Challenges and opportunities for the language industry during the Covid-19 pandemic
As the weeks become months in the midst of one of the most severe global health crises in recent history, lockdown measures are easing in parts of the world. However, in others, reopening has been halted or even rolled backed because of new spikes in cases or difficulties in managing the initial Covid-19 outbreak. With current travel bans and security measures and given the economic fallouts of the crisis, it is unlikely business-as-usual will make a comeback any time soon. The translation and interpretation industry has been uniquely impacted by the Coronavirus crisis. And since the pandemic and its repercussions are set to last in the foreseeable future, it is facing unique challenges in this time of limited mobility and in-person exchanges. However, it has also seen a number of tremendous opportunities emerge in some sectors.
Challenges and opportunities for the conference interpretation industry
A large number of international events have been pushed back or cancelled due to the pandemic, from the Tokyo Olympics to international organization conferences to multilingual business meetings. One may think this means less demand for conference interpreters, whose regular jobs of traditional, in-person interpreting – whether simultaneous or consecutive – seem to have disappeared due to official travel bans and health risks.
Because a lot of meetings are now being held online via various platforms, the demand for professional interpretation has therefore shifted to another domain, with an exponential surge in demand for RSI (Remote Simultaneous Interpreting), also called Distance Interpreting. Offering both benefits and drawbacks, RSI may simplify some of the logistics of multilingual meetings – no need for soundproof booths or rented sound equipment, for example – so that clients can now host large events from the comfort (and safety!) of their home or office.
However, there is the perennial problem of internet connectivity. Especially now that so many people are working from home, bandwidth can prove a real conundrum. And because an interpreter’s office or the speaker’s living room may not be as adapted to providing the sound quality that a soundproof booth or sophisticated lapel mic can, there can also be issues with sound or image quality. Unlike in the case of an in-person event, these issues cannot always be speedily fixed by technical support prior to the meeting on a remote platform.
Without power or a reliable Internet connection, no virtual meeting of any size is possible, contrary to a physical meeting where other solutions may be implemented. But physical meetings are certainly not devoid of challenges. Pablo Chang-Castillo, CEO and co-founder of Chang-Castillo and Associates (CCA), remembers a particularly tight situation during a governors summit in Los Angeles when the power went out: “The interpretation booths and microphones became unusable. Within a few moments, our interpreters were there on the floor, providing consecutive interpretation to the delegates, making it possible to continue the meeting seamlessly.” This solution was only possible because CCA’s team of interpreters was equipped with the skills and languages required for all types of situation.
While virtual meetings are less likely to connect delegates and participants the same way they would through the more or less formal interactions during an “in-real-life” meeting, for the interpreter, not being able to read the speaker’s body language and hear their intonations due to poor sound quality can make their job a lot harder. But at least RSI is allowing them – and their clients – to continue working, which is already a tremendous achievement. Indeed, some clients such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have already moved forward with RSI. These clients do acknowledge, however, that some physical meetings may still be required in the “new normal” because access to or availability of online interpretation services can be problematic in some countries. A combination of both physical and virtual meetings, with both in situ and online conference interpretation services, is also likely to happen in the future.
Understandably, the number of medical conferences requiring simultaneous interpretation services seems to have increased due to the pandemic. However, challenges are different for community interpreters working in the public sphere, whose job it is to help people navigate every-day situations in which they don’t understand a language. This includes court interpreters and social services interpreters. The need for medical interpreters has grown as the current pandemic disproportionately affects low-income and minority populations suffering from job and housing insecurity – among them many non-native English speakers. But due to social distancing and infection control measures, medical interpreters cannot go to a patient’s bedside and therefore need to work over the phone or via teleconference, which can be hard to manage with medical equipment and deprives patients from the reassuring presence of someone who speaks their language.
Despite its drawbacks, remote interpreting is a crucial service for patients who would otherwise be completely isolated and unable to understand health care professionals. It also has the advantage of giving hospitals access to a larger pool of interpreters, with no geographic limitations, since they don’t have to move to another location. This is all the more important because, according to a recent New York Times report, there also seems to be a shortage of community interpreters for various less-commonly spoken languages while hospitals are struggling to adapt to the new situation.
In the US, these events are also shedding light on a long preexisting issue: the lack of proper access to medical information for people with limited knowledge of English. Some people might put themselves and their community at greater risk by not fully understanding public health announcements. This has become more problematic during the pandemic, although it has always been an issue for minorities. Taking into account the linguistic needs of this category of people during these difficult times might be an opportunity to improve the level of information and care they are able to receive under normal circumstances in the long run.
Challenges and opportunities for the translation industry
While oral interpretation requires spoken words and some sort of human interaction – even long-distance – the translation of written documents doesn’t seem to be as directly impacted by a lack of mobility. While the global economic slowdown has caused some clients to order fewer translations in general due to the contraction of their markets, much higher demand has also been observed in fields like medicine, pharmaceuticals, life sciences, education, e-commerce, human rights, and the legal arena. While demand for financial translation has gone down, public health announcements and Covid-related contents have, understandably, multiplied.
Interestingly enough, there is a boom in unexpected sectors. Online media platforms, chief among them Netflix, have seen a surge in viewership and subscriptions during lockdown. During the second quarter of 2020 alone, Netflix has registered an extra 10 million new subscribers from around the world, leading to more demand for audiovisual translation, whether it be for dubbing or subtitling. Apart from its original programming, up to 90 % of Netflix’s catalogue needs some type of adaptation before it can be watched by a large portion of its users. After Netflix shut down its translation portal, Hermes, a couple of years ago, it is unclear exactly what type of standard is applied to select translators for subtitles, but one thing is certain: there is a lot of demand, and no sign of slowing down in this area – yet. Although 2020 releases are going on mostly without glitches, it is likely that 2021 releases will come later in the year because of delays in production, which may lead to a bit of a slump in activity for multimedia translation. However, the growth of the platform tends to indicate more content creation in the future anyway, and therefore more work for translators.
Language learning – without travelling
With people stuck at home and generally cautious (or not) of outdoors activities, many have decided to take advantage of the lockdown to learn a new skill. The crisis has been a very propitious time for language learning apps, like Duolingo, Busuu, Babbel, Shenzen or Hello Talk. Because what better gift than learning another language? Counting on their innovative methods, and the fact that travelling is not an option and that schools are closed, let alone private, physical classes, tutoring platforms such as Kyiv, Preply, and iTalki are also growing for those who still want to interact with a native speaker.
The coronavirus crisis has seriously impacted a lot of international businesses, simply because people can’t travel and physically meet at the moment. The language industry has been, in some parts, badly hit by the general economic slowdown due to the pandemic and has had to consider new options. Some areas like streaming services and language apps are booming, and there is a lot of demand in medical translation – for the time being. RSI has also been claimed as a huge opportunity for interpreters, and it undeniable that the industry is changing dramatically.
Chang-Castillo and Associates (CCA) can help you navigate the translation and interpretation world during these times of challenge and opportunity. With our team of highly qualified interpreters and translators, we will dedicate ourselves to providing you and your projects with the best language services to meet your needs. Call us at +1 (877) 708-0005 or contact us online to see why we are considered the platinum standard of the industry.