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Answering Common Questions From The Field

Published June 2, 2017

At InterpretAmerica we’re spending more and more time out "in the field," speaking at conferences, training interpreters and end users of interpreting services, attending meetings and interacting on social media. All our efforts have one goal in mind—to raise the profile of interpreting. We constantly ask questions and then listen to how the different groups of the language services equation (interpreters, language service companies, tech vendors and end users) respond. We also do our best to answer the questions we receive.

In this blog, we’ll answer several questions that emerged during a recent presentation we were invited to give at the annual conference of the Association of Language Companies (ALC 2017) in Miami, Florida. As is far too often the case, there were more questions than time to answer them.

Information from the Field

Technologies for use during live presentations have blossomed recently, allowing presenters to interact with their audiences much more than before. These technologies allow for anonymous participation, which makes for more candid responses. We've been using a great audience interaction tool called Mentimeter. It allows us to get real-time responses to questions we ask or information we present.

For example, we recently asked several audiences (end users and language service company owners) at different conferences to describe what it is like to work with interpreters in just one word. Their responses were aggregated into a real-time word map showing a visual representation of the results. The larger the word, the more times it was mentioned by the audience. As you can see in the image above, for this auidence, there are rewards and challenges to working with interpreters.

At ALC 2017, we asked language service company owners (who provide translation, localization and interpreting services) where they saw the most opportunity for growth in the business of interpreting. Their answers validate our general observation that opportunities for growth are expanding in all areas of interpreting, and that video remote may finally have arrived as a viable service platform, after many false starts.

Questions and Answers

We've chosen five of the most pressing questions we were asked at ALC 2017 and answer them here. These questions shed light on pressing topics for both the interpreting profession and the language services enterprise in general. We hope our perspective is informative, can spur deeper conversation and debate, and ultimately, can help us formulate shared solutions to the challenges we face.

QUESTION: Can established translation companies leverage their translators to start an interpreting program?

Answer: This approach is likely to be problematic. In general, while some research

has shown that a majority of freelance interpreters also work as translators, translators are less likely to work as interpreters. Even though translation and interpreting are lumped together into the broader language services industry, they are, in fact, separate professions with distinct skill sets. (Even the Supreme Court has chimed in on this issue and ruled that they are, indeed, separate.)

Translation tasks are reading and writing based. Translators have the ability to research linguistic problems, compare translation solutions and then have their final product edited and reviewed. Interpreting requires an in-the-moment cognitive skill set to transfer meaning between languages with no delay. Interpreters must do their research ahead of time, but during the act of interpreting, they employ much different strategies to produce accurate meaning for listeners. Both translators and interpreters do everything possible to render the best possible transfer of meaning between languages, but the cognitive skills used to achieve their final product are very different and not automatically interchangeable. 

QUESTION: What can be done to bring all stakeholders together to increase understanding about the interpreting profession?

Answer: This is a great question and acknowledges the current conflict and lack of shared understanding among stakeholders. We founded InterpretAmerica in 2009 with this very mission, to raise the profile of interpreting among ourselves and outside the profession as well. For our part, our upcoming Summit in Washington, D.C. in October is designed to bring stakeholders together to encourage more proactive discussion and action to create best practice guidelines for remote interpreting.

We also do our best to share market information and trends at conferences, through our blogs, and our website. Many others in the field are engaged in similar efforts. We encourage everyone, whether as individuals, as part of a company or interpreter association, to take time to really listen to everyone's perspectives, even if they disagree with them. Our field is diversifying, widening and deepening. As it grows, so does the diversity of opinions, experiences, and stakeholders. 

QUESTION: How do companies mitigate classification issues working with linguists over video remote interpreting (VRI)?

Answer: This question cannot be adequately answered in one short paragraph, and InterpretAmerica is not in a position to provide legal advice. That said, the obligatory classification of translators or interpreters as employees (rather than independent contractors) by state regulatory bodies is a practice that is having widespread negative effects on the ability to provide interpreting services in an appropriate and timely manner. InterpretAmerica flagged this as a serious issue in 2011, and its negative consequences grow with each passing year.

We would like to see a professional landscape where it is possible for the independent contractor model to coexist with an employee-based workplace model. The reality is that most interpreters (even those that work with Spanish in the United States) will not find full-time, employee-based work. Organizations need the ability to work with freelance linguists AND be able to hire interpreters as employees for the most in-demand languages when conditions warrant it. With the demand for interpreting services expanding into every corner of our interconnected world, our profession needs access to a broader range of work models, not a more restricted one.

Our profession will be able to provide best for the language needs of society if professional linguists can freely chose how they want to work, either as independent contractors for a broad range of clients or as employees for a specific entity, and language service companies and end users can retain their services when needed without undue regulatory and tax burdens. 

QUESTION: How can interpreters be better informed about the changing trends and demands of the broader language services industry?

Answer: This has been a constant challenge in our field. Interpreting in the United States developed in silos based on distinct areas of market demand. Conference interpreting meets the demand of a narrow and highly-specialized work setting in diplomatic and international organizations. Court interpreting was spurred into existence when the government passed The Court Interpreters Act in 1978, a law requiring certification for Federal court interpreters. Since then, most states have enacted similar legislation for state courts. Medical and other types of community interpreting have developed based on the influx of millions of immigrants nationwide in the 1990s, forcing health and social services to respond to the language needs of limited-English-proficient (LEP) clients. Sign language interpreting has developed in a parallel but mostly separate fashion.

When we founded InterpretAmerica in 2009, interpreters often didn't, or wouldn't, recognize those working in other specializations. Much progress has been made by many in our field since that time. Social media has allowed us to connect across multiple platforms. Many new associations, groups and even unions now exist. Our field is still woefully thin, however, on basic market research and fact-based information about how our field is changing. We all know it is changing, but this lack of solid information makes it very difficult to educate ourselves about what is really happening beyond anecdotal and often emotion-based responses. It is on all interested parties to start investing the resources to acquire and disseminate this information. 

QUESTION: How can we ensure that the end-users who need our services receive the most appropriate interpreting services for their need, especially when it comes to replacing onsite interpreters with remote interpreting?

Answer: Several questions at ALC 2017 reflected the wide concern many in the field have about remote interpreting replacing face-to-face interpreters without regard to the end user's best interest - especially when it comes to vulnerable patient and social service populations. This is a complicated issue with many forces in play, from the budget needs of the buyers of interpreting services to the increasing demand for services from a limited number of interpreters to increasing legislative mandates requiring that interpreting be provided. Our field faces a talent gap, a lack of funding, huge unmet demand and no legislative or even association guidance for when face-to-face interpreting should be prioritized over remote solutions.

Right now, a mix of market pressures and legislative requirements is dictating how remote interpreting solutions are implemented. All too often, quality suffers, interpreters' fees are lowered, companies are squeezed in the middle, and end users have little to no control of how they gain access to interpretation.

The answer to this conundrum lies in the previous question. In the end, it's up to all of us in our profession. Will we turn toward each other and act together for our mutual best interests? Or will we continue to fracture and engage in conflict? It's not a new story. Many professions have gone through similar stages of evolution. It's up to us to strengthen the framework of our field to gain enough leverage to influence these trends in more positive directions. 


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