Collaboration: The Key To Interpreting’s Future

“We need more pay for the work we do.”

 “Nobody respects us interpreters.”

 “Can we please stop having intruders in this profession?”[1]

 “When will people understand that being bilingual doesn’t mean you can interpret?”

 “We should boycott if they try to bring in video interpreting.”

 “Maybe conference interpreters can demand a partner, but I won’t get hired if I ask for one.”

 “Medical interpreter ethics just aren’t ethical compared to legal interpreting.”

 “You can’t really call what military linguists do interpreting and translation. They are completely untrained.”

Five years ago, these sentiments were all too commonplace in our field. As was the marked fragmentation and division between interpreters and interpreting sectors.

And five years ago, I sat in the office of my then interpreting professor, Barry Slaughter Olsen, and listened in stunned disbelief as he pitched an idea for what would become the biggest professional risk of my career: what did I think about joining forces to create a new industry event, one which would endeavor to bring more unity, cohesion and recognition to our fragmented profession?

Despite the crazy risk it represented, we signed our names on one dotted line to book a venue and on a second to commission the first ever comprehensive market survey of the interpreting profession in North America. Then we started shopping the 1st North American Summit on Interpreting to vendors, professional associations, and every possible stakeholder we could reach.

In the end, we judged correctly that we were not alone among our peers in wanting more connection, collaboration, and visibility for our chosen profession of interpreting. Against all odds, the Summit was a resounding success. The most important outcome? The unexpectedly powerful collaborative momentum it created.

Now poised for the 4th InterpretAmerica Summit in June, the face of our profession has both transformed and remained stubbornly the same since that moment five years ago. 

Five years ago, Web 2.0 was gaining ground, social media was just getting started, the smart phone was in its infancy, and the iPad was just a blip on the horizon. No one could imagine the lightning-fast advance of mobile everything and how it would penetrate all aspects of our lives.

Now we speak of Web 3.0, interpreting and translation apps, digital disruptors, creating social media platforms and social media overload. Google glass and wearable technology are “in beta” realities and the pace of change confronting us makes one thing certain: we cannot imagine five years from now.

Many of us are struggling with feelings of fear, displacement, disorientation, and anger as we watch long years of struggle to build quality and competency standards into our profession threatened. Our wage agreements are under fire. Full-time onsite interpreters are increasingly rare as video penetrates every interpreting sector.

Yet we celebrate these changes as well. We revel in increased communication, the vastly superior access to information and resources, and our newfound ability to work online and connect with colleagues from all over the world. The same technologies that threaten existing models are also opening up new markets and new opportunities. Indeed, ours is a growth field. “Employment of interpreters and translators is expected to grow 42 percent from 2010 to 2020, much faster than the average for all occupations.”[2]

Five years ago, Barry and I founded InterpretAmerica to see if we could get our field talking to each other more, to share the strengths and resources hidden away in individual sectors with the fundamental conviction that a rising tide lifts all boats. We strive for the day when “I am an interpreter” carries as much automatic and esteemed meaning as “I am a doctor” or “I am a engineer.”

In other words, we believed in the potential of collaboration to successfully meet many of the challenges facing our field. So many dedicated professionals from all across our industry were working in isolation to meet those challenges. Many old challenges remain, and others are brand new, especially those created by new technologies.

But one thing has not changed: The power and importance of collaboration. Barry and I have been both honored and humbled to see the kinds of collaborative efforts that lead to real change that have come out of the simple act of gathering a diverse group of stakeholders in our profession together and introducing them to each other. The international discussion on interpreter certification, the founding of the National Interpreters Associations Coalition (of which NAJIT is an important member) and concrete changes in how some technology companies do businesses are just a few examples.

Clearly, our project is just one of many that is achieving the same result. Of all the changes technology is bringing, the ability to collaborate on much grander scales is perhaps the most important new resource to latch onto. [Collaboration] is “a fundamentally generative act. [It] isn’t just about achieving a goal or joining forces; it’s about creating something together that it would be impossible to create alone.”[3]

Our field, once so separate, is now brimming with the possibilities created by such innovative efforts as, a collaborative blogging site for the sign language community, the soon-to-be revealed Voices Academy, the newly-minted combination online/onsite Masters in Conference Interpreting at the Glendon College of Translation, and Interpreting for Europe, which was originally maintained by both the European Commission and the European Parliament to address conference interpreter shortages and which grew into the largest social media site for interpreters anywhere in the world (more than 25K likes). Both entities have now launched separate campaigns to more specifically target their different social media objectives.

As my co-president Barry Olsen recently shared on Facebook:

“For all the possibilities that communication technologies represent, their use for good or ill depends solely on people. Forget all the talk about machines taking over. What happens in the future is up to us.”[4]

All of these innovators and many more will be present at the 4th InterpretAmerica Summit on June 14-15 in Reston, Virginia. Come join us to help shape our profession’s future! Early bird rates good through Monday, May 20th!





[1] Question posted on the LinkedIn group Professional Interpreters, All Languages”, April 2013

[2] Occupation Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor,

[3] McGonigal, Jane (2011-01-20). Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Kindle Locations 4367-4368). Penguin Books. Kindle Edition.

[4] Excerpt From: Eric Schmidt & Jared Cohen. “The New Digital Age.” Knopf, 2013-04-23. iBook.

By Katharine Allen

0 thoughts on “Collaboration: The Key To Interpreting’s Future”

  1. Lola Bendana says:

    Fantastic recollection. Collaboration is certainly our best route to achieve our shared outcomes, we wont reach them without it. Thanks Katharine

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