Onsite Interpreting & COVID-19: A New "Normal"​

Photo by Engin Akyurt
I recently received my first onsite interpreting request since the COVID-19 shutdown. It was not a COVID-19 "hang in there" email with a list of government resources to mitigate any temporary financial hardship due to a lack of work. It also did not request that I significantly lower my rates due to the current economic situation, the lack of assignments, and their desire to provide me "some work" amidst the crisis. It was a legitimate onsite interpreting request like those I received before the outbreak. Well, almost like those.

The email was a typical availability request, similar to those I am accustomed to receiving from this particular client. It included key information about the assignment and a few reminders and protocols to follow: remain at the assignment until released, take your badge, sing in and out, etc. The email also included several non-standard requirements.

Challenge 1: Acquiring the required PPE

By now, we are all too familiar with PPE. However, the email included some items that I did not expect.
PPE (Personal Protective Equipment): disposable vinyl gloves, N-95 or surgical masks, and eye protection (face shield or googles)
Local executive orders require us to wear face mask when in public areas or within 6 feet of another person, and I suspected gloves would be required. However, I was completely unprepared for the eye protection requirement.

The CDC advises: "Use... in areas with moderate to substantial community transmission. For areas with minimal to no community transmission, eye protection is considered optional, unless otherwise indicated as part of standard precautions."

I was able to get a hold of googles, but also found the face shields available for purchase online. However, upon arriving on location, I was informed that eye protection was optional.

Recommendation: In retrospect, I could have called the location the day before my assignment to confirm their PPE requirements. The instructions I received via email from a third party who facilitated the assignment could have been outdated and facilities could change their requirements at any moment.

Challenge 2: Note taking with gloves

For this particular assignment, I was onsite with one of the participants, who moderated the encounter, and there were two additional over-the-phone participants and a video-remote participant—the limited English proficient individual. The modality best suited for the encounter was consecutive interpreting.
I am not sure if it was the type of gloves I was wearing or the type of notepad I was using, but note taking was a challenge for me. My note taking was significantly slower as my hand did not slide along the page as easily. I could have resorted to writing minimal notes such as proper names, numbers and key words to jog my memory, except 100% precision was essential to this assignment and the remote speakers kept interrupting each other and talking without stopping.

As if reminding participants to pause for interpretation wasn't difficult enough when at an in-person on-site encounter, having multiple participants joining through various remote means made it ever more difficult. I had to signal the moderator several times for a pause, and even he had a hard time managing the flow of communication.

Recommendation: To address my sluggish note taking, I did the best I could at the time and requested repetition when the speakers had gone on for too long. I have also started practicing my note-taking skills with gloves, and have discovered a new challenge: uncomfortably sweaty hands. Unfortunately, other than asking for clarification and signaling or vocalizing for pauses, I have yet to come up with a solution for the long-winded utterances. Although I should point out that one participant was more concise after being asked for two repetitions.

Challenge 3: Being heard

The last obstacle I had to overcome was being heard. Although I was able to clearly hear the on-site, over-the-phone, and video-remote participants, the video-remote participant and one of the over-the-phone participants seemed to have a difficult time hearing me.

Recommendation: Although I cannot say that I found a magical way for all participants to hear me well while wearing my mask, I found that slowing down and paying extra attention to my enunciation helped ensure that my speech was clear. I also repeated as needed.

All in all, my first interpreting experience in this new "normal" was not too foreign. As interpreters, we may have to wear personal protective equipment or follow unique protocols when entering certain facilities under normal circumstances. Additionally, even without the latex gloves interfering with my note taking, I have had days were I cannot seem to keep up or understand my notes, or when speakers forget that I need to interpret and go on for what seems like for ever.

Share stories about your interpreting experiences in this new "normal" in the comments below.

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