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.

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?

Traveling interpreters, getting to the assignment, and the complexity of their work.

March 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Interpreting is an exhausting, mentally and physically demanding task that can only be performed at the highest level when the interpreter is recharged with energy and has a rested brain.  Once we start interpreting, there is no room for any down time.  We need total concentration and full awareness through our five senses, and then some.  To make my point even clearer, I ask you to go back to the moment when you get home after a full day of interpreting.  You are extremely tired and ready to fall asleep on the couch without any warning.  Your brain is shutting down the same way a computer does when it is overloaded.

Interpreting is not an easy task, and the topics we work with are usually difficult, highly sophisticated, and complex.  The last thing we need is to show up to work tired or stressed out.  We need to be in top mental shape to deliver the kind of service our client expects and is paying for.  Interpreters need to rest before an assignment.  We do not need to be distracted with any “sideshows” or situations that can affect our concentration or drain our energy right before we get to the booth, courthouse, hospital, or table of negotiations.  The risk of not showing to work rested and stress-free is even higher for those of us who constantly travel to do our job.

Add two, five, twelve hours of travel time to the enormous task of researching and studying for an assignment. Factor in jet lag, changes of season (going from a summer weather in the southern hemisphere to a winter weather up north), altitude, local food, and cultural differences. All happening within a very short period, usually from the time you get on an airplane to the time you land at the point of destination. The results could be devastating. A tired interpreter could be the start of a disaster.

Because of the huge responsibility that is riding on our shoulders, and because of our professionalism, it is our responsibility to always bring our “A” game to the booth; but, how can we do it when facing these long trips?  The answer is relatively simple: Turn the trip into a relaxing experience; try to make it as pleasurable as possible. Rest, sleep, and try to keep a “normal” life despite of a traveling schedule.   It all starts with the way we travel.

We should always try to travel as comfortably as possible.  To me, the golden rule is to travel in style so you can recharge the batteries on the way to the assignment. Whether you get there by train or airplane, try to travel first or business class.  Leave economy to the tourists. Business class got its name from the idea of delivering a transportation service to the traveler who has a reason to be at the point of destination that is definitely different from going to the beach and drinking a piña colada.  When you travel by train on a first class, or private dormitory car, you can sleep, study, relax, and get ready for the job ahead. Flying first or business class is the difference between sleeping on your back, eating a fairly decent meal on the plane, and showering at the port of destination’s airline club before meeting your client and going to the venue.

Granted, traveling first and even business is not cheap. Fortunately, because we travel so much, we can do it if we are a little smart. These are some of the things I suggest you do to be able to travel as you should without having to pay an arm and a leg.

First, get the client to pay for it whenever possible. You will soon find out that in many cases, most clients are willing to pay for a business class ticket when you are traveling a long distance. It is not that difficult to explain how tiresome it would be to fly economy from Chicago to Sydney or even from Seattle to New York City.  Educate your client. Explain the advantages of having a well-rested interpreting team. You have nothing to lose.

Second, find out what airline has a hub, or at least has the most flights out of your hometown, and join their frequent flyer program. Most airlines will give you a bunch of miles, or kilometers, just for joining their loyalty program.  This will be your preferred airline from now on.

The third thing you need to do is to get rid of all those credit cards that you have, and switch to one or two cards (depending on the place you live) that give you air miles in the main airline that serves your hometown. Once you have it, pay for everything with that card, even those things you usually pay with cash. Pay your credit card bill in full at the end of the month, and there will be no interest to pay, and you will be accumulating miles.

Once you have taken the steps above, book all your flights on your preferred airline.  Don’t succumb to the temptation of saving twenty dollars on a cheaper flight with a low-cost carrier. You are now in the business of accumulating miles (or kilometers).  You can earn miles even when you travel to places that your airline does not serve. Find out what airlines partner with your preferred air carrier, and fly with them. Most airlines in North and South America, Asia, and Europe are members of the One-World or the Star Alliance.  You just need to find out which one of these alliances your airline belongs to.

Research what hotel chains, car rental companies, and restaurant programs offer miles on your preferred airline carrier and do business with them exclusively. You are now adding up miles (or kilometers) every time you buy a plane ticket, pay your cable TV, buy groceries, or go to the dentist.

Once you have enough miles, do not cash them in for a trip to Cancun. Instead, apply them to a yearly membership to your preferred airline carrier’s airport lounge.  In fact, if you believe that you can afford it from the start, when applying for the credit card that works with your airline, get the more expensive credit card. It will cost you some five hundred U.S. dollars a year, but it will let you travel with two bags at no cost, and will get you to the airline lounges for free. Do the math. I think it is worth.

Why are you accumulating all these airline miles if you are not going to use them to go to Cancun? Because not all of your clients will be willing to pay for a business class airplane ticket.

Many clients, especially international organizations and government agencies, do not pay for business class tickets because it is against their policy. They are mandated by law or charter to wisely disburse the monies of the taxpayers, members, or donors.  They will get you the cheapest ticket on the plane, because they have a deal with the air carrier to get the unused seats for a very low price.  You will get these seats, but once that you have them, on your own, without the client’s involvement, you will switch seats to a more comfortable place on the plane a little farther away from the lavatories, with more leg room, and you will not have to endure the middle seat from Toronto to Buenos Aires.  You will be able to do this for free because you will be an airline Gold member, Platinum member, and so on.  Next, you will ask your client to book you on a plane that leaves at odd hours.  These flights tend to be somewhat empty on the first and business class cabins because most business and rich people travel at more convenient times of the day.  The reason why you want to be on this flights is that once you have an airline member status, you can request an upgrade to the next higher class for free. There are many empty business class seats on the 5:00 am flight, and one of them will be yours.   This will be a deal between you and the airline. It does not affect your client, and you will be able to take care of your health and professional reputation by getting to the booth rested and ready to work.

My final piece of advice: Avoid discount airlines at all cost. You will never relax on these carriers. I truly suffer when I find myself on one of their planes (fortunately a rare event). I remember once around Halloween, when I was traveling from Washington, D.C. to Seattle Washington, a flight that takes around seven hours, and a flight attendant decided to wake up the passengers , many of them were asleep, to “animate them” by organizing several games. Even one of the pilots came out to the main cabin (these airlines have no first or business class) dressed as a wizard, and they started to play these games, interrupting, in my case, the work I was peacefully doing on my computer. You should also keep in mind that most passengers on these carriers are not very savvy travelers, making the getting on and off the plane a very long process, wasting precious minutes that you should be spending taking a shower at the airline club.

Smart traveling is more than a mimosa before the plane pushes back. It is having a work and rest space while traveling to your destination. It is having access to the internet, eating a quality meal, to be able to shower or use the gym at the airline lounge at the airport; it is also getting to know the flight crew when you travel all the time and getting little perks from them during your trip.  Remember: it is called business class because it was meant for people like you who travel as part of making a living.  I now invite you to share your comments and suggestions as to other ways to make traveling more pleasant and relaxing for the interpreter who calls planet earth “my office”.

When the interpreter faces a bigot.

July 21, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Unfortunately, because of the type of work we do, all of us had to deal with uncomfortable situations at some point during our careers. To a higher or lesser degree, all of us have fielded questions like “Why do you do this work?” “How much money is “spent” (code word for “wasted”) paying for this service geared to those who do not speak the language of the land?” “How do you feel about helping these people who are not willing to assimilate to the local culture”? “Are they really that dumb that they cannot learn the language?” etcetera. Other interpreters have sat there, listening to comments such as: “If they don’t speak the language they should go back to their country,” “They want to speak their language because they like badmouthing the rest of us,” and some others that I rather exclude from this post because they are offensive and spelling them out contributes nothing to this article.

Of course, those of us who have been more than once around the block have lived through these situations more than our younger colleagues, and for the most part, we have come to understand that those making the remarks are the ones with the problem. In other words, we do not have time for this nonsense, so we just ignore them. This has been my strategy for years and it has worked fairly well.

Unfortunately, an incident happened a few weeks ago. I understand that when we think of bigotry and interpreting, we immediately picture a courtroom, a police station, a government agency, a public school, or a county hospital. You think of court, community, and healthcare interpreters as the ones dealing with these issues all the time. That may be so, but other interpreters (conference, military, media, etc.) have faced their share of this evil when practicing their profession. On this particular case, I was doing some escort interpreting for a foreign dignitary who was visiting the United States from a Spanish-speaking country. This was an important visitor, but he was not a head of state or celebrity; you see, bigotry tends to hide away when the potential target is surrounded by the media and some bodyguards. In this case I was providing my services to a very important foreign government officer who traveled alone. This individual was very sophisticated, formally educated, well-traveled, and very important back in his home country.

After a very successful visit, and once he took care of his business in the United States, we headed to the airport for the check in process. This was the last part of my job. After escorting this person for several days in different cities, after business meetings, formal events, flights, hotels, and other activities, all I had to do now was to take the dignitary to the airport, help him with boarding passes, connecting flights, immigration and customs, and send him off. I have done this thousands of times, all of them uneventful. We arrived to this domestic airport in the American south, and we proceeded to the airline ticket counter. The airport was pretty empty and we walked straight to the counter where we found a middle-aged Caucasian male wearing the airline’s uniform. I handed the passport and other required documents, identified myself as an interpreter, and told him what we needed. He looked at me and then he turned sideways in order to exclude me from the conversation and he addressed the visitor directly. This person, a guest in our country, looked at me and told me that he did not understand. I interpreted what the airline clerk had asked him, and once again told the clerk that the visitor did not understand him because he did not speak English. I explained to him what my role was, and asked him to ask his questions as usual. He looked at me once again, and this time he completely turned so that I was fully excluded from the conversation. He continued to address the visitor in English. The visitor looked for my help and this clerk did not let him. He told him that he “had to listen to the questions and answer them himself.” The guest told him in broken English that he was sorry but he did not understand the questions because he did not know English. The clerk smiled and asked him with a smirk: “You don’t understand English and you live in the twenty first century amigo?” I continued to interpret all this time, and when I saw that this clerk was going to give the visitor a very hard time, I asked the dignitary to step away from the counter and have a seat. I told him that I was going to take care of this situation. The visitor honored my request and went to a chair that was at a good distance from the counter so that the guest would not have to hear what I was about to say. As this was happening, the clerk yelled at him: “hey, ‘amigo’ you cannot leave, I am talking to you.” Once the visitor left, I addressed the clerk directly and once again explained to him the circumstances, including my role as the escort interpreter. He first looked at me for several seconds, then he laughed, and finally he told me that at his airport (remember this was a domestic airport with no international flights) they spoke English because “it was located in the United States.” He told me that he was going to ignore me because his job was to make sure that “this guy” would be able to get around once he was alone. He even told me that he was considering denying him a boarding pass because he was not going to find his way at the hub where he was supposed to take his international flight. He also told me that it made him mad that “…this country was letting in people who didn’t even care to learn English before coming to the United States…” At this point he told me that he needed the guest by the counter alone or he would deny the boarding pass. He then walked away and left. I looked around to confirm what I already knew: there was nobody else from the airline in sight.

Because of time constraints and due to the lack of infrastructure at this airport, I decided to tweet the basics of the incident with the airline hashtag. I immediately got an answer, and in a matter of minutes (maybe seconds) a different airline clerk met me at the counter. This individual took care of the visitor addressing him directly through the interpreter and the rest of the process was completed without incident.

After the visitor left, I decided to follow-up on this incident and I filed a formal complaint against this individual. I did it so that others do not have to go through what we did, and to raise the awareness of the airline. Professionally, I was satisfied with my performance: I took care of the problem, the visitor left as planned, and he noticed very little of what happened, thus avoiding an uncomfortable situation for this person who was a guest in the United States. This episode reminded me that despite the way things may be in the big cities, there are still plenty of places in the United States, and elsewhere, where we as interpreters must be on our toes and be assertive to do our job even when we face adverse circumstances. This time it was an escort interpreter assignment, but these situations are prone to happen in the courtroom, at the hospital, the public school, the government agency, and everywhere unsophisticated individuals are found. Always remember: bigotry could be around the corner, so be ready to act. I invite you to share with us some stories of your interactions with bigots who have directed their hate to you or to your client.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with hub at The Professional Interpreter.