Keep Interpreters Working and Working Safe

Without interpreters working and working safely, essential communication is jeopardized. And that affects us all.

Interpreters foster community cohesion, community safety and community health, and are an integral part of our system. Accurate communication is vital during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has occurred to me, in recent years, that the core concern of the interpreter’s responsibility – be it in court, classroom, office, hospital, correctional facility or a client’s home – is not language, but communication. To not recognize that very important distinction relegates the role of the interpreter to that of a language converter. And that strongly devalues the work that interpreters do, for to simply convert words in one language into words in another is a task that can be done by AI, or even a simple, old-school, bilingual dictionary. Instead, interpreters spin together words, meaning, context, situation, goals, interpersonal relationships, culture, awareness, responsibility, accountability, strict role boundaries, empathy, objectivity, intrapersonal communication, systemic realities, and non-verbal communication to ensure that speaker and listener are achieving the communication exchange necessary – without altering an iota of the intended message – if they are an educated, professional interpreter (let’s not confuse bilingualism with interpreting). I know that for many in the field, this is a very obvious conclusion. But an awareness of the depth and breadth of the interpreter’s role and work must also extend outside of the inner circle. We work and live in a world where, in most part, our essentiality in a multilingual world goes unrecognized.

Creative responses to crisis in a virtual age should be immediate

Good interpreters make it look easy. But it’s not. Not only is it not easy, it is a role that comes with immense power and, subsequently immense responsibility. Without educated, professional interpreters, health care professionals, lawyers, judges, social workers, correctional officers, community workers, and other professionals, inclusive of the system, are unable to effectively communicate with their clients – unable to do their job or achieve their mandates. But because it is commonly believed that interpreters work strictly in language, and if we are satisfied that what is happening in front of us is indeed someone saying words in two different languages, then we assume all is good. False assumption. Which brings us to the reason why, in the current health care and community crisis, there is not enough being done to support the critically important, or rather, the essential work of interpreters and translators. While our government officials are busy ensuring that the message gets out, that the population understands, are they also ensuring that limited-English or limited-French speakers are also included? And if they are not, how effective can the public health campaigns be if they are not reaching the whole population.

Our personal health status is conditioned on the health status of every member of our community.

I recently have had to interact with the health authority because of the needs of my elderly parents. I am an educated, English speaker that has worked in the healthcare system. I should, therefore, understand. One would assume. But the system is confusing, disease and illness are stressful, what to do where and with whom is a complex network of assumptions and connections that can be overwhelming. Even for me. We cannot take this essential communication for granted, for we do so at the risk of the population’s health.

When interpreters are not available, community members that do not speak, or understand the language of government and government services are denied critical information and access.

The COVID-19 pandemic is something that we, as a global village, have not experienced, on a similar scale, in recent memory. It has fostered fear, anxiety and concern in all of its unknowns and the missteps of the leadership in some regions. We try to heed the advice of experts and keep ourselves safe. But for some, withdrawing to work at home is not always a possibility. Essential services must remain. Doctors, nurses, allied health care, law enforcement, border patrol, prison guards, lawyers, judges, and others, must continue to work as the society cannot simply stop functioning. And alongside these professionals, when needed, you may also find interpreters – supporting them in their services. However, while all of the professionals listed above are given some protection if or when they fall ill, but interpreters are not always given any such security. And so, in a move for the preservation of their own and family’s health, they decide to not accept any assignments, decline work, remove themselves from the lists. They choose to be careful, because guidance for them in this case, may not exist, at least not from public health or government officials. The federal and provincial governments have made changes to some of our social safety nets, allowing for speedier responses and access to resources, and while those changes keep evolving for a more comprehensive response, will those changes align with the nature of the freelance interpreter and translator work world?

More important is how to keep interpreters working AND safe, because when interpreters are not available, community members that do not speak, or understand the language of government and government services are denied critical information and access. Professional interpreters are what’s required for complex settings and crisis scenarios, not naive assumptions that the message is being communicated.

Interpreters work as freelancers, for the most part and in most regions around the world, because it is the nature of the field, the nature of the work. And along with that also comes a lack of stability, minimal access to ensured coverage or services when adverse events occur, and lack of access to financial services available to employed positions. While interpreters in some sectors and in some jurisdictions in Canada are considered essential services, these policies are not universal, leaving large gaps for some communities.

We need interpreters to feel secure, protected and valued in order for them to be able to dedicate their professional skills and abilities in aid of community cohesion and continued good health.

Let us also find ways to acknowledge and support these heroes as well: these service providers that act as multilingual conduits for our multicultural, Canadian community. We are in this together for a better outcome. Let’s keep them working, and facilitating communication by acknowledging their need for financial and other resources, securing their safety to the best of all abilities and by recognizing them as vital members of our social and health services continuum.

It’s already hitting the fan – Language barriers hamper corona virus response.

Note: this article was originally posted in LinkedIn