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 Interpreting.info 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.

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