April 19, 2021 § 8 Comments
The post-Covid interpreting market looks very different from what we knew before 2020. Distance interpreting brought in globalization at an unprecedented pace, and with that a new set of rules that for now look like the Wild West. Much remains to be done, and many things will happen before the market settles down and we have a clear view and understanding of a more permanent, stable workplace; but for now, misrepresentations, ignorance, and opportunism, coexist with professionalism, quality, and experience.
The impact of false advertisement and entry of inexperienced individuals has been such, that even well-established working relations between professional interpreters and long-time clients have been affected to a degree.
My professional practice is now strong and steady, but in the last twelve months I experienced first-hand, three times, what this chaos and confusion can do to my business.
First, I was contacted by a long-time client to let me know that the annual assignment I have been doing for seven years was no more. When I asked if the event had been cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic, I was told the conference would be held on line, but it would be interpreted by other interpreters from a developing country charging less than half of my fee. The client told me that to them costs were THE priority, and no argument about quality, experience, cultural knowledge would make them change their minds. I understood. I had lost my first long-term client to a group of inexpensive interpreters with (in the words of the client) had zero experience in these events, but were “enthusiastic, energetic, and cheap.”
Several months later, I was asked by another client who has worked with me for over fifteen years to interpret a one-day event. It was a distance interpreting assignment on a topic I have interpreted often before. The event took place without incident and I invoiced my client. To my surprise, this client’s accounting department contacted me a few weeks later asking me to explain and justify the fee I had charged. The invoice was straight forward; in fact, it was identical to many other invoices I had submitted for similar services. It was a full-day fee. Nothing else. I replied to the accountants, and two weeks later I was contacted by my client. I was told my service rendered on that date did not justify a full-day fee because there was a 2-hour intermission after the first 2 hours and before the final two. I explained that such a service is a full-day because the interpreter is dedicating the full day to the event, including interpreting when the event goes over the first two hours. I also reminded them they had paid this way for years without ever questioning the charge, and the contract obligated them to pay for a full-day of work. The client listened carefully to my arguments and replied that they appreciated my services, but other interpreters who they had been hiring for other language combinations, all court or healthcare interpreters, were charging them by the hour, and they did not charge for the hours in between. We had a good conversation about conference interpreting, quality of the service, and meeting their needs. At the end of a long conversation, we agreed to continue our professional relationship as always, but the client express their hesitancy about replacing their other language combinations court and healthcare interpreters with conference interpreters in the immediate future. I did not lose the client, but it was clear they were moving away from conference interpreters in other less-commonly used languages.
My third experience concerned another very good client that comes with less frequency, but always with multi-day, high-profile assignments. This client sent me an email asking for my availability for a multi-day assignment. After I replied telling them I was available, they responded by asking me if I would do the assignment for a full-day fee about twenty percent below what I usually charge. My answer was no. I got another email a few days later asking me if I was still available, and willing to work for a full-day fee about fifteen percent below my normal fee. I said no again. A few weeks went by and I received a third email informing me that if I was still available, they had “found the funds” to pay me my usual full-day fee. I was available (the assignment was months later in the year) so I agreed to do the job. After signing the contract, I wondered what had happened, and it came to my knowledge from other sources (in the world of interpreting we discover everything sooner or later) that they had “auditioned” other interpreters willing to work for the lower fee, but the client was not satisfied with their performance. I was fortunate the client was looking for quality and they valued my services, even though they hesitated for a moment as they were tricked by the social media mirage we see every day.
These episodes make me wonder what is going on that interpreters will accept worse conditions than the ones offered 20 or 30 years ago. I believe it is fear:
Interpreters fear the client. Instead of starting a negotiation from a place of power, knowing the service they offer has quality, they fear clients will never call them again if they raise any issue. Interpreters fear saying no to a shrinking fee because they think all the work will go to those diving to the bottom, instead of shedding those clients and focusing on quality-seeking organizations. Interpreters fear saying no to long RSI hours because they think the platform will never call them again. They agree to these market-devastating conditions instead of considering taking the client to another platform or even staying with the same one, but working directly for the client without an agency-like platform in the middle. They are equally afraid of charging full fees for RSI cancellations; afraid of asking for team interpreting on depositions and other legal community interpreting events; they will not dare to charge overtime, or a higher fee for complex assignments that require many days of preparation, because they do not understand they do not need the agency if they go to the client directly: There can be interpretation without the agencies, but there cannot be interpretation without interpreters.
Even when there is a contract, interpreters are afraid of charging full-day fees when retained to interpret a few hours throughout the day, and they are afraid to stand up for their rights when the client cuts their fee after the service was rendered as I did in my examples above. Many interpreters sacrifice quality, and put their reputation at risk, hurting their opportunities in the future because they are afraid the client, and more frequently the agency, will be upset if they keep asking for materials, programs, and the name of their boothmates. They do not dare to raise their fees when everything else is going up, including their cost of doing business. Some colleagues willingly take low-paying jobs to post their assignments on social media, and keep quiet on the fee issue because they are ashamed to admit they worked for peanuts, instead of having the courage to denounce the job offer. When offered a rock-bottom fee or despicable working conditions, interpreters must turn down the agency or de-facto-agency platform and, unless contractually impaired, contact the client directly, offer their services and eliminate the middle man. When harassed by a platform or agency for not agreeing to draconian terms, interpreters should move on and look for a better option. There are thousands of agencies, and many interpreting-dedicated platforms that basically do the same. Yes, you may lose clients, as I lost one of three, but you will keep, and find better ones; clients that will let you provide a quality service, protect your health, and develop your reputation and brand for a better future. Let’s get rid of the fear and face the Wild West with courage, determination, and convinced that, unlike agencies, we are an essential part of the process. I now invite you to share with the rest of us how you have protected your market and reputation.
March 18, 2021 § 5 Comments
By now we all know of the challenges interpreters face in remote depositions, but when the deposition to be interpreted remotely involves high profile individuals, a large sum of money, and difficult legal and jurisdictional issues, additional considerations need to be addressed. I was recently involved in one of these cases.
I was part of a team of interpreters retained to interpret the deposition of a well-known individual involved in a very important multi-billion-dollar litigation with an army of attorneys virtually attending the event from three continents. A job of this nature presents very specific issues that can be grouped into three categories:
Issues with the deponent.
There are certain factors to consider when deponents are celebrities in the world of politics, sports, business or entertainment; things that would not be an issue when the person to be deposed is an ordinary citizen of the world. Tight schedules, avoidance of media coverage, deponent’s convenience, and star power have to be discussed and resolved before the interpreter commits to a date and time. Here, the complexity was exacerbated because the attorneys involved in the case were in three continents, with some physically participating in-person from the same city the deponent would appear. On top of multiple professional agendas and all factors above, time difference had to be addressed. At the end it was decided the deposition would take place at a time of the day when the deponent would be rested and alert. Because of the status of this individual, it was agreed to block ten straight workdays for the deposition. The event itself was expected to last one day, but there was no way to pin it down to a specific date. A ballpark date was all the parties could agree to. This had to be scheduled twice. The deponent could not appear during the originally scheduled ten-day period, so the event was rescheduled for another ten straight workdays two months later.
The second factor to remember is these deponents are difficult to interpret because they are very resourceful. It is expected that regular deponents be smart individuals with a sharp mind, and a sophisticated varied vocabulary; after all they are usually company executives or government officials. Celebrity, high-profile deponents have the above, plus years of experience with previous litigations, giving impromptu speeches, and they have the “star factor.” It is not uncommon to find attorneys who cannot get over the fact they are deposing their childhood heroes, role models, or favorite athletes or stars. This complicates things for the interpreter when deponents answer a question with a long, winded speech full of half-truths, equivocal affirmations, and little substance.
Issues with the interpreters’ client.
There were many attorneys involved in this activity, but only a team of lawyers from one firm required interpreting services. Some of these attorneys were physically present at the site of the deposition, most were virtually attending it from their home country. Because the deposition was scheduled to be taken in the deponent’s first language, and most attorneys shared that language with this person, even if they were not all from the same country, most interpreting details were overlooked until we raised them. The fact some attorneys are the gold-standard in their profession, they are known around the world, and they command a hefty fee, does not mean they know more about remote interpreting than a modest solo practitioner representing the victims of a traffic injury. We soon realized the attorneys had not even considered that the interpretation would be rendered simultaneously by three interpreters sitting at their own respective studios thousands of miles away. We explained how this works, and gave them the reasons why this could not be done over the phone with a long-distance conference call. This does not differ from the conversation interpreters have with their clients everyday all over the world, so why am I singling it out as an issue specific to high-profile depositions? I am mentioning it, because after we listened to our client’s concerns, and the comments and objections from the other attorneys that were not our clients (remember: we were working for one of three law firms) based on the multi-billion-dollar nature of the controversy, we could have easily recommended the most expensive RSI platform. We did not.
We did not ask for one of the dedicated, more costly platforms because it was unnecessary. This was a bilingual event with no relay. We saw what was the platform all law firms had in common, we agreed to communicate among ourselves through a separate platform like WhatsApp or Facetime, and we selected Zoom for this assignment. We had to request headphones and good microphones for all those involved, and everybody complied. The only other wrinkle we encountered concerned the lack of familiarity with the way interpreters work when providing distance interpreting. The client expected the interpreters would have their video cameras on during the deposition until we explained that in-person simultaneous interpreters work from a booth where nobody sees them, and when simultaneously interpreting remotely, the off video is the equivalent to the in-person booth. There were no issues or complaints after we gave the explanation.
Issues with the interpreters’ preparation, availability, and compensation.
Because of the complexities in a proceeding that started over a decade earlier and has been through different countries’ jurisdiction no less than three times; the amount of study materials; the needed research on the deponent’s career, personal life, and speech style; all terminology research and development of glossaries; possibility of last-minute cancellations; and number of days needed to be set aside for this deposition, even though the event itself would not last longer than one day, it was decided that all interpreters would be paid for full interpreting days on all booked dates, regardless of cancellations, postponements, or days of actual interpreting. There was no bargaining or hesitancy by the client. They immediately agreed to these terms because they perceived them as fair. Another critical issue was the availability of study materials early in the case; fortunately, the client provided all materials, and a list of internet links to more information early in the assignment, and they did it without us having to request it. Because the interpreter team has worked similar cases for a long time, coordination, assignment of tasks, and collaboration was not an issue this time, and it underlines the importance of working complex assignments with trusted, compatible, capable colleagues.
I know many of you are now facing these high-profile, complex assignments with RSI. I hope this experience and suggested pointers are useful and valuable to your professional practice. I now invite you to share your own experiences and suggestions when dealing with complex or high-profile remote depositions.
February 18, 2021 § 6 Comments
This is an article I wrote for the ITI. It was published several months ago, and I now reproduce it on my blog:
The pandemic has been an eye-opener on the future of the profession, and an opportunity to assess everything I was doing right before this crisis. During the last couple of months, I have strengthened my professional bond with my direct clients. Because of the uncertain future, and complicated present, I saw the need to contact my best clients with three objectives: To reassured them I am here to assist them at this time; to show them empathy and remind them I am going through the same difficulties they are facing to remain viable; and to advise them on their best options to deal with urgent matters using RSI until they meet in person again. COVID-19 showed me I did the right thing years ago when I looked for direct clients instead of waiting for the agencies to contact me. I validate this decision every time I hear how agencies are trying to lower interpreting fees; or how they are taking advantage by recruiting desperate or inexperienced interpreters willing to be paid by the minute. I see there is an RSI hype that, from the platform’s perspective is a total success. You can hardly spend a minute on social media without running into an interpreter bragging about their newly acquired skill. Unfortunately, I see how many of these colleagues believe that learning the platform translates into assignments and income. I feel sorry for them because nobody reminded them interpreters get hired based on the quality of their work and their professional experience. It breaks my heart to see how many are spending the limited money they have on expensive microphones, headsets, and even soundproof rooms. Isolation made me appreciate things I never considered before: genuine solidarity among professional colleagues, human contact, my time in the booth, talking to the client face to face, touring a venue before the event, crowded airports, hotel bars after the event, shaking the hand of a good technician in appreciation for making me sound good. Interpreters are social beings and there are many cultures in the world that will demand in-person conferences and meetings when it is safe to do it. Before the virus, RSI was a small business; now tech giants are pouring in their resources. It may be a matter of time before the RSI platforms interpreters are talking about are Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Finally, I learned two lessons: Some professional associations are helping us through these ugly days while others prioritized money over humans and are forging ahead with expensive conferences no one will attend. I learned RSI will get better every day and it will remain the choice for small and preliminary meetings. It will also be used by companies that could not afford in-person events before. We must decide the professional fees and work conditions we need and want. It must be the interpreter who gets the client, not the platform. If we do our job, there will be a bigger pie for all interpreters.
January 12, 2021 § 6 Comments
Now that 2020 ended and we are working towards a better and safer 2021, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months. As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, last year was like no other. 2020 was garbage. It was a terrible year for humanity, and for the profession, and it was even worse for the interpreters.
Stating the facts does not make me a negative individual. This post acknowledges reality because that is the only way we can move forward and leave this awful year in the trash can. To those who say the year was not so bad, because it made us realize what is truly important, I say this is a self-defense mechanism that keeps us from dealing with the horrendous truth; and to those claiming that 2020 was a good year for them, all I can do is ask them how can you celebrate a year when so many millions of people died, many more millions got sick with long-term consequences, lost their jobs, or their business went under with no fault of their own? The year was a dark moment in human history. We saw how many of our colleagues, some great interpreters, left the profession just to feed their families; we saw how the sound technicians, our professional partners, lost their source of income, and with that their homes, cars, health insurance. I was left wondering about the lives of airport, hotel, and airline workers who I used to see several times a week and were left with the sad option of collecting unemployment insurance and visiting food banks to feed their children. I often think of my colleagues enduring the hardship of not working remotely as they now have their children at home because schools were closed many months ago; I see how many colleagues, some top-tier interpreters, are struggling to learn technology, and install the infrastructure at home to enter the world of distance conference interpreting, and literarily suffer as they try to understand a technology that appeared too late in their lives, or cut essential expenses so they can pay for high speed internet, or noise-cancelling headphones. I feel so sad when I see my elderly colleagues getting COVID-19, and sometimes passing away. I had a hard time, like we all did, but fortunately, I was technologically ready to jump on the distance interpreting bandwagon, and even though I am working at home, missing all those things that make life worth living, such as traveling, and enjoying human contact, I was lucky enough to work, remotely, with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.
Our profession saw its conferences migrate to a virtual mode, allowing us to learn and practice, but depriving us from the opportunities to do networking and renew friendships with those colleagues we only see once a year. I congratulate those professional associations that cancelled, postponed, and moved their conferences online, and I shame those associations that put money ahead of their members’ health, and waited until the last moment to switch to virtual. That we will remember.
2020 was the year of fraud and misrepresentation of credentials where sadly, many great instructors and presenters shared cyberspace with unknown, self-proclaimed experts who made money by designing a nice website, attractive advertisement, and nothing else. We saw the growth of our profession in distance interpreting: Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) video remote interpreting (VRI) and over the phone interpreting (OPI). Unfortunately, much of its growth was due to questionable advertisement by some platforms and agencies who scared clients and naïve interpreters by making them believe that in-person interpreting was forever gone, and selling them the false idea that distance interpreting was of the same quality as in-person traditional work. We learned the value of real interpreter-centric professional associations that defended our interests when platforms, agencies, and many clients tried (and continue to try) to lower our standards by retaining unqualified interpreters, violating the rules of professional domicile, and recruiting interpreters and para-professionals willing to work long hours, solo, and for little money. We saw how not even a pandemic can bring us a one hundred percent pariah-safe year.
One of the few good things that happened in 2020 was the defeat of ATA’s Board initiative to decouple membership from certification. I applaud the members who made it possible with their vote.
Finally, to end on a positive note, I say we proved to ourselves that interpreters are resilient, able to adapt to adversity to survive, and good humans. We saw more unity among our colleagues than ever before. This was a welcome development in the ferocious assault by the agencies demanding work for lower pay, and platforms demanding work under substandard conditions. I disagree, however, with the idea that we “learned” how to do this. We just remembered how to do it. It is Darwinian that humans adapt to changing circumstances. That is natural selection.
We now face a new year full of uncertainty, with a poor distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, new mutations of the virus, a world economy in shambles, a hospitality sector, vital to our profession, looking at a long term come back that has not even started, and the usual agencies and their associates looking for a way to make a quick buck at the expense of the interpreter. As you can see, dear friends and colleagues, there were terrible things in 2020, many of us lost family, friends and colleagues; our income was affected, and some of our clients closed. Fortunately, we remembered we are resilient, adaptable, and courageous; we discovered we can work together as interpreters regardless of our geographic location, and we saw there is technology to keep us going during the crisis. Much changed and sadly much stayed the same. I will focus on the good things to come while I guard against the bad ones. I wish you all a better and healthy 2021!
July 3, 2020 § 20 Comments
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?
May 19, 2020 § 5 Comments
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.
May 4, 2020 § 1 Comment
Just like many people around the world, I am one of those individuals who watch a lot of movies, feel they are amateur movie critics, and always watch the Academy Awards Ceremony on television. Unlike most them, for professional reasons, I am usually on the road on Oscar night. This means sometimes I get to watch the ceremony when people are sleeping, and on the local TV broadcast of the country where I am working. Because the show is in English, TV stations in non-English speaking countries use simultaneous interpreting services (that is great for the locals, but a little uncomfortable to those of us who try to hear the original sound feed, partly covered by the interpreters’ voices).
Occasionally, when I watch the Oscars in a Spanish-speaking country, I do what we all do when we know the two languages used on the screen: I compare the source to the rendition. Most interpreters are very good, but as a spectator, you miss quite a bit of the ceremony’s flavor.
This year I watched the Oscars while working in a foreign country. I looked for the original English broadcast on cable or satellite TV, but my hotel only offered the simultaneously interpreted voiceover broadcast by a local network. I paid attention to both, the rendition and the original speeches in the background. No doubt the interpreters were experienced professionals, their interpretation was spot on, until it was not anymore. The interpreters remained silent during many of the political and current affairs’ remarks by hosts and award recipients. First, I thought it concerned censorship by the local authorities, but after a while it became evident that they were not interpreting those exchanges because they did not fully know what was being said. The Spanish-speaking audience did not get the full Oscar experience because some astute, sharp criticism and very good jokes were left out.
I immediately thought of the globalized interpreting market and how cheap agencies have taken away assignments from local, excellent interpreters in the United States and Western Europe, choosing experienced and way less expensive interpreters from developing economies.
I have discussed this issue with potential clients in developed nations and the comment is always the same: “…but these interpreters (from developing countries) are really good and they work for a fraction of the money you charge…” This is my cue to bring up to the client my competitive advantage.
I take this opportunity to explain the importance of having an interpreter with the right acculturation in the booth so communication may flow between speaker and audience. I make them see the value of making sure their message comes across by eliminating any informational voids and misunderstandings not attributable to a bad interpretation of what was said, but to a poor command of the speaker’s culture and its equivalences in the target language of that specific audience. You cannot communicate if you limit what a speaker may say or do. Analogies, jokes, pop culture, politics, and country-specific rules of etiquette are essential to a successful event. Sometimes I present the testimony of the technicians who work with interpreters all the time, and even without speaking the languages in the booth, they can tell if a joke or a cultural remark got lost in the interpretation.
This is something all interpreters in developed economies must emphasize. We have to drive home that a person who does not live in a country lacks many elements needed for an accurate rendition. No academic degree can replace this immersion.
A proactive strategy is essential to protect your market, more so at this time when many are promoting and using remote interpreting services. You need to drive this point home as it is your leverage. Unlike in-person interpreting when agencies, colleges, or corporations bring interpreters from developing countries to the West to save money in professional fees, and you have the law to protect you from foreigners working illegally as interpreters in a foreign country, and you should immediately go to the authorities without hesitation so violators are sanctioned and removed (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2019/02/06/alert-they-are-interpreting-illegally-outside-their-country/) this is your main line of defense in conference remote interpreting. Healthcare and legal interpreters have other defenses against telephonic, RSI, and VRI interpreting such as the certification or licensing requirement to interpret in such fields. State court interpreters in the United States can even use this argument against remote services by interpreters certified by another state. Interpreters in developing countries could argue the same when protecting their market from foreign interpreters.
The second principle interpreters need to enforce benefits us all, regardless of our country of residence.
Agencies are constantly looking for cheap interpreting services. To find them, they usually look south. Conference interpreters with similar skills and experience in Latin America will get paid about eighty percent less than their counterparts in the United States. Africa, many places in Asia, and certain countries in Eastern Europe are in a similar situation. If you stop and think about it, it is a bad situation for all interpreters; it is unfair to interpreters in developed economies, and it is insulting to our colleagues in the developing world. Let me explain.
When asked, agencies defend the microscopic amounts they pay in poorer countries with two arguments: Cost of living is lower, so interpreters in a country south of the equator do not have the same expenses as their colleagues in a rich country. The second argument is that their lifestyle is different, so an amount that looks low in the West, is actually pretty good, or at least good enough in an underdeveloped nation.
These arguments do not pass muster. That the electric bill is cheaper in a specific country has nothing to do with the professional service provided by the interpreter. Same work and same quality must get same pay.
Frankly, to say that a certain fee is “good enough” for somebody because of where they live is insulting. When clients or agencies offer a low fee to an interpreter in a developing country, what they are really telling them is “you are not sophisticated enough to appreciate a different standard of living, so this will make you happy. A steak is too good for you, have a burger. Caviar is not for you, have a bowl of beans.”
Many colleagues in these countries agree to such discriminatory practices, and work for less than peanuts, because they are afraid there will be no work. This is a misunderstanding. If they do not take the assignment. Who will do it? Even if they are paid the same fee as an interpreter from the U.S. or Western Europe, it is way more expensive to fly another interpreter from abroad. Remember: same work must get same pay. It is your market, not the agencies’. Reclaim it!
Interpreters will not get paid the same in South America and the United States. These are two markets; two economies. Our goal should always be to get the highest fee a particular market can afford. If you get paid that way, you will be in good shape, even if the amount is considerably less than Western European fees. This goes both ways. If South American interpreters work a local event in their country, they will make less money than American interpreters working a local event back in their country. American interpreters working a local event in South America will get less that their usual fee back home. The reason: The client is in the poorer economy. That is what they can afford.
But if interpreters from an emerging economy work an event in the United States or Western Europe, in-person with the appropriate work visa, or remotely from their home country, they must get paid what American interpreters make for that work. To determine professional fees in a particular market, the interpreters’ country of residence is irrelevant. What matters is the country where the client is located. It is the client who will spend the money.
The task is difficult, and it will take time for you to accomplish it. Remember: to protect our market, we must use our competitive advantage by emphasizing the huge void in communication caused by interpreters who lack acculturation. To make sure we get paid what we deserve, we must quote our fees according to the client’s country of residence, not the interpreters’. I now invite you share your ideas as to how we can achieve these two goals.
March 23, 2020 § 7 Comments
At the beginning of the year it looked like we were on our way to a great professional future. The booming economy, new technologies and new clients coming into the interpreter services market gave us a feeling of security. Then, it all collapsed. Our shiny future disappeared overnight. The rapid propagation of COVID-19 throughout the world brought the economy to an almost complete halt. Conferences were postponed or cancelled, courthouses closed their doors, hospitals regular routines were dramatically transformed by the overwhelming demand for beds and medical staff. The airlines did not fly anymore, and we were told (sometimes ordered) to stay home. To most independent interpreters this meant a total loss of income for the foreseeable future, coupled with uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. Many of us have seen our source of income disappear, our savings go down, and the money we had, and our retirement funds diminish or vanish in less than a week.
This is the world where we live at this time: health risks, no reliable source of income, and a future nobody can yet forecast in the short and mid-terms.
Unfortunately, there is no time for lamentations; we must keep our minds on these basic goals: Stay healthy; help to stop the spread of this virus by following the rules, spend our money wisely, and protect our profession. Yes, dear friends and colleagues, at some point we will go back to our professional practice, and it is what we do now, during this pandemic, that will determine how we will work once this is all behind us.
Unfortunately, some unscrupulous entities have emerged to prey on our more naïve colleagues and on those who have been affected the most. A despicable multinational translation agency offers work at reduced fees because of the crisis; there is another one telling interpreters to offer remote interpreting services to their direct clients, set the “per-minute fees”, and “just” pay the agency 25 percent of the fee for the use of their platform. Other agencies from less developed countries are taking advantage of this crisis to enter developed economies and offer remote simultaneous interpreting from abroad, using interpreters being paid ridiculously low fees for their services.
Yes, dear friends, they are suggesting you charge “per-minute”, and a platform for 25 percent of your fee. Not even professional athletes’ or movie star’ agents make this money. They get 15 percent, and they represent and protect the interests of their clients. More for your money than just providing a platform. And there are vendors all over the internet bragging in a celebratory manner they have been saying for a long time that remote interpreting was the future, the solution to all multilingual communication problems. Sadly, some colleagues are taking the bait.
Under current circumstances, regardless of the work you do, it could be tempting for healthcare, court, community, or conference interpreters to accept an assignment from one predator. A “per-minute” payment, a solo assignment, or a reduced daily fee may look good when you have nothing better on your schedule. Please do not do it. Taking these offers will sentence you to a life term of mediocre pay, to a career of second-class assignments, and to a terrible reputation among your peers. In other words: Nobody will ever recommend you for an assignment or willingly work with you again.
There are other ways to procure income without permanently damaging your career: The first thing you need to do is contact all your direct clients, in a tactful way, let them know you are here to help them through these terrible times, and ask them for a time to talk on the phone or chat online about possible solutions.
Then, contact other entities and individuals you have worked with. If you work with a business five years ago through an agency, contact them and offer your direct services for a real professional fee.
Finally, be creative, look around and see who in your immediate universe could benefit from the services of a professional interpreter.
Even if you are working remotely, you must charge your regular professional daily (not per-minute or hourly) fee, plus expenses (depending on the service). If you have to do in-person or on-site interpreting, therefore leaving your house and be exposed to the virus, charge an extra high-risk fee. Do not feel bad about it. This is what professionals working in high risk areas (war zones, high-crime countries, etc.) have always been paid. Look at today’s news and you will see how all big companies are paying an added bonus to their employees who have to work outside their home. The client may cry first, but after a good explanation they will comply. If not, do not work for that client. Obviously, they do not care about you, so why should you care about them?
Currently, in our world, there is a difference between this anomaly’s “reality”, and true reality. During these exceptional times we must satisfy our clients’ needs, make a living and keep our client base.
At this time, we should contact our clients to tell them there is an option, and explain to them that remote simultaneous interpreting is better than noting: it will keep everybody safer, and it will solve urgent and immediate issues. We have to warn them about the voices preaching remote simultaneous interpreting as the salvation of globalization. We must be polite when talking to our clients at this time, always remembering they have problems bigger than remote vs. in-person interpreting. They are trying to save their businesses.
We need to be clear, but we should not lie. We can explain that remote simultaneous interpreting is a viable option for certain business meetings and negotiations, but not for them all. When confidentiality due to the information exchanged, or face-to-face negotiations are necessary to close a deal, in-person interpreting must continue. We have to let them know of the many risks they would face when using remote simultaneous interpreting for a big or important event. Technology, geography, weather, physics (speed of sound) and lack of visual clues for the interpreters will be risks they need to consider. Tell them of the events that have failed. Platform vendors and interpreting agencies will not address these situations. A good example everyone can understand is the bad experience the Biden campaign went through several days ago when attempting to do a virtual event. (https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/13/politics/joe-biden-virtual-town-hall-technical-trouble/index.html)
Also explain the risks involved in remote simultaneous interpreting when the interpreters are working from a developing country (Please see my post: https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2019/10/17/the-very-real-dangers-of-remote-simultaneous-interpreting-from-our-home/)
You have to make sure your clients understand remote interpreting is appropriate during the crisis, but it cannot be adopted as the preferred option once things go back to normal. We must underline that even when remote interpreting may be a solution, it should not be done from a person’s home, and never by a single individual.
These steps should be taken by all interpreters:
Non-negotiable rule: Absolutely no chuchotage!
Keep your distance at all times. There will be little escort interpreting at this time, but all whispered interpreting, escort, during a press conference, or elsewhere is out of the question. Portable interpreting equipment like the one used by tour guides and court interpreters should be used. Make sure the client’s headphones have disposable protective guards, and dispose of them after every event or when you switch users. For health reasons, I suggest you ask the client to rent the equipment, but if you have to use your own, please charge extra for the equipment, disposable protective ear guards and microphone guards, and disinfectants.
If you are a healthcare interpreter, right now you should be working from home using a computer, a tablet, or a telephone. Most reputable hospitals are already following this practice, but even if they have not instituted it, you must set it as one of your working conditions. These are extraordinary times. If it has been good for remote town in Alaska during all these years, it has to be good for New York City or Chicago today. If your physical presence is absolutely necessary, wear safety gear furnished by the hospital (no gear = no interpreter. Sorry) try to work from a different room in the hospital, and if you must be in the same room as others, keep your distance and use portable interpreting equipment provided by the hospital. If someone needs to get closer to the patient because it is hard to hear what they say, let medical staff do it. In the worst possible scenario, they can put a cellular phone by the patient’s mouth so you can hear on another phone at a safe distance. Please remember to charge for your services as described above. Please see AIIC best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting during the COVID-19 crisis below under “Conference Interpreting”.
There is no reason for community interpreters to be providing in-person services. All work can be rendered by phone or video. Schools are out almost everywhere in the world, and government agencies that provide social services and benefits can call you at home for you to interpret for an applicant or benefit recipient. Here again, please charge. Please see AIIC best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting during the COVID-19 crisis below under “Conference Interpreting”.
Most courthouses have continued hearings and trials worldwide, but there are some court appearances that must take place even during toe COVID-19 pandemic. For these services, interpreters must demand remote work, even if it has to be via telephone and rendered consecutively. Most hearings will be short as they will likely be constitutional hearings (arraignments, bond redeterminations, conditions of release, protective orders, probation violations, etc.) if an interpreter is asked to appear in person, all work must be performed using the court’s interpreting equipment (portable or fixed depending on the venue) and under no circumstance interpreters should agree to close contact with victims, defendants, petitioners, plaintiffs, respondents, or witnesses.
Jails, prisons, detention centers, and immigration courts carry additional risks and interpreters should refuse work, unless it is remote, at these locations. Like all others, court interpreters should charge their professional fees as mentioned above in this same post. Please see AIIC best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting during the COVID-19 crisis below under “Conference Interpreting”.
Always remembering everything discussed above about remote simultaneous interpreting, conference interpreters must be very clear when talking to their clients.
First, they should try to convince the client to postpone the event until it is possible to do in-person interpreting, only doing what is necessary to keep the business running and protect the company, its customers, and its employees. It is very important we emphasize that the service we are about to provide is an anomaly. We have to explain to the client that the conditions will not be the best, that even with the best platforms, the interpreters will be working from home, not a soundproof booth, and they will not have on-site technical support. The client needs to know there may be interruptions to the electric power, interference by other internet users, background noise coming from next door, or because your children and dogs are at home, even if they are in a separate room. Explain that you can use one of the free platforms, a paid platform you already use for other things, or that you could download and install another one they may prefer as long as they pay for it. Something as simple as Skype can save the day under these circumstances. Remember that it is unacceptable to do a remote interpretation lasting over 30 minutes without a booth partner (at least a virtual booth partner somewhere else in the world).
Before you provide the service the client must sign a written contract where you will detail your daily fee, the total hours you and your teammate will work per day, overtime fees, and a cancellation clause which must include postponements or cancellations for force majeure (sometimes half of the total fee, sometimes the full fee depending on the time you are notified of the postponement or cancellation. Under these conditions cancellations will be on short notice, so the fee must be a full amount). Your contract must include a release of liability where the client and all others participating in the event, directly or indirectly, release all interpreters of any liability due to any events or circumstances related to the remote service. Also, include that only the law and courts of your country will have jurisdiction over the contract and event. That way you eliminate the need for foreign or international law attorneys and overseas litigation if this happened. Finally, inform your client of all best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting by AIIC (even if you are not a member), and do your best to adhere to them all. (https://aiic.net/page/8956/aiic-best-practices-for-interpreters-during-the-covid-19-crisis/lang/1)
You have to keep in mind that there is a difference between RSI platform providers and interpreting agencies. Always go for the platform providers with your direct clients. Here you are in charge. It is less desirable, and even discouraged, to do RSI through an agency. They will call the shots, communicate with the client, and negotiate your pay with their client, always looking after their own margins. I will soon deal with this issue on a separate post.
Please turn down low paying jobs. They insult our profession. Before selling your soul to an agency, try the strategies I suggest above. Be polite, professional and show empathy when you talk to your clients. Whenever possible, try to help a colleague by referring them to an assignment you cannot or will not take. More important, be patient, stay home, and stay healthy.
I now invite you to share your thoughts about this “other” very real danger we face as interpreters at this time.
January 13, 2020 § 6 Comments
Now that 2019 ended and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2020, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months. As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, this year was packed with learning opportunities. In 2020 I worked with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.
Our profession had positive developments this year: For the first time our African interpreter and translator colleagues gathered for the First Africa International Translation Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. I had the fortune to attend the event. It was an eye-opener to see how many capable colleagues from all corners of Africa, and many other places in Europe, South America and the United States were committed to have an excellent program full of content. This conference was attended by true professional interpreters and translators who exchanged opinions, attended workshops and presentations, and enjoyed the beauty of Kenya and the enthusiasm of the local interpreters and translators. On a personal note, I had the privilege to be invited to lecture in front of hundreds of language, translation and interpretation students at Kenyatta University. This was an experience I will never forget. After the conference, our Kenyan colleagues organized a safari which I attended. Another unforgettable experience. In 2020 African interpreters and translators will build on top of last year’s accomplishments and hold the Second Africa International Translation Conference in Arusha, Tanzania.
Another “first” took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the Argentine Association of Sign Language Interpreters (AAILS) held its first conference entitled: “1 Jornada de AAILS”. The event was attended by Argentine Sign Language interpreters from all over Argentina, and by interpreters of other languages and representatives from other translation and interpreting organizations from Argentina and abroad. I was lucky to participate in the preconference workshops and the conference itself. The presentations were educational, fun, and informative. I was pleasantly surprised by the level or participation and the energy and talent of the board members and others who collaborated to the success of the conference.
The interpreting profession in Mexico is stronger every day as evidenced by the Organización Mexicana de Traductores’ (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) very successful conference in Guadalajara, with more presentations directed to interpreters than ever before; The Autonomous University of Hidalgo’s University Book Fair and content-packed conference in Pachuca; and the every-year more successful court interpreter workshop and conference for Mexican Sign Language (LSM) in Mexico City once again. This year’s edition added the participation of Mexico City’s prosecution agency (Procuraduría de la Ciudad de Mexico) to the impressive list of international guests, magistrates, judges, and attorneys already collaborating to the success of this project.
The Brazilian Association of Translators and Interpreters (ABRATES) gave us the biggest show of the year with its magnificent conference. Hundreds of interpreters and translators from all over the world gathered in Sao Paulo, Brazil to learn and exchange experiences on a wide variety of subjects, from academic content to business practices, to the most recent developments in technology, to networking, this was a very-well organized, unforgettable experience.
There were many conferences in the United States: the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in the United States (NAJIT) held an attendance record-breaking conference in Nashville, Tennessee, The American Translators Association (ATA) had its every-year larger, and more expensive conference in Palm Springs, California, but the one to single out because of its content, organization and attendance, was the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters (MATI) conference in Chicago, Illinois. This was a most-needed conference in the Great Lakes Area where many interpreters and translators live and practice, but few quality events are offered. Those who attended the event will be back in 2020 when the conference will take place in Wisconsin, and no doubt they will invite their friends.
On a year packed with great conferences and workshops, interpreters need to know that the prestigious biannual Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) conference took place in Sheffield, England, with an all-interpreter dedicated track. Some of the best-known, most capable interpreters from Europe and elsewhere shared their knowledge through very interesting, informative, and provocative presentations in an atmosphere like only interpreters can create. This, added to the well-known, high quality translation program, and a spectacular venue, made the conference a second-to-none event. I enjoyed it very much, and developed (and renewed) wonderful friendships with great colleagues.
In some parts of the United States, this past year saw the beginning of important changes in the way interpreters and translators provide their services, empowering the individual and limiting abusive practices by language service agencies. Unfortunately, big corporations and small entities seeking to keep the one-sided labor market they have enjoyed for too long, sold some interpreters the idea these changes hurt them, when in reality they only hurt agencies and leave interpreters and translators free and empowered to provide their services without expendable intermediaries. Sadly, instead of using their time and energy to educate direct clients and explain that services would now be provided without the middle guy, these agencies talked some colleagues into defending the interests of the agencies under the misconception they were defending themselves. The year brought positive developments to the largest court interpreter association in the United States. After a few years of problematic ineffective leadership, during the second half of 2019, a majority of the NAJIT Board elected a truly capable, respected professional and proven leader to be its Chair. Now the association faces a promising future.
Once again, this year saw the growth of our profession in Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI). Unfortunately, much of its growth was in home RSI where interpreters, who are not technicians, and cannot control their neighborhood environment, or their country’s infrastructure, are exposed to civil liability while the agencies that hire them remain silent on the subject and professional insurance policies will not cover such events. Combined with the agencies’ growing tendency to hire RSI interpreters in developing countries (where infrastructure is not as reliable as it is in the United States, Japan or Europe) at a fee considerably lower than their counterparts in developed nations, to maximize profits, is the biggest threat our profession will face in 2020.
Unfortunately, 2019 will forever be remembered as the year when the largest association of interpreters and translators in the United States elected as “president-elect” a person who holds no certification as an interpreter or translator despite allegedly working with some of the most common, widely used languages. This creates a serious image problem to the association because there are only two possible explanations when a person is around for many years, claiming as working languages, combinations where certifications are readily available: Either the person has no certification because owners of agencies who do not interpret or translate do not need them, in which case interpreters and translators will have as president-elect an agency owner, not a colleague; or the person translates or interprets without a certification, in which case ATA members will be represented by a person who makes a living by doing exactly what the association fights against: translating or interpreting without being certified. Very sad.
2018 will forever be remembered as the year when ineptitude destroyed the credibility and reputation of the Spanish language federal court interpreter certification exam, until then most trusted interpreter exam in any discipline in the United States. Even though there were two examination rounds in 2019, nobody has been held accountable at the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). The year that ended a few days ago corroborated that ineptitude unacceptable in the private sector has no consequences in the federal government.
Throughout the world, colleagues continue to fight against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and other problems. Some European countries are now facing outsourcing of interpreting services for the first time.
Once again, interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards creating questionable certification programs, and offering pseudo-conferences and webinars to recruit interpreters for exploitation while hiding behind some big-name presenters, many of whom have agreed to participate in these events without knowledge of these ulterior motives.
No year can be one hundred percent pariah-safe, so we had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2019 was full of para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services.
As you can see, dear friends and colleagues, much changed and much stayed the same. I focus on the good things while I guard against the bad ones. I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!
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.