Have Interpreting and Technology Reached a Tipping Point? If So, How Will Interpreters Respond?



By Katharine Allen & Barry S. Olsen

Published April 8, 2015


Halfway through the spring interpreting and translation conference season, one takeaway has become inescapably clear to us: change is here.


The question now becomes, will we work together and use our strengths in a proactive response? Or will the disruptions many of us are living through lead to further fragmentation and disunity? Frankly, we see signs of both trends.


Four years ago, at the second InterpretAmerica Summit, Nataly Kelly, then Chief Research Officer for Common Sense Advisory, gave a keynote presentation about future trends in interpreting and translation that seemed so futuristic as to be fantastical. Among other trends she predicted would be the increasingly blurry lines between translation, interpreting, and machine-generated contributions to our work. 


That's old news, you say? Well, we still remember the look of puzzlement on many attendees faces as Nataly slowly and carefully walked us through how translation and interpreting could somehow merge together.


Think about it. Four years ago, the iPad was only a year old, the smart phone barely out of diapers at 6 years old and the remote interpreting platforms that are now making their impact known across all interpreting specializations were clunky, expensive, and barely a blip on the radar screen (with the exception of Video Relay Services and Video Relay Interpreting for the deaf and the hard of hearing, but even those platforms have changed dramatically).

We facilitate the world's communication. And the way the world wants to communicate is changing.

The thought of hybrid communication forms such as real time text messaging, chatrooms, and live captioning (as in transcribing and translating oral content in real time) seriously changing our workplace seemed truly far-fetched. Many interpreters proudly declared they would "never get a smart phone," much less create a public profile on LinkedIn or even worse, Facebook. More likely, it seemed, was increased use of telephonic, and maybe video remote, if those pesky tech problems could get sorted out. 


Fast forward to now. Suddenly, predictions have become reality. At InterpretAmerica, our day jobs as interpreters and educators, and our night job as entrepeneurs, take us all over the world to attend a wide variety of language industry conferences and meetings. From Europe, to Latin America to Canada and the United States, the signs are unmistakable. Whether you work in formal conference settings, as a hospital medical interpreter, court interpreter or in the emerging simultaneous market, new remote platforms for delivering interpreting services are upsetting our hard-fought-for traditional workplace models.


On the flip side, they are also expanding the market and creating new job opportunities where no models have yet been created. (And by the way, LinkedIn alone now has almost half a million interpreter and translator profiles in its ranks.)


Even more disruptive for some interpreters are the changes underway in the institutions where we work. Healthcare, for example, is experiencing profound and rapid change in how providers are communicating with patients. Chasing the langauge access tail across newly-implemented chat messaging, email, and website communication pathways is taking us all into new, unimagined territories.


At last month's California Healthcare Interpreting Association's annual conference in Monterey, California, Winnie Heh, a veteran in both remote and healthcare interpreting and President of Transmformation at the newly reorganized Language Line Solutions, made definitive statements on what the market is asking for from interpreters (and did you catch that job title? It's not just our workplace that's changing.)


She coined the terms "mulit-modal interpreters" and "data-enabled interpreters."

Multi-modal refers to interpreters who can work across all delivery modalities: onsite, over the phone (OPI), video remote interpreting (VRI), and translation. Yes, that's right, translation.


Heh predicted that interpreters would increasingly need strong written proficiency skills in all working languages to work as interpreters, precisely because of the new hybrid communication models so many businesses and public services are adopting. This is not something we have previously seen in healthcare, legal and community interpreting markets. 


The answer to the question marks in Nataly Kelly's table above now seem clear: Interpreters will definitely be asked to expand their skill sets into remote and hybrid areas of communication.


Change is hard. Change is almost always unsettling, if not downright scary. No one wants to be the old dog who has to learn new tricks. To change what is known and comfortable, What works. But change is upon us. We facilitate the world's communication. And the way the world wants to communicate is changing. 


For all these reasons and more, the upcoming 5th InterpretAmerica Summit in June will focus not on announcing this change, which we all know is here, but in finding practical and concrete ways to help interpreters and all who support our work to acquire the new skills we need to adapt and thrive.


In addition to framing the current state of the industry, we will be providing hands-on bootcamps to build up your existing toolkit of skills and knowledge. We will learn from our colleagues who are attempting to lead the way during our inspiring Interpret-ED talks and we will do everything we can to foster across-the-board networking and connections in our InterpreTOPICs sessions.


Our goal is to empower interpreters and everyone in our field to take proactive steps so that, rather than tearing us down, change will build us up.

Won't you come join us? 


The call for presentation proposals closes this Friday, April 10th. We welcome your submissions and will provide a discounted or free registration for those whose proposals are accepted.

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