Interpreting's 10 Most Memorable Moments in 2013, Part I



By Katharine Allen & Barry S. Olsen

Published: 10 January 2014


Here at InterpretAmerica we wish all our readers the very best in 2014. With the New Year well underway and 2013 fading fast in the rearview mirror, let’s take a look at the first five of the 10 most memorable moments that marked our dynamic profession in 2013. May this list inform, amuse, and perhaps provide insight into the trends that will become 2014’s most memorable moments.


1. The Faux Sign Language Interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s Memorial Service

Interpreting usually gets the most press coverage when something goes wrong, and 2013 was no exception. Interpreting made the headlines around the world when Thamsanqa Jantjie, the purported sign language interpreter hired for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, made no sense at all while signing for several world leaders as they paid their respects to Mandela.


The deaf community was swift to express its outrage over the incident. Parodies ensued on television programs likeNBC’s Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, while ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel brought in a professional sign language interpreter to interpret what Jantjie actually signed. Someone even established a live Twitter feed to tweet what Jantjie was actually signing. The account garnered over 4,200 followers. This unfortunate incident, in addition to being easy fodder for comedians, kept interpreting in the international spotlight for several days and even led to some positive press about the profession, like this article in USA Today and this report from EuroNews.


2. The Plight of Interpreters in Conflict Zones like Iraq and Afghanistan

As troop withdrawals from Iraq concluded and NATO forces continued their drawdown in Afghanistan, large numbers of interpreters who spent years working to help coalition forces communicate were left in dangerously precarious situations. We highlighted several of these stories in our Interpreting the News posts. The plight of local interpreters who served with allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan was a steady source of national and international mainstream news throughout 2013, and is likely to stay in the news during 2014. Unlike 2013, Iraq and Afghani interpreters received good news to start out the year, when President Obama signed into law a bill that extends a special immigrant visa program in the United States. The new law could potentially help over 2,000 interpreters.


3. Tech Companies’ Growing Interest in Language Services

Machine interpretation companies come and go, and it is safe to say that none have come close to achieving near-human accuracy. Even so, tech giants are still taking notice of technological advances in the areas of statistical machine translation and voice recognition—the two technologies that make speech-to-speech machine translation possible. One example of this came In August 2013, when Facebook acquired Pittsburgh-based Mobile Technologies, the maker of Jibbigo—one of the best-selling speech to speech translation apps. The amount Facebook paid to acquire the company was not disclosed.


Quality and reliability continue to be the watchwords of professional interpreters and language service providers when talking about what clients need, and with good reason, as industry expert Nataly Kelly noted in a recent blog post. At the same time the demand for convenience and ease of use of interpreting services continues to grow. Whoever figures out how to provide high-quality, reliable interpreting in a more convenient and timely manner will be in an enviable position in 2014.


4. In the United States, the Language Professions Gain Greater Representation on Capitol Hill

Many in our field may not know it, but the translation and interpreting professions now have official representation on Capitol Hill through , the Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (JNCL-NCLIS). The name is certainly a mouthful, but the work this organization is doing to promote the importance of language study and the booming translation and interpreting services industry in Washington, D.C., is of great value. Under the leadership of Bill Rivers, the organization has expanded its focus from lobbying for language learning, to include the “language enterprise,” or rather “everyone who enables communication among different cultures and languages.”


Our field has long needed robust representation and visibility in the United States capitol, where key funding and legislative decisions are so often made by legislators ignorant to our needs and best interests. Every year for decades, JNCL-NCLIS has organized advocacy teams to meet and greet as many key legislators as they can to influence policy on language. Now these established efforts include interpreting and translation—the practical application of language learning.


5. Interpreter Training Programs Expand and Diversify in North America

The growth of online training and education was a big story in 2013 for many professions. A recent Huffington Postarticle, focusing only on K-12 education, cited a 450 percent rise in the number of students enrolled full-time in online public schools and 31 states with the infrastructure to offer full-time programs, up from just 18 states in 2007. From preschool through graduate school, encompassing everything from webinar training, to free courses to complete paid degree programs, the explosive growth in online platforms has thrown many brick and mortar schools on the defensive as they scramble to adapt to this trend. As with so many industries experiencing the effects of rapid technological change, we are seeing some promising models emerge as well as less successful efforts.


The interpreting profession is experiencing rapid change and experimentation as well. The Glendon School of Translation at York University in Toronto, Canada, is now in its second year of an innovative, hybrid online/onsite Masters in Conference Interpreting program. Students from all over the world take the first year completely online and attend onsite for the second year. In a field where advanced degrees are hard to come by, this is an important development. But equally significant is the rapid expansion of webinar training via professional associations such as theAmerican Translators Association and the National Council on Interpreting for Health Care (NCIHC), which targets interpreter trainers, and innovative new programs about to come online, such as Voices Academy, which will provide Netflix-like access to an online video and multi-media library of training for healthcare interpreters. 


Not to be overlooked however, is the expansion in traditional onsite programs. New certificate programs in medical and legal interpreting are popping up across the US. Even conference interpreting is getting a boost., When Georgetown University’s certificate program in conference interpreting closed its doors in the mid 1990s, the Monterey Institute of International Studies was the only higher education institution in the United States training conference interpreters. Now, almost 20 years after Georgetown shuttered its program, the Washington, D.C., area again has a new program for training conference interpreters at the University of Maryland’s Office of Extended Studies. Multiple training programs are a sign of a healthy profession.


Want more? Stay tuned for the rest of our top 10 moments in interpreting in 2013. There is so much to highlight, it will take us two blog posts to cover these important moments.

As always, we welcome your comments and want to hear from you whether you think we’ve gotten it right!

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