How COVID-19 is Reshaping Translation & Interpretation

Kim Ludvigsen unpacks how COVID-19 has brought about sweeping changes to translation & interpretation services, how the industry is adapting & what the future holds

COVID-19 has changed the world irrevocably, forcing the translation and interpretation industry to rapidly adopt digital technology and tools to reduce the disruption of day-to-day operations. 

Since early March, multinational corporations and international associations have had to turn global, face-to-face events into online video conferences.

While frontline workers are undoubtedly the heroes of this crisis, interpreters have been essential to the smooth running of operations in many industries—from court hearings and medical appointments to government conferences and assisted learning.

However, there has been a significant strain on interpreters suddenly having to adapt to new remote and home working conditions—a situation which looks set to be the new normal.

Who has been the worst hit?

Though many translators are no strangers to working from home with the aid of glossaries and style guides, it’s the interpreters who work face-to-face who have been the worst hit. 

In a recent study by CSA Research, 55% of language service providers report a decrease in business since the outbreak of the pandemic and show great concern about the uncertainty of how long the pandemic will last. They have less confidence in a quick return to business normalcy that they expected in May.

Many have had to move their services to online platforms, with varying degrees of success. In an interview on the state of the language industry in early March 2020, German translator, Alexander Gansmeier, explained:March, usually conference ‘high season,’ has been swept by a wave of cancellations. The worse the global situation gets (and country governments react accordingly), the more clients rely on the force majeure argument to try to avoid any cancellation fees”

The coronavirus had a significant impact on translators’ source of income, but smaller companies that provide on-site interpretation have also felt the pressure.

As an increasing number of events were cancelled, more clients cited force majeure (unforeseeable circumstances that prevent the fulfilment of a contract) as a means to avoid paying. This depletion of income is further compounded by a lack of infrastructure to allow for complete remote working.

Additionally, interpreters have been challenged to enter unchartered territory by working from home instead of a fixed booth installation.

“We unexpectedly found ourselves in our apartments wondering how to continue performing our duties and contribute to multilingualism,” said Veronique Vandegans, head of the French Interpretation Section at the United Nations. “However, it quickly became apparent that we could adapt and interpret remotely, given the proper equipment, testing and training.”

Unfortunately, most language service providers have—until now—been operating traditionally and have thus struggled to take operations online during the pandemic.

That said, the rapid adoption of digital transformation caused by COVID-19 has proven to be a boon for many tech-savvy companies.

Who is thriving during the pandemic?

While Language Service Providers (LSPs) registered a decrease in demand for their services from sectors such as events or travel and leisure, certain verticals seem to have seen a surge in demand.

According to the CSA survey, 64% of LSPs report an increase in demand for interpretation in the health sector, with 59% reporting a higher demand from the life sciences, medical, and pharmaceuticals sector.

The change in demand for interpretation services appears to vary highly between sectors. Companies that already provide remote or virtual interpretation services are thriving as businesses look for ways to maintain communication with staff, prospects, peers, and the general public.

Video conferencing platform Zoom is a prime example of this—its stock has tripled in value over the last few months as remote working and video conferences become the norm.

To return to a semblance of normality, some LSPs are actively encouraging more of their employees to work from home, using videoconferencing and online interpretation platforms to do so.

In our new normal, this is the way of the future, and an inevitable progression that has been hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic. With many companies having already extended their home office policy until late 2021 and reinforcing a strict no travel policy, the majority of events are most likely to continue in virtual and hybrid scenarios in the near future.

What does the future look like? 

The key requirements for any LSP to succeed in our new normal are resilience and adaptability. LSPs that can provide interpretation services via online platforms are already in a much better position than those that typically work offline. That’s not to say that offline LSPs are fighting a losing battle—in fact, it’s likely that many of these interpreters are already upskilling and familiarising themselves with online platforms so that they too can offer their services wherever, whenever.

For interpreters, this has resulted in a greater emphasis on online platforms, with hybrid options becoming more commonplace as lockdown eases in some countries. As markets reopen, there will be a greater focus on tools that streamline and improve the experience in the future.

The shift to remote participation has opened up new needs for inclusivity and audience engagement, as event organizers are tackling “zoom fatigue”. Allowing participants to join the conversation in their native language and offering the audience an accurate translation of speakers’ inputs, fosters engagement, inclusivity, and ultimately raises the likelihood of the event’s success.

Remote interpretation and participation may well lead to an increase in demand for interpretation services in the long run, because they are more attainable, affordable, and easier to arrange, especially for smaller organizations.

At Australia’s Royal Melbourne Hospital for example, video interpreting appointments have increased from 10–15 appointments per month (before COVID-19) to 100–200 a month currently.

Pioneering a positive way forward post-pandemic

While COVID-19 won’t be around forever, it will have a lasting effect on how interpreters operate in the future.

For interpreting services to evolve and demonstrate value, translation and interpretation expertise, organisations and professionals need to be resilient, flexible, and able to meet the demands of today’s digital-first world.

There can be no disputing that online interpretation for events, conferences, seminars, and press meetings is the way of the future. Luckily, the tools to facilitate this paradigm shift are already available.

Kim Ludvigsen is CEO of Interprefy.

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