Video Remote Interpreting: Agencies do not see what I see.

November 9, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Video remote interpreting, or VRI as it is widely known, is one of those topics that are difficult to discuss because some multinational agencies have turned it into an emotionally charged subject.  Those of you who know me personally, and the friends and colleagues who read the blog, know that I have always been a pro-technology individual, that as an interpreter I embrace technological changes and the benefits that come with modernization; and as a person who loves to study history, I recognize that technology has come to the interpreting profession, including VRI, and it is not going anywhere.

In the past, I have written about the benefits of working remotely by video, about how this change is helping us, the interpreters, to work more and better assignments that we could not do before because of the limitations of time and space. I have also told many of you, and I repeat it right here, right now, that even with its deficiencies and set-backs, VRI technology is getting better every day.  I have no doubt in my mind that the day when we don’t worry about VRI technology more than we presently worry about conventional technology in the traditional booth is just around the corner.

To this point everything looks good and promising. It is when you begin to factor in all the other sideshows that generally accompany VRI interpreting that we see the dark side of this issue.

There are some good and honest agencies all over the world; we interpreters know who they are and wish to continue our mutually beneficial collaboration with them; however, during the last two or three years we have been bombarded by these multinational interpreting agencies, and some others not quite as big, who have undertaken the task of proselytizing all the interpreters and all the students of interpretation they can find. It seems that you cannot attend a professional conference anymore without having to sit through a presentation by an executive or an administrator of one of these entities, who almost never is or was an interpreter, and listen to their interpretation of the new reality in our profession. They skillfully present an extremely one-sided view of the changes created by VRI, and launch their efforts to convince the individual interpreter to blindly accept their conclusions and conditions as the only truth.  Dear friends and colleagues, I see things very differently from my perspective as an individual independent interpreter. Let me explain:

The multinationals and the smaller agencies that from now on I will respectfully refer to as their “junior partners” want me to believe that there is this great new technology that is being provided by these huge agencies and their junior partners, that they know how it works and that for this reason they are entitled to be the ones offering this technology to the client (who they often refer to as customer because they see interpreting as an “industry” not a profession). While they are telling me this, I see that they never mention the inventors and researchers, that these individuals are not invited to the conferences and seminars because it is not in the multinationals’ best interest that we, as mere interpreters, meet them and start a direct relationship with the creative talent, thus bypassing the middleman in this equation also known as the agency.

They tell us again and again that VRI changed the old rules and that from now on interpreters better get used to the idea that they will make less money because, by eliminating the need to travel to the site of the event, it will be cheaper to deliver interpreting services. It is just a consequence of modernization. The problem is that what I see are multinational agencies and their junior partners generating all-time high profits because, despite of the savings in travel and other logistics that VRI eliminates and therefore the end-client would not be willing to pay anymore, by reducing the interpreters’ fees because the service is now rendered remotely, they now keep a bigger share of the professional fees paid by the client for interpreter services. I see that an event covered remotely will eliminate travel-related costs, but the professional service of the interpreter is exactly the same. The fact that the interpreter is working from home or from a facility near home instead of from a booth on the other side of the world is irrelevant for the rendition.  There is no logic, there is no reason, and there is no moral justification to demand that a professional interpreter work for less because of his physical location.

They tell us that VRI interpreting for these multinational agencies and their junior partners benefits the interpreter because she will not have to “waste” two days traveling to and from an event. Instead, she will be able to take a second assignment for those “traveling” days; therefore, she will have a higher income.  The problem is that I see a professional independent interpreter, who owns her time, deciding to work one assignment, two, or none. This is a personal decision that has nothing to do with the multinational agency or its junior partner as it does not impact the interpreter’s performance during the assignment with said entity.  There is a good chance that there may not be other assignments available for those days, and in that case, you could argue that the interpreter would actually make less money because she will not be paid the travel fee anymore. I do not include this in my judgment because it is part of the risk of being an independent professional interpreter. It has nothing to do with the multinational entity.

They tell us that healthcare and court interpreters will be better off with VRI because instead of spending hours getting ready to go to work, traveling to the assignment, and waiting for their medical appointment or court hearing to take place, they can stay home and play with their kids, do some gardening or work in their car. It is a win-win situation!  Unfortunately, what I see is an interpreter who goes to the hospital, clinic, courthouse or jail because that is his job, being forced to accept one or two hours of work paid by the minute, instead of a full day of paid work. People go to work because they need to make money. Many would love to stay with their children, plant a tree or fix the attic; unfortunately you don’t get paid for any of those things. That is what vacation is for.

These entities tell us that thanks to VRI many indigenous language interpreters are now working with hospitals and emergency rooms; they brag about this. They are helping these generally ignored and forgotten interpreters. That is not what I observe. When I look at these indigenous colleagues, I see rare and exotic language interpreters providing professional services for a very low fee. We all know that our colleagues in rare and exotic languages command a higher fee than those of us who have a more conventional language combination.

The multinational agencies and their partners tell us that they are the ones who know the market, that as interpreters, we may know how to provide the service, but it is the agency that can get the clients. What I see is that we as interpreters know many people that they do not know. We are in the trenches with those who make an event successful. These are the players that we can go to and keep the interpreter service a reality. They do not know many of them.

These agencies tell us that they are the ones who make sure that interpreters provide their services ethically and professionally. Unfortunately for those who believe this idea, I cannot see how one of their employees, somebody less experienced and with less formal education than the interpreters she “coordinates” by micromanaging and setting demeaning practices used in unskilled labor markets, can do a better job than a professional who will still be around a year from now. Most of these agency employees will not.

The multinational agencies and their junior partners often say that there are many interpreters who are very happy working for them under the existing conditions. What I see is a group of individuals who are scared to death of losing that rock-bottom income that together with their spouse’s wages makes it possible for them to survive. They are too afraid to speak up. Of course, I would not doubt that there may be some who are suffering of the Stockholm syndrome.

They tell us that they are training interpreters, that they are helping them to improve their skills. In reality, what I see is, in my opinion, no more than a bunch of laughable tests and online courses claiming to help you become an interpreter.

These multinational entities constantly say that there are not enough interpreters in the market to meet the current demand. That they are working on training more people to fulfill these need. Unfortunately, all I see is many good interpreters sitting at home without work because they refuse to work under such insulting conditions as the ones often contained in these agencies’ contracts.

Multinational entities and their junior associates tell us that it is them who know the technology; that we do not, that many interpreters are reluctant to learn how to work with VRI technology because they are afraid of the new tools. The truth is that every day more interpreters are getting tired of the middle guy who adds no value to the service and can be replaced at the blink of an eye. Interpreters, inventors and researchers can work together directly.  As far as learning the technology, do not worry. All I can say is that there are many more college degrees on this side of the table. Interpreters will learn.

These are my opinions, it is my perception of what is going on. I truly believe that we as interpreters need to develop a direct relationship with innovators to be in a position where we provide VRI services in a professional dignified way that includes the most essential part of this profession (because it is not an industry): the individual interpreter, embracing those honest agencies who understand their role in this profession and do not try to go beyond, and eliminating all those prone to abuse their position and willing to impose their personal insatiable desires over the professional services they claim to provide.  I now ask you to share your comments on this issue, and to refrain from coming in here to defend the philosophy and practices of the multinational agencies and their junior partners I refer to throughout this entry.  They have plenty of spaces where they can continue to serve the Kool-Aid. We have very limited venues to express our opinion.

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