We all know the world will not be the same when we come out the other side of this crisis. But we’ll also have gained something immeasurably valuable in our profession: solidarity.
In early March, when it became clear that the world was headed toward global lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the interpreting profession was thrown into nearly universal chaos. The greater part of the interpreting supply chain, based largely on onsite, face-to-face interactions, broke apart in a matter of days. Reports of lost contracts and cancelled jobs flooded in. The almost instantaneous switch to remote communication worldwide threatened to leave our profession behind. But just as quickly, many in our field jumped in to help our profession make the switch to remote.
This year marks InterpretAmerica’s 10th anniversary, and we had been planning an as-yet-unannounced celebratory event. But COVID-19 made it immediately apparent what we needed to do instead: organize an online forum to spark as broad a conversation as possible about the global lockdown’s effects on the provision of interpreting services and what needed to be done to adapt to this new reality.
And that’s what we did. In the space of seven short days, we announced, organized, and successfully held InterpretAmerica 2020: A Unified Response to Ensure Access to Interpreting Services during the Pandemic.1 The event went viral. More than 1,500 registered and 1,358 attended live, representing 50 countries and five continents. (See Figure 1 for a geographic breakdown of participants.)
Sixteen presenters gave five-minute lightning talks interspersed with extensive audience participation using the interactive polling tool Mentimeter2 (two assistants worked behind the scenes to keep the polling running smoothly). The agenda included a final session recapping the feedback we received. Attendees could listen in five languages (American Sign Language, Arabic, English, Portuguese, and Spanish) interpreted simultaneously over KUDO3, a remote interpreting platform capable of hosting online events with simultaneous interpreting. It was an event that in any normal time would have taken months to set up, publicize, and run—not a single week. But this is the reality-bending time we’re living through, when days can seem like weeks and weeks like months.
ATA asked us to write up how this all came together behind the scenes and what we learned along the way. This is our report.
10 Years of Groundwork Pays Off
We founded InterpretAmerica in 2010 with a single purpose: to raise the profile of interpreting. Over the past 10 years we’ve held six national summits focused on bringing together stakeholders from across the field. At the very first summit, our primary goal was simply to introduce ourselves to each other. Our field was so entrenched in separate silos that most of us had never met. That founding event, as well as efforts by many others, helped break this isolation. Today, the interpreting profession has built many crisscrossing connections. We know each other a lot better now, and the importance of that should not be overlooked.
Over time, people across the interpreting profession and language services industry found value in what we had to offer. We became effective conveners. InterpretAmerica turned into the platform where we could pursue big-picture topics and contribute, in our own way, to strengthening this profession we love. We learned our way around organizing a conference (our own and for others), including live-streaming events. We stayed on top of new technology and in touch with the rapidly-changing landscape in which interpreting takes place. We gained expertise, particularly in remote interpreting and interpreter employment trends. So when the time came to act extremely quickly to help where we could at an international level, we had already laid the necessary groundwork to do so.
An Unlikely Dress Rehearsal
Fast forward to now. InterpretAmerica 2020 actually began with the postponement of this year’s Globalization and Localization Association4 (GALA) annual conference due to the coronavirus outbreak. For the past six years, InterpretAmerica has provided content related to interpreting through think! Interpreting5, a conference it co-organizes with GALA. When GALA was called off, one of our planned events, a roundtable discussion on interpreting and the fast-growing area of interpreting technologies, was shifted online to take place during the week GALA would have been held in mid-March.
The event, originally designed as an interactive discussion about interpreting within GALA, quickly morphed into a first conversation about the threat COVID-19 represented to interpreting and business continuity. Without meaning to, the planning of this event became a dress rehearsal that gave us the confidence to put on the much larger InterpretAmerica 2020 exactly one week later.
The GALA Interpreting Roundtable, “Interpreting Tech and Business Continuity: Delivering Interpreting Services During a World Health Crisis”6, was held March 19, 2020, on the KUDO platform. The target audience was made up of GALA members and conference registrants. But as word spread on social media about the roundtable, concerned end users, language services companies, and interpreters from around the world signed up for the event. Over 200 attended online. Remote simultaneous interpreting was provided into six languages (English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish). What we had originally envisaged as a small online discussion for GALA conference registrants had morphed into the largest online event we had ever organized. Our audience had grown far too big to engage in a live, interactive discussion about the impact COVID-19 was having on interpreting. So, in what would become a proof of concept for InterpretAmerica 2020, we made use of polling software on KUDO to gather crucial information about what was happening on the market.
The results were stark. Even as early as mid-March, the coronavirus was clearly wreaking havoc along the entire interpreting service delivery pathway, from agencies to practitioners to trainers. A majority of the participants attending the roundtable had already experienced significant job cancellations, with interpreters losing income in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars, and some companies registering losses in the millions. Almost no one was working onsite anymore.
The message was clear: the entire interpreting supply chain needed to go remote along with the rest of the world, and those who could help lead the way needed to step up to the task.
Figure 1: Geographic Breakdown of Participants (Note: FLOOR stands for the number of participants who listened to the original audio in whatever language the presenter was speaking.)
Putting InterpretAmerica 2020 Together
The idea for InterpretAmerica 2020 began to crystallize as we pulled the GALA event together. The need was clearly there. A few days before the GALA webinar, nudged along by Marjory Bancroft, director of Cross-Cultural Communications, the national training agency for community and medical interpreting, who encouraged us to do something similar for a bigger audience, we committed to holding InterpretAmerica 2020. We announced InterpretAmerica 2020 at the close of the GALA webinar and opened registration for the event a few hours later. We knew time was of the essence, given the urgency of information that came out of this first webinar.
To hold an event, you need a focus, and Cindy Roat, the well-known language access veteran from the health care interpreting world, gave it to us. In an initial brainstorming meeting, she insisted that the critical issue had to be access to language assistance, of all kinds, whether for diplomats, business, or health care. Her quote became our theme: “The continued use of interpreting should be our number one priority.”
And the rest flowed from there. We designed an event we hoped would provide everyone with a comprehensive view of how interpreting services were currently structured so we could then understand which links along the chain had to shift most to be able to use remote technologies. (See Figure 2.)
We reached out to top leaders in our field who we felt could give us that knowledge in brief, clear five-minute talks. (See the speaker list and topics discussed in the listing below.) We asked KUDO if they were willing to host another event and provide the interpreting at no charge. We recruited a team of four to analyze the data coming in from the Mentimeter polls we planned to hold in real time. We quickly designed a webpage and asked everyone we knew to spread the word about the event. And not a single person said no. Some we emailed at midnight, and the answer would ping back almost immediately (“Count me in!” “Whatever I can do.”). Everyone gave their time, for zero payment, for nothing in return, including ATA President Ted Wozniak. The response was beyond moving.
Then the registrations started pouring in. By the end of the first 24 hours, we had over 100, by the end of the weekend, almost 500, and by the evening before the event, when we finally shut registration down, over 1,500. They came in from all over the world and from every part of our profession. We knew then that we had tapped something bigger than us. We were seeing, in real time, the complete disruption of a profession, with thousands now seeking information and guidance for what to do next.
|InterpretAmerica 2020 Speakers and Presentations (see https://bit.ly/InterpretAmerica-speakers)|
|Barry Slaughter Olsen and Katharine Allen: InterpretAmerica||Moderators|
|Idolly Oliva, M Health Fairview: Certification Commission of Healthcare Interpreters||The Urgency to Ensure Language Access|
|Dieter Runge: Boostlingo||The Transition to Remote: A Live Update|
|Kristin Quinlan: Certified Languages International||What Language Services Providers Are Facing and Need|
|Ted Wozniak: American Translators Association||What Can Associations Do to Support Members and the Profession?|
|Winnie Heh: Middlebury Institute of International Studies||How Can We Get Buyers/Procurers Switched to Remote?|
|Odilia Romero: Frente Binacional de Organizaciones Bilingües and CIELO||How Can We Reach End Users so They Can Sill Access Interpreting Services?|
|Ewandro Magalhaes: KUDO||How Can We Onboard and Transition to Remote?|
|Marjory Bancroft: Cross-Cultural Communications||Moderator, Next Steps Session|
|Cindy Roat: Health Care Trainer and Language Access Consultant||Moderator, Next Steps Session|
|Andrew Dafoe: TraduccioNOLA||Next Steps Data Capture|
|Darinka Mangino: Léxica||Next Steps Data Capture|
The Big Questions
Our program sought to cover the challenges we’re facing and offer some beginning guidance for where to go. We wanted to answer the following questions:
- What can we do to help our face-to-face workforce—whose work has disappeared overnight—find work as remote interpreters? How can they be visible to those who need to hire them?
- How can we help our language services companies access remote platforms (telephonic and video) to dispatch work to their linguists? What are the technology solutions they can use to begin offering remote interpreting services to their existing clients? They don’t have to build their own interpreting delivery platforms. There are solutions already available.
- How can we help hospitals, schools, businesses, institutions, and governments get connected to remote interpreting platforms and services so that they can continue to provide multilingual services?
- How can we preserve the laws and policies that require language access—some of which may soon be waived?
- How can we advocate to make sure our freelance linguists and small businesses are included in state and federal relief packages?
- How can we ensure that high standards for working conditions and compensation can be maintained during this massive shift to online delivery?
Figure 2: Current Structure of Interpreting Services
The information we received from the audience polling detailed the challenges the field is facing with the loss of so much onsite work and the need to transition to remote interpreting. We also obtained data on what would help attendees the most. Figure 3 gives an idea of what we learned.
Figure 3: Sample Polling Results from InterpretAmerica 2020
Who Participated? InterpretAmerica 2020 attendees represented a solid cross-section of the interpreting profession, with roughly even representation from conference (25%), community (22%), health care (27%), and legal (17%) interpreters. Sign language interpreters (5%) were also represented, and another 5% of attendees were not practicing interpreters.
Unemployment Is Huge: Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the number of job cancellations has been staggering. In all, 90% of attendees saw job cancellations, with over 25% of those polled seeing more than 21 cancellations as a result of the pandemic.
Fear of Remote Interpreting Replacing Face-to-Face Interpreting: Many attendees expressed fear that remote interpreting would now replace their previous face-to-face work structures. They reported lower pay for remote interpreting work, even when assignments are available, and greatly worsened working conditions in the rush to switch to remote.
Maintaining Professional Standards: Attendees provided many examples of having to lower working and professional standards to work using remote interpreting, from taking pay cuts to poor technological solutions to the interpreter becoming even more invisible in the communication process. Many expressed distress that lower standards could become permanent. They were also concerned about the difficulty of advocating effectively.
Training and Access to Information Are Top Priorities: Among attendees polled during the event, the number one concern was providing training for interpreters so they can begin to provide their services on remote platforms, followed by an urgent need for a public relations campaign to inform end users of interpreting services about the options available to them for using remote interpreting.
Access to Interpreting Has Been Hit Hard: The COVID-19 pandemic has affected access to interpreting services across the board, with conference interpreting, a market segment almost entirely dependent on people being able to travel and meet in large groups, being the hardest hit.
InterpretAmerica 2020 caught a moment in time in this crisis. It tried to make sense of the overnight shift to remote interpreting, and the unsettling fact (for many) that remote is, for the duration of this crisis, the most important pathway to save our jobs and protect those who need our services.
During the ensuing weeks, we’ve seen a full-scale effort to go remote. And the generosity of our field continues in plain sight. Multiple free webinars guiding interpreters onto remote platforms have been given and hundreds of existing trainings are now available for free. Professional associations are also compiling resources and advocating for the health and safety of those working alongside doctors and nurses with sick patients, and fighting to have our independent contractors included in federal relief funding. Others are focused on preserving important professional standards for safe working conditions and appropriate compensation.
For InterpretAmerica, our big next step to help where we can in this crisis is the launch of the clearinghouse website, RemoteInterpreting.info.7 By the time this article is published, the public will have access to a starting point when looking for information about remote interpreting, whether you’re a buyer who needs interpreting services or an interpreter trying to become remote-interpreting enabled. Soon to follow will be similar information for language services companies looking to offer remote interpreting and for interpreter trainers who need to learn how to teach online.
We all know the world will not be the same when we come out the other side of this crisis. Many will have died. Many more will experience disruption and financial loss. But we’ll also have gained something immeasurably valuable in our profession: solidarity.
Katharine Allen is a health care and community interpreter with over three decades of experience interpreting, training, and designing curricula. She is the co-founder and co-president of InterpretAmerica. She was the lead developer and author for The Indigenous Interpreter 60-hour training course. She also helps embed professional interpreting into medical missions in Mexico. She is also co-author of The Community Interpreter International: An International Textbook and The Medical Interpreter: A Foundation Textbook for Medical Interpreting. She has taught for the Master of Conference Interpreting program at Glendon College’s School of Translation and the online interpreting certificate program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has an MA in translation and interpreting from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Contact: email@example.com.
Barry Slaughter Olsen is a veteran conference interpreter and technophile with over two decades of experience interpreting, training interpreters, and organizing language services. He is an associate professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, the founder and co-president of InterpretAmerica, and general manager of multilingual operations at ZipDX. He is a member of the International Association of Conference Interpreters. For updates on interpreting, technology, and training, follow him on Twitter @ProfessorOlsen.