Business, Interpretation

Adapting to COVID-19 in the Language Services Sector

LSPs are adjusting, and the world continues to spin.

by Larry Marshall

The need to change one’s customary mode of doing business is a guaranteed stress-builder! The ability of any business to survive in a changed world depends on adaptability—a willingness to see the new reality and discover what can be done to make it work. Dynamic events can provoke a whole range of actions and reactions. Those who do not just succumb to “fight or flight” reactions will likely achieve better outcomes. So how can we find a way to turn an emergency into an opportunity?

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America in March 2020, no one really knew whether it would be a temporary setback or a long-term problem. At Reliable Translations, we noticed that several of our main clients initially canceled all short-term interpreting assignments. Then, when they heard of lockdowns and travel restrictions in an ever-widening geographic zone, the proverbial dominoes fell. The full calendar became an empty calendar. It seemed there would be no more on-site meetings for now, and the predominant answer to “When do you think you will reschedule?” was a definitive, “Who knows?”

One large client knew that video options were available but refused to use them. They finally relented amid the prospect of completely losing communication with their members. No group can thrive without communication. It was a major consolation that requests for written translations actually increased in the months following the COVID-19 restrictions in California. Perhaps this was a substitution for so many missing face-to-face meetings. One way or another, communication had to be maintained. I conducted an informal survey in the industry on methods for coping.

Suggestions from LSPs

Language service providers (LSPs) are adjusting, and the world continues to spin. The biggest changes have been to interpreting services, which now happen remotely rather than in-person. Some measures that LSPs are implementing to make sure their business continues include:

  • Remote work: Businesses large and small long assumed that office meetings and conferences were best done on site. The whole “National Convention at a Fancy Hotel” paradigm supported a whole sector of the hospitality industry. Working from home has now been adopted as a necessity, and this includes interpreters. Businesses have had to help their employees equip their home offices with everything from laptops to routers to laser printers, and independent interpreters have had to gear up as well.
  • Video interpreting solutions: Video interpretation services are needed now more than ever. Telephone interpreting has been in place for a long time, but the use of video to enhance communication only took off in its current form starting in March 2020. Video provides a level of connection that is more personal than a simple phone conference, though it still does not match the personal contact of a heartfelt handshake when seeing a colleague at a convention. Many interpreters have made the shift to video meeting interpreting as their main new method of coping with COVID-19’s effects.

When there are multiple participants speaking different languages logged in from separate locations, led by a host trying to maintain an orderly meeting, you must be sure that all attendees truly understand the platform and general process.

You can streamline the process by taking responsibility and understanding that videoconferencing technology is still new to many: Think about how you can reduce the stress of others. When working with a new client, first ascertain the level of comfort the participants have with the technology to be used. Do they know when to mute themselves and when not to? Will there be an agenda and known protocols? If all participants have a feeling of certainty instead of mystery, they can be more present to understand the content of the meeting.

Suggestions from interpreters

  • Get in the zone: Have one place where you do all your phone interpreting and Zoom meetings. Avoid making any exceptions, since the result can be unanticipated confusions.
  • Keep others out of the zone: Place a “videoconference in progress” sign on the door and close it. No cats on your desk!
  • Control what you can: Invest in good headphones and a microphone. Don’t just assume the built-in mic in your laptop will suffice. If necessary, get some independent feedback on the sound quality from a few friends. One of our interpreters also ordered a professional video camera and backdrop.
  • Accept what you can’t: Realize that, though your internet provider may advertise 99+% uptime, you don’t really have a guarantee. Do your best, but remember that you do not control the internet. If your Wi-Fi disconnects, keep calm while reconnecting. You can even rehearse the exact steps needed to reconnect smoothly and as quickly as possible so that you’re not fumbling.
  • Backup technology: Have a separate device handy where you can see emails, texts, or a PowerPoint presentation.
  • Early to bed: Getting plenty of rest is crucial, because the work can be challenging.
  • Early to rise: Be punctual and get set up well in advance so that the meeting can progress on schedule.
  • Look the part: One interpreter mentioned dressing professionally, whether or not you’ll be appearing on the video screen. He feels this helps maintain a professional role and provides a sense of normalcy.

Some on-site work continues

Watch the news and you see ASL Interpreters standing to the side and behind the speaker. They are getting public notice, and articles about their work frequently appear in my newsfeed. No masks, but definitely distanced. The recipients of their interpretation rely very much on facial expression, which is innate to understanding sign language.

But even with ASL, supportive service providers for special needs consumers lament that finding someone to come on-site to interpret ASL is very difficult now. They all want to work via FaceTime or Skype. That trend is probably wider in scope than the COVID-19 situation and was already in motion within the Deaf community, but according to the provider, it appears to be increasing.

Providing the same level of expertise to businesses

The fact that interpreting work is being done from home does not mean that the quality and consistency of the work is diminished. They are the same professionals as before COVID-19. They can function well and interpret smoothly with adequate training and orientation about platform use.

Operating amid COVID-19

Our agency has remained up and running throughout the crisis. We moved quickly from a central office environment to our home office environments within two days of the lockdown. Every staff member received the hardware and software needed to function remotely. All were securely networked. Our staff meetings are now on Zoom. That is the second choice to in-person discussions but is now the best available alternative.

Frankly, it’s not ideal. We all want to have our own in-person meetings again and are convinced that the traditional person-to-person live meeting will recover strongly as soon as it is allowed and perceived to be safe. The day will come. The human need for more contact, not less, will dominate.

The videoconferencing software we have used to communicate with linguists and clients during this time include Zoom, GoToMeeting, TeamViewer, Skype, and JoinMe. It’s a good idea to get familiar with them as soon as you can, not only after an emergency assignment requires full knowledge.

Multi-lingual simultaneous interpreting

What happened to conventions? At first, they all went away, but we recently provided simultaneous interpreting service in eight languages at the same time to a large non-profit, all on Zoom. Zoom now says they can handle nine languages.

Still, it required prepping each interpreter—not on their language skills but on the mechanical and coordination aspects of switching off between the interpreter pair smoothly. It’s different from being side by side in an interpreting booth and takes some practice. The interpreters did it successfully, and the key factors that made it possible were trying it out before going live to ensure that everyone, including the host and participants, were as comfortable as possible with the platform.

Supporting employees and customers alike

Another adjustment we made as an agency was to increase our support and assistance efforts to both the clients and the linguists. This has included, with the client’s willingness, being available as a participant on the call for debugging purposes and to facilitate smooth operation of the meeting.

LSPs need to ensure that customer service is so excellent that it overcomes the client’s reservations about using a new system. Video technology is not a universal skill at this stage, so it may be necessary to spend some time advising and training clients, walking them through the login process, and showing them how to do such things as test their audio.

Final thoughts

We are all in the communication business. Whatever we do to cope with COVID-19, we must maintain live communication with everyone we would otherwise be in touch with. Cope with all this stress by using more communication, not less—more reaching out, less withdrawal. We have heard it said that “we’re all in this together.” As linguists, we make the communication links that make it so, and that makes a difference. One last thing: You are an essential worker!

Larry Marshall

Larry C. Marshall has been Operations Manager at Reliable Translations, Inc. in Glendale, California, since 2003. His experience also includes 10 years in Administration of Translation and Interpreting Services at Tele-Interpreters, which was later incorporated into LanguageLine.

Larry holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Salem State University in Massachusetts. He enjoys being in daily communication with many cultures and languages while helping people resolve their communication barriers.