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?

Sometimes interpreters hurt themselves in social media.

July 22, 2015 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is impossible to do business in our competitive environment without social media.  We all know the tremendous advantages interpreters have when they complement their service and advertisement with technology, and more specifically, with social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, and others.

Many colleagues have websites, write blogs, communicate on Skype, WhatsApp and FaceTime; a good number of them gain access to list-serves, chat groups, and Facebook professional groups every day.  Most of us do it for the same reasons: To keep up with changes and developments in our profession, advertise our services, clarify a concept, term, or policy, and to develop our network. These are all valid and legitimate reasons to go on line on a daily basis. Unfortunately, in my opinion and that of many others, some interpreters, without even realizing it, are hurting themselves by doing what they are doing.  Let me explain:

The Facebook profile and cover photos.  Some colleagues use their personal Facebook page for their professional business. It has never been a good idea to mix both parts of a person’s life. It diminishes the credibility and reputation of the interpreter by: (1) giving access to potential and established clients to the interpreter’s personal life. This makes the interpreter look careless and provides personal information that a client rarely needs to know: It is difficult to think of a situation where a client benefits from knowing that the interpreter broke up with her significant other, or by being aware of the weekend party where the interpreter drank himself into oblivion. (2) The interpreter looks careless and uninterested in the profession. The client’s first impression is that the interpreter does not care enough about his work to have a dedicated professional Facebook page, or that he is such a bad interpreter that has never even considered the option.

I cannot think of a worse idea than using a sports team logo, a pet’s picture, or a picture of the interpreter with his significant other, or his children as a profile or cover photos for a professional Facebook page.  It projects lack of professionalism to the business. It sends a message that the interpreter is not very well organized, that he constantly mixes personal and professional affairs. Those pictures of your favorite team, beloved dog, or cute children have to go. You can have them in your personal page, provided that you separate it from your business activities. Chat groups, Facebook professional groups should be accessed from your professional page, the one without your team logo, cat or kid.

The advertiser without a website.  If you are going to do business as a professional interpreter, get a website! It is a fundamental element of your image as a professional. Go ahead and spend the money, hire a web designer and a web master. Your image will skyrocket after you go on line, and please… do not chose a “do-it-yourself” website. They look crappy and all those banners show disrespect for your client.

Once you have a professional website, you can go to professional groups and websites to advertise your services. It looks very careless and rests you credibility to advertise a workshop or a personal appearance by simply posting on the chatroom. The correct way to do it is to advertise in the professional group’s wall with a nice add with photos if you wish, but always linking the add to your website where all pertinent information will be available for those interested. By the way, please make sure that your email address for information (and in general for dealing with a client) is a professional address with your professional identity and your domain as part of it. Generic Yahoo, Gmail, and AOL email addresses look dated and unprofessional. Obviously, email addresses that made you laugh when you were in college should have never made it to your professional image. Lose the “partyanimal” “sexmachine” “shoptillyoudrop” email addresses immediately!

The assignment recruiter.  There are few things in life more annoying than a person trying to cover an assignment for her agency or organization by going into a professional discussion group and asking for availability. First of all, the people who register as members of a group of this kind, do it for professional and academic reasons; maybe even for some social purposes as well. These groups were never intended to be a substitute of other dedicated websites where people offer services and recruit individuals.

This practice also reflects very poorly on the person actively doing the recruiting. It projects an image of a somewhat lazy person who does not try the proper channels to cover an assignment, but simply takes the shortcut and dumps the question in the middle of the chat room annoying others, and also proving that the agency or organization she or he represents does not care for quality, all they want to do (as many of their pairs do) is to get “anybody” to send him to the client.  If you don’t want to savage your professional reputation, please stay away from the: “any French interpreter available tomorrow” so unprofessional postings.

The “what does it mean/how do you say” crowd.  All the above practices hurt your professional practice, but the one that inflicts the worst damage, and many times the least noticed by the person doing it, is the ever-growing habit of going online to any and all professional groups to ask basic questions about terminology, vocabulary, and interpreting.  I fully support those who enter the chat groups to ask about a questionable prospective client or about policy and business practices. I believe that this is one of the reasons we have these groups for; the ones that really do not belong, are the questions by many asking for the meaning of a word or term. In my opinion it shows laziness and ignorance.  It is very different to go on line and ask a group for their opinion on the interpretation or context of a term after the person asking the question explains the research process he or she followed, its results, and conclusions.  This is a very enriching exercise that we all can learn from. However, to have a person going to the group and ask: “How do you say such and such in Mexico, or in Peru” is demeaning of the group. That person is not only showing that he did not bother to study and research, he is also showing his professional level, especially when the questions about words are so basic that anybody with true command of the language should know. It also shows the lack of general knowledge that a person has. I have to tell you that these questions are extremely annoying, but they have helped me to compile a list of those who I will never contact for an assignment because of their total lack of knowledge, and more importantly, their absolute disregard for research and study.

Dear colleagues, social media is an invaluable tool for an interpreter when properly used, but it can also be the dagger of your professional seppuku when abused and misused in the fashion described above. I truly encourage you all to get rid of these practices that do nothing but hurt you personally, and damage the profession.  I am aware of the fact that to some of you these examples can look as an exaggeration and nonsense on my part. I assure you that many potential clients think like I do and they are watching everything you post on line. I now invite you to share other practices that go on in social media, and in your opinion, they hurt the interpreter professionally.

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