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INTERPRETERS IN TIMES OF PANDEMIC:

CURRENT CHALLENGES

In normal times, the life of a SCIC interpreter is full of variety. As a sort of linguistic nomad, these colleagues were hot-deskers before the term was ever coined, working at conferences for different institutions, in different buildings (or countries) and on different topics every day of the week. From the very top: European Council Summits; to the most technical and mundane: on-site inspections in farms and slaughterhouses, mud included.

Then came COVID-19 and, just like for everyone else, normal times became a thing of the past. Conferences were cancelled in droves. Delegates couldn’t fly in (or out) of Brussels. Some interpreters were stranded in red zones where they had been on mission. And freelance colleagues — who account for 50% of our output and have worked with us for decades — had their ‘long-term’ contracts cancelled for the first time in the Service’s history like the most ruthless of private market employers.

For a time at the beginning of the pandemic, while everyone else was running off to connect to Zoom or Skype or Webex, it seemed like multilingualism might simply disappear. Simultaneous interpretation takes teamwork and requires the sort of high-quality sound, concentration and stability that just cannot be guaranteed by a dodgy home internet connection while home schooling your children. Our clients also had legitimate concerns around hacking and confidentiality.

SCIC has come a long way since then. Working with an external provider, they have integrated secure multilingual video-conferencing systems to enable Councils and other high-level meetings to resume. The technology and sound quality are far from perfect, but it’s all there is.

Still, SCIC interpreters face considerable challenges in their day-to-day jobs: social distancing rules mean manning levels in individual meetings have been slashed and plexiglass dividers installed inside the booths. These capacity constraints also mean fewer languages per conference, disadvantaging certain Language Units compared to others.

At the same time, demand for Commission meetings —, which used to account for around 45% of their workload — has barely recovered. This is partly due to capacity constraints around the servers for their online interpreting platforms, but ultimately the increased use of English is the true culprit.

Finally, after only a few months of poor quality sound, there is already anecdotal evidence of an uptick in tinnitus and other hearing problems. No one knows what the long-term impact from these online platforms will be on our colleagues’ hearing. Moreover, what is an interpreter without his/her hearing?

Between reduced capacity, weak demand and concerns for their hearing, many colleagues, officials and freelance alike, are understandably worried about their professional futures. Perhaps more than any other group of staff, therefore, they are keen to see you all back at meetings again.