The ATA Chronicle - May/June 2020 - 30

INTERPRETERS FORUM

BY CAROL SHAW

Interpreting in the Face of a Pandemic
(The following was originally published
on the blog of ATA's Interpreters Division,
www.ata-divisions.org/ID/blog.)

O

n January 21, 2020, the state of
Washington reported the first
confirmed case of COVID-19 in the
U.S. 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 abruptlychanged environment.

FALLOUT
As social distancing was implemented and
stay-at-home orders issued, conferences
and events were cancelled. 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, onsite interpreting has
accounted for over 80% of all spokenlanguage 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.1
Judicial: Initially, courts took a short
hiatus. They postponed all nonessential
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 have been struggling
to find their footing in this virtual world.
Health Care: While remote services
are provided where possible, health
care interpreters still have to report to
hospitals and clinics in person, which
makes them the most exposed during this
pandemic. The need for personal protective
equipment has increased, but shortages

All interpreters have been
affected by the pandemic, and for
many (if not most), the financial
threat is significant.

pandemic, and 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.

WHAT COMES NEXT?
are widespread. The protective clothing
(or bunny suits) required in these settings
can muffle the voices of medical personnel.
Most medical staff and interpreters
understand the need to project their voices,
especially when wearing masks. However,
keep in mind that patients and their
family members-who are already sick,
nervous, or scared and unaccustomed to
wearing masks-could be more difficult
to understand if they speak as they would
under normal circumstances.
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, which serves
nearly 500,000 students, cancelled all
existing interpreting assignments until
Individualized Education Program
(IEP) and other meetings could be
rescheduled. Schools have traditionally
used a combination of trained in-house
interpreting staff, independent contractors,
and language services companies.
However, it takes time to equip school
personnel for remote work.
Conference: Early in this pandemic, before
the full impact on health care, judicial,
and educational interpreting was felt in
the U.S., 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

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. Read those books
on legal contracts that have gathered
dust while you waited for time. 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 remote
simultaneous interpreting is being
offered by numerous individuals and
companies. For example, the Metroplex
Interpreters and Translators Association
in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is holding
peer-to-peer online training and practice
sessions, including mock depositions,
for its members. There are also webinars,
articles, books, and training videos.
We maintain our professional standards
and rates. The only thing that makes
providing remote services easier than inperson is the lack of a commute. There is
no valid reason for rates to change when
the service provided (and its quality) is
fundamentally the same.
Here are some other things we need to
consider doing:
■	

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.

Interpreters are a vital part of ATA. This column is designed to offer insights and perspectives from professional interpreters.

30

The ATA Chronicle | May/June 2020

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The ATA Chronicle - May/June 2020

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