Use Translation and Interpretation Skills for COVID-19 Crisis Communications

Translation and interpretation services are in demand during this pandemic and resulting lockdowns. Even freelancers can provide much needed language services. Here’s how to start.

The coronavirus crisis is an “all hands on deck” moment. Each of us is called on to do what we can to help the common good. Those of us who are not first responders, nurses or doctors, pharmacists or shopkeepers, may well wonder what we can contribute in efforts to save lives and help our fellow citizens. Perhaps neglected in the long list of needs in these difficult days are language skills that many of us possess but perhaps never put to use. Yet translation and interpretation services can play a crucial role in assisting health care providers and institutions in reaching out to underserved, linguistically challenged minorities at risk in this pandemic. We’ll consider this opportunity to serve from the point of views of students or recent university graduates.

Those with Language Problems need Interpretation / Translation Services Most

An estimated 25 million U.S. residents can’t speak English proficiently. 35 million speak a language other than English at home. They may not feel confident hearing or reading medical information in a non-native language. These linguistic barriers cause strains on health care providers and public institutions in the current crisis. In the United States, the ability to receive vital health information in a comprehensible language is a civil right. Health care providers are obliged by law to provide this, without extra cost to patients.

Hispanic populations are underserved: in every urban area, and throughout California, Texas and the Southwest there’s a need to translate Spanish to English. In 2020 there are an estimated 62 million Hispanics in the United States. In the next four decades, that number is projected to grow to 111 million. If you possess language skills, you may have what it takes to be a Spanish interpreter or translator, especially in this crisis.

Coming to Terms: How Does Translation Differ from Interpretation?

Translation and interpretation are often used interchangeably, but the distinction between them is clear. Translation refers to adaption of the written word, while interpretation refers to speech. Translators work on documents, whereas interpreters work at meetings and events. The required skills for each are different. Interpreters need to think on their feet, in real time: hearing in one ear and immediately speaking out the translation. Translators have the luxury of being able to work in their own time on text. These days, however, there is often urgency to each task.

There are three other variations worth mentioning. Transcription is rendering the spoken word to text, with or without translation. Transcreation is a form of translation which accords greater creativity to the translator to convey the intent of the original but not necessarily literally “word for word.”  Localization is a process of adapting content, primarily written and usually in digital formats, from one location to another. It may involve not just natural language translation but also conversion of date, measurement and currency formats. It also considers the need for the adapted content to account for the cultural preferences and sensitivities of the target location. Transcription, transcreation, and localization services are all in demand to meet the needs of the current crisis. But who has the skills to do these jobs, and how does one prepare?

Do You Have What It Takes to be a Translator or Interpreter?

Becoming a Translator or Interpreter is not for everybody. Fluency in two or more languages is a rare skill. It usually means adding a second language at least to one’s native “mother” tongue not just in a rudimentary, basic way, but with erudition, proficiency and – that magic word – fluency. Fluency is related etymologically to influenza: like the disease, it flows easily, like a river or air current. Most translators and interpreters cannot work equally well in both directions: stick with the linguistic direction – for example, English to Spanish or Spanish to English – that you know best.

Moreover, translation and interpretation require a certain temperament. Concentration is high among the required traits. A love for the nuances of language, curiosity about word origins –these help to keep the work interesting.  There’s also an interesting dynamic between the pursuit of perfection – finding the right word in translation – and a tolerance for the fact that there are multiple ways to express the same thought.  A translator has the luxury of time to find the perfect turn of phrase, while interpreters must think on their feet to express the gist of what a speaker is saying, without falling behind.

One thing missing from this list of must-haves is certification. Plenty of translation courses will award you a certificate for completion, but many translators work successfully without certification. There are jobs, in government and in academia, where a certificate is required. A certification is a feather in your professional cap that may give you an edge in competition for a position. But, as a rule, translating and interpreting are based on practiced skills and competence: if you can talk the talk and walk the walk, the lack of a diploma or certificate for the most part should not exclude you.

Do Medical Interpreters and Medical Translator Need Special Training

A bilingual person with medical training and knowledge – med school, nursing school, or even paramedic experience – will have an advantage. There are certification courses for medical interpretation and translation. That said, the urgent need today means that a bilingual personal with some experience in translating or interpreting can take a crash course in “covidese” — learning to translate essential phrases like “ventilators”, “surgical masks”, “flattening the curve” and “social distancing” to learn the terminology that can assist in the current crisis.

The current demand is not only for medical translators and interpreters. Due to the curtailment of travel and physical gatherings, meetings and conferences have moved online. In a Zoom room or a Skype call involving speakers of multiple languages, interpreters need to be present to facilitate communications. The subject matter may have nothing to do with healthcare or medicine. Translation and interpretation of every subject matter is in scarce supply these days. While machine translation tools like Google Translate and Microsoft Translator are available and improving in quality, human translators and interpreters are far from extinction.

How to Get Your First Gigs? Steps to Translation and Interpretation Jobs

If you’re just getting started as a translator or interpreter, the best way to gain experience is to keep your eyes open and ask around. In these days of social distancing and homebound isolation, you’re not likely to find work near the office water cooler or a departmental bulletin board. Everything is online, including your future workplaces.

Make friends with Google and search for phrases like “translation jobs” “interpretation jobs” adding keywords for the language pair at which you are most proficient: “French to English” or “English to French.” Physical location is irrelevant to getting a gig: these days, “the world is your oyster.” Just be aware that certain languages have abundant supply of language professionals, and freelancers in some countries work for peanuts.  Linguistic expertise in “rare” language pairs may enable you to charge relatively high rates, though work may be less frequent.

How to Join Freelance Marketplaces and be Recruited by Translation Agencies

Good places to start looking for language service work are freelance marketplaces like Upwork and Freelancer.com. Register, create a profile, set your rates. Clients post gigs and you bid for those services. As a rule, it’s smart to price yourself low till you start getting good ratings and reviews, then you can up your rates. In general, interpreters who do Over the Phone or the increasing prevalent Video Remote Interpretation charge by the hour.

Freelance translators, on the other hand, tend to charge by the word. The average hourly wage for a Medical Interpreter in the United States is $22 as of March 26, 2020, but the range typically falls between $19 and $24. The average word rate for freelance translators is 10 to 20 cents, depending on the document type, language combination, subject matter, quantity of work, and the deadline.

If you rack up experience on these marketplaces, and earn good ratings and reviews, you may find yourself approached by translation companies and interpretation agencies. They may try to lure you to work with them directly or even exclusively. Do so with caution. Freelance marketplaces look askance at those who try to “cut out the middleman.” A long-term relationship with an agency may keep you busy with steady work and reliable income for a while. But it’s good form, in translating as in going to the prom, to “leave with the one who brung ya.”

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