By Carol Shaw
On January 21, 2020, the state of Washington reported the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States; on February 29, it announced the country’s first COVID-19-related death. The virus has since spread across the country, just as it has around the globe.
And as the world hunkers down against COVID-19, those of us who work in language access services face an abruptly-changed environment.
As social distancing was implemented and stay-at-home orders issued, conferences and events were canceled. Courts closed. Depositions and interviews dropped off the calendar. School districts closed their doors and found ways to provide meals. Hospitals and clinics scrambled to find beds and equipment.
Traditionally, on-site interpretation has accounted for over 80% of all spoken-language assignments, while the remaining percentage of the work was done by Over the Phone Interpreting (OPI) or Video Remote Interpreting (VRI). In a few short weeks, that scenario flipped.
Judicial: Initially, courts took a short hiatus. They postponed all non-essential legal proceedings and jury trials in the expectation that things would soon return to normal. Interpreters’ only measure of protection was the use of wireless equipment. Now, judges and court staff are learning to hold many proceedings remotely. Depositions are being held using online platforms. Many court interpreters with a lifetime of experience struggle to find their footing in this virtual world.
Healthcare: While remote services are provided where possible, healthcare interpreters still have to report to hospitals and clinics in person and are therefore the most exposed during this pandemic. The need for personal protective equipment (PPE) has increased, but shortages are widespread. Bunny suits can muffle the voices of medical personnel. And while most medical staff and interpreters understand the need to project their voices when wearing masks, patients and their family members – who are already sick, nervous or scared– may not, making them more difficult to understand.
Education: School districts across the country closed their buildings (at first temporarily, then indefinitely). Districts worked to educate families and feed schoolchildren while shifting to online learning and implementing technology solutions so all students could study online.
In California, the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE), which serves nearly 500,000 students, canceled all existing interpretation assignments until IEP and other meetings could be rescheduled. They have traditionally used a combination of trained in-house interpretation staff, independent contractors, and language service companies. However, it takes time to equip school personnel for remote work.
Conference: Early in this pandemic, before the full impact on healthcare, judicial and educational interpretation was felt in the USA, conferences and meetings around the globe began to cancel. Conference interpreters, booked months in advance, watched their calendars empty, with no idea when they would be rescheduled.
All interpreters, in these categories and others, have been affected by the pandemic. For many (if not most) the financial threat is significant. Some may find it necessary to shift to other lines of work. This could result in a loss of qualified professionals before the world finds its new normal.
So what comes next?
Where do we go from here? How do we continue to serve our clients and feed our families?
We train. This is the time to expand our skill sets. Learn that new tool you’ve been eyeing. Explore unused features of tools you’ve had for years. Those books on legal contracts that have gathered dust while you waited for time? Read them. Listen to podcasts, watch webinars.
We retrain. For those of you who, like me, have always squirmed at anything other than in-person interpreting – it’s time to get over it. The hallmark of a professional is the ability to give our best regardless of the circumstances. Right now, giving our best means relearning how to do our jobs.
Training in OPI, VRI and RSI (Remote Simultaneous Interpretation) is being offered by numerous individuals and companies. The Dallas-Fort Worth-area translators and interpreters association (MITA) is holding peer-to-peer online training and practice sessions, including mock depositions, for its members. There are webinars, articles, books and training videos.
We maintain our professional standards and rates. The only thing that makes providing remote services easier than in-person is the lack of a commute. There is no valid reason for rates to change when the service (and its quality) provided is fundamentally the same.
- Learn to use online platforms before you have to use them professionally. Be prepared to guide clients on how to communicate through an interpreter while using remote solutions.
- Rather than driving to a client’s office, invest in your own online meeting account (Zoom, GoToMeeting, UberConference, etc.) and reach them virtually.
- Avoid locking yourself into a given field. Court interpreters in limbo, for instance, might find opportunities with school districts as they restart IEP meetings. Look beyond your usual clientele.
- All equipment must be up to the task. Our skills are of little use if no one can hear or understand us. Make sure that your equipment delivers the best possible results or replace it.
- An online calendar (such as Calendly or Acuity) can let clients check your availability and schedule interpretation services at their convenience.
- Be intentional. Draft an outline of what services you will and will not offer. Identify how you will provide them. List your hourly rates, any equipment you might need to acquire or upgrade, what your availability will be. Writing it out can help you identify issues before they become problems.
- Learn how your clients are handling business during this time. If you know what changes they have had to make, you will better know how you can serve them.
- Become familiar with protective gear for in-person interpretation in hazardous situations (see https://sharedsystems.dhsoha.state.or.us/DHSForms/Served/le2288L.pdf)
- Learn about dealing with vicarious trauma (see https://www.ata-divisions.org/ID/vicarious-trauma-and-interpreters/).
- Consider offering related services, such as online language classes, while waiting on clients to get back to business.
- Look into any government or other relief programs that may help keep you afloat as the world finds its footing.
- Meet with your colleagues online. Have a Skype lunch with your peers. Physical isolation is necessary; social isolation is not. Reach out.
The new normal
Eventually, the pandemic will subside. Businesses will reopen. Conferences will be held and school kids will be back in the classroom. But we will never go back to “normal”. The world will be changed. We will be changed. We need to accept and embrace that as of now.
Companies may alter their business models. More people may work from home; protocols and procedures may change. We don’t know the exact shape of the changes to come, we only know that they will. And we can be sure that our services will be just as essential in that new normal as they were before and are today.
So while the world hunkers down against COVID-19, please remember: we’re all in this together. And we have work to do.
Resources (just a few)
- ATA Webinar: Understanding Remote Simultaneous Interpreting
- InterpretAmerica 2020: A unified response to ensure access to interpreting services.
- Troublesome Terps: Remote interpreting with a cat on your lap
- Some information is outdated, but this comparison can help you ask the right questions as you evaluate online platforms.
- Another platform to check out is Kudo.
- CCHI’s Statement on Ensuring Healthcare Interpreters’ Safety during the COVID-19 Pandemic
- The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) guidance on telehealth remote communications gave more flexibility to HIPAA during the COVID-19 emergency.
- AIIC’s best practices for interpreters during the COVID-19 crisis.
- The State of the Language Industry as Coronavirus Goes Global (Slator article)
- The NCIHC held a webinar on the Temporary Transition to Remote Interpreting During Health Emergencies. The recording will be available at no cost to members and for a fee to non-members.
- COVID-19 infection control guidance for in-person interpreters and health care providers who work with them, from the Oregon Health Authority.
- Techforword offers free webinars during the COVID-19 crisis.
- HCIA 740 healthcare Practical Interpreting II: Video Remote Interpreting
- Introduction to Zoom conference interpreting (Dragoman Language Solutions, spoken language)
- Using an Interpreter in Zoom (NCODshine, signed language)
- Choosing a USB Headset for Remote Interpreting (InterpretAmerica)
- Consumer Reports Coronavirus Hub (tips on all sorts of equipment and services)
- Better Business Bureau tips for business owners during the COVID-19 pandemic
-Carol Shaw is the Interpreter Division Blog editor and a member of the ID leadership council.