COVID-19 Pandemic: Impact and Effects on US T&I Professionals*
By María Baker
March started like any other month. I set up my calendar: two conference jobs, a lot of medical interpreting, an interesting translation project, and the Miami Spring into Action 2020 event. Little did we all know that life had other plans. This was a month in which everything would change for us and that certainly included our professional life. In my case, only one of the conference jobs happened, the event in Miami got postponed, and I was able to keep some medical interpreting and my translation project—a little less work, no new projects; however, this is just my corner of Alabama. This crisis has affected professionals in our field in various ways, some deeply personal.
As a result, following an idea from my esteemed colleague Clarisa Moraña, American Translators Association (ATA) member and Spanish Language Division (SPD) co‑webmaster, Intercambios decided to seek the perspectives of four SPD members and colleagues, each with more than 20 years of experience translating and interpreting, and from different areas of the United States.
Prado Antolino (Florida)—an ATA-Certified translator, certified medical interpreter, and proofreader of Intercambios, who for the past 16 years has worked in a hospital setting, including managing the Language Services Department at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. Patricia Cabrera (Washington, DC)—an ATA-Certified translator who is the Chief Translator and the Translation Services Manager at AARP, and member of the SPD Hospitality and Public Relations Committee. Mónica de León (Texas)—an ATA-Certified translator, Master Licensed Court Interpreter, and layout of Intercambios. And Milly Suazo-Martínez (Pennsylvania)—Espalista moderator and past SPD Administrator (2005‑2008), freelance translator, interpreter, and voiceover talent.
They have generously shared some of their professional and personal experience during these trying pandemic times. Below, some questions Intercambios asked them, and their answers.
*Note: Opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the interviewees.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic seems to have affected every sector, including T&I. What are the main topics you are translating/interpreting right now?
Prado states that the major change she has seen “is on the translation side of the house, as the increase on informational materials on COVID-19 (patient education materials, signage, web content, telehealth instructions, requirements for patients within the hospital, etc.) has grown exponentially.”
Patricia agrees, “My present workload consists mainly on subjects related to this pandemic. [. . .] Our present priority is trying to keep everyone informed, safe and healthy, particularly the 50+ population. I have been busy translating a lot of documents with the latest news on the spread and prevention of the coronavirus: resources, guidelines, and human interest articles that go into our Spanish website, which is continuously updated, and fliers and handouts that are distributed among the H/L community all throughout the states.”
Prado and Patricia are among the many interpreters worldwide who do particularly important work behind the scenes to make sure that nobody, regardless of the language they speak, misses important information.
Milly is one of those lucky professionals whose work has not changed as much: “Luckily, the majority of what I translate is in the context of two essential businesses (general healthcare and automotive-retail business), so my workload has not been too affected by the pandemic.” She has also done her share of COVID-19-themed translation.
Many interpreters, like me, have seen a decrease in their work. So has Mónica: “I spend most of my time working as an Immigration Court interpreter. My colleagues and I have been badly affected by the pandemic. Immigration Court is only working on detained cases. This has resulted in a reduction of about 80% of my workload.” Sadly, she echoes reports from interpreters all over the world.
Of course, a worldwide crisis like the present one does not come without hurdles for everyone. What are the biggest challenges you are facing because of the pandemic?
During this pandemic, we are challenged both on a personal and professional level. Milly gave us a unique answer in this respect: “One of my challenges has to do with what I do in my free time. I have been working from home for over 20 years now. . . so in the beginning I would joke that the shelter-in-place order for me just felt ‘like a Tuesday.’” However, Milly considers herself an extrovert and misses being with other people, especially the students of her knitting class on Wednesday evenings.
Personally, Patricia struggles with “seeing the economic hardship that some of my family, my friends, and neighbors are going through” and “developing a non‑COVID‑19 related health issue that merited attention and not being able to reach medical help on time because my doctors were overwhelmed with coronavirus emergencies.”
Similarly, for Prado, “it’s been heart-wrenching to see my family, friends, and compatriots suffer so much in Spain. Not being able to do much from so far away has been very, very difficult.”
Milly echoes some of these concerns as well, citing the challenge of “worrying about family members and friends.” She is concerned about two nieces, her sister, and her two daughters, who face health issues and economic uncertainties.
Mónica is also concerned about loved ones, aside from facing the hardships of isolation: “My only daughter, who is still a teenager, is in Boston. She’s a student with a job at a grocery store, and she decided to stay there even though her college went online. She’s fine, but I worry about her. The rest of my loved ones live in Mexico [. . .]. Although I have many good friends here, I live alone and I haven’t touched a single person in one month. Emotionally, this is taking a toll on me.” Many of us identify with her situation.
On a professional level, Patricia faces “very tight deadlines and very long hours, and not having the full resources available at home that I would otherwise have in the office.” Prado, in turn, talks about a transition that many interpreters have had to make: “In a noticeably short period of time, we had to transition our interpreting services from onsite to 100% remote [and it] has been stressful. In that decision, you have to balance the safety of [. . .] interpreters, patients, and providers, with continuing to provide the same quality from a remote location.”
Despite the reduced hours, Mónica made an opportunity out of her challenge: “I think this arrived at a good time for me. I’d been putting money aside to pay my taxes, and that has made it easier for me to stay home and not take any chances by going to work in court.” Similarly, Milly has found ways to keep busy, “I have also been very busy sewing face masks for family and friends. So if I am not translating, I am sewing!”
Translators and interpreters also have our ways to overcome our hurdles. What resources (e.g. linguistic, communication platforms) are you using to respond to these challenges?
As many other professionals, my interviewees sang the praises of technology as a tool to get the job done. Indeed, “having a strong internet connection; being able to Zoom, Skype, phone or, otherwise, message and email coworkers and colleagues has been invaluable during these times,” Patricia states. Mónica adds, “I’m very grateful for all the different ways of communication we have available now. Zoom and WhatsApp have been a lifesaver for me.” Prado is also glad to have a reliable platform for interpreters: “Having access to Zoom has been a life-saver, as we have integrated our staff interpreters into the virtual visit flow at the hospital, which means patients and providers receive the same quality service they are used to from a platform that allows everybody to keep social distancing rules.” Finally, Milly has been making use of the internet for her non-professional commitments: “As for my knitting class, I started to meet with the students via Zoom every week.”
The Internet is, always and without a doubt, an essential tool for today’s translators. Most of us, like Prado, have spent considerable time “on the CDC pages, contrasting terminology, reading up on the virus both from an informational and linguistic perspectives.” Milly, on the other hand, states that “For my regular translation work I have not needed to do anything differently.”
Additionally, Mónica has made some investments to be prepared. “[. . .] I installed a telephone device for my landline. [. . .] In order to offer over-the-phone interpreting, it’s strongly recommended to have a landline. So, I purchased a telephone device with a headset and I’m ready to do over-the-phone interpreting now. Some of my colleagues are doing depositions over Zoom. They’ve already contacted me to offer me some assignments.”
We are not alone in this crisis. Many colleagues are experiencing similar situations. How are T&I professional organizations in your area assisting their members during this crisis?
Sometimes, it’s not what your organization can do for you, but what you can do for the organization. Patricia looks forward to “joining any efforts that ATA or my local chapter, the National Capital Area Translators Association (NCATA), decides to pursue to assist members of our profession that are facing hardship.”
Prado acknowledges that “the bigger professional organizations are providing free webinars on donning and doffing PPE, they are sending information to interpreters, and advocating for the profession at a very challenging time.”
At other times, interpreters also support each other more informally, reaching out to their nearby colleagues. As Mónica puts it, “it’s not the professional organizations, but the groups of colleagues who are doing something to help each other.” She shares that she belongs to several WhatsApp groups, like a local Immigration Court interpreter group, a Texas Court interpreter group, and a national Immigration Terms group, through which they can keep each other appraised about the situation in their town, and share information on local resources that can help them.
Milly has done something similar. Stating that she does not have “any colleagues or professional organizations in my area [. . .] this is something that I have not experienced.” She decided to “reach out to long-time colleagues over the internet and have video chats to check on each other.”
For my part, watching from my corner of social media. The American Translation Association (ATA) summarized the major provisions under the CARES Act that are most likely to affect ATA members. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) also published information about how to obtain benefits. The website of the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) has resource pages and co-signed a letter addressed to various entities about the safety of healthcare interpreters. Undoubtedly, there is always more to do, but for this interpreter and translator, it is comforting to know something is being done on our behalf.
But not everything is gloom and doom. What are some silver linings you are finding presently and looking into the future?
It appears that, on the bright side, remote interpreting technology is here to stay. Mónica has embraced it. “This has also helped me to expand my horizons. Interpreting over video is finally becoming a viable way of earning an income, and I plan to take advantage of that possibility.” Prado agrees, “We now have a very stable video interpreting platform that is filled with possibilities for us: perhaps it changes the modality of services we provide, how we staff different areas, how we modify our current services to be quicker and more efficient.”
On a more personal note, Patricia shares, “[. . .] this pandemic has reminded me to be grateful for what I have and to stop whining about the inconveniences that this ‘new normal’ has created in my daily routine.” In Mónica’s words, “I’ve been reminded of the value of having friends and family, and of doing my part to help all of us make it out of this alive and healthy. The world might never be the same after the pandemic, but the most important things will prevail forever.”
Finally, Milly has “witnessed human kindness all around me.” She had a message full of light for her colleagues: “It is my hope that this difficult situation will help people value what is truly important. Learn that skill you have been putting off for a long time. Call your friend/family member and catch up. Read a book. Bake some bread. Grow something. Be present. Be kind.”
As these translators and interpreters have helped me remember, there is always that line in the clouds. I have seen it in the way interpreters and translators have come together and connected, both in a professional and personal way. For my part, I am grateful, too, that we have platforms and social media to keep our connections strong. I also hope that, when this is over, we will stay together and help each other.
While this may be a time for hardship, it is also a time of opportunity.
[Proofreaders of this article: Paul Merriam, Intercambios reviewer and Editorial Committee member, and Rosario Charo Welle, SPD Administrator]
María Baker was born in Argentina, and after completing her M.A. in Spanish and TESOL from West Virginia University, in 2013, she began working as a medical and community interpreter and translator becoming fascinated about interpreting and interpreter education. She became a CMI in 2014 and a CHI in 2018. María has conducted interpreting education for healthcare providers and delivered workshops for interpreters. Passionate about language access and professional development, she participates in conferences as a presenter, and is currently the Outreach Coordinator at the International Medical Interpreters Association, Vice-President of the Interpreters and Translators Association of Alabama, and member of the SPD Digital and Social Media Committee.