Over the years I have seen developments in interpreting come and go, and there has always been the latest threat lurking around the corner. Blend our love of being the bearers of bad tidings with the underlying insecurity of the self-employed and you have fertile ground for spreading doom and gloom.
The arrival of remote interpreting has been likened to the arrival of simultaneous many years ago, meaning that our markets and working conditions will change permanently and many of our cherished ideas are open to question.
Interpreters have always declared a professional domicile as a reference point for calculating travel costs and subsistence allowance, and usually it has been the place where the interpreter lived. This made perfect sense when we travelled to where meetings were held, but the notion of professional domicile seems immaterial in times of remote interpreting where we may work from home or from a local hub.
In the past we could explain to clients that some interpreters had to travel to the venue from elsewhere, which would involve additional cost. Now the interpreters work from their home base – they might be in their own home, working from a hub or working alongside a colleague in a hub or home set-up – but travelling has been removed from the equation. Picture a meeting that is held in Geneva or London or Mexico City with a few people in attendance. The interpreters are all working from home or a local hub, and most of the delegates are in their home base. None of the interpreters must travel, so their domicile cannot be used to establish overall fee, and even if you think it should you will be unlikely to convince your client. Once people don’t travel the reason for professional domicile disappears.
Clients can accept justified costs, but they are going to question expenses that we cannot explain. It is important to see things from the client’s angle – something we have not always been very good at – and in difficult times to meet them halfway. It is also important for us to shape what we can of the future, not dig our heels in to defend a working condition we are hard pressed to justify.
Professional domicile has not been iron-clad in the past. Colleagues would declare one place as their domicile (say Brussels) and live elsewhere (take your pick). Domicile and place of residence have not always been the same thing.
It’s important to take a broad view when looking at the changes wrought by remote interpreting. Because costs have come down clients are organising more meetings, and attendance is increasing because participants simply need to sign in – no travel is involved. In the face-to-face past a trade union meeting in Geneva would attract two or three Argentinians and a Brazilian from Latin America; now that same meeting when held remotely has 30 participants from Argentina, 40 from Brazil as well as delegates who previously were unable to travel to meetings – Colombia for example, southeast Asia, Oceania. There is now regular demand for Hindi, Bangla, Tamil, Thai, Nepali, Vietnamese and Cambodian. RSI has meant that teams can include colleagues from around the world, such as Canada, Singapore, Australia – the only limiting factor is the time zone.
People have said that remote interpreting is not what they signed up for. This may be a way to let off some emotional steam, but it seems unlikely to save existing markets because those who use our services live in the here and now. Our clients can now choose interpreters from anywhere in the world and will certainly find people who are willing to work remotely. Once a client is lost there is scant chance of their coming back.
These idle thoughts apply to the private market. The international organisations have taken the sensible decision to operate as hubs with the interpreters on site, any other solution would probably be unworkable. Clearly any departure from current arrangements would be subject to negotiation, but we might be well advised to have some ideas at the ready just in case.
None of us quite know where the current changes to the profession will take us, but I tend to be relatively upbeat about how the profession will develop because I think RSI will open new or expand existing markets providing the service offered is technically reliable. I may be wrong, but then so might anyone else willing to predict where we will be five years hence.
We need to grasp the future, not hanker after the past.
Phil SMITH, AIIC Switzerland.