‘Communication Should Feel Like a Warm Hug’ and Other Stuff We Learned at LEO’s Conference

Two friends side hugging looking out over a field. One friend has their head on the other's shoulder.
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“Have you ever thought of being an interpreter?” a family friend asked me almost 15 years ago. I hadn’t.

“It’s when you translate a conversation between two people who don’t speak the same language,” she elaborated. 

I had an idea of what it meant to do this because I’d done it for my Spanish-speaking family members for many years, but I always thought I was translating for them, and I never imagined I could be paid to do this. Of course I was interested!

Fast forward to 2021, and the interpreting/translation profession is, anecdotally, still widely unknown. It’s not uncommon to hear things like “The biggest Industry you’ve never heard of” to describe the language industry. Similarly, interpreters often refer to themselves as “just an interpreter,” as Katherine Allen candidly pointed out during a recent conference presented by Linguist Education Online. (I have done this myself several times throughout my career.)

The 2021 conference, which took place last month on June 24 and 25, focused on language access and the visibility of the profession, and emphasized the growing need for language access. Presenters briefed attendees on the current political decisions impacting limited English proficient (LEP) individuals, provided updates on AB5 and other similar legislation around the country, and celebrated the complex work that interpreters and translators do in an effort to bridge the communication gaps that exist in everyday interactions.

Below, I’ve summarized a few sessions and themes from the conference that stuck with me.

So … what does the future hold?

The conference explored this question throughout, presenting information about the growing need for language access and how census data is used to understand the needs of the LEP community around the country.

In his presentation, Bruce Adelson, a federal compliance expert, explained the ins and outs of how funds for language access are distributed based on census data. In fact, data from the 2019 American Community Survey shows that 22% of American households speak a language other than English at home. This large number of LEP households will impact the language access requirements and how these are enforced through legislation.

Freelance empowerment

Talk about California’s AB5 law inevitably made an appearance during the two-day event. Conversations surrounding this topic served to empower freelance interpreters and translators to advocate for their livelihood and organize before new legislation pops up in other parts of the country besides California. AB5 has lumped language professionals into the gig worker category, failing to recognize the profession as the knowledge-based workforce it really is.

Attendees and panel participants (Jennifer Santiagos, CHI™, certified Spanish interpreter; Lorena Ortiz Schneider, ATA director, chair of the ATA Advocacy Committee and founder of CoPTIC; Kseniia Topolniak, conference interpreter; and Stephanie Webb, ASL interpreter and president of SCRID) explored the future of freelance work in light of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (commonly known as the PRO Act) that was recently introduced to congress.

Language professionals were encouraged to remain informed, advocate for their right to freelance, and empower the profession by embracing education to elevate the visibility of our profession.  

Related: California AB5 and the Case for Independent Contractors: What You Need to Know

Interpreters are human

In between complex discussions about legislation and advocacy, a session that really stood out to me was one which sought to understand and quantify interpreter mental fatigue. With her research, Andrea Henry, healthcare interpreter and researcher, explored how certain interpretation encounters can influence interpreter fatigue more than others. Watch a great video on her research.  

Andrea developed a tool (CFIE) to measure and understand the complexity of interpreting encounters and how they impact the flow of the session and the interpreter’s decision-making during the interaction.

She ultimately found that encounters with a higher number of complexities, such as interruptions or overlapping voices, amongst other disruptions, affected the mental fatigue of the interpreters surveyed. While this research was primarily developed in face-to-face modality, it is currently being researched in remote interpreting settings.

For contract interpreters who create and manage their own workload, research like this can still have a monumental influence by highlighting the complex skill sets that interpreters possess in order to assist with interpretation. This tool may also provide interpreters for all modalities the framework to think more thoroughly about their self-assessments in their everyday calls and can help them understand what to look for when evaluating their own mental fatigue to avoid errors in interpretation. 

Our work is never done

Conversations like these are important to promote the visibility of our profession. It’s through education and networking that we can exchange ideas and ensure the integrity of interpreting remains intact for decades to come and for other curious young professionals who will happen to stumble — just like me — into a wonderful career path in language.

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