Part 1 of our series: Enhancing Client Value during the Pandemic
This is part of an ongoing set of posts about providing value to clients without the benefit of interpreting on-location
Start with a cliché. Necessity is the mother of invention. Six months after COVID-19 introduced itself to the world, conference interpreters worldwide are asking themselves about the ongoing viability of the market in which they work.
This post kicks off the series with some background on developing a platform designed to provide conference interpreting clients with the next best thing to being on-site: Co-located interpreters using a professional audio and computing hub at home.
My ongoing journey towards establishing a remote interpreting hub started in holding the same position that others in the industry do: On-site conference interpreting is the only manner in which our service can be provided with superior quality – that remote is fundamentally substandard to on-site.
If we are in a world where on-site is impossible though, it’s comforting to think this will be only temporary. My initial gut reaction was to fortify my position – limit my expenses, read the news, and buy some face masks. SARS and its effects on the market, it’s said, only lasted a few months. The pain was real, but thankfully temporary. Eventually, the planes start flying again and hotel membership cards come out from their lonely corner of the junk drawer.
The news hasn’t been forgiving. The social gravity of the conferences is, and is expected to remain superseded by the protective gravity of the home. Unsure of how to proceed, I searched out ways to connect with peers and industry leaders.
So, community engagement was Step 1. I searched through my invoice list from the past few years and sent emails to agencies to let them know I’m still in the market, and would like to discuss options to service clients. I contacted industry leaders I’ve gotten to know through the years – people who train and consult interpreters, and have connections to the broader industry. I contacted my most trusted colleagues, looking to establish a community in which our discourse may reveal paths forward.
Initial meetings lead to discussing established concerns. Dealing with RSI, for example… Many, including our clients, are skeptical. Interpreters and clients are geographically isolated in situ, leading to problems with being heard, hearing others, and transferring the floor from participant to participant. As a business, one fundamental issue is the commoditization of my services – being converted from a valued service provider with personal agency to being one-of-many acting as qualified labor for another institution that holds a great deal more agency than I. After all, wasn’t it just a few months ago that we were fighting against AB5 with the same arguments?
Beyond these problems, the initial discussions lead to identifying initial solutions. One was to upgrade my microphone to a level that could be used for interpreting, at minimal cost. This came in the mail a few days later – a nice little headset with microphone attached. I used it for subsequent meetings. While in one of these, the group noticed that one interpreter’s voice was much better sounding. We inquired about his equipment, and he was kind enough to share his setup with the group.
I researched the pricing for the equipment, and balanced the investment against my need to limit my expenses. The decision came a few days later, based on some logic…
Either the pandemic is here to stay or it isn’t. I have no way to anticipate the development of vaccines and therapeutics that may enable the market for on-site conference interpreting to function, and so it’s reasonable to assume that the pandemic is here to stay for the short/medium term. If the on-site market continues to not function as a result, then my business model as a conference interpreter is at risk. In order to mitigate this risk, I require a new, temporary business model that is based on the current reality.
The decision was this: Continue learning about the shifts in the marketplace. Invest accordingly, balancing the risk of continued investment with a realistic assessment of what the benefits of those investments will be. Maintain and innovate to achieve the highest possible quality standards. Learn how to provide on-site-minus-one value to clients without sacrificing my own agency to make decisions.
I decided that continued investment was justified and that with it, I might be able to send signals into the market in a way that would ensure value for my clients, and profits necessary to sustain a business.
Those investments, so far, have centered around purchasing an ecosystem of audio equipment – a microphone and headphone setup, training on the relevant platforms where interpreting happens, and continuing to invest time with organizations and interpreters to co-construct practices for the market as it currently stands. This blog series is part of the latter of these action points.
In the next part in this series, you’ll see a presentation on the audio equipment, the manner in which I selected the items to purchase, and how it’s been setup.
A few months ago, the JNCL-NCLIS (Joint National Committee for Languages) met in Washington DC to discuss the interpreter-as-employee or interpreter-as-contractor debate currently ongoing at the state and federal levels of government. Attended by mostly companies that act as agents of interpreting services, the organization takes the stance that interpreters are knowledge workers, and should be considered independent agents. It would seem that if we are to consider interpreters as agents, that we would likewise look to interpreters as being professionals.
There’s lots of ways to look at professionalization. Here, we consider the interpreter in a way that JNCL assumes… The interpreter as its own business entity, or firm.
Much of the research on Professional Service Firms (PSFs) has related to the incumbents – legal and accounting firms – yet there’s clearly more that should be on the list. Andrew von Nordenflycht developed a new way to think about What is a Professional Service Firm? by building a taxonomy of PSFs… made up of firms claiming the PSF title, such as management consulting, advertising, architecture, university, and even social work.
The taxonomy breaks down PSF firms into categories, according to how they meet three characteristics:
Is interpreting done by Professional Service Firms?
The interpreting industry fits of one of the types, called ‘Neo-PSF’. Firms of this strain have a high degree of knowledge intensity, low level of capital, and an unprofessionalized workforce. Other examples in this category are management consultancies and ad agencies. And there are implications if this categorization is true, according to the model.
First, let us deal with the newly unearthed elephant in the room – are we really thinking that interpreters are ‘unprofessionalized’? Here’s why it makes sense to think in this way according to the model.
A professionalized workforce means that a professional occupation has ‘strong control over the practice of the occupation.’ And that we could see this on display through two qualities – ideology and self-regulation.
In terms of ideology, we can think of how a code of ethics signals norms of behavior for professionals, and how this affects the training leading to a newly minted professional. This is an imperfect-at-best quality in the interpreting profession. Codes of ethics exist, yet there is no central professional association engaged with all the diverse parts of the interpreting market. Interpreter training programs follow no single regulation in curriculum, and not all interpreters are required to train and certify.
Self-regulation is the second aspect of a professionalized workforce. Here, we suggest looking at relative-ness instead of binary-ness… Asking the question: “To what degree is the interpreting industry self-regulated by interpreters?” And, prior to answering that, we consider “How autonomous is this interpreter?”
Interpreters act autonomously, but in varying degrees. Many choose which clients to work with, at what prices, how to use their linguistic skills in doing their work, and so on. But again, there are huge differences throughout the interpreting market – community vs. conference – wage earner vs. contractor...
Autonomy can also be seen in how ‘firms’ are structured. Many interpreters, in acting as sole proprietor/LLC/S Corporation (in the US), are not typically owned and operated by outsiders, such as shareholders or investment companies.
Self-regulated professionals also have the ability to mute competition. This is done in two ways, and only imperfectly applies to the interpreting industry. First, certification acts as a barrier to entry into a professionalized workforce. Second, inter-professional competition is often limited, so that the trustworthiness of professionals is not threatened in the eyes of clients. This is done in many industries through agreed limitations on soliciting competitors’ clients, and limitations on competition based on price.
It makes sense to think that interpreters are both meeting and not meeting these qualities. Nordenflycht suggests that PSFs fit somewhere on a range – from least to most autonomous. So, if we are to consider interpreting firms to be made up of autonomous professionals, we do this in the knowledge that industries with more professionalization exhibit entirely different features, such as professional certification being backed by the state – think of lawyers and the bar exam.
Professionalization is one area where mediocrity is intentionally not celebrated, so not everyone gets an award for effort. When we relate the items listed above to the interpreting industry, at least from the viewpoint of the actual service providers (interpreters), there can only be a partial claim to ideology and self-regulation – So, only a partial claim to the broader industry having a ‘professionalized workforce’. It’s as if interpreters really want to be considered professionalized, but there are too many holes in the tarp.
Interpreters have designed their firms in ways that associate well with the model's recommendations. For example, the industry should understand and manage the ‘cat herding’ phenomenon – where workers have ‘strong preferences for autonomy and a consequent distaste for direction, supervision and formal organizational processes’. Sound familiar?
The model also recommends ways in which these types of firms should organize. Neo-PSF firms should develop ‘alternative compensation’ plans, where worker income relates to dollars produced, for example, rather than a static wage. Second, that workers act autonomously and informally with the firm. Third, that there is no ‘outside ownership’. It seems that most independent interpreters already meet these suggestions.
Since interpreters seem to naturally design their businesses in ways predicted by this model, we should think about what's next... The model seems to indicate that professionalization is the main issue on the table, and that ideology and autonomy are how we must focus going forward.
You can access the Wiki page for PSFs here.
This post created by Michael Grez and Tian Huang of Intran Solutions.
Image: 'Minute Man National Park', by Leopold, C., licensed by CC 2.0
Professional interpreters, like any entrepreneurs, are continually on the lookout for ways to be distinct. Draw these distinctions for the client, and they have a better way to understand what value is on the table, and whether it’s a good choice for their particular situation.
The trick is to know how to communicate about distinction, and it’s here where we find that metaphor helps.
The Rachel Whiteread exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is a great candidate to find metaphors for interpreting.
Rachel’s art represents negative space… The space inside or outside the things around us. It’s the space we typically think of as empty when we look under the bed, and the nooks and crannies hidden within an English muffin.
Where this connects with interpreting is in how the two types of spaces – negative and positive space – come together to create the ‘thing’ that makes up the whole. Rachel explored this idea in her negative space representations of everyday things, like water bladders.
The cast shows what seems at first to be the actual bladder, yet it represents how the inner space of the bladder is built to perfectly fit with the bladder itself. Here, we see a connection to how interpreting happens – where the interpreter’s language and actions are aligned with those of the speaker.
Another work, House, was an installation in London in the early 1990’s and draws a closer connection to not just what is happening between the interpreter and speaker, but for the broader community of all interactants through interpreting. House represented a single typical house – the insides of one that was part of a larger redevelopment project of a whole community. The artist painstakingly casted the entire inside of one of the structures. As the outside of the house was later peeled away, the representation of the inside was all that remained – displaying the space used by its former inhabitants. It was this space that, like the bladder cast, existed as perfectly aligned, not only with the house’s structure, but also the structure of the family that lived within.
Getting to our interpreting metaphor…
Think of the participants who communicate through an interpreter as houses in a community. These houses act as individual constructs, but they also act together through the space outside which connects houses into a cohesive neighborhood. People walk and talk through the space between these houses, so they may do the things that communities do – for Sunday brunch together, for the kids to visit and play.
Professional interpreters create a space, especially designed for these interlocutors to act in their community. This design acts as a safe and secure environment for people to go from one house of language to another, enabling the accomplishment of business in their social community – for the negotiation of terms in a contract, or for a speech to an audience of thousands.
Interpreting is typically considered the act of an individual, but the more we work with our clients – whether that’s in an international conference, or a deposition – the more we realize that interpreting is fundamentally a social phenomenon. We’d love to hear about your ideas on this.
Post written by Tian Huang and Michael Grez of Intran Solutions LLC. We provide professional interpreting services between Chinese and English – based in Washington DC, serving clients worldwide.
Photo-top: Sculpture Exhibition
cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Anthony O'Neil - geograph.org.uk/p/5657102
Photo-bottom: Bladders, courtesy of Intran Solutions