The impact of the pandemic’s push to Video Interpreting

4 February 2021

My site  selectively lists BSL interpreters working in Greater London. I wanted to know how the COVID pandemic was affecting them. Having retired from interpreting in 2016, and now with the pandemic, meant I was even more detached from the world of interpreting, so I decided to create a short survey to get a snapshot of how interpreters were getting on. This was not an academic piece of research! Their responses raised many more questions and observations in my mind, particularly about video interpreting, because there has been such a major shift in this direction.

I asked how much of their current interpreting was done remotely via video. 87% are doing more than 75% of their work by video. Access to Work seems to have moved almost entirely to video interpreting (VI).  The shift to VI has been unavoidable, but it isn’t always welcomed.

I asked what percentage of their work would they prefer to be VI. 17% would prefer to do 75% or more VI. 59% would prefer to do 50% VI. 24% would prefer 25% or less VI.

Here are  my thoughts:

  • VI challenges receptive abilities and is cognitively tiring. Is it reasonable to do VI all day? Children and home circumstances may hamper the ability to do some video assignments
  • Interpreters are currently doing more VI than they would wish, but 75% of interpreters would still want to do more than 50% remotely. Less travel time has enabled more flexible working times and reduced some stresses.
  • Platforms like Zoom and Teams have been playing catch-up to suit the needs of interpreted events. True co-working, in which interpreters support each other to deliver the best interpreting online, is still rare
  • How much can interpreters take care of themselves, mentally and physically, when it’s hard to assert your needs remotely? Would I have ever wanted to be an interpreter if I couldn’t interact in person with my clients and co-workers? For me, it was a big part of what made interpreting such a great job!
  • VI enables the more efficient deployment of interpreting resources, cutting out travel costs
  • VI has given deaf consumers access to a wider pool of high quality interpreting, no longer restricted to local interpreters. That has implications for my site – should I open up the VI domain to interpreters from across the UK?
  • Most Access to Work clients migrated smoothly across to video. This has worked well if interpreters have established relationships with clients, but what about interpreters who have to start interpreting with a new face from cold?
  • Can interpreting roll-back from the current preponderance of VI, irrespective of best practice, or deaf people’s and interpreters’ desires?
  • Who decides whether a deaf client gets face to face or VI? With ever-tighter budgets consequential from the economic fallout from the current pandemic and Brexit, isn’t the pressure going towards VI, even when it’s inappropriate, e.g. in further education
  • Interpreters have had to invest in better equipment and facilities, and home utility bills are much higher because of home working
  • It’s all very well expecting interpreters to have high quality equipment. facilities, and privacy, but what about deaf consumers? My observation of the recent BDA AGM, for example, shows how some deaf consumers are communicating with poor lighting, poor framing, slow broadband, sub-optimal devices, other distracting people in the room, etc – all of which adds to the stress of VI
  • There is a fear that agencies and others may undercut fees by using interpreters with inferior kit and facilities
  • There is a lack of NRCPD guidance on standards of equipment, facilities, privacy, etc
  • How will new and less-experienced interpreters be inducted into VI, previously thought to be the preserve of experienced interpreters?
  • How will the education and assessment of interpreters respond to the dominance of VI?
  • How will new interpreters finance equipment for high quality equipment and facilities for VI? If they’re living in shared flats, for example, how do they ensure privacy?
  • Will AtW and other organisations continue to pay for down-time during video interpreting?
  • Will new fee structures emerge? Charging by the minutes or hour, rather than half-days?
  • How will the low-key entry into the UK market of an American VRS company like Sorenson, impact on fees and working practices?
  • The recording of interpreting has emerged as a point of friction. Is this being done covertly? What use is being made of recordings? What’s the rationale for charging more if VI is being recorded? I’m told that some interpreters and agencies are charging outrageous “performance” fees

So … lots of observations and questions! But for me, the most urgent is the need for NRCPD to establish guidelines on video interpreting standards (for both interpreters and consumers), covering equipment, privacy, competence, etc – in consultation with the interpreting professionals and consumers who are actually using VI.