Is RSI better when we share the same space? …not really.

May 17, 2022 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

From the beginning of the pandemic, and the spread of distance interpreting, interpreters have questioned the modality, and more specifically remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) when interpreters are “non co-located” because they are working from home or in the same building but in individual booths. Critics say this physical separation eliminates, or greatly diminishes, the role of the passive interpreter as it precludes teamwork, opens the door to terminological inconsistencies, not having a boothmate next to you affects the quality of the rendition, and it contributes to anxiety and stress because of the handover and the sensation of lack of support from our boothmate. To many, the solution is clear: If you are working remotely, do it from a hub. Interpreters will have “co-location”, there will be technical support, and working conditions, at least in the booth, will be similar to in-person interpreting.

I must confess I endorsed this belief and defended it for months, until reality, market conditions, the pandemic, and my fellow-interpreters showed me what I now believe is a more accurate description of our reality, and a better solution to the “non co-location” matter.

We must begin our analysis by looking at the map of the world. We soon realize that geographically, continents, and the countries within the continents are very different. While countries in Europe are small (most of them smaller than a state in Australia, the U.S., or a Canadian province) and close to each other, distances in the Americas, Africa, and Asia are longer. This important difference has two relevant consequences: most people, interpreters included, will live and work farther away from the big cities; and the distance between countries that speak a different language will be greater. Because of geography, fewer languages will be needed to communicate in a region, reducing the number of interpreters working in many language combinations, including widely used languages in Europe, to almost non-existent, and hubs will be very far from most interpreters.

Most of the world has no hubs and, in many countries, there are a few hubs, but they all are in big cities. Let’s take the United States: The largest economy in the world, the home of most Fortune 500 companies, and the site of many International Organizations. There are only a handful of hubs in the country, all in 5 or 6 cities in a country that spans 8 time zones from Guam to Puerto Rico. Unless they live in one of these cities, an interpreter in the United States would need to fly 6 hours or drive a day and a half to get to a hub. That is impractical, and undoable.

Interpreters living in many of these cities outside or Europe, and even in some European cities, will need an additional two to four hours to go from home to the hub and back, often to interpret for two hours. Mexico City’s traffic could keep a hub-going interpreter inside a car for five hours any day. Many colleagues throughout the planet turn down assignments from a hub. That is impractical, and undoable.

We could fly for hours over a huge chunk of continent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and never fly over a city with a hub. Even interpreters with one hub in their city and willing to put up with the commute cannot use it because the hub can be used only when using a specific platform and nothing else. Temporary hubs are also impractical because there is no equipment, technical support, or enough local interpreters to meet the requirements of an event in all needed language combinations.

There are cities in Asia with hubs, but without interpreters in the language combination needed for an assignment; or there is one interpreter with the required language combination for the event, but the closest boothmate lives 8 hours away by plane in a different country and even continent. Sure, there will be many interpreters with English in their repertoire, but they lack the second language needed for the conference.

Distance interpreting services from home is the right strategy, the appropriate solution, and at this time, “non co-location” is no longer an issue. Let me explain:

As long as there is technical support, and the right infrastructure, RSI from an interpreter’s home provides quality, reliable interpretation at the same level as a hub.

After years of pandemic and distance interpreting, conference interpreters worldwide had time to learn, practice, familiarize, and work many RSI events. Professional conference interpreters have acquired the knowledge to interpret from their home with no one sitting next to them, and have set aside a space with the appropriate equipment to do it.

By now interpreters have used a variety of platforms and have realized that they all function similarly. In 2022 an interpreter can see a platform for the first time and figure out how to use it in a matter of minutes. Everywhere in the world, our colleagues are multitasking and handling 2, 3, and even 4 screens simultaneously to use the RSI or conventional remote platform, to communicate with their virtual boothmate 5 time zones away, handover the microphone at the end of their shift, and perform the duties of a passive interpreter such as writing notes, assisting with term search, communicate with tech support, monitor the active interpreter’s rendition to support them, and see each other on the virtual booth or through a back channel when using a conventional or dedicated RSI platform. These tasks scared many interpreters in 2020. Today they perform them regularly and by doing so, they reproduce the in-person booth in their home-based virtual booth just as a hub would. Of course, RSI from hub or home will never be the same as in-person interpreting for many reasons, but with the same limitations, risks, and potential problems, there is no difference between interpreting from home with a virtual boothmate somewhere else and “co-location” in a hub. I concluded that professional interpreters should do RSI from the place they feel more comfortable, and according to the available infrastructure. Our colleagues who live in a place where hubs are accessible, and prefer to work “co-located” should do it, and interpreters who do not, should work from their home studio with no feelings of guilt or inferiority because there are no hubs in their part of the world. Interpreter performance and the quality of the rendition are the same, except that working from home will eliminate travel and commute stress to the interpreter.

Remote interpreting in complex depositions.

March 18, 2021 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:
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.

RSI will change the profession. Will it change the interpreter of the future?

May 19, 2020 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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.

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