The very real dangers of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting from our home.
October 17, 2019 § 18 Comments
The idea to write this piece came almost a year ago when talking to some interpreters I noticed a growing tendency to quickly move the still very young remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) from the studio to the interpreters’ homes. I conversed with many of my colleagues throughout the world, attended conferences where the topic was discussed, spoke with clients, event organizers, and I also had long, detailed conversations with lawyers and people from insurance companies.
RSI is a true achievement of science and technology, combined with interpreting expertise by some prominent interpreters. Many of its more serious technological issues have been solved, and we are at a point where quality interpreting can be delivered remotely when done as many of my colleagues and I understood it was supposed to be done.
My personal experience, and that of other trusted interpreters, show Interprefy and Kudo (which I have not tried yet) as the most user -friendly platforms, and technology is not the only reason. These platforms were carefully developed with great input from experienced professional interpreters whose comments, suggestions, and opinions were essential to the final product. Unlike others, from the beginning, the people behind these platforms understood RSI was a different way to deliver professional interpreting services; they recognized that quality interpreting can only be delivered when interpreters interpret under the most favorable conditions. Their success depended on getting the best human talent, optimal working conditions, and the best support team. They presented a serious, viable alternative to in-person interpreting by creating RSI studios where interpreters could work in a booth, as a team, and with the required technical support. This was a great idea and positive results came in in both cases. Up to here, everything was on the right path, with perhaps a few wrinkles to be ironed out, and we will talk about them in a moment, but with some of the biggest issues already addressed.
Unfortunately, sometimes greed, overconfidence, or lack of knowledge can cloud even the most successful vision, and it is happening now with these and other platforms: For all, or some, of the reasons above, those in charge of recruiting talent, or organizing events, are encouraging RSI from home. The idea of the studio where interpreters would work as a team sitting side by side in a virtual booth at a facility where technical support would be available has moved aside to leave a prominent place to remote simultaneous interpreting from the interpreters home or office.
I have attended conferences and other events where RSI platforms and agencies are actively recruiting interpreters from countries with emerging economies to provide remote simultaneous interpreting services from their homes. These colleagues are told of the professional and economic personal benefits of working big events, often otherwise inaccessible to them because of geography, by setting up a “studio” in their own house. They hear all they need is a highspeed internet connection, a professional quality microphone and headset, a computer, and two good screens. Sometimes they are told to condition a house room to be soundproof, which they are told, would be easy and inexpensive. These colleagues are offered fees well below those charged by interpreters in developed markets.
The above proposal is enticing and it sounds great to many interpreters all over the world. Some think of a little corner in their house that can be turned into their home studio; others believe that they are good at repairing things, or they know a lot about computers, so setting up their hardware would be a piece of cake. All that may be true, but it is like the worm on the fisherman’s hook, it looks good, but it also brings all kinds of hidden dangers to the individual interpreter. Let me explain:
The first thing interpreters considering RSI need to understand, and this also applies to those who only work at the RSI studio, is this is a new kind of interpretation. It is not conference interpreting, even though they both share many things as far as preparation and rendition. RSI interpreting requires interpreters do extra tasks they need not perform when interpreting a conference in a traditional booth. RSI interpreters must use a keyboard to communicate with each other, the tech support team, and sometimes the person directing the event. They read messages on their screens and hear things in their headsets traditional conference interpreters do not: “get closer to the microphone”, “do not move around that much because the microphone captures the noise and transmits it to the audience”, “we will run a sound test during the break”, are some instructions RSI interpreters will hear during an event while they are interpreting. They will also have to answer questions from technical support, the person directing/coordinating the event, and other interpreters from different booths, by typing messages while interpreting. RSI interpreting requires interpreters perform more tasks than those they perform when working a conference in a traditional booth. This is doable; interpreters can practice and accomplish these tasks, but the bottom line is that, compared to traditional conference interpreting, these interpreters are asked to do more work. We all would agree that more work = higher pay.
Contrary to interpreting agencies’ talking points, RSI interpreters should be paid more than their counterparts working in person. Agencies and organizers are getting their savings from avoiding travel expenses and setting up equipment at the venue. Interpreters should get paid according to the work they do.
Another issue of great concern to interpreters, not so much to agencies and event organizers, is the risk of acoustic shock. As many of you know, acoustic shock disorder (ASD) is an involuntary response to a sound perceived as traumatic (usually a sudden, unexpected loud sound heard near the ear), which causes a specific and consistent pattern of neurophysiological and psychological symptoms. These include aural pain/fullness, tinnitus, hyperacusis, muffled hearing, vertigo and other unusual symptoms such as numbness or burning sensations around the ear. Typically, people describe acoustic shock as feeling like they have been stabbed or electrocuted in the ear. If symptoms persist, a range of emotional reactions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression can develop. (http://www.hyperacusis.net/other-factors/acoustic-shock-disorder/)
We are talking about losing our hearing! This is a career-end risk that interpreters are not told when offered a job to deliver RSI from home. The dangers of this happening to any of us should not be taken lightly, but when working from an RSI studio, we can demand the best conditions to prevent an event that causes these incidents, and to minimize the impact of the event if it happens. All interpreters should discuss this risk with their clients, and demand the proper infrastructure and hardware to prevent a tragedy, including appropriate headsets for those colleagues without their own. This situation could happen when interpreting at the RSI studio, it could even happen during a traditional conference interpreting assignment, but the risk will be much smaller because the service would be provided in a controlled environment with the appropriate equipment. When working from home, interpreters have no control over these dangers: power supply fluctuations, solar flares, weather-related factors such as electric storms, satellite trouble, internet or telephone system failure, are all risk factors interpreters are exposed to when working at home. Remember: this can be a career-ending event, or at the least a very expensive medical treatment, coupled with loss of income due to a long period of interpreting inactivity due to poor hearing. Interpreters need to make sure these issues are discussed with their clients and covered in the professional services contract.
There are many other concerns derived from RSI interpreting at home: Interpreters are professionals and they are expected to do their job: Interpreting, researching the subject of the conference, adapting their delivery to cultural considerations to make communication happen between those who do not share a common language. They are also expected to prevent and solve language-related problems that may come up during their rendition. They are neither equipped, nor expected, to deal with technical difficulties or problems derived from the installation or performance of the interpreting equipment, sound system, or any other non-linguistic or cultural issue. Interpreters are not mechanics, electricians, sound engineers, telephone repairmen, software engineers, or IT experts. Even those who claim to be “amateur experts” do not have to be so. These services are needed to deliver interpreting services, but they are not provided by the interpreting team.
Because technology is so important in RSI, and because interpreters have limitations, the only way to guarantee (to a high degree) a successful event is by delivering the interpretation from an RSI studio where interpreters wit side by side and work as a team, and technical support is on site.
There are other considerations that are as important as the ones so far expressed in this section, that cannot be satisfied to professional quality when interpreting takes place in a house, office or apartment. Interpreters do not have all needed equipment, and even if they think they do, it will probably be outdated. Technology changes so quickly that it would be practically impossible and unrealistic to expect interpreters to keep up with the latest products, and then acquire them at their own expense, and properly install them to be used at the next home RSI event. At home, interpreters are alone, there is no technical support, other than a guy a the other end of the phone line, trying to explain to a lay person how to troubleshoot, diagnose and repair a technical issue while the event is in progress, and the other interpreter takes over the rendition for an uncertain period, with all its unwanted consequences due to mental fatigue and additional stress, until the problem is corrected or the event has to be cancelled.
When working from home, interpreters do not have a boothmate next to them. There is no support/passive interpreter assisting with research, writing down figures, and so on; in fact, to communicate with each other, they must type a message while interpreting, adding another layer to the very complex task of simultaneous interpreting. There is also the possibility of having technical difficulties that may keep an interpreter from taking over when their turn comes up, leaving the original interpreter on the mike for potentially hours. There are also the mental and biological considerations. Because RSI happens worldwide, one interpreter could be working from her home in Tijuana, Mexico while the other could be in Fukuoka, Japan; a difference of 18 hours. One interpreter could be fresh and energetic while the other could be tired and fatigued because she would be working during the night. This differs from traditional interpreting when we travel to the venue and get used to the time change before the rendition. With RSI from home, one interpreter could be sound asleep and then interpreting a complex scientific conference 30 minutes later. This is bad for the well-rested interpreter counting on the exhausted interpreter; it is unfair to the interpreter who just woke up because she is now working during the night after working all day the day before; and it is bad for the client as the rendition will suffer.
One danger from RSI at home concerns national infrastructure. I see agencies and promoters recruiting interpreters all over the world; I have seen them selling the job to colleagues who work with less common language combinations, a very desirable resource to these agencies, but live in countries where the technology and infrastructure may not be at the level needed for a successful RSI job. Power outages are an everyday event in many countries; this would kill an event, or at least, leave one interpreter working solo because the other one will have no way to continue. Outdated telephone systems, sub-pair internet speed, unreliable infrastructure such as poor satellite coverage or cellular phone towers will also kill the event, or at the least deliver a low-quality rendition for causes with nothing to do with the interpreters’ performance.
Living conditions can be a real problem. A dog barking, a neighbor mowing the lawn, kids playing next door, or ambulance sirens from a nearby hospital could diminish the quality of the service. Unlike an RSI studio, a “sound-proof” home studio by an interpreter is not a professional studio.
Now let’s talk liability. Does the RSI home interpreter’s professional insurance policy cover RSI from home? Until today, I have seen no policy that covers such service; interpreter professional liability insurance policies do not even cover RSI at the studio. Period. The thing is, until there is clear coverage of this professional service, interpreters can argue that RSI at the studio can be equated to conference interpreting from the booth. Also, just like at the convention center, interpreting from the RSI studio falls under the agency’s or organizer’s liability, not the interpreters’.
This is a real issue and we need to talk to the insurance companies to make sure there is a policy that covers these new modes of interpreting. The premium will be higher, and we need to be ready for that by factoring in the new cost into what we charge for providing our services.
A lawsuit could put you out of business for good, and losing in court because of a power outage , a poor telephone service, slow internet, or a noisy neighbor, while the agency/organizer who transferred this liability to you by getting you to work from home, stays in business would be an injustice.
This problem does not go away, even when interpreting from a different country, half world away from the event. Some countries’ legislation allows the injured party (client) to sue you regardless of where you are from, where you live, or where you provided the service from. The United States is one of these countries. It is a matter of jurisdiction.
The law allows for long arm jurisdiction, so a court, let’s say in the United States, can admit a lawsuit against individuals or corporations not physically within the United States, as long as there is a connection to the country, such as the client, the venue, the agent/organizer, equipment manufacturer, etc. (Becerra Javier. Dictionary of United States Legal Terminology. English-Spanish. Escuela Libre de Derecho 2008). All that is needed is the commission of a tortious act within the United States or affecting an individual, organization, or corporation from or doing business in the United States (International Shoe Co. v State of Washington. 326 U.S. 310, 316, 66 S.Ct. 154, 158, 90 L.Ed. 95) These are some reasons why the United States can create a trade embargo against foreign nations. In the past, even when the parties had no apparent link to the United States, American courts have taken jurisdiction because of certain nexus to the country. Even if you are at home in South America interpreting a conference in Africa for a European client, if you used Microsoft, Apple, Google, IBM, INTEL, an American telecommunications satellite, etc., a judge could admit a lawsuit against you for professional malpractice or negligence due to a defective internet connection or outdated hardware at your house.
The United States follows a contributory negligence system, so even if the agency/promoter is sued, you could be sued as well for contributing to the problem by such things as providing this service from home without knowing about computers, remote interpreting, sound, the condition of your home electrical outlets, the last time you backed up your system, etcetera. Having professional liability insurance coverage that works in the United States will help, because even if sued, the policy will protect you to your liability limit. These are issues that must be discussed with insurance companies, and I believe that until there is a policy that clearly covers these legal situations, I would close the home office and go back to RSI from the studio. I have talked to several tort, malpractice attorneys and insurance company lawyers and they are all catching up. As of now, insurers’ efforts are focusing on how to deny you coverage under current insurance policies.
I understand there is much to be said and researched, including how long is the arm of the law, but for now, and until we know what we professionally, medically, and legally face, I believe the success and full acceptance of RSI in our corporate, academic, diplomatic, and governmental worlds should be handled with caution. This includes going back to RSI at the studio as it was once welcomed and cheered by so many of us. I for one, as an experienced professional interpreter, and as a lawyer, will limit my RSI practice to the studio with a real partner next to me. I will also continue to educate my clients and colleagues on the dangers of working from home, and will talk to many more lawyers and insurance companies about the lack of coverage. That will give interpreters peace of mind. I hope the prestigious platforms follow and those greedy agencies/organizers understand the enormous risk they are taking by continuing to foster home-based RSI. Please let me know your thoughts on this so dangerous risk many of our colleagues are taking without even thinking about it.
The ten worst things that interpreters can do to themselves.
April 1, 2014 § 12 Comments
In the past we have used this series to underline some of the problems that we face when practicing our profession; we have vented a little, laughed a little, but most importantly, we have discussed short-term and long-term solutions to all of these problems. It is now time to look in the mirror and list those things that we do to ourselves, sometimes without even realizing it, that can personally harm us and sometimes even hurt the profession as a whole. Let’s take a peek:
- Lower your fee to keep the client. This is the worst of the worst of the worst thing any professional can ever do. Interpreters are professionals and their service commands a professional fee. We are not talking about general labor, this is specialized complex work. Sadly, many of our colleagues are afraid of losing the client and in order to keep the cheap client happy they are all too-ready to drop their fees to the basement. Dear colleagues, I don’t know about you, but I am in the business of working less and making more. I rather work two days a week and make the same money that other interpreter makes in five days. I can find plenty of things to do on those other three days, including looking for more business and having availability for those well-paying last minute assignments. I know some staff interpreters argue that this does not apply to them because they have a fixed income, but it does apply to them because they also interpret on weekends, after hours and during their vacation time. Others may say that sometimes we have to lower our fee because the client truly cannot pay what we ask. For those situations you need to remember that our services are expensive. This is not something for people to pay with their left over income. We provide a service that is paid with saved or even loaned money. That is just how it is. As far as “feeling guilty” in a particular situation, my suggestion is to donate your work for free in those cases. It has worked better for me, and when you ask for a receipt, in many places it is tax deductible as a charitable contribution. Never lower your fee because that harms you and it also hurts the profession. The client has to get used to the fact that interpreters are professionals providing a professional service, but we can only achieve this goal when it is us, the interpreters, who believe that we are professionals and provide a professional service.
- Be unprepared. The best way to make sure that a client will never call you again is to show up unprepared. Interpreting is a very difficult profession because we are one of the very few professions where we are required to know our craft and to have a very detailed knowledge of the client’s occupation. It is never enough to go to work as a good simultaneous or consecutive interpreter; it is never acceptable to go to work as a true bilingual individual. We need to be those things and we also need to know the subject matter to be interpreted, the work and background of the presenters, the educational level of the audience, and the basic technology needed to operate the interpretation equipment in the booth. Those colleagues who are afraid to ask for presentations and other materials ahead of time are killing themselves. Unless they already know the topic, those who choose not to study or at least read about the issues to be covered by the presenter are simply committing malpractice.
- A nightmare in the booth. Among interpreters there are very few things more detrimental to an interpreter’s reputation than bad behavior in the booth (or the courtroom, the hospital, the gala dinner, or any other place where we render our services) Always remember: Interpreting is a team sport. We need to have the support of our colleague in the booth as much as they need to have ours. Always be courteous to your teammate, because we practice a team and not a tag-team profession, be alert and ready to help when you are not interpreting, do not leave the booth or abandon your interpreting station unless it is an emergency, before you start an assignment talk with your booth-mate about little things such as shifts, where to sit, having the lights on or off in the booth, uniform terminology, and all other details necessary to have a successful rendition. The nicer you are to the other person in the booth the more people will want to work with you, and more people translates into more work.
- Stay away from social media. This is a relatively new addition to my top ten but it is becoming more important every year. In a global economy where technology allows for fast travel, remote interpreting, and instant communication, your name needs to be out there for all to see. The least expensive and a very effective way to stay competitive is to get involved in all kinds of social media. It is easier to develop networks when you do Twitter, you establish connections through Linked-in, you create and maintain a professional page on Facebook, Google+, and so on. At least try to keep up with some of them. Write a blog or at least comment on other colleagues’ blogs to stay visible. It is essential to have a website for clients to find you, learn about your background and experience, and to pay you by credit card or PayPal. Those who stay away from social media will stay away from main stream interpreting and will eventually be forgotten.
- Unwillingness to travel. Good interpreters must be flexible. We are in a profession that cannot be practiced from an office, cannot be practiced from a single city, and at certain level cannot be practiced in one single country either. Unless you are a staff in-house interpreter somewhere, or as a freelancer you have decided to settle for a certain professional level (that is not even remotely near the top of our profession) then you have to be willing to travel everywhere, anytime, for as long as needed, and on very short notice. Unfortunately these are the rules of the game. Unlike translators, we need to be on the move. This is something you need to ponder long and hard if you are truly committed to be a first-class full-time interpreter. Of course, this is not for everybody. Many people decide to practice a less involved version of the profession and choose to remain in a single town and only work within a geographically limited area. Others prefer to travel once or twice a year, or maybe want to have notice way before the assignment. This is fine if you want practice the profession at that particular level and you make it well known. Those who try to have the two lifestyles of staying at home and pretend that they are willing to travel will eventually hurt their career as sooner or later it will be common knowledge that they are not really that flexible.
- Ignore technology. One of the most exciting aspects of practicing our profession in the twenty first century is the technology we now have. Staying away from electronic dictionaries, internet search engines, and other technological advantages we now have over our colleagues who worked 20 years ago will soon put you on a “B” list. We must understand and embrace change. It is so convenient to take notes on an iPad, to interpret in a booth with a console that rewinds the last few seconds of a speech, to have all your research materials and presentations stored in the cloud, that every day we see more of our colleagues doing it. The day when hard copy dictionaries and steno pads will be a vanished species is practically around the corner. And speaking of the corner, video remote interpreting already turned the corner and it is coming towards you at the speed of light. Instead of fighting it and resisting it, we need to embrace it, we need to be a part of this technologies’ development process. There will always be a need for live “in-person” interpreting, but most work will be done remotely. Technology allows it in many different settings and the market wants it. Warning: Do not be like those interpreters who fought against simultaneous interpretation equipment 60 years ago because you could end up like them.
- Avoid interpreter conferences. Unfortunately many colleagues have decided not to go to professional conferences; many more go to the minimum required to keep their professional certifications, accreditations and licenses current, and a great number of interpreters are willing to attend a conference provided that it is near their hometown. We have heard many excuses and explanations to justify this reluctance to attend conferences and workshops: The program is not attractive, I know more than the presenters, it is too expensive, they are boring, you don’t learn anything… Sadly, those who view professional conferences this way have it all wrong. Our conferences at all levels: international, national, regional and local, are all beneficial. Not everything presented will always be new to you, but there is always something to learn. You may have more professional experience than some presenters, but they may have done some research that will increase your vast knowledge. Some are more expensive than others but they last longer and therefore may be enough to meet the year’s continuing education credits requirement, and they are also tax deductible in many countries. Conferences are never boring if you really understand their value: You attend them to develop a professional network. Yes, you go to a conference with your business cards and a few one liners to break the ice so you can get more work, get a better deal on the purchase of interpreting equipment, buy the newest dictionaries and textbooks, and as an added bonus: You go to have fun. Avoiding professional gatherings make you invisible to your peers, to the agencies, and to the rest of the world.
- Be timid when negotiating work conditions. Once again, those who are timid or afraid will rarely get excellent work conditions to do their job. It frustrates me to see a good interpreter working under terrible conditions and it happens all the time because many of our colleagues are afraid to ask for the right booth, the full-time technician, the best booth location, all conference materials, and so on. It really saddens me to see how some very capable interpreters are willing to accept an assignment without paid travel days, Per Diem, and a fair cancellation fee. By accepting these substandard working conditions the interpreter hurts his career and he harms all of us as a profession. There are plenty of good clients willing to pay what we deserve, but every time that somebody works under this less-than-acceptable conditions it gets more difficult to convince the agency or the ultimate client that the standard conditions are needed to get the best human talent and the best service. Don’t be afraid of losing the bad client. A cheap client is only a good client when the word client goes after the word “former.” Always remember: If you go along with this substandard conditions only once you will never get the full standard working conditions again.
- Mistreat the new interpreters. Even with all the new technology interpreting is a human being profession. The problem is that we are not eternal and eventually, because of the growing market, or due to our aging process, new blood will need to come into the profession, just like we once did. Those of you who know me or follow the blog know that I am all for teaching and sharing with the newcomers to the booth, the battle field, the courtroom, the medical office, and elsewhere. Clients and agencies want to keep the quality of the interpretation in their events, and the only way to ensure that continuity is to hire and train the next generation. The label of “problematic” goes to those veteran professionals who ignore, scold, or patronize young interpreters. As you know, clients are not very willing to hire a problematic interpreter for an assignment. They rather skip their name and move on to the next one on the list. If you care for the profession, if your reputation matters to you, and if you want to work until you decide to retire, just be nice to the new ones. In fact, just as you can teach them a thing or two, they can also teach you technology and help you become more marketable. It is a win-win situation.
- Wait for the assignment to come to your doorstep. Understanding the market is a requirement to be a successful interpreter. The good assignments will come to you if you go out there looking for them. I will never understand those colleagues who sit at home waiting for the agency, the courthouse or the hospital to call. A true professional has to look for work. You need to be a good interpreter, a knowledgeable individual, and a reliable professional, but unless you let others know that you are all of those things the world won’t even know that you exist. The career of an interpreter includes interpreting, studying, and marketing. Remember, this is a profession but it is also a business. Never lose sight of it. An interpreter who does not look for work is a lazy interpreter, and a lazy interpreter is a failure.
Dear colleagues, I am aware that there are many other bad things that we do to ourselves. These are some of the ones that in my opinion require of our attention. We have to avoid them and correct them. Please feel free to share with us those things that we do to ourselves and in your opinion hurt us as professionals or harm us all as a profession.