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Sign Language Interpreting—An Industry Past Feeling?

Person peeking out windowIt is often said that the anonymity of living in a big city and the effort to avoid feeling imposed on by the crush of humanity, makes people hard and unfeeling. After all, it’s only in the big city that a person can be attacked 3 times in a 30 minute period—as 38 witnesses look on—without single person placing a call to 911 that would save their life, right?

As I consider the staggering pace of change the sign language interpreting industry is experiencing and the magnitude of the challenges we confront, what is striking to me is what appears to be a sense of indifference and a dismissal of our need to be responsible industry citizens.

Why Do We Just Look On?

Why do we standby as our practices and standards are attacked by short-sighted colleagues, industry business and associations, and local and national regulating bodies?  Why do we look on as the quality of life that has taken decades to achieve erodes as regulation after regulation is legislated without us?  Why do we willingly sit quiet as our credentials and professional organization are increasingly viewed as unnecessary or irrelevant?

Is it because we have grown complacent under the 3 squares a day provided by staff employment?  Is it because we believe someone who better understands the issues will take the time to file a comment?  Is it that the part-time Government Affairs Program at RID is sufficient to ensure interpreters interests are represented in every city and every state and that every piece of legislation is crafted so we remain eligible to do the work?  Or, maybe it is that the hundreds of our colleagues who are recently underemployed/unemployed—as a result of industry regulation and change—is really someone else’s problem.  While these maybe true for some, I believe it is something more alarming.

We have lost our confidence.

The Confidence Crisis

For the first time in our collective history, the bigger challenges facing our industry are not directly related to moving the act of interpreting from an occupation to a profession; so we find ourselves feeling unprepared.  This feeling of being unprepared has given us an awareness of some sizable blind-spots in our field of vision.  We no longer intuitively understand the rules of engagement.  We don’t have direct access, in most cases, to the decision makers and people of influence.  We are unfamiliar with proper protocol and the process to meaningfully get things done.  We don’t know where to go to understand the issues or stay informed in real-time.

In short, we are unsure what to do.

So, we look on questioning our ability to help, believing someone else will make the call that will stop the attack.  We look on fearful that to act may result in our being numbered among the unemployed/underemployed.  So, we ignore the reflex to act and begin the internal chase for justification.

What Now?

Simple, we commit to stare down our discomfort and act.

We recondition our reflex to sit out by recognizing that the choice not to act is an action itself and only perpetuates the conspicuous absence of our collective voice in shaping the future.  We seek out information to understand the implications and consequences of the actions being taken by us and around us.  We conduct ourselves in a way that we are counted among the artists in our communities creating positive change.

Like the responsible citizen who hears the plea of a person being attacked, we endeavor to make the situation better.  Like this responsible citizen, each of us has a valid contribution to make.  So, let commit to make it and remove the perception that we are indifferent to the outcomes of the actions swirling around us.

We do care and we are not past feeling.

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Building a Business: Office Supplies are the Easy Part

Office SuppliesLet me start by tipping my cap and offering my thanks to the longtime practitioners and business owners and operators that have together persevered to form and publicly legitimize what we know as—our profession.  As is the case with most worthwhile endeavors, forerunners likely experienced many quiet victories and public struggles and have sacrificed with little recognition.  I believe that our profession is no different.  It is my hope that the experiences I have been invited to share, as result of having played a role in establishing and growing a business within our profession, will be considered collective accomplishments—because they certainly are.

It is no secret that owning and operating any small business is as much a labor of love as it is a disciplined juggling act.  Nowhere is this more obvious than right here in the business of providing communication access services.  While I can’t speak on behalf of all service providers in our profession, I believe that many of the experiences I will share as a result of founding and guiding Visual Language Interpreting (VLI) through the start-up, growth and establishment phases of its life cycle may prove familiar.

Start-up – The Early Days

That first trip to the office supply store was an exhilarating one.  I recall my excitement as I added item after item to an already overflowing cart of “business necessary” supplies and equipment.  If only all the decision surrounding business ownership and operation were that easy.

The early road as a fledgling company with limited resources was not an easy one.  Our business model of quality-centered services brought us face to face with the hard reality of the tiny margin between the costs of employing the top talent and the limits of price-point when operating in a market already steeped in competition.  It was with a practical understanding of the realities of doing business within our profession and respective market that we began to think differently about how to approach our business and the need to find greater operational efficiencies.

It was amid this struggle of managing limited resources and seeking ways to be more efficient that we recognized the need to automate.  Consequently, we invested heavily in developing a web-based management system.  This system allowed our customers and practitioners to gain access instantly to real-time information and to manage their business as it was convenient for them.  Consequently, our operations became more efficient and we changed the way services in our area were being offered.  Customers and practitioners quickly realized the added value of this offering, which differentiated us in our marketplace.  The decision to automate early was exactly what we needed.  It was here that a pattern for success was learned.

Unfortunately, the success of the decision to automate did not prevent a misstep that threatened to cripple our little operation.  The temptation for naive entrepreneurs to avoid the high costs of engaging experts to review and/or draft documents and agreements is very real and can hold severe consequences.  It was in succumbing to this very temptation that I later discovered how real and severe these consequences can be.  In an attempt to eliminate the cost of legal fees, I naively negotiated and co-drafted an arrangement to provide in-kind services in exchange for other “business necessary” items and services from another entity.  As can sometimes be the case when relationships come to a close, the interpretation of commitments fulfilled and benefits gained can be a point of debate.  Consequently, it became necessary to spend thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees to formally resolve the dispute.  This was a harrowing and maturing moment in my career and in the lifespan of this newly established business.  To be faced with the possibilities of an enormous financial set-back as a result of forgoing the expense of a few hundred dollars, is a lesson that drives home the saying, “Penny wise, pound foolish.”  It was in this new found maturity that an understanding of the importance of engaging experts to extend businesses know-how—regardless of the cost—was fully and practically appreciated.

Growth – Change Is Required

Somewhere amid the struggles of starting up, it dawned on us that our venture was working.  We were seeing our customer and practitioner base grow, and the number of service hours steadily rise.  It was a tremendous feeling.  However, accompanying this feeling satisfaction was one of fatigue.  The long hours and increased demand on time and resources was palpable.  It was clear that the current infrastructure would only support the growth we were experiencing for so long.

When structural strain quickly began setting in, it was decided that the solution was to hire people with more specialized skill sets, and to overhaul company processes.  It was quickly noted that this was a double-edged sword that needed to be handled with the utmost care.  As we began to implement the changes deemed necessary to support the growth of the business, we immediately noted that in addition to appreciating the quality- centered services we consistently provided, our customers and practitioners also appreciated the intimate exchanges and the lack of formalities in getting business accomplished that they had enjoyed with us as owners of the company.  We found that adjustments to our current or historical processes, though made in the name of sustaining the future of the business, were difficult for our customers and practitioners to accept.  It would require significant time and attention in order to convey to them that the values of the organization hadn’t changed, only the process of interfacing with it.

I wish I could say that we executed this transition flawlessly.  Unfortunately, this was not the case.  While some customers and practitioners have transitioned through the adjustments and found we are still the same organization as we once were but simply on a larger scale, others have chosen to do business elsewhere.  As it is with all labors of love, relationships are sometimes more than simply business, and when decisions are made to part ways, a loss is felt.  It is in the loss of these relationships that I find some of my greatest disappointments.  It is in the understanding of the implications of change, and in the deliberate planning and execution of strategies for growth that operations are fortified and customers and practitioners transition successfully.

Although growth requires change, change is not always easy, growth also brings a much needed influx of capital.  It is with these injections that businesses can reward employees, implement greater value added services for customers and practitioners, replace equipment, and increase the sophistication of the core operation.

The growth we experienced gave us just that opportunity.  We took the time to examine our business from a holistic point of view and directed new capital towards enhancing our commitment to those who were working and doing business with us.  We gave sizable salary increases to employees, expanded their benefits packages, and replaced antiquated equipment.  We also increased the pay rates for freelance practitioners and offered our customers greater tools to manage the communication access portion of their businesses.  It was making this investment early in the lifespan of the business that has strengthened the relationships we enjoy with our employees, customers, and practitioners.

Establishment – Giving Back

At some point we came to the place where our business had matured enough in the market to garner a base of loyal customers and practitioners.  It was here, without the need to struggle for daily survival or spend the entire workday problem solving with a fire hose, that one can take the time to seek out opportunities to give back.

It has always been important for us to give back when, where, and what we can to support worthy causes and organizations that do important work.  We have done this in a number of ways, such as, offering services significantly below market rates, donating services entirely, or providing direct financial support.  These opportunities have found special meaning to our business and to those with whom we work.  One such opportunity was to work in support of a charity event which raised money to fight breast cancer.  This opportunity was made possible by our teaming up with practitioners to offer an incredibly deep discount for services in an effort to divert as little money as possible from the funds raised.  This event required a large group of practitioners to be present from the very early hours of the morning through the late hours of the night.  It was here, exposed to the elements for multiple days and for extended hours, that the bonds of humanity were recognized and the matters of rates, schedules, and payment terms were forgotten.  Together we were working in support of a worthy cause to benefit the lives of people we would likely never meet.  To be able to participate in such an amazing opportunity firmly reconnected us to the humanity of the services we provide.  It is in these moments that the satisfaction of owning and operating a business is in its most pure form.

Additionally, we recognized that our efforts to give back also had to be focused on the tireless pursuit of improving business practices, enhancing practitioner advocacy, and offering support to the individuals and organizations working to improve our profession.  With this recognition, we rallied behind those working to ensure the professional development and credentialing of the practitioners we depended on to deliver our services.  Our support was given by means of volunteerism, in-kind service donations, and direct financial support.   By giving back to these organizations, we were contributing to the betterment of our profession and of the individuals and businesses participating in it.

It is here in the establishment phase, with the myriad demands and daily decisions, that the consistent effort to give back has its greatest return—the daily and long-term forward movement of the profession.

In The End

As can be easily deduced from the examples and experiences shared in this article, business ownership and operation is the continual process of moving from naivety to maturity—over and over again  in some cases—while transitioning from start-up to growth and then to establishment.  The hard reality of this perpetual maturation process is that naïve missteps will often overshadow a series of excellent decisions, meaningful relationships will start and fade, and those unwilling to admit and learn from their mistakes will not succeed.  It is only through this process that business owners and operators are equipped to properly guide their businesses to success.

The process of founding and guiding Visual Language Interpreting through the phases of its life-cycle has certainly been, if nothing else, a maturing process.  We have made some excellent decisions and then immediately made poor ones; we have experienced success and weathered public failure; we have overcome many challenges, sometimes at significant cost.  The primary reason for the survival of our business can be attributed to the many amazing, dedicated people that have shared in the process of nurturing it.  To them I will forever be grateful.

If I were able to offer some advice to that naïve guy on his inaugural run to the office supply store, I would advise him that investing in people—whether directly or indirectly—is where the highest and most satisfying returns will be found.  That struggles will give way to opportunities, and opportunities will be what you make of them.  That the accomplishments of a business are the collective work of the past and present.  And finally, that a business’ success is its legacy, not the bottom-line.

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Conference Interpreting: There Are Rules of Engagement?!

napkin with writing on itDon’t rush into a large conference with little more than the equivalent of a napkin with dates, times and room numbers scratched on it, and the attitude, “Hey, at least I’m here.  How bad can it be? It’s only a conference.”  By making the choice to approach your work in this setting with such little regard will only end badly for all parties involved.

Having coordinated a substantial number of large national conferences with Visual Language Interpreting (VLI), I can assert that how you approach your work interpreting at a large—national or international—conference is indicative of your commitment to your craft and what you—and others—will experience as a result.

In order to perform successfully in this type of environment you need to understand the rules of engagement, ensure that you are prepared both physically and mentally, and have an established individual and collective plan of attack.  It is important to note that—contrary to the myth of conference interpreting—you do not have to be insanely gifted to perform well at this level.  While it helps to have a big talent, if you are an experienced professional, committed to the fundamentals of communication, preparation, and good decision making you will experience success and ample satisfaction.

The Psyche

Conference environments can—and do—unravel veterans of the field.

It is quickly obvious, when working in a conference environment, who is mentally equipped to perform at this level.  Sufficient mental and emotional stamina is an important component of the skill set necessary to work effectively in a large conference setting.

It is essential that you consider what the impacts of working in an intensely demanding environment—for days on end—will have on you emotionally.  It is more important that this consideration occur prior to committing and appearing to do this work.  The stress of performing in this environment—while nearly steroidal for those prepared—will poke large holes in those ill-equipped and will hinder any chance of a solid performance.

The required stamina for working in a conference environment is a byproduct of your commitment and dedication to always perform your very best.

Your Submission

In many cases, applying to work at a large—high impact—conference will require the submission of an application packet.  Typically, these submissions include an application, resume, and video sample of your work.

When you assemble this application packet, please consider that your submission is likely the first exposure a conference coordinator will have to you as a practicing professional.  Consequently, it is extremely important to submit a timely packet that has a completed application form, an updated resume with appropriate references, and a video sample that is current and applicable to the type of work you are applying to perform.

The video component of the application can be a challenge to prepare and is worthy of your respect.  To prepare an effective representation of your work, allow sufficient time to capture this footage.  It can take weeks to locate an appropriate environment, arrange the necessary logistics, and receive approvals from the appropriate parties.

When encountering this challenge, do not succumb to the temptation to stage and rehearse your video sample.  A rehearsed sample is no more effective than one that is received late or in the wrong format, fails to capture the source material or who is actually interpreting, or one that has work captured from two different decades.  Lastly, take the time to properly edit and label your video.

The care in which you prepare each component of your submission is an indicator to the conference coordinator that you are serious about your work and being considered for a position at the conference.

Solo Rehearsal

In order to be an active, contributing member of a large conference interpreting team it is important to recognize that the performance of the whole begins with individual team members preparing themselves prior to arriving onsite.

This solo rehearsal is just getting warm as you conclude your preparation for the specific sessions you have been assigned.  Take the time necessary to research the purpose and history of the conference, review the mission and vision of the organizational host, research the slated speakers and entertainers, and take a virtual tour of the conference site, its resources and surroundings.

The value of this independent rehearsal will be realized as you are confronted by the rigors and demands of work in this environment.  There is simply little time amid working sessions, preparation meetings, foraging, and attempts at recuperative sleep to set aside sufficient time to effectively prepare yourself individually.

Your distinguishing performance while working in a conference environment does not come by accident.  It comes as a result of your personal commitment to prepare and do what is necessary to perform at your best.

Vast Fluidity

The nature of working in a large conference environment is that change is constantly afoot.  It is commonplace for the time and location of sessions to be adjusted, to have a fellow interpreter fall sick or have an emergency, and to have sessions added and removed from the interpreting requirement.  To boot, these changes typically occur only moments before they are needed or scheduled.

This fluid environment necessitates your full and active participation.  It requires frequent checking to verify your schedule, confirm preparation meetings, and determine receipt of new preparation materials.  It also necessitates you be agreeable to operating—at times—without a complete set of information and be comfortable not being in control of all of the variables that may impact your work.  This paradigm is indeed different from the one engaged to manage the day-to-day.

It is essential to approach conference work with the proper paradigm.  By so doing you can maintain the singular focus needed to effectively perform, reduce the possibilities of being frustrated and out of sorts, and increase your contribution to the preparation and betterment of the interpreting team.

Your effectiveness in managing the fluid nature of a conference environment is dependent upon your ability to avoid being swept away by the encircling chaos.

A Liaison

Large events are filled with countless moving parts.  Central to the effectiveness of the interpreting effort at this level is an accurate understanding the purpose and function of each of these components.  Consequently, it becomes necessary—in many cases—to identify a liaison to act as both a central point of contact and an information interchange. This liaison position frequently takes the form of an interpreter coordinator.

The value of working with an interpreter coordinator is largely dependent upon your understanding of their primary function.  While it is certainly a significant portion of their work, their primary function is not simply to manage the interpreting schedule onsite.  Their core function is to establish a structure and process that insulates you from the chaos associated with a large event and that provides access to the people and information necessary to assist you in performing to the best of your ability.

With this in mind, take the time necessary—both prior to and during the conference—to arm your coordinator with an accurate understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.  This will allow them to leverage this structure and process in order to complement your strengths, accommodate your weaknesses, and assist in creating an environment in which you can excel.

The interpreter coordinator—like you—is working in support of your success.

No Assumptions

The opportunity to work at a large conference draws both the profession’s top talent and those aspiring to be.  Appropriately, the retained interpreting team likely contains accomplished practitioners from across the nation and world.

Working among this concentration of talent you will likely find that you will have worked with very few of these fellow interpreters.  This dynamic periodically leads to assumptions being made between co-interpreters about how the logistics of a working session will be managed.  Unfortunately, these assumptions typically result in needless errors and interruptions to the interpreting process.

Consequently, it is essential when performing at this level to revert back to the fundamentals of working with your co-interpreter.  Take the time to communicate—even over communicate—about details like the division of work during a given session, how audience question and comment will be handled, and what approach is helpful—and not—when providing and receiving realtime support.  Properly communicating about these details will reserve the collective energies of you and your co-interpreter for the primary task of interpreting.

A focus on the fundamentals of working with your co-interpreter is an important piece of a sound strategy for a solid performance at this level.

Onsite Rehearsal

The single greatest challenge of working in a large conference environment is receiving sufficient preparation materials and face time with the many speakers and entertainers in order to more fully prepare to work their slotted events.

Consequently, it is essential that you work closely with the interpreter coordinator—who is typically responsible to organize these meetings and materials—and the presenters and entertainers to arrange for these onsite rehearsals.  It is important to note that preparation meetings will typically occur before and after event hours or during the scheduled breaks in conference activity.

Approach these meetings as more than simply an opportunity for the presenter or entertainer to review their presentation and any specialized terminology with you.  Preparation meetings are a unique opportunity to engage the presenter or entertainer and understand the intention and desired outcome of the delivery of their presentation.  It is also an occasion to review session and room logistics, communicate your specific needs in order to effectively partner with them, and educate about the interpreting process

Onsite rehearsals and a prepared co-interpreter are the two greatest assets you will be afforded in a conference environment.  Your commitment to actively participate in these meetings is an indication of your personal desire to be prepared and an interest in supporting your co-interpreter and the success of the communication outcome.

Out of Your Depth

Even after having communicated and prepared with your co-interpreter and session presenter, you may find yourself suddenly in a position that you are unable to effectively support your team.  When finding yourself in this situation, it is essential that you take immediate action to get your co-interpreter support if at all possible.

When working in a large conference environment, the solution may be as simple as getting word to the interpreter coordinator and allowing them to arrange a replacement.  In the event a replacement is not available, it is essential that you continue actively supporting your team.  You are still responsible for the success of the communication outcome.  Do not perseverate your way into a mental and emotional stupor and leave your colleague without support.

With that said, actively supporting your co-interpreter does not mean gathering the courage to take the on-position in order to attempt to give them a couple of minutes to breath.  This is more disruptive than the few errors your co-interpreter will make pushing through to the break.

It is not finding yourself occasionally out of your depth in a conference environment that indicates you are unqualified to work in this setting.  It is the act of silently and independently absolving yourself of the responsibility for the communication outcome that is the indicator.

The Take Away

If you are interested in working in large—high impact—conference environments, take the time to actively hone your skills, build the requisite stamina, and blend the fundamentals of effective team interpreting into your day-to-day work.  Again, being insanely gifted is not a prerequisite to work in these environments.

May it be you that shutters as you overhear an interpreter—napkin equivalent in hand—strolling up to an interpreter coordinator asking what to do next.

[Reprinted with permission, copyright October 2007, Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Alexandria, VA.]