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The Future of Interpreting: Two Big Risks and One Collaborative Solution

By: Dr. Andrew Clifford (Glendon College)

04 September 2014

Some in the industry say the future of interpreting is grim. Andrew Clifford does not agree. Through his work training interpreters for the changing landscapes of healthcare, legal, and conference interpreting, he explores the potential for collaborative solutions with language service providers to meet demand and go for the big RFPs. 

Most of my time is spent training new interpreters, and the professionals I train go off to work in three different settings.

The first is healthcare, where interpreters make sure that patients and providers can truly communicate, and therefore that patients have meaningful access to positive healthcare outcomes.

Some in the industry say the future of interpreting is grim. Andrew Clifford does not agree. Through his work training interpreters for the changing landscapes of healthcare, legal, and conference interpreting, he explores the potential for collaborative solutions with language service providers to meet demand and go for the big RFPs

The second is the legal setting, where interpreters help ensure that witnesses and defendants who don’t speak the language of the courtroom aren’t denied justice.

Finally there is the conference setting. It includes all the international organizations (like the United Nations and the European Union) and government bodies, but also the private sector where corporations do business in multiple language markets. In the conference setting, interpreters mostly sit in a booth, with their headsets, and they work in the simultaneous mode.

I know that many people aren’t all that familiar with conference interpreting. So let me paint you a bit of a historical picture.

Conference interpreting came of age in the 20th century in the wake of both world wars. Governments and the newly-minted international organizations they created desperately needed to communicate in multiple languages in order to rebuild both countries and economies and fulfill the lofty mandates of the new international order. Conference interpreting was in the center of those high-level interactions for many decades, and it was here that the identity of conference interpreting was forged.

However, interpreting as a whole has continued to evolve, just as human interaction has, taking it to new venues in business, healthcare and the legal systems of the world as globalized commerce and migratory flows have expanded greatly. Those self-same forces of globalization explain why I train people to interpret in multiple settings.

In some ways, I think that conference interpreting is a sort of bellwether for the profession as a whole. Keeping a sharp eye on the conference sector can help us see what’s coming down the pipeline.

A dismal forecast?

I recently crossed paths with a conference interpreter colleague whose opinion I trust. She’s university-trained, and has been both a staff interpreter and a freelancer. She’s resourceful and pretty even-keeled. She’s not someone who is prone to overreacting.

“Our profession is dying,” she told me. “I don’t mean to rain on your parade, Andrew, or on that of your students, but I don’t think conference interpreters are going to be able to make a go of it for too much longer.”

“I couldn’t disagree with you more,” I told my colleague. Now let me tell you why.

Dramatic changes

I’ll begin by saying that I understand her sentiment. Conference interpreting is certainly undergoing some considerable upheaval, for two reasons. First, the government bodies and international organizations that have traditionally been the stewards of our profession are shifting away from those roles. As their budgets are being reduced, they are allowing their complements of staff interpreters to shrink. No longer the defenders of quality standards and working conditions, they are recasting themselves as simple end-users of interpreting services.

“The private sector,” they seem to say, “can fill the niche that we once occupied.”

The second reason is related to the first. When people do come together these days, they’re tending more and more to do it virtually, rather than physically. It only makes sense. Here in Canada, organizers of any national meeting that requires input from all our provinces and territories have to spend thousands of dollars assembling everyone in one place. Travel costs are high everywhere, but notoriously so in a country as sparsely populated as ours. It is much more logical to hold a remote meeting. The costs of  a conference call or videoconference are minimal by comparison.

Stepping up to the plate

The problem, as I see it, is that both these changes have the drop on us, the interpreters. And on everyone else for that matter.

Public entities are leaving the scene, but no one among the working conference interpreters is a big enough player to fill the whole space being vacated. Individual freelancers — or even small groupings of them — don’t have the person power to go running after large-scale tenders and requests for proposals.

It’s possible that a large corporate entity active in another, non-language, sector may see a new opportunity in interpreting and come thundering in. But if experience is any guide, this kind of development likely won’t lead to a positive outcome for interpreters. People outside our profession have a very poor understanding of it. We have seen cases in the past where corporate newcomers did not know what they were getting themselves into, and where they rode roughshod over living wages and professional qualifications. (To cite an example from court interpreting, the UK Ministry of Justice Framework Agreement springs to mind…)

Another possibility is that language service companies — like the members of GALA — might rise to the occasion. I recognize many of the Canadian firms that are part of the association. The majority of them are medium-sized enterprises, and I’m sure that they would like to seize opportunities in interpreting to fuel their own growth.

But here too, a lack of first-hand involvement poses some risks. Most Canadian language-service companies, if they have been involved in interpreting at all, have been active in healthcare or legal interpreting. I would argue that there really isn’t a tradition of defending the hallmarks of quality in conference interpreting — adequate team strength, graduate-level university training, professional certification/accreditation, well-defined working conditions respected by employers, and the like.

In short, with the medium-sized language businesses, the outcome might be more positive than with the large corporations. But I think individual conference interpreters would still likely be worse off than they have traditionally been.

The training equation

So does this mean that I buy into the dismal forecast of my normally upbeat colleague?

Not at all.

I think there is a new type of interpreter training out there that holds a large portion of the solution. Take the Master of Conference Interpreting (MCI) at Glendon, in Toronto, Canada, as an example. We’re part of a new wave of interpreter training, and there are three things that we do that make us stand out.

First, we are multilingual. On face value, this might not seem like much. After all, many training programs in Europe and elsewhere have multiple working languages too. But conference interpreter training in Canada has traditionally been exclusively focused on English and French, our Official Languages. The fact that Glendon works with English and French, but also with Arabic, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish makes us something of a new development in this country. It also means that more doors to more places are open to our students when they graduate.

Second, the first year of our two-year program is delivered entirely online. Our teachers and our students come to us virtually, from nearly every continent on the planet. We are able to find the best and the brightest in places that have not always had access to interpreter training. We teach them to interpret in our virtual classrooms. We also work with the creators of several online interpreting platforms to make sure our students are trained on these systems as well.

Finally, our program offers the only Masters-level degree that provides training across the three important areas of specialization I mentioned at the outset: healthcare, legal, and conference. Year one of the Glendon MCI trains students to interpret in all three areas. The idea is to make them well-rounded generalists who know how to function in multiple environments. In a similar vein, we teach our students to be entrepreneurial, to scan the horizon for new developments, and to look for ways to turn change to their advantage.

A pathway forward

Of course, a new generation of interpreters — no matter how well trained — isn’t the whole answer to the problems I outlined above. Putting more individuals on the professional market just means that there are more sole proprietors who are too small to seize the twin opportunities of a public power vacuum and remote interpreting solutions.

What we, collectively, need to do is make sure that the new generation of interpreters finds its way into the kinds of business structures that they need to make a difference.

In other words, I’m launching a call to action to GALA members. Let’s work together. Universities and business. The graduates trained in today’s academic programs can help you ensure that interpreting quality remains at a consistently high level. This outcome is good for your clients, and it’s good for business.

By working with you, today’s interpreter training programs will have the checks and balances needed for our graduates to remain ready for the current business environment. In this fashion, we continue to deliver new professionals who add value in innovative ways.

Interpreting, despite what my colleague said at the outset, isn’t dying. Just the opposite. It’s blossoming in new and interesting directions. It just needs a collaborative effort to make sure that the blossoms bear fruit.

Dr. Andrew Clifford is the Director of the Master of Conference Interpreting at Glendon College, in Toronto, Canada. He’s a former community interpreter who found his way into conference interpreting over time. He is an active member of AIIC, the international association of conference interpreters, and he is accredited as a conference interpreter with the Government of Canada. He writes a popular weekly blog on interpreter training.