There is precedent. The United States did it in Vietnam on April 30, 1975 with the “Saigon Airlift.” Just like now, many Vietnamese who helped the American government and contractors were evacuated and taken to Guam, a United States Territory, for processing. A similar action could take place. Instead of living them behind, and risking a travesty of justice, questionable individuals could be transferred out of Afghanistan for processing. Those cleared shall be admitted to the Western nation they worked with, and those rejected, because the possibility of infiltration exists, shall be dealt with according to the law.

Time is running out and not one of us can afford to be a spectator. We must support our colleagues. If you are or were in the military you know how important these individuals were to your safety and success; if you have a friend, neighbor, or family member who was or is in the military, consider that perhaps your loved one came back because of one interpreter, translator, or cultural broker; If you, a family member, or a friend work for a contractor in Afghanistan, think that maybe your friend or relative had a job that allowed them to feed their families because of the work of a conflict zone linguist. Contact your president or prime minister; your secretary of defense; your legislative leaders, your private sector, and tell them about these folks; ask them to write to their representatives. Write an op-ed for your local newspaper, share this information with war veterans’ organizations in your area. We should all participate. It will take a few minutes of your life, and you will be helping to save lives and defend our profession. Every year, Every September 11 we remember those who died because of a despicable act of terror. On the 20th Anniversary of this day of remembrance let’s not forget our fellow interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers who helped us for twenty years.

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