Monday, February 21, 2011

Videoconferencing Technology + Interpreting: Meaningful Relationship or Marriage of Convenience?

On February 17-19, 2011, the AVIDICUS Consortium (Assessment of Videoconference Interpreting in the Criminal Justice Services) held the first international symposium dedicated exclusively to the provision of interpreting services using videoconferencing equipment. To my knowledge and to that of the others in attendance at the sold-out Symposium that took place at the British Computer Society in the heart of London, it was the first of its kind—a bellwether of things to come for our profession. After three days of presentations on the reasons for using videoconference interpreting (VCI) and remote interpreting (RI) as well as the pros and cons of providing interpreting services in this way, everyone concluded that more research needs to be done. Perhaps Symposium organizer Sabine Braun put it best when referring to VCI and RI she said: “There is a huge demand for something we know very little about.” 

Long story short, videoconference technology is going to have a significant impact on the way we interpreters do our job in the coming years. The courtship of these technologies with interpreting, if you’ll allow me to use that metaphor, is just beginning. And like any incipient relationship, there are and will be ups and downs, misunderstandings, as well as moments of euphoria. The relationship will be long lasting, but if we want it to be a meaningful relationship rather than a marriage of convenience, we had better get involved in a constructive way, and soon. 

My own take is that we, the interpreters, need to be more active in helping the technologists understand what the requirements are for us to do our job and do it well, otherwise we are going to be plugged in at the end of the design process like an afterthought, kind of like indoor plumbing and water closets in Victorian-era homes—the indoor WC soon became a necessity in homes but often didn’t work well or stood out horribly because the houses of the era were never designed to include indoor plumbing in the first place. Such is the case with current off-the-shelf videoconferencing solutions. As architectural design progressed over the years, bathrooms and indoor plumbing became the norm in most homes, so the unsightly pipes and poorly placed privies eventually became a thing of the past.  Yesterday’s luxury became today’s necessity. 

Even so, when it comes to working together, there are plenty of naysayers and foot draggers among interpreters and technologists alike. But the sterile arguments that have led to bouts of intellectual head butting between technophiles and technophobes (i.e. “computers will never replace us” vs. “buy our software program, no translator or interpreter needed”) is missing the point. By working together, both sides stand to gain. One thing is for sure, neither side understands the other very well at all. So a little rapprochement could go a long way, because in today’s globalized world, the need for multilingual communication in all its known and yet-to-be known forms is only going to grow. 

Many interpreters feel they should always be physically present whenever their services are needed and that anything less is simply unacceptable. While I agree that being physically present is almost always preferable, demanding that this always be the case is impractical and ignores the fact that XXI-century communication technologies have created a new paradigm for interaction between people who may be half a block or half a world away. Interpreters stand to play a key role in facilitating multilingual communication in this era of increased international and cross cultural interaction, but only if we are ready to respond constructively to innovation and are willing to shape, and in some cases, accept the new realities that will inevitably have an effect on how and where we do our job. 

This is the main reason why InterpretAmerica chose to focus on technology and professional identity for the 2nd North American Summit on Interpreting this June in Washington, D.C. If you are interested in helping shape the future of interpreting, you won’t want to miss it. My co-president, Katharine Allen, and I hope to see you there. 

Co-President of InterpretAmerica

Monday, February 7, 2011

Armchair Debate to Highlight Key Issues in the Interpreting Workplace

If you are an interpreter reading this blog, chances are you doing so from your home office. The Interpreting Marketplace Study prepared by Common Sense Advisory for last year's 1st North American Summit on Interpreting found that approximately three quarters of interpreters worked as freelancers, and furthermore, that few of us made our livings solely as interpreters. Rather, we supplement our income as translators, trainers and with other jobs. And while we may be well aware of the challenges and rewards inherent to being our own boss, few of us are aware of the major tug-of-war underway in our profession between interpreting services companies as to whether that freelance model will stand, or whether in the near future more of us will become company employees.

The upcoming 2nd North American Summit on Interpreting is putting this issue front stage and center with the first ever Independent Contractor v. Employee Workplace Model Armchair Debate. Industry leaders Bill Graeper of Certified Languages International and Louis Provenzano of Language Line Services will face off for the event, moderated by Stephanie van Reigersberg, a veteran diplomatic interpreter with a distinguished career in government service. 

You may ask yourself, so what? What does this really have to do with me? The bottom line, after all, is making a living. But that is precisely why this issue is of such consequence to everyone in our field. Whether language service providers hire interpreters as independent contractors or employ them directly has everything to do with interpreter remuneration, benefits, training opportunities and maintaining high quality service provision. 

At the heart of this issue is pending federal legislation addressing current laws governing whether workers are classified as employees or as independent contractors. Specifically, the legislation focuses on the “misclassification” of employees as independent contractors. The just-released federal budget for fiscal year 2011 includes "a proposal to be jointly administered by the Departments of Labor and the Treasury to eliminate legal incentives for employers to misclassify their employees. Funds are appropriated to enhance the ability of both agencies to penalize employers that misclassify employees as independent contractors, and restores protections to employees who have been denied them due to the misclassification. According to the budget, this proposal will increase Treasury receipts by more than $7 billion over 10 years. The budget allocates an additional $25 million to hire 100 new enforcement personnel to target worker misclassification and establish competitive grants to encourage states to address this issue." See

At stake here is the very employment model that runs our profession. Few language service providers could realistically afford to hire the independent contractor interpreters they rely on for providing services across dozens and sometimes hundreds of languages as employees. Demand is unpredictable and many languages do not provide enough work to keep interpreters employed at full-time or even half-time jobs, nor could companies contract for onsite services in rural areas using employees. To address this market reality, the majority of providers have opted for a freelance model. No doubt, there are language companies that abuse that model, using it more for keeping wages low and their federal employee obligations to a minimum than to offer quality, professional services to their clients. Freelancers have far fewer job protections and built-in job benefits than employees.

But on the flip side are many companies who work closely with their freelancers to ensure quality and which are hamstrung by the strict limitations placed on them by the federal employee legislation. For example, many companies would like to provide ongoing training and educational opportunities, but cannot do so because to offer such training would reclassify the freelancer into an employee--one due benefits, social security deductions and the like. This limitation directly affects the ability of the company and the interpreter to ensure the advanced training that both parties need interpreters to have to ensure quality and consistency of training across multiple languages and settings.

Which side is on the right here? Should the thousands of interpreters currently working as independent contractors be reclassified as employees and thereby gain access to increased benefits, wages and employer-provided training? Or would that reclassification in actuality mean the loss not only of millions of dollars of work contracts and fewer languages served, but a sharp decrease in the numbers of companies hiring on-site interpreters and the consolidation of the field into a few, large corporate entities?

At InterpretAmerica, we feel this issue is so important that we asked the two strongest advocates on either side of the issue to come debate the pros and cons for our attendees. Come listen to what is sure to be a spirited debate and then decide for yourself what our field needs. Only by educating ourselves on the broader marketplace can interpreters gain the awareness needed to participate in the shaping of their work settings. Check out the full conference offerings and come join us at the 2nd North American Summit on Interpreting on June 17 and 18, 2011 in Washington, DC.