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  • Writer's pictureTian Huang

An Interpreter’s Path to Sustainability

Machine translation has become the ever-present Elephant in the room for language professionals. I once had a well-established interpreting colleague confide that she would switch career were she 20 years younger. Hoping for some insights, I tuned in for Jonathan Downie’s Presentation during the AI in Interpreting Month hosted by Techforword last week. Much of the ideas shared by Jonathan in his presentation are also elaborated in his excellent article “Embrace the Machine” published in the most recent Spring issue of The Linguist.

In his attempt to address the question “Will the machines take your job?”, Jonathan introduced a diagram[1] that classified the client’s mindset with two measurements: perceived need and perceived value of interpreting. According to Jonathan, when both need and value are low, there is “No interpreting”; when need is high and value is low, there is “Incidental interpreting”; when need is low and value is high, there is “Symbolic interpreting”; and finally, when need and value are both high, there is “Integral interpreting”, the type most interpreters would consider optimal.

 His classification of interpreting scenarios resonates with me. I have provided “symbolic interpreting” services for events where no one tuned into our channel. Potential clients have suggested “rough translation” while inquiring for “incidental interpreting” services. According to Jonathan’s diagram, the jobs that are safest from machine takeovers seem to be “Integral Interpreting”: high perceived need and high perceived value by clients.

This prompted me to review the types of clients I have worked with over the years. Out of 80-some clients I have provided services to since 2015, the top revenue contributors indeed meet Jonathan’s descriptions of “Integral interpreting”. These clients regularly have jobs on offer and the demand remained stable or quickly rebounded despite Covid’s devastating impact on the industry (perceived high need). They are also knowledgeable about interpreting and willing to provide the necessary support interpreters need (perceived high value).    

As I reviewed my client list, I discovered that perceived high value by clients doesn’t always correspond to high rates due to a variety of reasons. It could be that clients are restricted by unmovable pre-determined rate schedules. This is especially true for clients in the public sector. I have had ‘Incidental interpreting’ clients offer much higher rates than “Integral interpreting” clients. Jonathan’s diagram is especially helpful in the sense that it inspired me to view projects in a less short-term transactional way, not just how much money I can make today. A more essential consideration is how sustainable my business will be over the next 10 years or 20 years. In other words, how can I focus on providing services for “integral” clients?

Jonathan dealt with a big question in his presentation: Will the machines take your jobs? The Magic 8-ball that is ChatGPT sheds a positive light: “Human language professionals offer a level of understanding, creativity, and cultural sensitivity that machines cannot replicate.” What’s left for us language professionals to do is to find clients that need and value ‘understanding, creativity, and cultural sensitivity’. We do better than machines.



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