RSI will change the profession. Will it change the interpreter of the future?

May 19, 2020 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Remote Simultaneous Interpreting, and other forms of remote interpreting, will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis more popular and stronger.  It is a great option and no doubt it will get better. There will be good and bad platforms, and interpreters shall continue to work for direct clients while they will continue to struggle with agencies, and defend the profession from existing and newcomer entities’ insatiable appetite for profit at the expense of interpreters’ pay, and at the expense of quality.

In a few short years, there will be a new generation of conference interpreters who never knew the profession without remote work. It will be similar to what we see with the generation that never carried a suitcase full of dictionaries to the booth, or went to the “other booth” to make a phone call from the conference venue.

I have no doubt, however, that in-person interpreting will remain the rule for the meetings and events of higher importance. RSI will take its place at the table, but not at the head of the table, just as the newest invitee to the feast, very popular and sought after for lesser exchanges and negotiations.

But even when the water goes back to its usual levels, there will be many events, such as preliminary business or corporate negotiations, urgent and emergency executive discussions, staffer planning discussions, and routine company and government meetings that will choose virtual events in considerable numbers. Add that to the smaller businesses, local government agencies with scarce financial resources, and non-for-profit organizations’ activities that rarely or never held meetings, workshops or conferences because they could not afford them, and you are left with a big market sector in need of remote simultaneous interpreting.

Many of these events will not retain professional conference interpreters, they will try their luck with community interpreters, court interpreters and others, very good and capable in their field of practice, but inexperienced in conference interpreting. Others will hire top interpreters to do the job.

With time, many new conference interpreters could prefer working from a local hub, and perhaps (oh, God!) from their own homes. Conference interpreting will be more attractive, and turn into a viable option to many interpreters who never considered it in the past because they prefer the home turf over constant travel. Interpreters who like gardening, or want to be involved in community theater, or play softball with their church’s team will happily embrace conference interpreting. We may see colleagues afraid of flying, or some who never had a passport working as conference interpreters without ever spending a night at a hotel.

No doubt these new conditions will attract many good capable people to conference interpreting. The question is: Will these interpreters of the not-so-distant future be like the colleagues who populated the booth all over the world before the pandemic? It is a complex situation, and it is difficult to give a straight answer. All I can say is that I am not sure the job description I included above would be appealing.

I decided to be a conference interpreter because I love interpreting. I enjoy learning and studying about language and communication among humans. I have a passion for helping people understand each other by providing my services; I believe in using the tools of my craft to better the world. If those were the only things that interested me, I could have been a translator, or remain a court interpreter as I was before.

A big part of what made conference interpreting attractive was that it was a place where I could do the above while being myself: extroverted, outgoing, constantly surrounded by extroverted people. Conference interpreting won me over from practicing law because of the traveling around the world. As an attorney I could have continued to travel to many places, but only as a tourist on a vacation. It was different. Conference interpreting allowed me to meet people from all cultures who literally live all over the world. It is appealing because of the opportunity to meet in person people I admire from government, science, sports, the arts, and ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. This has been possible not because of who I am, but because of what I do.

My life differs from the lifestyle of a translator or a community interpreter, from the little things, like never having to buy a bottle of shampoo because hotel rooms always have them, and thinking of doing laundry as putting your clothes in a bag you take to the front desk, to creating the most fascinating and valuable friendships with people who live everywhere. I joined the ranks of those who practice in-person interpreting because thanks to my job, when I say my goodbyes to my friend in Australia, or Japan, or South Africa, or Costa Rica, and I say “I’ll see you soon” I know it will happen. I travel all over, and I always have somebody to see everywhere I go. Finally, and in my opinion, more important, interpreting has allowed me to develop the greatest bond between humans. This will be hard to understand to people who do not work as conference interpreters, but the friendships and relationships with your fellow interpreters are precious and very strong. I am not sure I would be a conference interpreter without the possibility to work and in reality, live with a group of most interesting individuals. People you get to know better than anybody else in your life. You are together for extended periods of time, under stressful situations, with the most diverse backdrops planet earth offers. You travel together, eat together, work together, and socialize, and learn from each other.

Once I was attending a translators/interpreters’ conference somewhere in the world, and during the gala dinner, I got to sit at one of those big round tables with another 10 people or so. Most were translators, many I had never met before. Suddenly, a dear interpreter friend came to my table. I was very happy to see a “friendly face” so we said hi. I greeted my friend and said: “I am so glad to see you. I think I had not seen you since we had lunch in Greece”. My colleague kindly replied: “No. I think we saw each other in Beijing after that”. The translator sitting next to me made a comment I will never forget: “What a peculiar profession and interesting lifestyle. In my job I only go from the bedroom to the computer, and to the movie theater once a week”. To put it as a colleague told me a few months ago during lunch in Buenos Aires: “I love it that we see each other all over the world, and we never have to spend a penny to do it”.

Remote interpreting will change the profile of conference interpreters as a group. People who did not consider the profession, will enter the field. They will be very talented and capable; however, I am not sure that people with a current conference interpreter profile will stay in the profession. Many probably will, but many others will go somewhere else, lured by a profession where they can help better the world, and enjoy the pleasure of human relations, world travel, first-hand culture acquisition, and a profession where isolation will never be a part of the job description. Virtual boothmates are like watching a sports event on TV; it will never be the same as on the field with your teammates. Conference interpreters will not be better or worse than today. They will be different. We will see.

Please share your thoughts with the rest of us, and remember that this post is not talking about the good or bad things of remote interpreting, the platforms, or even the agencies. Its focus is you: the human element of the profession. Thank you.

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