Letter to Count Smorltalk
Dear Count Smorltalk,
This could be the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Because I believe you need a friend. I believe you must be terribly lonely. In your Trolley Folly post, you painted this sad self-image of a suitcase-lugging, colleague-bugging conference interpreter who had to wrestle through the work day. What a hassle! You had to fight with bus timetables and strong-minded colleagues. The travelling was a strain on you and your travelling was a strain on the environment. You ended up in booths with unfamiliar faces in unfamiliar places. You were not in charge – face it!
I live in Germany, am in my late 30s and don’t work for agencies. I am in charge. I discuss the conditions with my clients and have them pay the taxi, if I need one. I always know who I will work with. How else should we prepare the assignments together and give our best? I enjoy my interpreting jobs with my colleagues – whom I sometimes even call friends. We indulge in coffee break banter; we laugh and often wrap up the day over a glass of wine at the hotel bar. To me, interpreting is never a one-woman show.
I do not know a lot about you. You live in the UK, are in your 50s; do you work for agencies? Now you sit at home, equally lonely, equally remotely (pun intended) connected to colleagues you might not know working for clients you still don’t talk to. Your trolley shoulder will soon be replaced by square eyes and a round back. And don’t get me started on your ears! To you, interpreting has always been a one-man show.
I know, I enjoy the luxury of living and working in a country that’s never been in a complete lockdown, so travelling to work was always possible and working from home never a necessity. We have a large network of corporate hubs and interpreter-run interpreting studios to support us, and I believe we should stand in solidarity with our tech colleagues and support them in return. But I am also aware that RSI from home often is the sole income for many colleagues abroad and I absolutely understand the predicament they (you) are in. I am truly glad you can make ends meet, but have you thought about what RSI from home means for our profession in the long run?
I hope you’ve given the technical requirements some serious thought. Surely you have analyzed the potential risks to your health. Have you discussed data security and accountability with your clients/agencies? Are you aware of the psychological (and financial) implications of turning your home into your clients’ meeting venue? Can you meet all those practical requirements so you can deliver the quality the clients deserve? And have you brushed up your quotes and crunched those numbers again so that all these extra investments and larger overheads are re-financed?
Don’t be taken in by a naïve miscalculation. When working from home you are rendering a service, i.e. interpretation, while also providing the necessary IT and workspace. That cannot come at the same price as when we were “just” interpreting. Now our clients rely on us as interpreters, technicians and venue organizers all rolled into one. That has to come with an appropriate price tag.
And what about your younger colleagues? What and how are they supposed to learn, if they are sitting at home interpreting all by themselves? Our solidarity should also extend to those trying to follow in our footsteps.
And I cannot help but think that you have just replaced one sad part of interpreting with another sad part of interpreting: instead of working on-site at the mercy of your recruiter, you are working at home at the mercy of your recruiter. You’re further alienating yourself from your clients because now you are even invisible. You are becoming an interchangeable voice to your listeners. You have no say in anything. The interaction between you and your listeners, if there is any at all, is between two computers in a chat function. Slide down those snakes a little further1 and you will become a check mark in your recruiter’s online availability calendar; you don’t dare to get out of the house because you are afraid you could miss out on a short-term interpreting opportunity. And there is no ladder to climb back because the rungs connecting you to the clients will have been destroyed in the process. There will always be someone cheaper in a country with lower living costs. There will always be someone who reacted quicker to a push message coming from the platform of your choice.
I truly love my job and I am willing to move with the times. But I am not willing to give up on the very essence of what it means to be a conference interpreter, which is getting out there, interacting with the audience, bridging linguistic divides without constant interruptions, meeting interesting people in exciting places and so much more.2
Image: Michele Bitetto / Unsplash
All posts on InterpreterSoapbox reflect the views of their authors.
- Editor’s footnote: See Count Smorltalk’s comment under “Trolley Folly”: “The upsides of RSI from home sometimes get lost in the debate so “Trolley folly” was intended as a leavening. Our eyes and ears are possibly at greater risk in the “immobile” life and we’ll miss the best bits of the travel. But as we slide down those particular snakes, I’m betting we’ll come across some ladders we never even imagined.”
- Editor’s footnote: See also “Interpreter Stories: Secret Society” by Wanda Gadomska