One thing 2020 certainly demonstrated is the resilience and adaptability of translators and interpreters.
It was quite a year. Given the many challenges 2020 presented, members of The ATA Chronicle Editorial Board reached out to their colleagues (both interpreters and translators) and invited them to answer the following question: How did your work change in 2020?
The stories they share here speak of professional and personal struggle—as well as some bright spots—while navigating the “new normal” of a global pandemic. A common theme throughout is resiliency in the face of an unprecedented global health and economic crisis. Despite the chaos 2020 brought, the year provided opportunities to connect, learn, adapt, and grow as professionals. We hope the following will serve as a reminder of the strength to be found in the translator and interpreter community.
Many thanks to The ATA Chronicle Editorial Board for coordinating this article: Jost Zetzsche (chair), Paula Arturo, Lois Feuerle, Ben Karl, Barbara Inge Karsch, and Ted Wozniak.
In 2020, remote interpreting saved our livelihood while eroding a decade of gains in working conditions.
Before the pandemic, most remote interpreting in the U.S. existed in health care, emergency services, and the financial world and was dominated by over-the-phone (OPI) and video remote (VRI) consecutive interpreting. Remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) was a budding area on the conference side of our profession. Start-up platforms were slowly gaining inroads, designed to preserve good sound and provide virtual booths for team interpreting.
In two short weeks in March, onsite interpreting shut down all over the world. Multilingual communication moved online. The result? Existing OPI, VRI, and RSI platforms, after an initial dip, experienced huge surges in demand. Remote work offset some of the losses interpreters suffered, but the learning curve has been steep. The surge has degraded working conditions, especially for RSI where the explosion of meetings over web conferencing platforms not designed for interpreting has forced interpreters into endless patchwork hacks that strain sound, cognition, and brain function. But like it or not, remote interpreting is here to stay.
As we come out of the pandemic, now is the time to be loud, squeaky wheels to prevent poor remote working conditions from getting baked in as the “new normal.”
As a German>English financial-legal translator and specialist boutique owner whose clients are all in the German-speaking countries, my business cycle reflects fluctuations in those countries’ economies.
In line with the hard lockdowns imposed in Germany—my primary market—business fell off a cliff in April and remained more or less stagnant until late summer. The first half (H1) 2020 financial reports, which generally arrive in July each year for translation, were the exception, but most of them were also shorter than usual.
Business started picking up again in September/October, but it’s currently too early to say whether the renewed lockdown in Germany that was imposed in December will significantly impact translation demand in my markets.
I’ve identified several trends I believe to be directly attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic. First, “discretionary” translations (not required by law or another legal obligation) are recovering slowly but may not return to BC (before COVID) levels for a few years, if ever. Second, the pandemic has exacerbated the price pressures that were already building up BC. And third, some direct clients are starting to understand that they can use the latest neural machine translation systems for non-critical translations that don’t have to be linguistically “perfect” and edit the machine translation output themselves.
I’m the owner of a boutique agency providing health care interpreting, translation, and health care interpreting training services, with a focus on Spanish.
When the lockdown hit Austin, half my local business collapsed in one day. Onsite interpreting was not an option anymore. I quickly realized that my local health care clients and onsite interpreters were not prepared for the abrupt change. I created a video remote interpreting (VRI) guideline for all of them in two days and trained the onsite interpreters to become VRI interpreters in a week to ready them for the “new normal” in interpreting.
What the COVID-19 pandemic taught me directly is to always be prepared for change. I wasn’t expecting my online health care interpreting training to start booming during the pandemic, but that’s exactly what happened. Fortunately, I had updated my one-on-one online training to focus on VRI, which meant I was already prepared to help my students nationwide during lockdown.
My take on the business impact of the pandemic is that local onsite interpreting is picking up slowly, with many health care providers still not comfortable with VRI because of their specializations.
Interpreting training is booming. And although some translation direct clients are learning about neural machine translation, they still need our services.
Many assume little changed for literary translators in 2020. But the entire publishing circuit—from printers to book fairs and bookstore distribution—has been unrooted, and with it my translations.
While bestsellers are readily available online, small independent presses have suffered. Four of my publishers shuttered or delayed publications, some until 2021 or 2022. Furloughs included accountants, which postponed payments for manuscripts I submitted. One of my editors was laid off, leaving my projects in limbo. Sadly, in November an editor I had worked with for years passed away. My translation of María Negroni’s Elegy for Joseph Cornell, scheduled for spring, appeared in October, but it hasn’t been reviewed due to lack of staffing at publishers, and all promotional events have been canceled.
Still, the pandemic has eliminated geographical borders, allowing translators to attend global conferences. In 2020, I coordinated a virtual conference for the Oregon Society of Translators and Interpreters (an ATA affiliate), an event usually limited to Pacific Northwest and California attendees. Speakers and participants from around the country—as well as Brazil, Egypt, India, Mexico, Spain, and the U.K.—attended.
Though 2020 further isolated some translators, it also opened our world to global collaboration and solidarity on an unprecedented scale. I hope our interactions will continue in 2021—and beyond!
Port Charlotte, Florida
I began 2020 comfortably busy during the financial reporting season, but it didn’t take long for that to change. The anticipated seasonal projects that would normally keep me busy through the spring never materialized as the pandemic ramped up earlier in Europe than in the U.S. and many employees of German and Austrian companies retreated to the safety of their homes.
I was finally called into action again for some half-yearly reports and was very busy for several weeks in the early fall. However, it has been “crickets” ever since. Luckily, I was approved (after several frustrating attempts) at the last minute for a Paycheck Protection Program loan that helped sustain my family through the second half of the year. Fortunately for us, my wife is an “essential worker” at a local hospital and very much in demand.
I’ve taken advantage of the unplanned sabbatical by spending more time with my three-year-old son and honing new skills that I expect will soon enhance my translation business while also providing a potential new pillar outside of the translation industry. Yet, despite the extra leisure time, 2020 was exceptionally chaotic and I looked forward to its close.
Palo Alto, California
As a California-based English>French translator working exclusively with agencies, when I first heard of California Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5) in 2019, I was terrified. By January 2020, my fears had materialized: my two largest clients were demanding I incorporate to keep our relationship. I adamantly refused, choosing instead to advocate for an exemption alongside the Coalition of Practicing Translators and Interpreters of California, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocacy group.
Surprisingly, the year started strong, thanks to additional projects from regular clients who accepted my sole proprietor status and supported my fight against AB 5. And then the pandemic hit.
After an abysmal April, I got a brief stint in videogame localization, a sector that definitely benefited from the lockdown. Luxury products, on the other hand, did not, and my regular translations of high-end jewelry catalogs vanished. However, as a medical translator, I also started receiving many projects related to COVID, including guidelines, press releases, and medical staff training. I even gained two clients, who initially contacted me for a COVID-related project and now send me projects regularly. Another positive impact of the pandemic for me: when a major communication platform moved their annual conference online, I got to translate the subtitles of their keynote speeches. So, overall, I feel lucky and grateful!
Long Beach, California
Last spring, a friend of mine said that despite all the challenges 2020 lobbed at us, she found it very easy to count her blessings. I couldn’t agree more. I’m very thankful for my health, my family, my home, and my work.
Last March, less than six months after moving to a new city in a new state and just when I was getting a feel for the lay of the land, we were ordered to shelter in place. I didn’t have to transition to working from home, but I did have to transition to an entirely home-based existence, my usual outlets outside having suddenly closed their doors.
With few places to go and terrified that my clients would disappear, I threw myself into my work and nearly burned out in the process. Thankfully, my clients are all doing well and I’ve even managed to find some new ones. I’ve found a new work balance where I’m no longer afraid they’ll stop calling, which has been very powerful for me.
2020 was full of silver linings and I’m looking forward to an even brighter 2021.
New York City, New York
Times have changed considerably. I know I’m stating the obvious, but I would have never thought in a million years what 2020 had in store. As I had recently begun my career as a translator and interpreter, my vision of the future didn’t include a global pandemic that was going to shut down entire cities across the world.
I’m based in New York City and work for a Catholic religious order of men dedicated to educating young people, especially those who are disadvantaged. Suddenly, I found myself wondering if I should count myself among the disadvantaged as my work began to steadily decrease as the number of COVID-19 cases increased.
Fortunately, my studies as a graduate student not only kept me busy but provided me with a community of like-minded individuals who were going through similar experiences. This renewed sense of purpose became one of the driving forces that has helped me navigate the murky waters of the pandemic. Hopefully the situation will improve, since translation and interpreting remain at the heart of what I do and who I am.
San Antonio, Texas
I was on my way back home from a week of work at the U.S. District Court in Corpus Christi, Texas, when I heard the news on public radio: San Antonio was going into lockdown due to the pandemic.
I had no idea what that meant other than having to do some grocery shopping as if a hurricane were about to hit. It was March 20, 2020, and there was no way for me to know back then how long this stay-at-home order was really going to last or how my life’s priorities would never again be the same.
Finding isopropyl alcohol became a quest. That everyday item on drug store shelves became as scarce as work in the courts and regular income. Overnight I lost track of my colleagues, my friends. Everyone was too busy finding disposable gloves and face masks or figuring out how to use remote platforms to start a whole new way of making a safe living away from COVID-19.
I gave up waiting for the courts to call or the unemployment office to answer my calls. I finally decided to apply for my Social Security benefits and just stay home. I still miss my friends!
I’m a Chinese interpreter, translator, and teacher. 2019 was the best year since I started my freelance business seven years ago. My revenue reached an all-time high. I enjoyed every project, from interpreting at conferences and courthouses to translating legal documents with my team.
Then came the coronavirus. I was closely following China’s situation in January, so I wasn’t surprised when a long-time client canceled their U.S. trip. However, soon courthouses in Texas shut down, businesses suspended nonessential employee benefits (e.g., Mandarin classes), and nonprofits cut budgets for recurring projects. March through May, my revenue was down 80% year-over-year compared to 2019.
I took the opportunity to focus on business generation. I made 60 cold calls to my ideal interpreting clients over the summer. I gained a new student thanks to the referral from a current one, both of whom I enjoy working with. I was more available to a client from 2019 and became her trusted partner for more than just language needs. I also started exercising six times a week, organized four online socials for ATA’s Chinese Language Division, and created a marriage enrichment study group with friends.
My life was affected in 2020. The loss of family members, diminished income, stress, and uncertainty were all present. The biggest change, however, occurred in my professional life.
As an interpreter before the pandemic, I averaged 300 days per year on the road. Assignments included trips to all continents and practically every state. I lived out of a suitcase, ate at restaurants, and slept in hotel rooms. I loved my lifestyle. All of this ended in the spring as conferences were postponed, trips canceled, confinement orders issued, and my work disappeared. I haven’t left my place since March 16. A lack of income and uncertainty about the future were exacerbated by a constant stream of email and social media postings heralding the end of my profession and the triumph of distance interpreting.
I had interpreted remotely for about two years, which gave me the peace of mind to set my priorities. I fired bad clients, got closer to the best ones, and discovered a never seen attitude of collaboration among my colleagues worldwide. Interpreters have adapted to the circumstances because we’re problem solvers. I still miss in-person work but, having learned new skills and selected quality clients, I’m confident I’ll make it during and after this crisis.
A memorable year, 2020 presented many challenges, tested my strength, and taught me—a medical interpreter and trainer—how to stay in business.
While many interpreters saw a significant decrease in hours, I had the opposite experience. My interpreting hours didn’t change and I had many new opportunities and various assignments. I was busier in 2020 than any year before. Several factors helped significantly to achieve this outcome:
- Having a strong positive long-term relationship with an interpreting agency.
- Having optimal working conditions (e.g., no school-age children at home).
- Keeping up to date with compliance requirements.
- Having the necessary technology already in place at home with reliable internet.
- Having the support and inspiration of colleagues, who encouraged me to expand my field of work and referred me to new services. (That’s how I added a third job as a contact tracer to my 2020 résumé and created a few workshops for interpreters.)
- Following my business plan to continue offering training courses even to smaller groups.
Instead of “going with the flow,” I found myself being more active and proactive, researching new avenues, working hard but enjoying the process, and feeling alive and grateful. New challenges are invigorating—what’s there not to like?
On December 31, 2019, I made my first-ever business New Year’s resolution: to make it a point to learn new skills in 2020. Then COVID-19 happened.
It started with a phone call at 10:00 p.m. on a Friday night. One of the five school districts for which I work needed some documents translated before an emergency board meeting the following night. Was I available? I was and continued to remain so.
For the next several months, school-related translation requests arrived every workday and at least once on weekends. Deadlines were tight as districts tried to keep worried parents informed. While the pandemic forced clients in other fields to slow down, I was still working seven days a week.
I had to learn to interpret online for my schools—and teach their staff how to do so. This triggered greater involvement in the Interpreters and Translators in Education Workgroup and other interpreter forums.
By late summer, school requests were nearly back to normal and business picked up for other translation clients. But I’m accepting more remote depositions assignments now. I’m also taking advantage of every online conference time allows.
Susanne van Eyl
I spent years working in the legal and business field, but then a niche formed that I was happy to explore. Religious organizations asked me to do translations for them and eventually this became a meaningful portion of my income.
When the pandemic hit, some of these churches became extremely active. They wrote and translated messages of hope and calm and distributed them to followers around the world. From February through August, I had very little time off. I translated articles, workshops, lectures, correspondence, recommendations on how to conduct services online or by phone, etc. Things slowed down a little in October and November, but due to Christmas and the new year I’m very busy again.
Another ATA member and I have been translating books for an organization, handled by a translation agency, and the client decided to use the current situation to translate two books nearly simultaneously. I’m the editor on this project, which will last into 2021.
Work from other agencies, however, decreased significantly. I had to turn down some jobs due to tight deadlines that didn’t fit into my workload, but overall much less has come in from agencies.
Rosario Charo Welle
2020 did not spare me. Upon the initial shock of the pandemic declaration and the stay-at-home orders back in March, some of my direct clients’ services turned essential and so did my freelance translation services.
I was hardly prepared for the flood of rushed projects that arrived in my inbox overnight. Project managers were now working from home—like me—dealing with their own pandemic situations and adjusting to remote working and unconventional schedules. They contacted me around the clock.
Since March, I’ve translated and edited thousands of words related to COVID-19 or resulting from the pandemic. Consequently, my normal workload increased significantly, even requiring me to work 12-hour days to meet the surge. Very quickly, I had to draw resilience to face the challenges the pandemic was creating for the world and me.
While adjusting to the new work-normal, I’m fortunate to be able to rely on exceptional colleagues to help with some of my projects, to discuss the translation of the emerging terminology, and to find emotional and professional support. Furthermore, recognizing that my translation services are now even more essential for my clients to serve their Spanish-speaking communities motivates me to stay committed to providing high-quality services.
If I had to describe 2020 as succinctly as possible, it would be: dumpster fire.
It started with a bang in January with emergency spinal surgery, continued in March with my mom and uncle contracting COVID-19 (my mom made it—barely—but my uncle wasn’t so lucky). My grandmother fought cancer not once, but twice last year. When she needed our hugs the most, it was dangerous for us to give them to her. We also pulled our son out of school and started homeschooling him on top of our jobs last fall. My husband was laid off in October. So, it’s fair to say we got the full 2020 experience. (My husband found another job pretty fast, so don’t worry.)
But despite all the personal struggles we endured, the one constant I had was work. I made significant strides in my unending quest to work smarter, not harder. I doubled my direct client portfolio. I worked in translator/reviser partnerships more often, and I received numerous referrals. June and August were slower than normal, but overall I’m proud of how I’ve weathered this storm so far. When things get tough, you have to hold your head up high and keep moving forward.