Interpreting in Times of COVID-19

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While one of the key characteristics of the language industry is that so far it has been impervious to crises, the interpreting market might be the sector within the industry that has most heavily been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic—both negatively and positively.

Given the exponential and aggressive spread of the virus, one-third of the world is on lockdown as of mid-April 2020. Businesses have closed down and any kind of unnecessary human contact is strictly discouraged. In most countries, only vital services are still operating, and some nations even impose heavy fines on citizens who violate the new social distancing rules.

To get a better picture of how different segments of the interpreting industry are affected by this pandemic, Nimdzi Insights reached out to various interpreting providers around the world to ask how their businesses have been doing since the start of the crisis. Among the companies contacted were language services providers (LSPs) who focus on onsite interpreting, LSPs who focus on remote interpreting, LSPs who offer both, and Virtual Interpreting Technology (VIT) providers. The results show that the effect of COVID-19 varies hugely within the interpreting industry.

The table below provides an overview of the effect on the different types of interpreting.

Increase Neutral Decrease
Over-the-phone interpretingRemote interpreting solution in placeOnsite interpreting
Video remote interpretingPrivate sector interpretingConference interpreting
Remote simultaneous interpretingPublic sector interpreting

Most heavily affected

It should come as no surprise that interpreting companies and freelance interpreters who focus on onsite services have been hit hard by the crisis. 

  • LSPs whose revenues are driven by onsite interpreting report a significant drop in business of around 70 percent or higher, and one medium-sized provider from the United States reported it had to lay off 40 percent of its staff.
  • Conference interpreting has been obliterated. Since the beginning of the pandemic, most conferences have been either canceled or postponed, so the demand for conference interpreting has dropped close to zero.
  • Even agencies working for governments, such as the Canadian Translation Bureau, are seeing a huge drop in volumes. The Translation Bureau reports that their demand for interpreting services is down by more than 50 percent, and reduced to supporting critical services only.
  • Businesses focusing on onsite interpreting are, however, not the only ones that are suffering right now. LSPs who derive most of their revenues from remote interpreting but whose clients largely work onsite are recording huge losses as well. As government agencies, schools, and other public facilities have closed down, even the demand for over-the-phone interpreting has dropped by more than 70 percent for LSPs working in the public sector. 
  • Although healthcare providers are working overtime these days, interpreting in the healthcare business is down for onsite services. This is because healthcare providers have canceled any elective procedures to focus their efforts on combating the pandemic and reducing the risk of the virus spreading even further.

Where business is booming

One year ago, we called the VIT hype a solution without a problem. Now it has become the solution to the problem. As companies all around the globe are looking for a web-based solution to keep their business afloat, VIT companies are seizing the day.

  • “It’s a madhouse” is the response we received from one VIT provider we reached out to. Others echoed the sentiment.
  • Companies with multilingual meetings are trying to find a way to push them online. Public institutions, international organizations, and multinational companies are the main requestors looking for remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) from companies like KUDO and VoiceBoxer. 
  • Companies offering video-remote interpreting (VRI) and over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) are seeing an increase as well, and in a variety of sectors. VIT providers like Interpreter.io and Boostlingo are reporting the following change in demand for their OPI and VRI services:
    • Healthcare: Demand in this segment is accelerating as clients need to pivot quickly from onsite to remote services. This has led to an increased demand for both OPI and VRI. As healthcare providers have canceled elective surgeries, a lot of the work has been ad hoc and unscheduled. This means that there is a greater need for on-demand OPI and VRI calls than for scheduled calls.
    • Call centers: Call centers are seeing an increase in demand, which has led to a corresponding increase in OPI volume.
    • Legal and courts: Many courts have postponed jury trials and are evaluating how they might proceed. However, law firms have become more open to adopting remote interpreting and as a result, there is a higher demand for VRI in this sector. 
    • Sign language interpreting: There has been a significant increase in agencies looking for VRI solutions for sign language interpreters.
    • Onsite providers: LSPs who had a largely onsite business before the pandemic are reaching out in greater numbers in an attempt to move their businesses online as quickly as possible.  
  • The majority of VIT companies Nimdzi contacted are seeing an increase in demand for remote solutions during this time. This increase varies from provider to provider with some reporting a substantial 20 percent increase and others reporting record-highs of 250 percent more business.  
  • Some VIT providers had to hire more staff. Given the spike in requests, more resources were needed to accommodate the additional training and setup requirements for new clients, and to onboard and train new interpreters. KUDO, for example, doubled its internal staff in just one month. The number of KUDO certified interpreters also increased by 2,000 to a total of 3,500 in the same period and is now growing by at least 100 interpreters per day.

The neutral zone

The research shows that there is a neutral zone. 

  • LSPs who largely operate in the private sector and who offer a mix of onsite and remote interpreting, appear to be just slightly affected by the crisis. 
  • While their onsite business might be down, LSPs in this category are reporting an increase in requests for remote interpreting of between 33 and 100 percent.
  • For a number of these providers, OPI volumes initially dropped by around 15 percent but have since bounced back
  • LSPs who already had a remote interpreting solution in place before the pandemic are in a better position to offer remote interpreting as a temporary alternative to their usual onsite clients. The challenge here is that not all clients are able to move their operations from onsite to remote work.

Effect of the pandemic, by sector

The COVID-19 crisis has not only affected the various types of interpreting providers in different ways, but the sectors in which they operate as well. 

In a recent webinar from InterpretAmerica, attendees were asked to indicate how much interpreting requests have decreased in the areas of healthcare, social and public services, educational services, the judicial system, and conferences and business meetings. The webinar was attended by around 1,400 people from different parts of the world. The majority were interpreters, but LSPs were also present. The data below show the responses of 613 attendees.

Decrease in interpreting requests on a scale of 1 (not much) to 5 (very much)

Decrease in interpreting requests

Source: InterpretAmerica

The results show that, while all sectors have been hit by the crisis, educational services, and conferences and business meetings are the most heavily affected. This does not come as a surprise because, while a lot of schools use interpreting services, many do not have remote solutions in place. As for conferences and business meetings, it was pointed out that, due to widespread conference and meeting cancellations, conference interpreting is taking the biggest hit.

Interpreting in the healthcare sector and the judicial system has also seen a downturn. However, it can be assumed that the reason the numbers here are smaller is because many hospitals and courts already have a remote solution in place.

Adapting to the crisis

Right now, the world is living in times of uncertainty. However, uncertain times can also spark creativity and innovation. Interpreting companies on both sides of the spectrum—that is, those who are being hit hard, and those who are profiting—are trying to make the most of the current situation. Here is a brief overview of some of the strategies interpreting companies are employing to adapt to the pandemic:

  • Youpret, a VIT provider from Finland, decided to develop a new, easier way for customers to buy their interpreting services. The company strongly believes that the buying process should be as easy as sending a normal text message and has therefore automated the order-to-cash process of their remote interpreting platform.
  • Many LSPs have removed sign-up fees for their remote solutions to make the switch as easy and cost-effective as possible for both new and existing customers.
  • LSPs whose core business is onsite interpreting are introducing remote solutions to their clients by, for example, offering pre-scheduled VRI calls to replace onsite appointments. This is proving to be a success, especially in the healthcare sector in cases where doctors can meet with limited English proficiency (LEP) patients remotely. For many LSPs, this change requires training internal staff for VRI and OPI and even onboarding new interpreters.
  • Service is king. While this is always true, it is especially necessary during a pandemic. As clients face huge uncertainties and are trying remote solutions for the first time, LSPs are focusing on customer service to help their clients adjust to the new environment. This often requires 24/7 availability—both for customer and IT support—as well as an interpreting team that can support emergency services around the clock.
  • The Translation Bureau has created an English<>French glossary with COVID-19 specific terminology. The glossary can be accessed online by anyone who needs it. It can also serve as a foundation for translation into other languages.

Other factors

In addition to the direct impact the pandemic is having on operations in the interpreting industry, as discussed above, there are a couple external factors that have also come into play during this time.

On a positive note, there is the area of telemedicine. In all countries affected by the crisis, healthcare providers are urging patients to call before making an in-person visit to doctors’ offices, clinics, and hospitals. With this increase in over-the-phone consultations comes an increase in over-the-phone interpreting, as people from all language backgrounds need to be supported. VIT provider Boostlingo, for example, reports a spike in requests from telehealth vendors, looking for ways to integrate interpreting into their own platforms. 

On a more negative note, the California AB5 law is affecting interpreters even more heavily during these times. As many onsite interpreting appointments have been canceled, an increasing number of interpreters are looking to try remote interpreting during this time. While some may remain skeptical about remote interpreting, the economic situation is leaving many no choice but to try this new way of carrying out their jobs. However, for interpreters in California this is not quite so easy. The AB5 law, which came into effect in early 2020, requires employers to reclassify freelancers as employees. This now has the effect that LSPs are turning away interpreters from California looking for work. This goes for onsite interpreting as much as for remote interpreting, leaving California-based interpreters high and dry during this crisis. 

At the time of writing, the California State Senate has just proposed a new bill, known as SB900, which seeks an exemption from AB5 for interpreters. 

What does the future hold?

At this point, we can only speculate. The real effect of the crisis on the interpreting industry can only be assessed once this pandemic is behind us.

That being said, there is one thing we know for certain: this crisis has given exposure to remote interpreting. The current situation provided the perfect opportunity for VIT providers to showcase the benefits of their remote solutions, and for skeptics to try them out and perhaps loosen their resistance to them.

Even renowned interpreter associations, like the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) have given their members the green light to use remote solutions during this time (along with guidelines for best practices and safety measures). While this could have a lasting effect on the interpreting industry, it is likely that for some sectors, the switch to remote interpreting will only be temporary. 

Right now, the COVID-19 crisis has a “one man’s loss is another man’s gain” effect on the interpreting industry. What comes after remains to be seen. 

Nimdzi Finger Food is the bite-sized and free to sample insight you need to fuel your decision-making today.

If you want to explore our library of publications on interpreting, contact us today to become a Nimdzi Partner.

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