the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on sign language interpreting working conditions

by Jemina Napier

This blogpost considers the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the working conditions of sign language interpreters (regardless of whether they are deaf or hearing interpreters), and also the consequences of the impact on working conditions for signing deaf communities.

I first shared my thoughts in British Sign Language (BSL) about this topic during an Association of Sign Language Interpreters UK (ASLI) event #ASLI15minutesinframe where different presenters gave brief presentations in BSL on a range of topics. The event was available free to ASLI UK members, but I wanted to share these thoughts with a wider audience, hence the reason for this blogpost on Acadeafic and an accompanying version in International Sign. The ASLI presentation generated some interesting observations from participants that I have incorporated into this blogpost, and I hope this post will continue to generate further discussions about this topic between deaf signers and interpreters.

Working conditions for sign language interpreters

We are all aware that several organisations including the  World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) and the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI), along with national deaf associations and professional sign language interpreter organisations, have worked long and hard to establish good working conditions for sign language interpreters worldwide in order to ensure that interpreters can work to the best of their ability to facilitate communication between deaf and hearing people and meet the information access needs for deaf signers.

We had to fight for optimum working conditions to be established and maintained worldwide when we were not in a crisis situation. But since the Covid-19 pandemic hit we have seen a massive shift in interpreting working practices, primarily because there has been a massive shift to remote working with people working from home online wherever possible. We have also seen an increased demand for interpreters to work in the media to interpret for governmental public health announcements.

So, one of the things that I am concerned about is working conditions for interpreters under these new pandemic conditions. The standards we have worked hard to establish may be degraded or even erased.

Working conditions and interpreter cognitive load

A body of psycholinguistic research has confirmed the challenging cognitive demands of simultaneous interpreting due to processing two languages at the same time, for spoken language interpreting and sign language interpreting (e.g. Macnamara, Moore, Kegl & Conway, 2011). Th research found that interpreters can easily experience cognitive overload, which might lead to fatigue and a subsequent degradation in the accuracy and quality of the interpretation.

Sign language interpreting research has shown that the optimum processing time to produce a quality piece of interpretation is approximately 20-30 minutes (Gabrian & Williams, 2009) and then after that the interpreter’s stress levels increase, fatigue kicks in and the quality of the interpretation starts to deteriorate. This is especially the case for interpreters working between a spoken language and signed language as they also have to process language through two modalities.

Not only does extended interpreting lead to cognitive fatigue impacting on the interpretation, it can also lead to psychosocial and physiological fatigue (stress, burnout, pain and overuse injuries in arms/wrists) thus impacting on interpreters themselves.

All of this research evidence has been used to lobby for the establishment of optimum working conditions. This includes practices such as interpreters taking breaks every 20-30 minutes, assignments over one hour requiring at least two interpreters and for intense or complex assignments, three or more in the team (e.g. conference interpreting teams). This has become a general standard now in sign language interpreting (in the UK at least, although the application of such practices can be patchy). Of course there are occasions where interpreters may take a one hour job that they can manage on their own, but critically we recognise that the quality of an interpretation relies on the interpreter being able to work to the best of their ability, so even a one hour job may require regular breaks.  

Working conditions and video-mediated interpreting

Another aspect of interpreter working conditions that has received a lot of attention is in relation to video-mediated interpreting services, including video relay service (VRS) calls made via interpreters and video remote interpreting (VRI) for meetings, etc. We have seen an exponential increase in the demand of VRS and VRI in the UK, USA and many other countries, but many members of deaf communities and interpreters have raised notes of caution about where they should be used, how it should be used, for how long, and whether VRS or VRI is appropriate for complex or highly sensitive situations. A growing body of research on VRS and VRI now exists that documents the physical, mental and possible emotional challenges for interpreters working through video leading to stress and burnout, the extra demands of mediating communication and turn-taking through a screen, and consideration for deaf perspectives on when, where and why they might use VRS or VRI (Napier, Skinner & Braun, 2018).

Likewise, the regulations and employment conditions for interpreters in large VRS companies (in the USA in particular) have been identified as contributing to tensions between deaf community preferences for relationship building with interpreters and adverse working conditions for interpreters to maintain their health and professionalism.

Much of the literature asserts that interpreting services mediated through video technology should not replace face-to-face interpreting; they are complementary services that can assist for last minute or low risk situations or with hard to reach communities. With the advent of large, corporate translation and interpreting agencies taking over contracts for the provision of sign language interpreting (in the UK) we have seen drivers to push down costs by these agencies, providing only one interpreter or paying interpreters less than the standard rates, or to utilising VRS or VRI because they can achieve a higher turnover of assignments by doing this.

We already know that interpreting is hard, even under optimum working conditions. And interpreting through some kind of video link places extra strain on the process, so there are clear recommendations for how interpreters can maintain best practices, for spoken and signed language interpreters (e.g., from AIIC – the international association for conference interpreters, and ASLI – the UK Association of Sign Language Interpreters).

Working through the Covid-19 pandemic

Many interpreters work freelance so have been impacted by the fact that they have not been able to get work, or they have had a reduced amount of work. As freelancers, reduced or no work means reduced or no income. Some interpreters who have done some VRS/ VRI work have seen an upsurge of work in these areas, and others who have never worked online before have suddenly found themselves purchasing new equipment to set up home working so they can interpret for VRS calls or remotely in meetings.

There is new information circulating about the requirements for technical set ups needed for effective working, as the interpreter or ‘user’.  We are also now seeing new guidelines for working from home. The International Association for Conference Interpreters (AIIC) has relaxed its position on distance interpreting and developed specific new best practice guidelines for interpreters during Covid-19, which includes a checklist for interpreters working at home ‘in extremis’ and makes reference to sign language interpreting. And a website has also been established by AIIC Sign Language Network Coordinator, Maya De Wit, giving information and tips for sign language interpreters working during the coronavirus pandemic. There have been tips presented by deaf people on working with interpreters virtually, as well as a previous Acadeafic blogpost on the challenges for deaf academics in attending online meetings when working with sign language interpreters.

A recent survey launched for sign language interpreters internationally by deaf scholar Maartje De Meulder and Overseas Interpreting founder, Oliver Pouliot, seeks to gauge how interpreters working conditions are changing through coronavirus by administering different waves of the survey during the pandemic. We already know that agencies are cutting fees for spoken language interpreters arguing that working at home means you should only be paid by the minute or at a cheaper rate. It will be interesting to see what the outcomes of the sign language interpreting survey are: Do they have reduced work? Are they doing more remote work than before? Is their income impacted?

I have some concerns that some interpreters might take video remote work as an avenue to having an income as there is no other work available. I understand why they would do that because it might be the only work they can get at the moment. It might be that they have only worked for Video Relay Services making calls previously, but now they’re having to interpret for deaf people participating in meetings, for deaf students watching lectures through interpreters, or for deaf patients having a conversation with their doctor, all through video remote interpreting. We know there is an exponential demand for interpreting provision through video, and that is obviously the case as we have no other choice at the moment through this pandemic.

We have adapted to working with the technologies available to us; sometimes it works well, and sometimes it doesn’t. There are also the best of intentions that are not always followed through. One participant at the ASLI event commented that it is not just the quality of interpretations that are affected if we work for too long by ourselves, interpreters also need to think about self-care. Even if an interpreter does not work for more than an hour by themselves, interpreting work on a Zoom call is more exhausting than face-to-face interpreting. So, if an interpreter exhausts themselves on just one 1-hour job by themselves, should they be doing any other work that day? And if not, then that further impacts on their income. A vicious cycle.

I am not criticising interpreters for taking this work. I hope they look after themselves and ensure that they have the best working conditions they can while working at home or when interpreting for Covid-19 public health information.

But from what I have seen, I do not think this is always the case.

The impact of our decisions as interpreters

As interpreters we need to think carefully about how much time we are willing to spend interpreting through video. We have to think about the impact of the decisions that we make about working under Covid-19 conditions.

If we try and revert to previous best practices once we can emerge fully out of lockdown, perhaps agencies or service providers will say “well, if you could do it then during Covid-19 why can’t you do it now?”. And that is a risk for us as interpreters, and it is a risk for deaf communities.

I have been in virtual meetings myself as a participant that have lasted over an hour and there has only been one interpreter. Don’t get me wrong, I have also been in many other meetings where there has been more than one interpreter, but the fact is we are seeing more interpreters working on their own lately than before.

We have also seen interpreters on the television interpreting for ministerial Covid-19 related announcements for long periods of time (that’s a whole other issue about access to public health information, especially in the UK – see the #whereistheinterpreter campaign!). One interpreter in the UK recently was on screen interpreting for 74 minutes straight without a break. I am not blaming the interpreter as they did not know that it would go for that long, as normally it is under one hour. They were not to blame for that.

But this worries me. Both for media interpreters and those working remotely from home through video.

It makes me think that if service providers see that an interpreter is ‘capable’ of interpreting for over one hour by themselves then in the future, they will expect us to continue to do the same. They may see it as a cheaper option. Why would they want to employ more than one interpreter to swap every 20-30 minutes when through coronavirus pandemic we could do it alone? If we have shown them that we can seem to manage, why wouldn’t we continue to do it that way?

So how can interpreters ensure that we maintain standards, protect our health, the quality of interpretations, and the subsequent quality of access for deaf signers?

Future working conditions post-Coronavirus

I know that this is a sensitive issue. It’s a difficult situation. I am not suggesting that interpreters should not accept video remote or media interpreting work. We are all doing the best that we can at the moment during this pandemic – trying to survive, to have work,  to ensure that deaf people have access to information, work meetings, learning, etc.

We need to consider what the impact might be for our future working conditions, and therefore the impact for sign language interpreters and for deaf people.

This is just something for us to keep in mind so that we are prepared for the fact that we might need to stand up and argue our position once more. We may need to rally together again like we have done in the past to lobby for standards and working conditions again in the future.

We know that there may well be a ‘new normal’ in the future. We don’t know yet what that new normal will look like. So it is vital that interpreters and deaf communities start working together, standing together as well as lobbying together to ensure that standards are not reduced and that the quality of interpreting services is maintained.

We also have to prepare for the fact that there might be further lockdowns in the future, so how do we protect ourselves and support deaf communities? How do we protect interpreter working conditions to ensure quality standards of access are maintained? I don’t want to be overly negative, but I do have concerns that nobody seems to be talking about this issue.

There is much focus in social media on interpreters’ loss of income or reduced income, and on deaf people’s barriers to accessing information right now. I understand why this is the case, but we also need to think long term. Decisions made now may impact future working conditions. If the quality of interpreting provision is degraded, then access for deaf people is also degraded.


Professor Jemina Napier is Chair of Intercultural Communication and Director of the Centre for Translation & Interpreting Studies in Scotland at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. She is an interpreter practitioner, researcher and educator, and conducts linguistic, social and ethnographic explorations of direct and interpreter-mediated sign language communication to inform interpreting studies, applied linguistics, and deaf studies theories. She’s on Twitter as @JeminaNapier

2 comments

  1. Very good points here

    one more thing not mentioned is that I am seeing more Deaf people including myself doing more relay work as some interpreters or Deaf people struggle through videophone (2D rather than 3D) so needed support to get / relay the information

  2. I’m commenting from a US perspective where we don’t have a social safety net that includes healthcare or unemployment for sub contractors (freelance interpreters). I also understand you’re not critical of interpreters, you’re looking at upholding quality standards and I agree with the points you have made. I’d like to highlight a rarely discussed facet to our profession that deeply impacts our decisions and most importantly the quality of service. We need to include the business aspect fully into our discussions. How am I able to maintain quality of service when the decision to hire more than one interpreter lies with the company who hires the interpreter, doesn’t involve the Deaf individual using the interpreting services and contacts an agency that doesn’t advocate for more than one interpreter because they may lose the contract? As a profession, it’s always put back onto the individual interpreter to maintain high quality services when so much is out of our control. Typically, this will end up making the interpreter feel as though they’ve fallen short professionally. In the case of COVID 19, I lost all my in person sub contracts which was a large portion of my income. Sub contractors in the US don’t qualify for unemployment but recent legislation has allowed us to apply. However, it is a separate program with special instructions/applications and I’m sure you’ve heard how difficult it is to get the unemployment in the US. So what to do? Take more available VRI work to make sure you can pay the bills. It means I work long hours in front of the screen because I have to. I know you understand this and are not critical of it. I’m not trying to degrade the quality of interpreting I provide, but instead of looking to the individual interpreter to uphold the standards, why don’t we examine the economic system that facilitates the over use of interpreters based on their ability to pay the bills? We would do better to lobby the government in the US to include interpreters in unemployment and other programs to support their ability to continue to provide quality services. Further, we should include the economic facet of interpreting into our professional discussions to provide a realistic plan for maintaining the quality of service we all aspire to. (Comment intended with much respect to all of my professional colleagues)

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