Interpreters’ new normal? Not so fast.

July 3, 2020 § 20 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Every time I open a social media platform or check my email I find a message from a distance interpreting platform inviting potential clients and interpreters to a free demo session, an advertisement from an interpreting agency announcing they offer the most affordable remote interpreting services, or they have opened an interpreting hub; and I see dozens of posts from interpreters (known and unknown) showing pictures of their laptops, headsets, and microphones while they smile and stare at the wall in front of their desks.

We entered the second half of the worst year in the history of our profession, and we did so full of uncertainty. The time when we will go back to the airport and work from the booth in a conference room is not on the radar yet. Financial losses in the private sector, tight budgets in governments and international organizations, travel restrictions in parts of the world, and an out of control pandemic in many places due to people’s ignorance and terrible performance by government officials in several nations, are testing our patience, bank accounts, and commitment to the profession and colleagues we must defend. I dislike everything I just described, but I understand why it is happening, and I adapt my practice to these temporary circumstances.

I do not understand how some of my colleagues are telling their clients that remote simultaneous interpretation “is pretty good,” and call it “the new normal.” As I was told by a client who spoke to one of these interpreters, not a platform or an agency, some colleagues have even explained to the clients that “…(RSI) can do almost everything an in-person interpretation can, and soon it will be as good and cheaper…” (client and interpreter names omitted for privacy and legal reasons).

Those statements are false, even responsible platforms and agencies agree that distance work has its limitations. RSI and VRI are “OK” for now, they are a resource to deal with a situation during the pandemic and its aftermath in extremis (Merriam-Webster: “In extreme circumstances.” Oxford: “In an extremely difficult situation… it is something to which (humans) will resort”).

Distance interpreting can be useful for certain events or encounters, but due to some factors from outside interpreting, such as technology and infrastructure, and others from inside interpreting, such as lack of support from a boothmate next to the active interpreter, and the deprivation of valuable information and clues gained only by the sensory perception of individuals’ physical presence (an RSI interpreter is at the mercy of the limited sensory information a bandwidth can convey). When not used in extremis, distance interpreting is just a way to hold a meeting or conference at a low cost but without the benefit of interpreting services the way they are meant to be provided. RSI is essentially some businessmen who got funding to develop something that pleases their clients, as long as you do not mention everything missing from the interpretation. To some it is a budget solution, just like Ryanair and Walmart.

Interpreters need to stop to think that by endorsing statements like the ones I mentioned above, they are doing the platforms’ bidding, not the professional interpreters’ community. Propagating such information is bad for the client, it is bad for the event, and it is bad for business. Eventually conferences will be back because nothing can replace the human need for human contact. The meeting after the meeting, a handshake to close the deal, a conference destination to reward the salesforce, the need to get out of the house, and yes, the burdens of distance interpreting on conference attendees will bring our work back, and when it happens we must be ready to embrace our profession the way it is meant to be. Singing the praises of distance interpreting, even though we know of its shortcomings, just because we want to work right now, and we fear falling out of favor with agencies and platforms, will make it harder to convince the end client and event organizer to offer in-person interpreting services again. Right now, you are making little money, but agencies and platforms are having a great year. They will oppose in-person interpreting in the future, not because they are bad awful people, but because it serves them poorly. No doubt distance interpreting is here to stay, there are certain events where it works fine: Corporate board sessions, planning meetings, preliminary business negotiations, and others can be interpreted remotely because of the savings to the company or organization. We will see distance interpreting for marginal court procedures and medical consultations. Government window clerks and airline ticket counter employees could use tablets with RSI. That is fine. Some people fly Ryanair and shop at Walmart.

For now, we need to focus on protecting the benefits of in-person interpreting while providing distance interpreting services in extremis. We also need to listen to our clients, they are the key element to our practice, not the platforms. Our efforts should go to the client; see what they need, help them to solve their problems, and accommodate their preferences. Clients will choose a remote platform that serves their needs, they already know, and saves them money. Be ready to work on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Blue Jeans, Go To Meeting, Skype for Business, Amazon Chime, Cisco Webex, Fuze, Adobe Connect, and others. Not all clients are willing or ready to spend money on an interpreter-dedicated platform and we must accept this for now. Things will change.

A year ago, remote meetings were a small business, used by few around the world. Today everybody with internet access has been to at least one. It went from an obscure unattractive business to a money-making industry, and that gets the big guys’ attention. Now that the lid is off, and the high tech giants know of its profitability, remote meetings, and so distance interpreting, will see so much money on research and development; and soon, the biggest players in the industry will offer their clients affordable, user-friendly platforms integrated to their already known and trusted services, under their well-known name brands. Don’t be surprised if two years from now we are talking of RSI platforms owned by Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Some names we see in the market today could be gone, and others may be part of an acquisition by one of the big leaguers. Nothing is certain, but… remember Betamax. That is why you must focus on your clients, give them advice, and adapt to their needs when needed. Eventually, they will decide where to go, not you.  Be flexible, without lowering your standards, adapt to what is out there today, and never sell short in-person interpreting. If not us, who will defend quality of service, and the profession?

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