The Interpreters of the Future

… will either be mobile aps or underpaid, under qualified temps. That’s the impression people could easily get from the last month’s worth of news headlines. We already covered the attempt by NTT Docomo to create an interpreting ap and now, wonder of wonders, Microsoft are at it too. Sure, the results are “comical” in places and it just about scrapes by in two languages if it understands your accent but the idea is sound, isn’t it?

And then there is the on-going saga of court and police interpreting in the UK. So far, a government report and two enquiries into the new single-provider contract are uncovering uncomfortable truths such as:
•    The procurement procedure was not up to scratch
•    Advice was ignored or fudged
•    Rates were set without consulting interpreters
•    Not all interpreters working under the agreement were qualified or properly vetted

The end result is that the vast majority of interpreters who are qualified and checked are refusing to work under the new contract and many courts are having to revert back to the old system if they actually want someone reliable and useful. Whoops!

The problem is that the financial logic behind the original move seemed sound enough, at least to those who made the decision. After all, if companies can save money by outsourcing entire functions to a single supplier, so can government department’s right? And, interpreting is just a service like any other right? Surely any good bilingual can interpret, right?

The fault in this logic stems from exactly the issue that this blog covered in the second ever post, over a year ago. The public face of languages and of the language industry needs to be changed. As long as people see interpreting as a financial cost item instead of a worthy investment, spending patterns won’t change. For as long as people associate interpreters with people they don’t want in their country, justifying pay rises (or even pay stability) will be difficult.

The point is that most, if not all, interpreters know the real potential of their work. Not only does interpreting help justice to be served, it helps people to get medical attention, families to cope with trauma, business to conquer new markets and economies to grow. As soon as you trade anything, be it people, products or ideas, outside of the market that speaks your language you need interpreters (and translators).

If the future of interpreting is to be filled with qualified, vetted, reliable professionals, someone will need to make sure that the message gets out that this future and only this future is the one we should be chasing. Someone has to convince government ministers, business people, and the public that interpreting is worth more than it costs. Anyone up for that?