Published December 31, 2015
"We cannot accomplish all that we need to do without working together."
The interpreting profession had a big year in 2015. Many trends found their way into the spotlight and into our collective consciousness, from the increasing need for indigenous language interpreters, to the plight of Afghan and Iraqi interpreters, to wage and labor conflicts. This latter, in particular, took center stage.
When ruminating on the varied forces influencing these events, one jumps out in neon colors: partnership.
2015 was the year when US interpreters, especially independent contractors, began to move beyond expressing dismay at disruptive forces buffeting our profession, to flexing our collective muscles through partnered action. We did so individually, in groups, through professional associations, and by forming collaborations across diverse stakeholders. In doing so, interpreters made real headway in raising awareness for the need to protect existing decent pay rates and working conditions and to fight for better conditions where those do not yet exist.
SOSI and CWCIA: Immigration and Workers Comp interpreters take center stage
Two potent examples are a national effort to protect wages in Federal Immigration Courts and California's struggle to maintain high competency standards and wages in Workers Compensation.
The mega corporation SOSi was awarded the Department of Justice contract that funds language interpreter services for the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) - a contract worth up to $80 million. This contract has formally been run by Lionbridge. Note that SOSi is not a language services provider. Rather, it is primarily a Defense Department contractor that describes itself as a company that "excel(s) at providing logistics, construction, training, intelligence and information technology solutions to our clients in the defense, diplomatic, intelligence and law enforcement communities."* When it was awarded the EOIR contract, SOSi promptly proposed deep cuts in pay rates and a downgrade in working conditions in the contract offered to immigration court interpreters.
This development came on the heels of the similar and highly publicized Capita scandal in the United Kingdom. Perhaps partly because of awareness of the scandal across the pond, here in the US the court interpreting profession found its collective labor voice in a way not previously seen. sustaining a campaign since last summer to resist the proposed SOSi contract. Tony Rosado, among others, has been chronicling and publicizing the issue in his The Professional Interpreter blog. Buzzfeed did an excellent and very thorough write-up of the conflict in October, in which it estimated that up to a third of current immigration court interpreters may be refusing to sign the new contract. In addition, the American Translators Association spearheaded an important effort to bring together 9 other interpreting organizations, including InterpretAmerica, in a joint letter to EOIR expressing concerns about the new contract proposal.
We have yet to see the final result, but one lesson is clear, individual interpreters have successfully mobilized in an undirected campaign at least partly through the combined efforts of bloggers, professional interpreter associations, other interpreting stakeholders and individuals communicating and partnering with each other. Here, social media and online platforms have played a key role, as they have in so many other movements.
At the state level, the California Workers Compensation Interpreters Association (CWCIA) has been leading a robust and sustained campaign during the last two years to prevent lawmakers from watering down legislation mandating the use of competent, certified interpreters to work in the highly complex workers compensation environment. CWCIA has also been fighting to keep wages from being lowered in the all-important state fee schedule.
Just a few years ago CWCIA was a tiny professional organization with little public recognition focused primarily on interpreters who held the now defunct State Administrative Certification, which specifically targeted workers compensation settings. What a difference a few years make! With dynamic leadership and a determined philosophy of reaching out to key stakeholders - medical and court interpreters, academic and other leaders and interpreting agencies - CWCIA now leads the way inside California to protect interpreter interests in the Workers Compensation arena - a multi-million dollar interpreting sector. In 2013, they forged a successful coaltion that helped provide key language to the Department of Industrial Relations when it updated its definition and requirements for what constituted a "qualified interpreter" in this area.
Coalitions are forming around other key themes. Rapidly growing indigenous communities are in need of trained, professional interpreters. This issue took center stage at conferences, on listservs, in webinars and in increasing efforts to provide training for indigenous interpreters and trainers. Leadership in medical interpreting associations, (with the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) taking the lead), in non-profits such as Natividad Medical Foundation, court administrative offices and in curriculum developers across the United States has initiated active collaborations and partnerships with the goal of achieving real progress.
Iraqi and Afghan Interpreters
The ongoing plight of Iraqi and Afgan interpreters left behind as Allied Forces pulled out of those conflicts was another hot-button topic in 2015. At InterpretAmerica, this issue is close to our heart and we spent much of 2015 publicizing it, especially in our efforts to help fund The Interpreter Film, Working with other groups such as the Red T, No One Left Behind and the USC Media Institute for Social Change the interpreting community showed its generosity, support and a maturing focus on philanthropy for members of our profession in need of support.
Responding to Disruption
Last year, and the year before, and let's face it, the year before that at least, we have highlighted the theme of disruption: the many ways that big changes in technology, communication and how language services are provided are upending our profession. We have also noted increasing levels of fear and displacement as these changes sweep through. They may bring new opportunities in some areas, but without a doubt, many established areas - especially in medical, court and conference interpreting - are seeing great pressure on existing wage and working conditions. In times of stress, it is easy to divide.
Conflicts inside the profession remain. Currently, disagreements about how to collaborate and with whom persist. We are now in a moment when many are debating the right way to engage in collective action. This debate mirrors that of many present-day global political conflicts. Without a doubt, these questions need to be addressed. Is it more effective to engage directly with the people and entities we disagree with, or should we boycott and refuse to interact at all? Do we attempt to impose sanctions on individuals and organizations that embrace working directly with the corporate side of interpreting, as ATA, CWCIA and InterpretAmerica do? Or do we make room for a diversity of approaches for supporting the interpreting profession, and yes, industry?
These questions will be of great importance in 2016. At InterpretAmerica, we will opt, as we have for many years now, to engage in dialog and cooperation with all stakeholders, even those we disagree with, based on our conviction that any chance for positive change will be built on mutually beneficial relationships that promote understanding and interaction.
As we move into 2016, we hope to see increasing collaboration and new partnerships flourish throughout our entire field - across interpreting specializations, between individual interpreters and the agencies that hire them, among corporations and government players (who need persistent and consistent client education), and between professional associations and academics, or any combination thereof.
At InterpretAmerica, we know how immeasurably enriched we have been personally, professionally, and organizationally by strong partnerships. We are deeply grateful for everyone involved in co-creating this beautiful profession we all love.
Happy New Year!