Babel precarity – more questions

Electronic red megaphone on stand.

Electronic red megaphone on stand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hi Babel guys!

You said in the e-mails you sent after my last post that we should talk so that I don’t continue to mis-inform my fellow interpreters. I agree, we should talk, but I think we should discuss it openly, not in private mails or over Skype. As I see it, I’m not mis-informing my colleagues. I’m in doubt, and I say so, if you don’t agree then it’s your job to prove me wrong.

You see, I am, just as many interpreters rather suspicious. We are suspicious because we have had bad experiences. We’re used to agencies who do not deliver what they promise; or deliver something completely different from their promise. People who wants to earn money and where interpreters are commodities. Interpreters often end up being some sort of hostage because agencies calculate that we will not let the client down once we’re there. And this does not only go for conference interpreting – for PSI interpreting it’s usually even worse. Reluctance over the tech bit is only the top of the iceberg. Over the years, there are more times than I would like to remember where I have been completely duped when it comes to working conditions. So let’s keep the discussion in the public space. Feel free to answer through blog posts, comments or other public means.

You said you want me to sing up as an interpreter for you, but you see I’m not ready to do that before I fully understand what conditions you are offering and how it works, and I’m sorry, but your homepage does not provide that yet. I’m also afraid that I will end up in a hostage situation. There are agencies who innocently ask you to sign up or provide your CV. Once you do that, they will give you working conditions, or a pay you cannot work for. But then you’re enrolled, so they will use your name and CV in different bids, in order to prove that they use professional, high-profile interpreters, but in fact they don’t, they give the job to other, less expensive interpreters. You’re just there as the lady in the window in the red-light district. This happens everywhere in the industry both in PSI and conference interpreting.

I guess I should not be surprised that my last post received quite a bit of attention. I see you have already written a new blog post treating some of the topics I brought up, and although I doubt that I’m such an important power, I suppose the timing of InterpretAmerica’s recent blog post may have something to do with this as well.

I find it surprising though that so far there has been very little open debate and discussions about Babelverse. Having doubts about a particular solution or player does not mean being tech or development hostile. This is a possible paradigm shift, or disruption, as Kathy Allen over at InterpretAmerica calls it. Then it should be justified to air questions and opinions publicly. Yes, I saw that there will be a Google hangout and that the topic will be discussed in a panel at InterpretAmerica (I must have magic timing). It’s very good that it’s happening now, but before this, as far as I know, the only serious attempt to debate it has been an #IntJC some 5 months ago, and quite frankly, it did not dissolve my doubts. I was also wondering about the participants in the Google hangout – are any of your panelists critical of your idea?

Yes, Josef and Mayel, I know you have attempted to have a Skype conversation with me, the first time I aired some doubts. I did not follow-up on that in the end, because I felt that these are questions I’m sure I’m not the only one to ask, and the discussion needed a greater audience, just as you did with #IntJC. No hard feelings, but the sort of secrecy around the set up does not make me less suspicious.

In your mail to me after the last post you say that I’m incorrect in assuming that interpreters are paid per minute. I’d be more than happy to correct that, after all, what I want you to do, is to develop your platform so that it does not create precarity. I have a follow-up question though, you say that “Professional interpreters working on conference or event jobs are highly respected on our platform and are not paid per minute”. Great, but how do you pay these interpreters, and, more importantly, how do you pay the other interpreters? I have read on your homepage several times that pay are counted on the basis on many factors, and in you latest blog post you say that your rates are lower than for instance EU or any larger institutions, but you want interpreters to receive a fair income. Fair enough, I’ll wait for the examples, you say you will provide. Just curious, what is a fair income? And without wanting to sound like a whiner, just on the information sharing platform, EU is actually not a very good payer when it comes to freelance per day remuneration – they play with the fact that they (usually) give many days and that they pay taxes and pension funds.

About the State of the Union, since that is also something you took up in your mail. You said it was purely experimental, and that you product should not be judged on that. I agree, and I did not judge your product on that, I merely stated that there is a huge difference between the type of interpreting in a State of the Union-type situation and an ad hoc relief situation. And that if you sell them as equal products (which honestly one was easily led to believe reading what you wrote at that time) you have me worried.

As I read from your blog you realize that high level interpreting have different requirement and strive to create an appropriate working environment for the SoU- type of interpretings, I’m curious to know; Have you been in touch with any professional organizations such as AIIC, IAPTI, ATA when you developed the working environment? Can you show any examples of how the technical solution works? I see that Nataly Kelly mentions you, and that you will come to InterpretAmerica, but have you actually discussed working conditions, pay and working environment with them? You say that you co-operate with professional interpreters (those who are not as tech hostile and sour as I am, I suppose), that is very good, I’m happy about that. Do you have any references? You are not new to marketing, and you know that direct referral is one of the best things to recruit people. How about adding some references to high-profile interpreters, with their credentials, that would be happy to tell the rest of us more about Babelverse and possibly calm my worry?

If we look at other industries we see that outsourcing or relocation to cheaper countries are a reality for many professions and that it has not necessarily been good for either the professionals or the quality of the product. Patentranslator has a recent post about it. It goes without saying that it is a real fear in our business too. This is not about being tech hostile (although there are tech solutions around that will make you hostile like the one described here) or reluctant to change, as said earlier, I love technology that makes my job easier (and hey, I’m a Swede, we’re the people most open to change in the world according to recent research). But this is about being able to trust new players to not deteriorate working conditions or selling interpreters as commodities, we want to keep our jobs and get a fair pay. I’m sorry guys, but you still have some work to do in order to convince me. There’s also the issue of how you screen your interpreters, but this post is already being too long.

And just to set one last thing straight, in case I sound as a spoilt, luxury interpreter on my high horses who wants my booth and my first class flights all over the world, and who will whine if I’m not given the same food as the delegates – there’s nothing of that in the world I live in. I’m a freelance,  I work both as PSI and conference interpreter, I’m a proud AIIC member and a certified PS-interpreter.  I work for private market, in court, at hospitals as well as for institutions. My home market, and my language combination, is a tiny one. Fighting for decent working conditions for ALL interpreters on my market is a Sisyphean labour, but no one will do it for me, so I’ll take the risk of sounding like an old, sour granny. You need to prove yourself in order to earn trust.

Your turn.

Update: Your should also read the Interpreter Diaries’ open letter to Babelverse, and Dolmetschblog’s take on the issue. Both Michelle and Alexander have been (contrary to me) in direct contact with them. Babelverse’s blogpost that I refer to above is here. There is also an thread on Babelverse here. Do read the comments in this post, since I asked for a debate it’s fair that everyone is heard or read. And a special credit to Lionel – The Liaison interpreter – who started debating this long before I had even started to think about what it would mean to me.


19 thoughts on “Babel precarity – more questions

  1. I have to say that this is not an issue I deal with although I am interested knowing what happens in the world of interpreting. I like the fact that you want to have an open discussion. The questions raised are valid and deserve a clear open answer. Getting paid a proper wage is important. I understand that agencies always pay me less than direct, but I make the decision if I,m willing to work for them on their terms and price. In most cases I have chosen not to do so.

    • Thanks for your comment. It should be said that I’ve worked a lot with good agencies as well 🙂 and I don’t mind being paid a little less if it means that somebody else take over admin and coordination muddle. One thing about interpreting is that we often stick to ourselves instead of having discussions, so this was my attempt to remedy that 🙂

  2. Elisabet, I stand by you although not in the same league. Participants to that #IntJC session had the disagreeable impression to be forced to consider matters of technology when technology and luddites have nothing to with the issues at stake. And the more you claim you are actively swarmed in daily usage with high end technologies, the more they come back to you with the nice frontend screenshots. The claque at that session, although a poor one, was the unexpected guest.

    Precarity is the issue, and nothing else because the business model is commodification that brings precarity and is the only factor that wets the appetite of investors besides new venues for showering around more commercials. Remote interpreting, as it opens up new potential to reach currently far away market, is not an issue but a welcome perspective.

    Marketing wise, Babelverse so far has not been impressive besides shunning at the essential issues as a standard strategy. But things may change and they will have to. We all do.

    I invite other interpreters to save on the +1 and other “I like”, and instead expand their opinions beyond 140 signs here and in other public forums.

  3. I agree, the issue is wider than just being pro or against new tech. It has to do with working conditions in a broader sense, with respect to the profession, with what is the whole purpose of our work. We are usually there to convey the original message in the target language, but the message comes through via different “channels”, not just audio or video, and even these two basic ones are questionable if we are talking remote/distant interpreting. It is important who we interpret for and to what end. The interpreting context is important and cannot be generalised, if we want to assure quality.
    But most importantly, its the relation that matters, the basic respect, that to my opinion is lacking or I see to little evidence of it. Yes, let’s open a debate and let’s value each other’s opinion and try to work together towards the goals (if they are the same … not quite sure about that either…).
    Thanks, Elisabet for insisting on clarifications. Who will stand for our profession if not us!

  4. Pingback: An Open Letter to the Founders of Babelverse | The Interpreter Diaries

  5. Thank you so much for writing these two posts, Elisabet. You have made so many worthwhile points that I wouldn’t know where to start in listing them all. Let me just say that at this very moment, I am trying to picture an image of a sour old granny in a red light district window – and I am pleased to say that I don’t know any interpreters who fit the description! XD

    Let me just add here the link to my post on this topic, for any of your readers who might want to know my views on this topic:

    May the debate continue…

  6. You want a better product fom Babelverse? Give them constructive feedback.

    You want more transparency? Get on a call with them!

    You want a fair pay? Then tell them what that is!

    So far you’ve only been throwing mud, without giving any constructive input. Why? Why did it take you 1 year to make up your mind about how you feel about them? Really? 1 year? Someone else’s opinion triggered yours? You don’t base your opinions on your own judgement?

    I have skype calls everyday with my customers (even though not interpreters) – I have never ever thought of these calls as having any “sort of secrecy around the set up”’s just a skype call. Since when are skype calls secret and in a weird setup?

    These are just a bunch of negative, extreme paranoid attacks on someone that reached out to you for help a year ago. Since when the beta testing of a product will make someone “end up in a hostage situation”?

    Sounds like your negative past experiences have taken their toll, and you’re jumping to conclusions about Babelverse, without even giving them a chance to talk to you. Public blog posts? Bully approach. Ganging up with your fellow interpreters on them? Bully approach.

    You’re out there to destroy them without even having the courage to respond to their calls for conversation, without giving them the opportunity to learn from your positive experience – what works and what doesn’t in your industry.

    During this year that you were making up your mind about them you could’ve worked together towards building a better product for interpreters. Instead here you are, following the footsteps of negativity, fear and mistrust. Not fair.

    Please make up your own opinions, and give the other side the chance to get your feedback without putting them in a negative light, and to have a chance to explain to you what’s missing from their homepage.

    🙂 Thank you!

    • Dear Anca,
      Thank you for your long and honest comment. I actually think that I am giving them constructive feedback by writing these posts. I cannot force them to adapt or change the things I write about, but by airing my doubts I give them a chance to (publicly) explain. And no, I’m not getting on a call with them, because then it’s just them and me, and as I wrote in my post, I want to avoid that. I don’t mind telling them what fair pay is if they ask for a quote.

      No, I don’t believe I’m throwing mud – I believe I’m being constructive.

      Yes, it took me a long time to make up my mind, which can be both good and bad. But quite honestly my opinion was based on what I read from Babelverse’s own webpage, what I have seen from their videos from different start-up conventions on the Internet and their answers at #IntJC. So yes, I have based it on my own judgment from their public image.

      I have Skype calls and real life meetings with both my customers and agencies regularly too. The thing is Babelverse is not my agency or customer yet, and I would very much like to get an informed opinion about them first, before I engage in a closer relationship or take direct contact, just as I do with other clients. This is, just as they say, something very new and they need to be very open about what they are doing to gain trust.

      Maybe it’s “just a bunch of negative, extreme paranoid attacks”, but their outreach has not been very impressive. The first e-mail contact only came after my blog post actually. “Since when the beta testing of a product will make someone “end up in a hostage situation”?” You’d be surprised to see what sort of situations one can end up in.

      Yes, it’s true my negative past experiences have taken their toll, and therefore I decided to be open with that. If you don’t know what you’re up against it’s difficult to convince somebody.
      But again, as I said above, I have read Babelverse’s public webpage and looked at different videos on the Internet. I’m not sure what conclusions I’m jumping to, I suppose what they say in a public forum is what they mean.

      “Public blog posts? Bully approach.” Why? You have to explain that. I go beyond hearsay or gossip. I state what I feel from what I have read on their homepage and on their interactions on the Internet and they are free to give their view.

      “Ganging up with your fellow interpreters on them? Bully approach.” About the ganging up – I realize it may seem so with all the posts popping up one after the other, but this was not a planned action. Maybe my post just popped the lid off something that had been brewing at other places as well.

      No I’m not here to destroy them. I’m here to tell them what does not work for me. They can take it or leave it, and I’d be happy to elaborate, publicly. I also invited them in my post to contact the professional organizations who have both experience and expertise in the field. And again, I have not exactly been flooded with their calls for conversation.

      Over the past year, I could have worked together with them towards building a better product instead of making my mind up, that’s true. But they could also have arranged hearings with representatives of the interpreting community in different countries, meetings with the professional organizations out there. I’m not exactly the only representative for the interpreting trade around, I’m not even a very important representative for that trade. And as I have understood after my posting quite a few of my colleagues have been discussing with them on a bi-lateral basis, apparently these discussions have not lead to any important change in the public image (which may of course be due to the fact that I’m all wrong here and that their solution is already perfect, but I have some doubts there).

      This is not about creating negativity, fear and mistrust. This is not about being fair. This is about having an open discussion about what I think about what Babelverse is doing. As I said in the post, prove me wrong, nothing would make me happier.

      Yes this is my opinion, I don’t see why a bit of constructive discussion would be that bad. It’s not about putting people in a negative light, it’s about giving them an opportunity to prove me wrong or change.

      Thank you, too!

    • Anca, stop already! Your answers don’t scream intellect. You don’t have anything to contribute because you have no idea what you are talking about.

  7. Heyllo Elisabet, Thank you for your detailed response! 🙂

    Here goes mine:

    From my point of view, this is not constructive feedback, it’s pointing out the negative aspects, and if you do not give any sort of possible solution to the negative issues, you can not expect a better outcome.

    You said that they could’ve met with representatives of the interpreting community from different countries – they did. They even went to Tokyo and met Lionel, because they knew he is not a big supporter of their cause and they wanted his feedback – all they got was nothing, really. Just opposition and no real valuable information about how they could deliver a better product.

    You guys have not applied any of Michelle’s 4 golden rules (integrity, transparency, professionalism and mutual trust) towards your relationship with Babelverse (or lack thereof). All you do is write blog posts about how unhappy you are about their existence, and how you don’t want to talk to them in private. The Google hangout was supposed to be transmitted live and watched by anyone curious about what they’re doing (your followers included), giving the Babelverse guys a chance to explain all your concerns. But no, you’d rather rant about their videos, website and the way they work.

    This past year they have travelled all over trying to meet your community. They really believe in this project and in the fact that they can be the catalyst between the tech world (them being 2 web developers – geeks, basically – not lawyers or business people) and the interpreting community. You guys could take advantage of their passion for this and steer Babelverse towards a mutually beneficial solution. However, you only pointing out their faults and not giving them real solutions to the problems you’re outlining leaves them with nothing but bitterness towards you. It’s hard to stay rational and passionate about something when the core people that you are trying to create something for are all out there to get you.

    Babelverse team is willing to change and adapt, so that the interpreters community is happy. But how can they, when you are all so reluctant to giving them feedback? What you are doing here is just pointing out the issues without really offering any solution that would make you satisfied.

    And also, this is not a bit of constructive discussion. You did put them in a negative light, whether you admit it or not. You are a thought leader, and people follow what you say without double checking. The other posts that were written after your have an even more negative connotation, which only proves that my view of your article is right. Constructive means actually saying your opinion on how to improve things. Negative means pointing out the negative side of a situation.

    What I meant by “Public blog posts? Bully approach.” is this: Do you know those kids in high school that pick on the good shy guys, yell at them and push them around? If they would be alone, with none watching them, their behavior would most likely be different. When in a crowd, with people watching / reading, we tend to react different. It’s human psychology, we work to impress and the more support we get in trashing someone, the closer we get to cutting their throats. We are social beings, and peer pressure is a fantastic tool. You are being looked up on by your community, so do not take lightly your role in having people make up their mind one way or another. If this doesn’t make sense i can explain further, but you’re super smart so I’m sure you get my point.

    I only wish that you and your followers would give them the opportunity to have a truly open discussion, without making them feel forced like they have to defend themselves. They haven’t done anything wrong.

    I wrote more comments on Michelle’s post, and I feel like if I would go on I’d be redundant, and really wish we would centralize this conversation somewhere.

    I feel the need to add that these views are my own, not Babelverse’s. I do know them personally, and this is why I am getting involved in this mess, because I do know that their intentions are good, and they’re really far from being ‘sharks’. I can even prove this, but it’s confidential information and don’t want to ruin their relationships with certain players in the tech / startup world. I guess on some things you’ll just have to risk and take my word for it, even though I am noone from your perspective. However, I am a thought leader in my own community, and I always encourage people to think positive, work together towards innovation and adapt in such way so that most people benefit from it.

    Maybe I’m an idealistic idiot, but I truly believe that a positive approach of a problem, even though harder to achieve, can have much more effective results than the negative approach.

    You end in “It’s not about putting people in a negative light, it’s about giving them an opportunity to prove me wrong or change” – in my opinion you contradict yourself. If you’re not putting them in a negative light, then why do they have to either prove you wrong or change? By asking them to do either of those is basically saying that what they’re doing is wrong – which is basically a negative light 🙂


    • Hello again Anca!
      Here comes my answers to your last comment, sorry for the delay – have been busy…

      About constructive feedback, I don’t think we can agree on this one. I will post questions for the Google hangout in their form though.

      I know they have met individual representatives for the interpreting community, but I was wondering about organizations. Interpreting organizations could provide a lot of feedback on working conditions, professional guide lines, rules and regulations and so forth.

      The announcement of the Google hangout was not announced until a week after my first blog post. And before that hangout I have not heard about any other similar initiative. Therefore my information comes from their website and interviews. I think it is professional and transparent to give as much information as you can on your website. I’m not at all unhappy about their existence, I have voiced my concerns for my own situation, and of all the people who have voiced concerns in their blogs I’m the only one (as far as I know) who have not had direct contact with them.
      I understand no one can be everywhere all the time, and I understand web developing and not business is their specialization, but when you start a research project you read up on what other researchers in the field has already found out about your particular area of interest. If you start a business project you make market research, right. I guess this is also what they have done in order to present their project in start-ups. Furthermore, they have now hired, as I see from the website, both a PR-person and a global community ambassador. So supposedly there are more people there for the contact part. I do not wish for them to be bitter towards me, but I wish that they are able to listen to my concerns, ask questions, and show how (if) they would like to treat them.

      “Babelverse team is willing to change and adapt, so that the interpreters community is happy”. Wonderful, I’m happy about that! “But how can they, when you are all so reluctant to giving them feedback?” Again, I believe, I am giving feedback (no, need to answer that, let’s just agree that we disagree).
      I hope you’ll find my questions in the next post as constructive. I’m not sure it’s the fact that I’m a leader more maybe that when somebody suddenly dared say something out loud, the lid sort of popped. I agree that some of the comments on Michelle’s post are not very constructive, but again this probably mirrors the fear and worry that people feel.

      I understand how you think when you explain the bully approach, and I also think it’s closer to you because you know Josef and Mayel and I don’t and therefore you see the “shy guys” in them. I agree that it’s different in a crowd, and I think it became quite clear in Michelle’s post. Nevertheless, I think it’s super important to keep the debate in the open. Yes! We want a truly open discussion. I’m looking forward both to the Google hangout and to InterpretAmerica. Again both these announcements came a week after my first post. I had no chance knowing about them when I first wrote about this. Nobody should defend themselves about right or wrong, just discuss. Babelverse does not have to agree with me. I want to talk.

      I personally have no idea whether these guys are sharks or not, I don’t think so. I take your word that they are good. But we still need to discuss the issues that worry the profession.

      “In my opinion you contradict yourself. If you’re not putting them in a negative light, then why do they have to either prove you wrong or change? By asking them to do either of those is basically saying that what they’re doing is wrong – which is basically a negative light ” Again, I think we just have to agree to disagree.

      Thank you again for opening the discussion. I realize these are your own opinions and not official Babelverse. Talk to you soon!

    • “Maybe I’m an idealistic idiot”
      I’m glad that you are at least capable of an adequate self-assessment.

  8. Hello Elisabet,

    Katharine Allen and I have been following this unfolding debate with great interest, particularly because we extended an invitation to Josef and Mayel to participate in InterpretAmerica 4.
    To be clear, the participation of Babelverse and any other vendor or individual with specific business models or views is not an endorsement of their model or views. Our vision at InterpretAmerica is “providing a forum for the interpreting profession” where ALL issues can be aired. To be aired, everyone needs a seat at the table. We have opened many such debates through the Summits, and have typically found that these conversations do much to move everyone towards greater understanding and solutions.

    We have Invited Josef and Mayel to InterpretAmerica 4 specifically to encourage open discussion about their platform and business model. We saw this as an issue that needed to be addressed through frank discussion with the interpreting community. And as your and Michelle Hof’s blog posts have shown, there IS much to be addressed on many levels–particularly, the chasm separating professional interpreters and the many language startups in the high-tech world. As interpreters know well, dialog is where understanding begins. We are in talks right now with other technology providers that are creating waves in the interpreting industry, but cannot make any more announcements until we have confirmed their participation. Babelverse was the first to confirm. Our blog post on the potentially positive power of disruption, in which we mentioned their participation in InterpretAmerica 4, appears to have come at a time when some serious frustrations among the conference interpreting community finally came to a head.

    We will continue to encourage constructive, open dialog on the topic of interpreting and technology with Babelverse and others and invite all those interested to join us. Interpreting, like so many other professions, is traveling a rough road as technology continues to change the way we work and, perhaps more difficult still, how people (mis)perceive what we do and what it takes to do it. If we don’t get out and tell our story, others will. And we won’t have control of the narrative.

    This discussion has been a long time coming. I look forward to seeing it continue.

    Barry Slaughter Olsen
    Co-president, InterpretAmerica

    • Hi Barry!
      Just to be clear. I’m very happy they will be at InterpretAmerica. My first post was written out of frustration that everything seemed to be happening “in camera”, as you may have noticed my post was published before you announced Babelverse’s participation at IA4. I want to have an open debate. I very much hope to be at InterpretAmerica myself this time and is in that case looking forward to the debate. I believe a dialogue is very important, I just wanted a public dialogue, and I sure got it 🙂

      • Hi Elisabet,

        Totally agree. Open dialog is what we have been working towards as well. My hope is that both interpreters and many other innovators and tech companies will either lend and ear, join the conversation, or both. Keep the blog posts coming!


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