At InterpretAmerica, we spend a lot of time monitoring the trends and changes impacting the interpreting profession, at the macro and micro levels. That means a lot of hours spent reading through multiple Google alerts, tracking the growing number of outlets reporting on language-related news, attending conferences, following academic publications and listening to our colleagues at every opportunity.
Why do we do this? Simply put, we love what we do and believe passionately in the core purpose of interpreting (and translation): to make it possible for people who do not speak the same languages to engage in meaningful, nuanced and productive communication.
Yet now is not an easy time for any profession, nor, really, for humanity in general. We all probably feel like slamming the door on anyone peddling more news of disruption and change. No one wants constant change. We need time to catch our breath, to let new things integrate and settle.
Like it or not, ignoring these changes is as futile as Harry Potter's Uncle Vernon trying to prevent the letter from Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from being delivered to Harry on his 11th birthday. From one day to the next, Harry's world went from monochrome to multicolor, from Privet Lane to Diagon Alley.
The truth is that in less than 30 years, constant change has become the norm all around the world. The primary driver of that change is due to what we now call “the digital revolution.” Most of us are in some state of amazement, confusion, disorientation, denial, excitement or fear from how fast this change is occurring. The majority of veteran interpreters were already working professionals when the digital age started. We have experienced every flip, stretch, and transformation of what we used to think was “normal." And it's exhausting, even when the change ultimately brings new resources or access to more choices in our lives.
Consider just a few examples of how change is permeating absolutely every area of the way people live around the world. Katharine shared this graphic when she spoke on a remote interpreting panel at this month's NAJIT Annual Conference. The graphic shows just a few examples of core industries that have become unrecognizable when compared to how they traditionally functioned for decades and even centuries. Uber, our new global taxi company, owns no taxis. Airbnb, the largest lodging provider in the world, owns no real estate. Netflix, the largest cinema, owns no cinemas. And Skype and Wechat, the world’s largest telephonic companies, own no landline telecommunication infrastructure.
It is truly hard to get our heads around. But what do all of these examples have in common, and how does this apply to what interpreting is undergoing?
From Brick and Mortar to the Cloud
The digital revolution is pushing professions away from brick and mortar goods and services into cloud-based services. There are still people involved, but the old ways of doing business go away and people have to adapt to new and different ways of doing the same work. When industries decouple from physical spaces and products, explosive growth usually follows. Products and services are pushed out to more people in more ways and usually become less expensive. Our old, tried and true comfortable service models can no longer handle the demand, and new models come in. Threaded throughout this process is a relentless push to eliminate any and all inefficiencies in the way business used to be done.
Most of us know that the interpreting and translation professions are and have been one of the biggest growth professions in the world for over a decade. A huge driver of that growth is the now ubiquitous access to mobile technology. Truly, the only barrier left to instantaneous, multilingual communication from anywhere to anywhere is the language barrier. We are being flipped, expanded, stretched and transformed. Even in instances when that process is for the better, it can, and does, hurt.
Interpreting workplaces are changing
One center point of change that we often overlook is change in the institutions that hire us. In general, interpreters work in a whole lot of workplaces of other professions, and these are transforming too. Whether politics or business, healthcare, education or legal settings, interpreters go where people need to communicate; they don’t come to us. These workplaces, and the people who work in them, in many cases are facing the same kind of disruptive change as we are experiencing in interpreting.
Two examples show how the practitioners we often work with are also having to adapt their traditional ways of doing business, seemingly overnight. Pay attention, because you can see that push to eliminate inefficient work processes.
Artificial intelligence and medicine
First, let’s look at medicine. The healthcare industry is one of the largest workplaces in the US and it’s arguably where the largest number of professional interpreters work. One of many ways doctors are currently facing a new reality in their own professional practice is artificial intelligence applications that are now better at diagnosing certain kinds of diseases than human beings are. Doctors are seeing their role shift as new forms of technology make some of their skill sets obsolete. Does this mean that doctors will go away? Not at all – but traditional tasks that have now been made inefficient by technology are going to the machines, and doctors will shift how they provide their core service of helping people get well.
Lawyers and e-discovery
Now let's look at an example from the legal system. According to the American Bar Association, discovery "is the formal process of exchanging information between the parties about the witnesses and evidence they’ll present at trial." The discovery process used to be limited to paper searches of actual print material. Now most recorded information linked to any given person, topic or event is digital.
Electronic or e-discovery has transformed a key legal process that once used to consist of lawyers and paralegals spending many long hours reading and researching using print materials, and getting paid well by the hour to do it. With the digital revolution, the old process is now highly inefficient, and e-discovery is rapidly becoming the norm. Did lawyers and paralegals disappear? No? But the way they do their jobs has changed. In fact, there are now entirely new categories of jobs that people are hired to do related to managing and implementing this new way of gathering and sharing key information between parties in a legal matter.
Interpreting service models are changing
One of the most obvious, and dreaded and resisted, changes that our field is grappling with is the advent of remote interpreting, especially video remote interpreting. This is a topic that we cover extensively at InterpretAmerica - and not necessarily because we think all technological change is good - but rather because we feel that we simply cannot avoid its impact. There are forces that we, as a profession, can influence, and there are forces that we cannot do anything about. As legal and medical interpreters, our job is to help the justice and medical systems fulfill their functions by providing the language bridge for non-English speaking defendants and patients. As conference interpreters, the world's diplomacy and international collaboration cannot take place without our skill set. But, if doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians and diplomats start communicating over video, mobile and chat platforms, then we have to find a way to be there too.
How people find interpreters is changing
Advances in mobile technology are not only about remote interpreting. Agencies and employers no longer find and hire interpreters in the same ways they used to. Printed letters sent through the mail, phone calls and even emailing have rapidly been replaced by online databases on professional association websites or social media platforms such as LinkedIn. Interpreters are hired through text messages and in-app notifications as much as by direct email. Increasingly, we are seeing new platforms that seek to aggregate large numbers of interpreters onto single platforms that multiple agencies can access.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Expect this push toward online platforms to encompass many core interpreting-related tasks and services, such as scheduling, billing, vetting qualifications, and white-labeling telephonic and remote interpreting services, to name a few.
The tools we work with have changed
The tools we use to hone and practice our craft have also changed. Whether in a booth or standing next to a social worker in a clinic, we now have smart phones, tablets, terminology apps, e-pens, high-quality headsets and webcams. When was the last time you bought a print dictionary? It's much more likely you've got it as an app or your phone or tablet at a much reduced purchase price.
As interpreters, it is completely natural to want to keep things as they are. We fear that technology will replace us, that lower-paid interpreters from other parts of the world will replace us. We worry that our wages will go down. We fear that unqualified, uncertified out-of-state and out-of-country interpreters will be hired because they are less expensive. We worry that we will be forced to use inadequate technology that doesn’t take into account the audio and visual conditions we need to be able to reasonably do our job. Even if we are not fearful but rather eager to embrace these changes, we don't have easy pathways to access new employers using new tools and we don't have adequate training for interpreting over new platforms. Let’s face it, as this change comes in, all of these things are happening.
Tempting though it is to draw a line in the sand to stand behind, we need to take charge of those areas we can influence and make sure our professional livelihood is protected, and indeed, thrives. We cannot forget, that we are there to serve other people’s communication. Our clients want the best service possible, which we cannot give them if we do not find ways to keep pace as they are also adapting their ways of doing business.
We may not be able to stop the forces of change that are operating on levels we just can’t touch. But we CAN start updating and adapting so that we take forward as much of our hard fought and hard won battles to professionalize as possible.