COVID-19 has crashed into everyone’s world with a suddenness for which no one was prepared. For the first time since World War II, humanity as a whole is experiencing a shared crisis that will require creativity, grit and resilience to overcome. For our beloved profession of interpreting and the critical language access we provide all over the world, the imperative is clear. We need an “all for one, one for all” response.
In the course of last week alone, we saw the onsite infrastructure for delivering interpreting services implode worldwide as social distancing emerged as the key tool to stem the tide of infections. A growing number of institutions and jurisdictions the world over are now mandating it. Entire regions and countries are on lockdown. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines for social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in communities. In the US, a nationwide quarantine "a la Italy" may be in our near future.
As the distressed traffic on social media and professional listservs is showing, COVID-19 already having a big impact on interpreters working not only in conference interpreting but in healthcare, court systems, and public services. Traditional interpreting assignments are disappearing faster than free food at a conference welcome reception.
This is a very real and scary experience for all those who work in the profession. But the even greater danger is to the vulnerable populations many of us interpret for: patients, refugees, defendants, students and families. If they lose access to us, they lose access to their ability to communicate their needs.
The danger for the language access supply chain
Interpreters the world over work predominantly as independent contractors. For several decades sporadic market research has consistently born this out. This January, CSA Research published The State of the Linguist Supply Chain: Translators and Interpreters in 2020. The report is a compilation of the results of a survey taken by over 7300 linguists around the world describing the work they do. CSA Research has thankfully made the report available free to the public to download.
This latest research could not be clearer. 75% of linguists globally are freelancers. Strikingly, only 6% of linguists were employed directly where they work, be it a hospital, court system or international organization. It does not matter whether you are at the bottom of the interpreter pay scale working in medical and community settings, or at the top working as a conference interpreter. COVID-19 has made us all equally vulnerable.
For the vast majority , there will be no recourse to get lost income back, unless governments the world over include freelance knowledge workers in their aid packages for those who receive hourly (or daily) wages. It’s also unclear how the language service companies we contract with will fair. They are in an equally vulnerable position. After last year’s US government shutdown, for example, service workers did get some compensation for lost wages. Knowledge workers did not, nor did the many small businesses who contract with the US Federal government.
Complicating our situation is that we are not "gig workers" for a single corporation. We are knowledge professionals who contract with multiple agencies, each of which makes up just a fraction of our overall income. There will be no billionaire CEOs pledging to pay hourly wages for idled knowledge workers.
This 6% employee statistic also means that those who regularly buy onsite language access services do so through an intermediary. They do not have linguists as part of their permanent workforce and therefore, do not have language access fully integrated into their English language communication systems. They rely on onsite face-to-face interpreters largely sent from the outside to fill in their language gaps. When those interpreters are quarantined at home, how can we ensure that they are included in communication flows that have now gone online so that language access is preserved?
Worldwide communication has flipped to remote
Shutting down face-to-face interaction has not diminished the need for people to be in contact with each other. To the contrary, the need to facilitate communication of all kinds has sharply increased as the world strives to inform itself about how to navigate this unprecedented moment. Whether your work is local or global, workplaces are going remote.
Take a look at the skyrocketing value of Zoom, a video conferencing platform, as the world’s stock markets tank. Demand for Microsoft, Google and Zoom’s platforms is surging. We may find comfort in thinking we can simply sit this out and things will go back to “normal” when this crisis passes. It seems more likely, however, that COVID-19 will represent a sea change in workplace communication and that remote meetings will become more fully embedded and prevalent than before the virus emerged.
Our reluctance to embrace remote comes home to roost
Interpreting now faces an urgent question: Does our profession have the capacity to make this jump to remote as well? Can interpreters, language companies and the workplaces we serve all “go remote” together?
And herein lies the dilemma. At InterpretAmerica, we’ve followed over a decade of crystal ball gazing about the future of interpreting and technology. Barry has become one of the world’s foremost experts in this area. He’s even made a prediction or two of his own about remote interpreting and how it would change our profession. But never in a million years would we have predicted what we are seeing today with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The obvious and most immediate solution staring every interpreter (and every organization that needs to conduct business in multiple languages) in the face is one that the profession has largely resisted and maligned for years. Yes, we’re talking about remote interpreting. It comes in many different forms: consecutive and simultaneous, phone calls and conference calls, webinars and web meetings, etc. Today, there are many, many remote interpreting solutions out there.
The problem is we have collectively dragged our feet for years regarding the use of this mode of delivery, opting along the way to point out every possible reason why it should NOT be used unless absolutely necessary. It’s largely been portrayed as inferior or substandard. The ugly stepchild of a glamorous profession.
Let's look at the state of remote interpreting through the research available to us. Nimdzi conducted research in 2019 that gives us a snapshot of remote interpreting penetration in the US, Australia and Europe that confirms this slow adoption. With the exception of northern Europe, remote interpreting makes up only 1 to 25% of the market.
CSA Research echoes these numbers in its recent report.
It would also appear that the great majority of those remote interactions are telephonic.
None of this is to say that remote interpreting is superior to onsite face-to-face interpreting.* Onsite interpreting may always be ideal for many settings or encounters, including complex medical interactions, tricky negotiations, high-level international negotiations and the many group meetings that take place between families and schools. Indeed, interpreters themselves feel that working remotely can negatively impact the quality of their interpreting.
*We recognize that platforms can also be "onsite" and video interpreting is "face to face" - terminology in this area is still not fully agreed upon.
These are important, ongoing discussions that our profession needs to continue. We have urgently needed best practices for remote and onsite encounters for several years. We hope to see them developed as soon as possible.
Right now, however, the most immediate and tangible solution to the world’s multilingual communication challenges stemming from this pandemic is remote interpreting. This is not hyperbole. The world is moving its workplaces online. If we don’t move with it, we lose work, our language companies are threatened, and perhaps most importantly, critical language access will be severely compromised at the precise time it is has become existential for many, including some of the world's most vulnerable citizens.
The continued use of interpreting should be our number one priority.
Cindy Roat, National Consultant on Language Access in Health Care
One for All, All for One
COVID-19, social distancing and remote interpreting have become the perfect storm for our profession. But what to do?
Our professional associations are starting to consider how they can best support our needs during this time, sending out messages of solidarity and support to members. Agencies are sharing resources, by making training classes free online, sharing blogs and guidance. And interpreters are supporting each other however they can.
At InterpretAmerica we think the best way forward is together. We have tremendous technological, organizational, individual and company resources in our field. While they still tend to deploy individually in legal, court or conference settings, compared to where we were 10 years ago, we are miles ahead. When we convened the first InterpretAmerica Summit in 2010, our primary purpose was simply to introduce ourselves to each other. Today, we know each other much better and we know how to collaborate.
Let’s pull these pieces together and work in unison. Let’s leverage our strengths and the knowledge of our weaknesses to do whatever we can to get our idled practitioners online and connected to remote assignments. Let’s help our many small businesses get access to remote platforms so they can fill new contracts for remote meetings. Let’s make sure our clients, patients, defendants and businesses can still communicate with the highest quality language access available.
2020 is InterpretAmerica's 10th anniversary year. We had been planning a celebratory event. But now we know what our focus needs to be. We are working as fast as we can to gather as many players as we can to do our part to help tackle this crisis.
Stay tuned for more information soon and stay in touch!
With all our support and compassion during this challenging time,
Barry S. Olsen and Katharine Allen