In the past year, health and safety precautions around COVID-19 have affected business practices around the world. For language interpreters, limits on international travel and large gatherings have changed the way their jobs look, at least for the time being.
But interpreters are as busy as ever, and the $50 billion language services industry continues to grow and evolve. Whether freelancing as conference or medical interpreters or working in-house—for multinational corporations or government agencies, for example—today’s interpreters are rising to the challenges of the pandemic and continuing to advance their careers.
Less travel, more remote work
While many people who become interpreters expect to spend much of their time traveling internationally for multiday conferences and summits, the pandemic has put a temporary halt to those kinds of events. But many conferences are being held virtually, and they require interpreters who can work remotely.
For most freelancers, working off-site means a more manageable schedule; virtual conferences tend to last hours rather than days, and interpreting remotely means more time at home. That’s an advantage for those who have young children or who like the idea of not traveling so much. Less time on the road also means more time to focus on professional development. And others say it allows them to take on more assignments than would have been possible before COVID.
Drawbacks, on the other hand, include the inability to focus entirely on work—preparing for a conference in a busy family home as opposed to alone in a hotel room—and the need to sometimes be available at odd hours to work across time zones.
Interpreters are also seeing increasing demand for pandemic-related services, such as at clinics that serve non-English-speaking populations, especially now that COVID vaccinations are becoming widely available.
Lauren Hammer Aguilera, a medical interpreter who holds an MA in Translation and Interpretation (Spanish) from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS), works at a clinic in Santa Cruz County, where she routinely puts in 12-hour days in full PPE gear. She admits that the job can be grueling. But, she says, “the work provides me with a deep sense of satisfaction knowing that I’m contributing in real time to helping people access information that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to understand.”
Other interpreters say the balance of their work has shifted during the pandemic. Freelancer Maggie Hong, who graduated from MIIS with an MA in Conference Interpretation (Chinese), says that since COVID, her work has shifted from 80 to 90 percent conference interpretation/10 to 20 percent court interpretation to about half and half.
Natasha Kharikova, a court and conference interpreter who holds an MA in Conference Interpretation (Russian), used to travel all over the world, from Barbados to Hong Kong, doing diverse work that required brushing up on the stock market for a securities conference or learning words like “wipeout” and “dungeons” for a video game launch. When the pandemic halted the conferences and the associated travel, she switched to remote conference interpretation and made up for lost work by turning to translation, mostly of COVID-related materials. She says it’s important to keep an eye out for new opportunities in the field.
The rise of artificial intelligence in translation and interpretation has raised questions about whether technology might make human translators and interpreters obsolete.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Kharikova says. “There are different levels of interpreting and translation, and there are some areas that could be taken over by AI. But if you’re professionally trained and if you have a degree from MIIS, you’re always going to have a variety of options, what I would call higher-level options.”
Hong adds, “I agree some of the low-hanging fruit might be picked, but I think for interpreting and translation, it’s not simple code-switching from one language to another, it’s a bridge between two cultures.”
The future looks bright
Once the pandemic is under control and international travel is once again safe, interpreters will likely see a shift back to more travel-based work. But now that virtual meetings and conferences have proven to be a feasible and convenient complement to in-person events, interpreters may find they have more options than ever.
What started out as a class project for Middlebury Institute students Helen Bartlett and Meng Zhang, Translators for Elders is a new crowdsourcing initiative to provide translation services for older citizens, bridging an important and often overlooked language barrier.
I can’t think of an experience at the Institute that didn’t help me. The specialized knowledge and hands-on experience that students gain are invaluable, and I believe that this degree of attention is rare in the localization field. Your MIIS degree is really worth something. Trust it!
Our recent online discussion gave insights into a day working as an interpreter. The panel featured faculty and alumni who have worked in a range of professional settings, including the U.S. State Department, COVID-19 testing centers, courtrooms, hospitals, and more. Watch the recording.