The language industry is steadily growing. With the global marketplace and modern migration trends, there are more opportunities for interpreters and translators now than ever before. International efforts have involved the development of standards, and increased dialogue among stakeholders. Collaborations and international conferences are a call to action for advancement and recognition. But, where in the marketplace is the practitioner?
I recently received a phone call from an interpreter in the UK (I live in Canada), that I had met at the 6th International Critical Link Conference in Birmingham, England asking me what sort of opportunities might exist in Canada for public service interpreters working in Polish/English. “Do you know if this new CETA agreement between the EU and Canada will be of any benefit for interpreters?” he asked. I answered that I did know that it greatly reduced tariffs on trade, but had not yet assessed its impact for interpreters. “Well, I was thinking,” he said, “I might consider a move – interpreting in the UK has become little more than a hobby for me. With all of the emphasis on reducing costs and outsourcing, it’s no longer a full-time job.” I found his comments interesting; not only in relation to the presentation I was in the midst of preparing, but also because I had just submitted an article to MultiLingual Magazine on just that topic – the mobility factor for and of interpreters.
We are frequently told that we work in a thriving and financially booming sector. New technologies and partnerships are creating a market that is anticipated to be at US$50 billion by 2019. The language industry is not, by any measure, dominated by the community interpreting sector, but consecutive interpreting done at the community level for public services like legal, health and social services – whether on-site or remotely – is a rapidly growing segment. With an anticipated circulation of US$50 billion, and a current flow of US$43 billion in the sector, one would assume that at least some of it must be reaching community interpreting, and that flow would in turn ripple out to interpreters themselves. Instead, things seem to be going backwards for individual practitioners. In Canada, where rates have not significantly changed in the past 25 years, and in some cases, have gone backwards, important compensatory payments such as coverage for parking or travel time are no longer made available in many jurisdictions.
This is the conundrum facing community interpreting – the market profits and yet practitioners do not feel the gains. So, where is the money?
The Current State
As stated before, the industry is forecast to produce a US$50 billion market by 2019, 18 months away. I repeat this figure for two reasons:
1. It has been assessed by a very well respected source and;
2. It stands in stark contrast to the experiences that practitioners are having in terms of financial security and solvency.
Many of us are familiar with the article written by Holly Mikkelson 12 years ago, published in the AIIC newsletter, that quite accurately identified all of the important elements that enrich and advance our profession, many of which have transpired: we now have published international standards (ISO 13611) and standards in development, improved and robust training in addition to professional development opportunities and strong international networks. And yet, the corresponding financial remuneration has not materialized. How is it that the market interpretation of the relationship between supply and demand for community interpreting has not resulted in a more rightful or even reasonable equation?
In 2016, our esteemed colleague, Paola Gentile, in her PhD research, conducted a global survey that received 888 responses from 64 countries. In terms of satisfaction with their income, only 12.1% of respondents indicated being satisfied. One female interpreter from Spain commented, “In my country, PSIT is a non-regulated profession, so there is a blurred line between volunteer work and exploitation. I am afraid that volunteering is used by others as an excuse to avoid or delay the legal regulation of the profession.”
I propose that the disconnect may be in the lens that is applied: industry has a focus on business and growth, while profession has a stronger orientation toward continued competence, standards and regulations. While both the industry and the profession have led in respective ways in different domains, industry, rather than the profession, has been the driver in the marketplace. Of course, these are not distinct camps, but they are not always playing in a shared context of understanding. A blend of the two foci would be most advantageous to both practitioners and providers (where and when they are different entities). We must have a singular view and not exist in a state of conflict or contrast. Interpreters need to occupy the market place.
Double-up: Riding the Technology and Outsourcing Waves
Interpreting is often depicted as an industry experiencing a disruption. I disagree – this is not a disruption, it is acclimatization to new channels of service delivery. What is happening in language services, or more specifically, interpreting services, is that new technologies are facilitating the work and providing platforms to deliver the same thing that was once, and in part still is, done face to face. Interpreters must not repeat the mistakes of the translation industry. Changes to our sector are a wake-up call telling us that ‘now is the time to take control of our profession.’
When I first started working for an Interpreting Service Provider (ISP) after having been a community interpreter for a time, I began as a call centre representative, which is a fancy title given the status of the operation: doing call intakes on a simple multiline phone, completing paper request forms by hand and placing the requests on the wall chart, first according to date required and then by language. Today, the industry is still operating in much the same way: interpreter services are brokered by an ISP (actual or virtual) and provided by practitioners. Of course, technology has made on-demand phone and remote interpreting services possible, in addition to other advances, but that is an evolution that is keeping the industry in step with technology – not a disruption.
What interpreters need to concern themselves with is embracing technology, to recognize that it does not exclude them from the field. Interpreters must not allow end-users to dictate how technology is used and what technology is developed. Only interpreters know what it is that interpreters do and only interpreters can understand the technology that can enhance their work, as well as their profession. Let us decide what technology we need, rather than being told what technology will facilitate the work of industry.
Outsourcing, another key element in the current landscape, is not a new concept and is one that many different sectors and professions have experienced. Outsourcing is not always a bad idea. In an effort to reduce costs, that which is usually least understood and therefore less valued, is outsourced. In British Columbia, certain elements of the public services outsource interpreting services, but this practice is conducted by a well informed and educated department that values interpreting services and blends fiscal responsibility with professional standards. This is not the case across the board, but outsourcing, if done correctly, can achieve both a reduction in the expenditures and a utilization of quality services. On the other hand, outsourcing that is primarily uninformed about the field and the profession, and done with sole purpose of reducing costs – within a market where the practitioners are not protected either by legislation or strong professional bodies to enforce regulations – can result in abuse of practitioners.
The industry is lamenting that good interpreters are hard to find. This is another opportunity to lead and take the helm. If we cannot stop outsourcing, at least we can inform it. The current paradigm pits interpreters against procurement and has them competing against large organizations that may or may not be in the actual business of language services. The industry is growing ahead of the interpreter. Like technology, interpreters need to understand that outsourcing is here to stay – so let’s get into the game.
A Crisis of Identity
A third element in the current paradigm is the self-identity of interpreters. Have we relinquished our authority to define our own profession? Have we let the demand side of the market label our title and professional scope of practice? As Linda Fitchett said in her observations of the CLI8 conference presentation by Paola Gentile, “the girls need to buck up their self-confidence.” We do not claim our agency, but we complain about the lack of agency. Are we willing to continue shouting into the wind?
Paola Gentile’s 2016 survey bears mentioning once again. The survey found 69% of the respondents equate the status of public service interpreters to that of primary school teachers, nurses and social workers (in a profession dominated by women these are easy associations), and 97% of the respondents saw the profession as having a great social importance. However, when asked if they thought that the status of public service interpreting would improve in the future, 45% said they did not know and 21% said no. That is almost 70% of interpreters with a pretty bleak outlook on their profession. This identity schism, where interpreters see their import, and yet value is seemingly not ascribed at a societal level, leads to a chasm in expectations, and leads one to wonder, when the industry cries that it cannot find enough good interpreters, are industry and profession using the same definition?
Consider Tony Rosado’s comments, “if they [interpreters] see the court, the interpreting agency, or the state judiciary as their employer, they cannot see them for what they really are: their client.” Whether or not they are comfortable with it, interpreters are independent business people, solopreneurs.Interpreters must begin to advocate for themselves. We cannot defer to industry or consumers for a definition of our role. Interpreters need to see themselves as having agency, as being able to affect change for themselves by themselves. Of course, it is hard to do this when you are an individual and one that is reliant on the income that your work is generating – good or bad, it is an income. This fragmentation is what allows for the divide and conquer success of those that profit from the skills and talents we supply.
Mindshift – Moving out of Paradigm Paralysis
As a profession, we are proud of our standards and the attention to continued competencies and professional development. In my time in this field, I have seen it grow from a few dedicated professionals to an international network of practitioners, educators and advocates. I recall presenting at the very first Critical Link conference in 1995 in Ontario, Canada. It was so thrilling at the time to see that there were others in the same field, with the energy to make advances and changes. And we have made those advances and have seen incredible progress in our evolution. Community interpreting is no longer considered a volunteer’s game, and is getting proper recognition from professional organizations across the globe, such as AIIC, Red T and IAPTI, among others. We now have ISO standards, published and in process, that address standards for community interpreting, such as ISO 13611:2014 Interpreting – Guidelines for Community Interpreting. But, as I said before, they have not translated into financial gains for the practitioners.
The greatest barrier to a paradigm shift, in some cases, is the reality of paradigm paralysis: the inability or refusal to see beyond the current models of thinking.A more deliberate analysis of the industry and its players, may serve us well. The interpreting field is divided into a supply side and a demand side. All the usual suspects are there: clients or end users, agencies or interpreting service providers, interpreters, professional associations, educators, regulators and various other legislative bodies. Whoever is in the game is more likely to control certain aspects such as pricing, working conditions, standards of performance and quality, etc. Interpreters must assess their position within this field and gain agency, for without interpreters, there is not community interpreting. There may be access to bilinguals, but such an ad-hoc system will certainly fail, as it has done in the past.
Interpreters must advocate and create change, not perpetuate the current state, a state in which the profession is unregulated, not wholly understood or respected, and which is driven by market forces rather than professional standards. Interpreters must regain agency within the sector. Interpreters are the talent and the skill at the core of the industry. This is not to lay blame or point fingers at who is failing us. To tell a largely disenfranchised, unregulated, largely freelance-based (69%), underpaid, undervalued group of professionals to stand up for themselves is an easier-said-than-done task, but that is exactly what interpreters must do. Is this a rallying call for unity? Yes, it is.
What is the new paradigm?
Do we keep educating and training interpreters only to throw them in this game? Only to perpetuate the current cycles?We hear from agencies that good interpreters are hard to find. The responsibility lies not in the profession’s inability to produce competent and skilled language professionals, but in the industry’s disinclination to compensate adequately.
At the CLI8 conference at Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh, Scotland), an unofficial theme commonly heard among the attendees was that their work was not valued, and their presence was not acknowledged as a member of the team. We need to move away from the same arguments and discussions that trap us in a paradigm paralysis. Who is best to define the role of an interpreter, the conditions of interpreting and to lead the marketplace if not interpreters?
What does a new paradigm look like? It’s not about adding on additional tasks, but reorganizing so that we are working together – more strategically. A new paradigm must have the interpreter as the driver – the new interpreter must be a team member, a thought leader and a designer for the industry – whether that means in technology, service models, or policy. Communities of Practice, collectives and collaborative initiatives, and cooperatives offer ways for interpreters to connect more frequently and more strategically.
Communities of Practice (CoP)
Etienne Wenger defines Communities of Practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” Wenger’s CoP concept and approach has been around since 1991, and is a successful approach to maintaining engagement, and nurturing sharing and learning. Danielle D’Hayer, whose work focuses on education and training for PSIT, has been researching CoP models as a way to share learning resources and capacities on a Community of Practice global scale and this model holds immense promise. As Danielle says, “new technologies play an innovative role that can no longer be ignored in the world of interpreting.” Critical Link International aims to strengthen opportunities for collaboration and networked learning and sharing among practitioners. To that end, CLI has created the KLiC where members can upload and download information, papers and notices among the member community.
Collaboratives and Collectives
Another way to strengthen the profession is the more formal, but still loose structure, of a collaborative or collective. At CLI8 in Edinburgh, CLI Vice-President Maria Aguilar-Solano presented on the Boston Interpreters Collective and discussed the rise in such collectives in many regions worldwide, noting that “An effort to regulate interpreters’ status in Massachusetts through a network of community partnerships is resulting in the payment of fair wages equal to those found in the professional arena.” Maria’s presentationcan be downloaded from the CLI website under the Research & Development – Critical Link Resource Centre.
Such collectives have a value-added component in that external stakeholders, such as end users can also be a part of the collective community. This then extends the knowledge and advocacy base for interpreting services. Collaborative organizations or enterprises provide an opportunity for all stakeholders to gain knowledge about the other and to form bonds of mutual respect and efficiencies.
Other collaborative initiatives are the international coalition to protect interpreters worldwide – which includes the organizations, Red T, Critical Link International, FIT, AIIC, WASLI and IAPTI – and a more recent initiative of NAJIT’s that educates end-users on the role of an interpreter and translator and prepared the Advocacy 101 document.
Similar to collectives but more formally structured, cooperatives are legal business entities that are incorporated as either for profit or non-profit. A cooperative is owned and controlled by the members who use its services. Unlike a typical business, which returns profits to the owners based on how much the owners have invested in the business, a cooperative rewards its owners based on how much they use the cooperative. And unlike a business where owners have different amounts of power based on how much money they have invested, a cooperative is governed on a democratic basis, with one vote per person regardless of investment.
Cooperatives are gaining prominence and increasing in number, although within the language sector there have not been many yet. A sampling of language sector cooperatives that I have come across include: The Interpreters’ Cooperative of Madison (US), Mutlicultural Health Brokers Coop (US), Caracol Interpreter’s Coop (Canada), Ricol Interpreters Coop (US), ITC (UK), Translators without Borders, Options (US), and Toc – The Interpreters’ Co-op (Canada).
With these points in mind, I can envision a new future for community interpreting, a future where the profession defines the marketplace by drawing their own limits and creating a new paradigm. I see interpreters embracing technology, using it to connect and unite as well as enriching their professional practice. And most importantly, I see interpreters regaining agency and elevating the respect and position of the field. We must explore new models for more active engagement and look at how we, as practitioners, can perform in the marketplace by staking a claim on our own agency. Interpreters must discover their new frontiers by pushing beyond the limits.
About Critical Link International
Since our beginning in 1992, Critical Link has always had a focus on community interpreting and community interpreters. CLI has provided the platform, through our conferences and networks, for professionals, providers, policy makers and educators to come together, create change, and push forward. I would like to invite you all to connect with Critical Link in continuing those initiatives, by joining the network of engaged stakeholders. Connect with us on the CLI Facebook Group. If you’ve not received your invite yet, let us know. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.