Today, A Word in Your Ear carries an article by my good friend and AIIC colleague Phil Smith. He blends his own thoughts with comments from friends and colleagues about the crisis that is hitting us all wherever we are, whoever we work for, whatever our language combination or years in the profession. The streets will fill again, we will once more tread the hidden byways.
It was the forlorn busker who made the crisis real. He was still at his usual pitch behind Geneva railway station, and as ever smiled as I dropped a coin into his hat as I headed home with my shopping. I had grasped the danger and the need to stop the rapid spread of the virus. But it was that one man dependent on small change and the kindness of strangers who really brought it all home. A lonely island of dignified despair.
Everyone is suddenly and uncomfortably aware of limitless vulnerability. Our jobs are vulnerable, our supply chains are vulnerable, our very lives are vulnerable. We’ve lost control, or perhaps more accurately, expectantly ceded it to those who we now see are themselves struggling.
In the USA they say that most people are two paychecks away from homelessness. A friend pointed out that millions of working families have a financial cushion against the proverbial rainy day of just $400. Workers are losing their jobs, and in the world’s largest economy that can mean losing your health insurance. We may be despondent, but we are better shielded than the millions who are forced to live from hand to mouth under zero-hour or at-will contracts. Make no mistake, this crisis goes beyond money. Many countries are reporting an increase in domestic violence brought on by confinement to the home, the dark side of lockdown that tends to get lost in the media onslaught.
Closer to home the interpreting business has ground to a halt. Every incoming email carries its bleak message of another cancellation, and a corresponding drop in our income. How can anyone cover their fixed monthly outgoings as work and earnings dwindle? We have worked hard on building long-term relationships with our clients but now question if they are robust enough to weather the crisis.
Let’s take a step back.
I’ve been an observer of the interpreting world since the early 1980s and can report it has always lurched between feast and famine. My children maintain that the best economic indicator was the amount of Belgian chocolate in the larder. In my youth, freelance work was concentrated into fewer months. Things would normally start for freelancers in mid-March and finish at the end of June, then resume mid-September to late November. I am in no way downplaying the current challenges but casting our minds back 30 years does put the current closedown into some historic context.
And now a step forward.
AIIC, the interpreters’ professional association, has risen to the occasion with impressive commitment and dedication. Our representatives are talking to the international organisations that employ us, they have contacted governments to ensure that self-employed freelancers are covered by national support schemes, they have issued advice on using remote interpreting. They have worked hard on a coordinated response to the emerging crisis. And they have even managed to grab a couple of hours’ sleep.
A friend sent me a graphic showing concentric circles that describe the emotional stages we are going through. The first circle is fear, which manifests itself with hoarding, with irritability, with feverish forwarding of all emails relating to covid-19. Some of us may still be in this circle. The second circle is that of learning. We start to weigh the significance and veracity of the endless stream of news, we become accepting of our inability to control the situation, we eat well and probably too much. The third circle is growth – you find a purpose in the current situation and this means you think of others, you try to help by putting your skills at the disposal of those who need them. You reach the stage of acceptance and feel empathy with everyone who is suffering as much or more than you. You now have time to read, to catch up with friends, to swap silly jokes with your nieces or grandchildren, to wallow in La Casa de Papel. You can learn how to cut your hair with pinking shears. You now know what Zoom is.
Remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) was already on its way, and covid-19 has given it an encouraging kick. Some of us have worked on one of the RSI platforms from home, desperate times, desperate measures, you know the drill. This is not to be recommended when normal life resumes, but I predict that greater use will be made of remote interpretation in hubs. This is not necessarily a bad thing because by removing the cost of travel and accommodation and of sending the equipment, we can make our services more accessible to new clients. There is talk of disruptive technology – the term reveals the presence of overwrought copywriters – and we need to grasp the opportunities that it brings. Clients report that RSI is second best and that there will still be a need for traditional, face-to-face meetings, but RSI will open new doors. Good will come of this.
The airwaves are full of pundits telling us how covid-19 will change the world. This is pure speculation, but I can’t resist throwing my two cents in. We rely on people who are to a great extent invisible, clearly the doctors and nurses are in the front line, but also the truck drivers who bring our food, the cashiers and shelf stackers at our local supermarket, the police who work to keep us safe. They are all out there now helping us get through this crisis. Worldwide we go to our front doors and applaud them. With luck we will emerge from the crisis with a greater appreciation of the hard work they all do to support our lifestyle. They are more important to us than this week’s vacuous celebrity.
We live in an interconnected world. Some have raised the national drawbridge, but the world’s economy is now a cat’s cradle of supply lines and trade routes. International interdependence will not go away, in fact there is a good chance that once things settle, it will be seen as vital. Countries need each other, we need each other. And this is where we have our role to play, quietly and in the background. We will again oil the wheels of international exchange.
The situation is not easy, but we will get through it. New opportunities will arise; we may reset our lopsided relationship with the international organisations.
To end on an upbeat note, today I was offered an option for October, the first green shoot of recovery.
Spring is coming.