Talking About the Future of Interpreting: At the 3rd Annual Interpret America Summit

There is much that stands in the way of better pay and conditions for professional interpreters: a race to the bottom for prices (euphemistically called “competitiveness”), lack of any standard for qualification, and a misunderstanding of interpreting as a profession and a relative lack of recognition from the wider public. However, the lack of good pay and conditions or a standard for qualification are actually a result rampant ignorance about interpreting being an actual career that people devote their lives to, as opposed to just a hobby or volunteering job for people who are bilingual. Even though interpreters are not to blame for this situation, we are somewhat responsible for our image, if not by direct action, then at the very least by inaction.

This was a one of the biggest takeaways of the Third Annual Summit on Interpreting, held last weekend (June 15-16) in Monterey, California. After two days discussing the future of the profession, the major conclusion was that we interpreters need to do more for our profession, to engage in making it more visible and demanding better conditions and more respect.

The theme of the conference —Raising the profile of interpreting— resonated throughout the entire two days of discussion about the present and the future of the profession, and how we, interpreters, can and need to take part in what is happening today. There was a definite emphasis on technology, with the first panel focusing on interpreting technologies, mostly for remote interpreting. The technologies often involve what I can only describe as a CAT-like computer environment with buttons and screens. A member of the audience thankfully raised the concern that having to manage a virtual console might be too taxing on interpreters, who are already under a lot of pressure handling several reference documents, such as glossaries and Powerpoint presentations and actually ensuring communication between parties. Above all, the concern was that remote interpreter might limit communication between the interpreting team and that the interpreter might not be able to always see the speaker, something that is definitely a minus for any technology (including telephone interpreting). Technology is prone to failure, and while tech teams might be able to make do when everybody is physically present and come up with creative solutions when those pesky microphones or headphones just aren’t working, in the distance everything becomes incredibly more complicated to resolve. (I can only imagine a technician asking a frustrated interpreter whether they have pressed this or that button —“yes”—, and did they download that new plug-in that is required for version 10.X.2 of the software in question.) It seems that these technologies are still very much in development and that they have not been tested in much depth by actual interpreters, but it is definitely important for working interpreters to be aware that this is taking place and that, in these times of austerity and belt-tightening, many clients might prefer to save on travel and accommodations for interpreters.

By far, my favorite part of the summit were the work groups for shaping the future of interpretation. Each group would discuss one of five different topics: generalist interpreter certification, national consortium for interpreter trainers and educators, moving towards a working technology partnership for the interpreting profession, creating connections with end users of interpreting services and marketing the interpreting profession. As I am deeply interested in the topic of making interpreting (and really, translation as well, of course) known among the wider public, I joined the last group. We were given a two-hour bootcamp on marketing and then proceeded in the last hour to come up with ideas for a core message that we could base a marketing campaign on. The consensus? That the general public is not aware about the difference between a trained interpreter and a bilingual person, or that this is an actual profession, a career, and that it needs to be respected as such.

The second day brought us yet more interesting presentations. I must say that the one that most fueled my fire, so to speak, was the panel on interpreting in conflict zones. The speakers were two military interpreters, a US Army captain and Barbara Moser-Mercer, director of the interpreting department at the Faculté de traduction et d’interprétation, University of Geneva. During the panel, the soldier interpreters shared their experiences on the field and Prof. Moser-Mercer spoke about their interpreting and ethical training. Unfortunately, my biggest burning question was left unanswered: how do they deal with issues of impartiality and neutrality? The cornerstone of interpreter ethics is neutrality, not being on anybody’s side, but that definitely goes out the window for the most part in a situation where the interpreter is on the side of one of the parties involved.

The crowning moment of the entire summit, however, was definitely the final presentation by sign language interpreter Jack Jason, celebrity interpreter. He has accompanied actress Marlee Matlin throughout her career (see them in action in this interview), interpreting for her in front of the cameras and becoming a celebrity of sorts himself. In humorous detail —the audience was roaring with laughter—, he told the moving story of his life as a child of deaf parents (CODA, learning ASL as his first language, and how his mother sat him in front of the TV to watch I Love Lucy for hours every day so he would acquire spoken English.

As a first time-conference attendee, I had the opportunity to meet new people, learn something new and just plain satisfy my curiosity about what professional conferences are like. All in all, the summit was very well organized —thanks to the hard work and furious timekeeping of Barry Olsen and Catharine Allen, InterpretAmerica founders—, deeply enjoyable and more than anything, enlightening. Everybody was very approachable and understanding of younger interpreters trying to make it out in the field. Above all, it is a great way to join the conversation about interpreting. Indeed, one of the biggest takeaways of the conference was precisely the fact that we interpreters need to engage in this conversation, to participate in shaping the future of our profession before others shape it for us.

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