The New Frontier of Interpreting

Stacy Smith Interpreter

Guest blog post: Written by Stacy Smith, Japanese interpreter, translator and writer, as well as former JET CIR (Coordinator for International Relations). Read about how interpreters must consider pivoting their services during the 2020 pandemic and beyond. 

The last seven months have been incredibly tumultuous in physical, psychological and professional ways.  I’ve been able to control the physical aspect to a certain extent, with lots of walking, hiking, and gardening.  

The psychological front can be a bit dicier, but I’ve been trying to practice self-care as best I can during quarantine.  This involves lots of quality time with my cats, plentiful webinars and mildly successful attempts at meditation.  

But it’s the professional aspect that’s been the most challenging for me, because for the most part it’s out of my hands.  

Pre-Covid Freelance Interpreting

Pre-Covid I worked as a freelance Japanese interpreter, in both the consecutive and simultaneous modes.  I don’t have an area of specialty, so was lucky enough to work in fields as diverse as law, fashion, business and film.  

A good chunk of my time was spent interpreting at in-person business meetings and conferences, which as of now are a thing of the past.  This leaves me wondering what direction my career will go in when all the chips finally fall. 

Remote vs. In-Person

I had previously done frequent conference calls, often early morning or late night in my home of New York to accommodate the 13 or 14 hour time difference from Japan.  

Although these (non-video) interactions went smoothly, I always felt like there was something missing that only in-person communication can provide.  So when I think about having to transition to a career where the majority of my work occurs remotely, it really gives me pause.     

No Time to Think About Anything Else While Interpreting

Before I go any further, let me say that I do recognize that part of my reluctance is my aversion to learning new technology.  Not that I’m a Luddite or anything, but I do find it overwhelming to need to master technology on top of carrying out interpreting to the best of my ability.  

During conference interpreting, I’d be sharing a booth behind the scenes with a colleague who I’d switch off with every 15 minutes.  During the 15 minutes when you’re not interpreting, you are expected to support your partner by giving vocabulary help if they get stuck or taking over the mic if they get a coughing fit.  15 minutes is the typical duration due to the extreme concentration that simultaneous interpreting requires.  

Technical Support During Interpretation

A tech person would be on call outside the booth, and they would be in charge of making sure the feed is visible and working properly so that the interpreters have the necessary visual and auditory input to do our jobs properly. 

In Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) mode, however, the interpreter would be responsible for not only interpreting, but for tech issues as well.  Some platforms apparently provide virtual tech support, but if you are working at home and lose your connection, it’s on you to fix it.  In light of how intense simultaneous interpreting is, this causes a huge amount of additional stress, particularly for people like me for whom technology is not their forte.  All this extra stimuli takes a toll when an interpreter’s short-term memory is constantly being tested to begin with, and adds to the interpreter’s cognitive load.

Influx of Interpreters

Not to mention that with everything all of a sudden going virtual, the interpreting market has expanded overnight.  Being based in New York, my previous competition would be colleagues in the tri-state area and sometimes DC and other parts of the east coast.  Now I am competing with interpreters as far away as Japan, a market whose interpreting fees have traditionally been a lot lower than the ones here.  

So not only am I now expected to perform additional duties (i.e. as the tech person), the fees being offered seem to be lower as the benchmark has decreased due to an influx of competition that didn’t exist before.  

Lowered Costs?

Even worse, companies and agencies see the fact that we no longer have to travel to conferences and other events as an advantage to interpreters, and have lowered their compensation as a result.  Granted not having to fly somewhere and be put up in a hotel does reduce the interpreter’s burden, but the way we approach our job is the same whether it is in-person or virtual.  I’m still going to spend anywhere from several hours to several days on background research and preparing vocabulary ahead of the job.  That time needs to be compensated for, but many clients do not understand that.

Testing the Technical Aspect

I have been trying to become well versed in different RSI platforms and have upgraded my home office so I will be able to carry out RSI when the time comes.  

That being said, I am approaching this new shift in my industry cautiously.  I do work for the New York State court system, and have recently interpreted remotely for two cases (consecutively).  One was via Microsoft Teams and one was on Skype for Business, the former going slightly better than the latter.  However, in both cases at least one of the participants had tech issues, causing multiple dropouts and interruptions in the proceedings.   

In Conclusion

I hope that in-person meetings resume once we get a vaccine and return to some semblance of normalcy.  There is a distinct alchemy that takes place when people are in the same room, and this cannot be provided by virtual platforms.  

Body language is very difficult to read over a screen, and emotions are not palpable through pixels.  

Official conferences are great for gathering like-minded individuals in a common space, and true magic happens at the unofficial happy hours and dinners occurring off hours.  

Companies might want to cut costs by eliminating in-person meetings going forward, but ironically in the process they will be destroying the opportunities for exchange that help build their bottom lines.   

By Stacy Smith


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