Recently, I hosted a livestream with Kelly Grzech to go over some of the issues that affect remote interpreters, especially those outside of the U.S. It’s no secret that a lot of interpretation in U.S. medical centers is conducted remotely and chances are, with an interpreter outside of the U.S.*, more specifically, with an interpreter in Latin America if they are looking for Spanish interpretation. I’m one of those Spanish medical interpreters. I’m located in the Dominican Republic and I take phone and video calls for healthcare centers in the United States.
Over the past few years, I have worked as an interpreter for local and international interpretation agencies in a variety of medical, educational, and social services settings. I founded my own website for medical interpretation practice and became a trainer. For some time, I’ve wanted to touch on the topic of remote interpretation outside the U.S. since it’s is such a complex, yet important topic. I made up my mind to write this post after having my teaching competencies questioned because I do not work in person in the U.S. To me, that was the last straw and I will explain why.
First, it seems like remote interpreters are often seen in a negative light as less skilled than in-person interpreters. I created a poll on two Facebook groups: U.S. Medical Interpreters and Remote Interpreters of Latin America (now called ”Remote Interpreters in the Americas Workgroup”). The question was: ”Do you think there is a perception that remote medical interpreters are less skilled than in-person medical interpreters? Or vice-versa?” Most people said ”yes” to the first question as you can see in the screenshots below.
This led me to my second question: Why are remote interpreters seen in a negative light? This is a multifaceted problem so, let’s list all of the factors that contribute to this negative perspective.
1) Interpretation agencies that hire untrained and low-skilled remote interpreters to pay them peanuts.
For the past few years, there has been a problem described as a ”race to the bottom” where interpretation agencies hire inexperienced bilinguals with minimum interpreting skills and pay them as little as can to provide their so-called ”services”. Usually, the ”interpreters” who accept these low rates are located in poor or developing countries where wages and costs of living are low. This practice is also called offshoring. Offshoring is not inherently bad if interpretation agencies were hiring skilled interpreters. There are plenty of talented and knowledgeable remote interpreters outside the U.S. Still, they are offered insulting rates on the basis of their location, not their expertise or knowledge so the lowest-bidders, not the best interpreters, usually get the jobs. By the same token, not all agencies are looking for cheap and unskilled interpreters but these agencies are part of the minority and rather an exception to the rule.
2) An overwhelming number of providers and clients do not know how to work with over-the-phone and video-remote interpreters.
Working with an interpreter is a challenge in and of itself: speakers have to adjust their accustomed speech patterns for accuracy and completeness, the interpreter may need to intervene to clarify, and there are major cultural differences that affect communication between the parties, just to name a few challenges. Technology is yet another layer of difficulty: devices may not work properly, the connection may not be stable, and there are no visual cues in telephone interpreting. It seems easy to think that the remote interpreter is to blame when communication goes wrong, but most people are not aware of how the challenges mentioned above affect communication in remote environments.
A common example is when providers use speakerphone during a medical appointment. The parties in the room may hear each other perfectly. Still, for the remote interpreter, the audio may be echoey and distorted, which requires the remote interpreter to ask for more repetitions and clarifications because it’s difficult to hear the parties speaking.
The speakers, instead of trying to speak a little bit more clearly and slowly to compensate for the poor audio or any other technical challenges, may slur their words, move around, walk away from the phone while talking to each other or they may not be mindful of the fact that the interpreter can’t see what they are doing. The lack of awareness of these technical issues and the frequency of these mistakes, makes it seem like seems like nobody is training these providers to communicate effectively through video and telephone interpreters.
2) Psychological distance: people are ruder in remote settings.
If two salesman approached you, one over-the-phone, and the other one comes to your house, which one are you more likely to listen to and treat with a decent degree of courtesy? The salesman that came to your house because you can actually see them.
If you are debating something with a stranger online versus in person, in which setting are you more likely to disrespect or be rude to the other person? Online because you can hide your rudeness behind anonymity as if your actions didn’t really have consequences. The Avast Foundation published a study that shows that people communicate more aggressively and are more likely to engage in hostile behaviors like trolling in online spaces.
In remote settings, it’s easy to depersonalize remote interpreters because they are only a voice behind a telephone or a face on a screen instead of an actual physical presence in the room. This creates a psychological distance where the interpreter is treated like a machine or ”human Google translate”. This is evident when an in-person interpreter joins the session while the remote interpreter is on the line. The providers, before hanging up the phone, usually say: ”We have a live interpreter now” or ”We have a real interpreter now” as if the remote interpreter wasn’t even a real person.
During remote medical encounters, it’s harder for the interpreter to build rapport with the speakers and establish themselves as professionals at the beginning of the call. This happens not only because of the remote medium but also because the calls can be very fast-paced and sometimes there is not enough time to empathize with the speakers so they feel more comfortable communicating through the interpreter and troubleshooting any problems that may arise. Therefore, remote interpreters need to think outside the box to build that initial rapport, but oftentimes, they are not offered the tools to do so. This takes me to my third point.
3) Remote interpreting is often a blind spot in interpreting education.
Whenever I attend a webinar, course, and even in the traditional 40-hour medical interpreting course, I notice that many of the concepts are focused on in-person interpreting. While it is useful to learn interpretation concepts, it’s important to know how to apply these concepts in a remote call. For example, in many courses, interpreters are taught to raise their hand when they need the provider to make a pause and let them interpret because the provider is giving too much information at once; in telephone interpreting, providers can’t see interpreters, so what are some of the strategies that the remote interpreter can use to intervene professionally? This is one of the many issues that are rarely addressed in interpretation courses and presentations that I have attended.
Additionally, remote interpreters need to be tech-savvy and develop digital literacy skills, for example, how to choose the appropriate headset and microphone for remote interpreting, how to soundproof the interpreter’s office, how to use Zoom, Doxy.me, or Microsoft Teams for interpretation, etc. A remote interpreter is not only an interpreter but may need to act as tech support too. Developing intercultural communication skills is also paramount since the average remote interpreter may frequently interact with people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, with a wide variety of accents, and from different U.S. cities, states, and sometimes even different countries.
Remote medical interpreters are filling the gap for medical interpretation in major medical centers & hospitals that do not have enough in-person interpreters or use remote medical interpreters as a comprehensive part of their language access program. Remote medical interpreters are important and deserve respect from agencies regardless of the interpreter’s location as well as more inclusion and visibility in medical interpreting courses and webinars.
* Even though I was unable to find statistics about the number of interpreters working outside the U.S., who are hired by U.S. agencies and interpret for medical centers in the U.S., my impression is that there is a large number of persons interpreting for U.S. medical centers. That has been my personal experience and that of my colleagues as well. Any statistics on this topic are more than welcome. Feel free to leave a comment below with any relevant resources/statistics. Thank you.