The Urgent Need for Best Practices in the Interpreting Profession

Last year, InterpretAmerica published a document titled “Best Practices in the Interpreting Profession: Simultaneous Interpreting in Non-Conference Settings[1]” which I co-authored.

Last month, we completed a draft document titled “Best Practices in the Interpreting Profession: The Professional Medical Interpreter”.

Last night I interpreted for a local school board meeting and forgot all about the best practices I have worked so hard to promote.

I arrived on time and in good order, set up my portable simultaneous equipment, checked with the district secretary for any new materials to be used during the meeting and even had a chance to speak briefly with an invited consultant who would give a brief presentation on green energy in schools. As the community members arrived who needed interpreting, I got them set up with their receivers and then I settled in, minutes and agenda ready to reference on my laptop, and waited for the meeting to begin.

“Good evening. The meeting is called to order at 7:12pm. The first order of business is….”

What did the Board President say? In that instant I realized I had completely forgotten the most obvious “best practice” any interpreter needs to control for first and foremost: Sound.

There sat five board members, the superintendent, the district financial officer and secretary, neatly arranged in front of me, and I could barely hear a word. I immediately moved forward and to the side and spent the rest of the evening alternating leaning forward to try and catch everyone’s comments, kicking myself for being so stupid.

This experience, aside from being a humbling reminder that even veteran interpreters should never get too comfortable in our own shoes, provides a microcosm view of why our field so urgently needs the creation and adoption of best practice recommendations on many fronts and for many audiences.

“Best practice” is a term that has no single agreed-upon definition, having its origins in business and used differently depending on whether you are in IT, marketing, health care, or education. For our purposes, I will borrow the definition from the website Investopedia[2]:

“A set of guidelines, ethics or ideas that represent the most efficient or prudent course of action. Best practices are often set forth by an authority, such as a governing body or management, depending on the circumstances. While best practices generally dictate the recommended course of action, some situations require that such practices be followed.”

The anecdote of interpreting in a small-scale venue such as a school board meeting represents what is an all-too-frequent reality for interpreters providing services in community and business settings all across the country. Our clients are well-meaning but often woefully ignorant of the services they are contracting us to perform. It has always been up to us, the interpreters, to have a good handle on how to insist on the minimum working conditions we need to perform our services professionally and in line with our professional ethics and standards.

In this case, interpreting could benefit enormously from professional associations creating best practice guidelines both for interpreters and end-users to ensure minimal working conditions across a broad swath of settings. With the creation of our “Best Practices in the Interpreting Profession,” InterpretAmerica is attempting to model this idea and to provide targeted resources in areas long unattended.

But extending professional practice into traditional market sectors such as community and medical is just a drop in the bucket. Right now our field faces change on a scope and at a pace never before experienced. The adoption of new technologies and the rush of smart, creative innovators from outside our field seeking to grab part of the burgeoning international market share in the language services industry represent fundamental, irreversible change that our professional associations and industry leadership have yet to respond to.

Two such examples highlight this point.

The smartphone as we know it was introduced just six short years ago, in 2007, when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. The iPad is only three years old. Yet if you look at statistics for the adoption rate for use of smartphone and tablet devices by doctors and nurses, fully 69% of doctors and 96% of nurses report using mobile solutions for day-to-day activities.[3]  In just 6 years!

What goes on those “mobile solutions”? Apps and software of all kinds, including machine translation and automated interpreting apps. These include out-of-the-box service delivery models for cheap, easily accessible interpreting services just as Sendboo, VerbalizeIt and Babelverse. Never heard of these services? Take a moment to check them out, because they represent the digital disruptors in our profession. They are going straight to the end-user with business models that promise inexpensive, reliable, and easily accessible services that are platform-neutral (i.e., they work on Android, Mac, PCs, tablets, phones, etc.)

These companies bring the promise of innovation and expanded markets, yet they also urgently need our input and best practice guidelines for ensuring the quality and competence of the language services they provide. Right now, they are operating almost completely outside the established framework of our profession.

The second example is the adoption of something technical that will most of us blink our eyes in non-comprehension: WebRTC[4]. Huh?

WebRTC is web-based communications platform that works across browsers, such as Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer. It offers high quality voice and high definition (HD) video and low–delay communication to web browsers. In other words, as soon as this standard is agreed upon across providers, not only will much better sound and video streaming over the web be possible, it will be platform-neutral. We will be able to convene video-conference meetings between people around the world using different computers, browsers and internet software, with no plug-ins required.

WebRTC is a game-changer for providing high-quality interpreting services world-wide on mobile platforms virtually anywhere. It doesn’t take long to see how that will impact long-standing and hard-won labor agreements for conference interpreters in international settings, currently based on face-to-face interpreting. Nor does it take much thought to understand how likely it is that we will soon be providing video everything – medicine, court interpreting, business conferences, etc.

Michael Sayor, author of The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything, wrote that “genuine globalization will occur when it will be possible to hire a doctor in Bangalore to examine us for $10…That physician will check our temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and conduct an EKG through med sensors connected to our phones or available at a medical kiosk.”

In the face of such rapid and comprehensive change, our profession needs to step up the pace in response. We need best practice guidelines, recommendations for everything from how to move into the digital age by adopting the use of some of these platforms to solid client education resources to protect our working conditions.

The 4th InterpretAmerica Summit – On The Cutting Edge: Bringing Interpreting To The Forefront – takes place on June 14-15 in Reston, Virginia, and is one place to start dealing with these issues. We will be tackling a broad range of difficult but exciting challenges facing our field, from the best use of social media to promote ourselves individually and as a profession, to the digital disruptors changing our work models, to new international and national interpreting standards and how to train the millennial generation of practitioners just entering our field.

Full program and registration details are available at

We hope to see you there!




















By Katharine Allen

6 thoughts on “The Urgent Need for Best Practices in the Interpreting Profession”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    I visited VerbalizeIt’s site and was not happy with what I saw there. No respect for industry standards, which means no respect for professionals. Making one’s job easier should not mean that the safe guards that were put into place to ensure quality – as in working conditions and final product – should be ignored.

    Where are the industry regulators? How can we educate these newcomers and use new technology to support existing quality parameters without compromising the development of this segment of our industry?

    We need to work on those answers.

    1. Gio and Al,

      I want to take a bit of a different tack on this. We do talk abundantly about standards and best practices, unfortunately almost exclusively among ourselves. It is often an exercise in groupthink. I think the profession must engage the disruptors, rather than try to force compliance with standards and regulations that take years to draft, approve and implement. Look at how the tech industry has approached this, through users groups and voluntary coalitions to develop standards that push innovation forward. That is the approach needed.

      Lobbyists. InterpretAmerica focused on this at the first Summit in 2010. Some LSPs have retained lobbyists who represent their interests on Capitol Hill. And NAJIT has a government relations specialist who also moderated a workgroup on this very matter at the Summit in 2011. Finally, you may want to look at maintained by JNCL-NCLIS, the language industry’s representation on Capitol Hill. They are lobbying for the language professions, but we are only a subset of a larger group.

      Finally, ignoring digital disruptors is the wrong strategy. Engagement is better than isolation.

      My two cents.

      Barry Slaughter Olsen
      Monterey, USA

      1. Al Navas says:

        I agree completely, Barry. Thank you!

        During a recent back-and-forth with a now-well-known “disruptor”, it became obvious that lack of engagement led to a meeting of the minds that never happened.

        Oh, there *was* much engagement, but sometimes for either unrelated reasons, and sometimes because people applied knee jerk reactions to a statement, a thought, or a comment. I sincerely hope I do not sound overly critical of that exchange. But that example suggested that the much-needed meeting of the minds is a distance away, maybe even well beyond the horizon.

        Barry, I think I know what you mean by “engagement”. I understand the word in the context of the tech industry. But HOW can the interpreter engage disruptors? This is probably key. I suspect it is difficult to engage a disruptor when one’s livelihood appears to be at stake, to be threatened. If engagement is key, why has it not happened to date? Is it due to lack of regulation that protects the interpreter and his/her livelihood? Or is it something else?

        Finally, what CAN be done to create a forum, a…something, that will allow interpreters to engage in dialog with the disruptors? As the years pass, and the interpreters themselves don’t start to feel better about a secure future, it would be wonderful if, finally, some sort of partnering emerges that results in a dialog to make THEM partners in their future.

        As many people know, I am passionate about technology, and how it will affect our future. Starting, and then continuing, a dialog with disruptors, is absolutely essential. If we do not become involved, we are likely to not be participants in the future.

        1. Al,

          I’d love to comment in detail. You have raised many of the key issues that worry interpreters. I sure hope we get a chance to meet face to face some day. I’d love to talk more about this.

          Let me just say that we are striving to create just this kind of forum at InterpretAmerica 4. We will have multiple “disruptors” attending. Even though interpreters may not believe it, my experience has been that they DO want to interact with us and learn about what we need. They are looking to revolutionize how the world communicates (no small feat) and many realize that they will not be able to do this without competent linguists to make that happen. the misgivings that we all feel are no different from those felt in other professions. As someone I respect once said, we should lean into the stiff wind of opportunity, rather than hunkering down and doing nothing.


  2. Al Navas says:


    We can keep going with development of standards, we can continue publishing them, and we can continue talking about them and discussing them on our blogs, web sites, etc.

    But…And this is a big but: Gio already touched on it:

    Unless, and until a unified system exists that makes the Best Practices mandatory, i.e., makes them the Interpreting Practices, it is likely that nothing will change.

    I believe disruption will take place, because interpreters and the interpreting profession does not address the issue with Washington. We probably have lobbyists (do we?) who make a lot of money, pushing for these standards. But as Gio asks, “Where are the regulators?” and only silence ensues, there is not much that we as interpreters can do to influence what the disruption of our jobs will do. And that means all the companies you mention in your article, but also the ones we do not know about.

    We can be assured of one thing: Disruption is real, and it will likely affect our profession. Is there a concerted effort to minimize the impact on us? I am not certain. But I hope someone can point to the efforts being made on behalf of the interpreters. What is apparent is that continuing to write standards, and continuing to talk about them, is not likely to yield results, unless something more concrete happens in parallel.

    Who will volunteer to be the first Interpreter Lobbyist in Washington? Who will fund it?

    Al Navas
    Missouri, USA

  3. Ladyelvis, I have stuck with the sponge so far but will be trying it out with a brush soon as the sponge will get too grubby for me to tolerate. Thanks everyone for the nice comments on the lipstick there will be post on it next week so stay tuned! xo

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