Is this the end of the line for Face to Face Interpreting?

No one can deny that the COVID-19 outbreak has destroyed and rebuilt the landscape of the language industry overnight. It’s no surprise that the amount of face to face interpreters being requested has dropped exponentially, the numbers dropping day by day. Many in the industry are fearfully asking, will COVID-19 turn out to be the final nail in the coffin of face to face interpreting? Perhaps it is time the language industry breaks out of the box which has restrained us for so long.

Changing Mindsets

When we first moved into providing language services for the healthcare sector, providing a reliable medium for communication quickly became vital as we prioritised the preservation of empathy and visual cues. While face to face interpreters may have been the only way to provide this compassionate touch two decades ago, the limitlessness of technology has gifted us with the ability to provide an authentic, empathetic, service through numerous channels.

The service-level data recorded from our telephone interpreting service has shown that there has been a 318% increase in use of this service as of 2nd April 2020 compared to the same period in March. This data is testament to the fact that if the physical contact of face to face interpreting is stripped away, the expression of language in its rawest form is considered to provide sufficient empathetic support for the patient.

If the Word360 service data from 2nd April is examined further, 22% of telephone interpreting bookings came from Mental Health Trusts across the country, and this has remained consistent in the following weeks. There was an element of surprise when viewing these statistics – but why should we be taken aback by mental health trusts using remote interpreting? Have we created boundaries in our industry that prevent us from embracing technology in the way that we should?

Arguably, these barriers have been internalised to such an extent that there is a consensus that high quality interpreting cannot be carried out over digital mediums. While it is hard to break out of these learned behaviours, it is simply necessary to do so to ensure that the language industry continues to evolve.

Fight the Flight

While escaping learned behaviour can be a challenging prospect, the inherently human instinct of fight or flight is something to be readily embraced. The ‘fight’ response which has been initiated by COVID-19 has pushed the language industry into a corner. But this corner is unlike any other, it has forced us to push more of our efforts into finetuning the elements of our interpreting which are carried out via digital mediums.

The real question isn’t, can the language industry return to the operational norm after COVID-19, but should it return to the operational norm. Despite the less than preferable circumstances that the world has been plunged into, what we make of the situation can forever change the industry for the better. The transcendent nature of language is not limited by the medium it is presented through, and the uptake of digital means of interpreting isn’t determined by a lack of empathy, but instead leads to unlimited access to language services no matter the time or place.


Written by Portia C

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