Transitions in Times of COVID

Barry Slaughter Olsen is the Vice President of Client Success at KUDO, a conference interpreter, and professor of translation and interpretation (currently on a leave of absence) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.


“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” — George Bernard Shaw

The COVID-19 pandemic set off a series of transitions that the language services industry is still grappling with. Many of these transitions were forced upon us (think working from home, online learning, and videoconferencing, to name just a few). Some of us reluctantly transitioned to new ways of doing things while longing for the day when we could get back to our old ways. But the forward-looking saw some of the inconvenience as opportunity in disguise.

I know I did when, in mid-2020, change came knocking at my door. After more than 25 years as a conference interpreter and over a decade training interpreters and experimenting, researching, and writing about remote simultaneous interpretation as an academic, I was invited to join the executive team at the now fast-growing multilingual meeting platform KUDO.

The pandemic had moved RSI from a slow and steady phase of experimentation to a period of breakneck-speed implementation. I wanted to be part of it at this crucial time. So, I left anonymity in the bleachers, donned a team jersey, and stepped onto the playing field to help make the transition to virtual and hybrid meetings as smooth as possible for interpreters and clients alike. I was eager to start implementing and stop rooting from the sidelines. This transition from academia to KUDO over the last year has taught me many lessons. Here are five worth sharing:

  • The need for qualified, well-trained interpreters is as great as it has ever been. The rub is how you define “qualified” and “well-trained.” In addition to the well-established core skills, interpreters now need to be more tech-savvy and resourceful than ever. They need to be prepared to work with different videoconferencing platforms. They need to reside close to interpreting hubs or build home studios (as many enterprising interpreters already have). And, more importantly, they need to understand the value they bring to the table and what a client expects of them. Finally, it will become increasingly important for the right interpreters to be identified and have their services retained quickly. Lead times for meetings are getting shorter, and clients can’t hire interpreters they can’t find.

Remote interpreters working via the KUDO platform.

  • Waiting to transition to something new until you have no other options is not a good idea. The interpreting profession was largely unprepared for the transition to remote interpreting, especially RSI. For years, professional associations and labor unions had resisted the introduction of remote interpreting, concerned about its potential to displace in-person or on-site work. But this approach left interpreters in a precarious position as the pandemic restrictions pushed everything online, forcing colleagues to work with little or no guidance in terms of working conditions, technology standards, and fair remuneration for their services.
  • In the post-pandemic world, remote interpreting is not going anywhere. Virtual and hybrid multilingual meetings will remain an important tool to help governments, international organizations, businesses, and non-governmental organizations reach their objectives. Now more than before, we all appreciate the value of face-to-face interaction to establish and nurture relationships. Once again, being together at conferences and meetings will become an important part of doing business. But the ability to connect with the right people at the right time without having to travel will be an equally important part of building and maintaining those relationships. What hasn’t been determined yet is how to decide when getting on a plane will really be necessary. I doubt there will be a hard and fast line between on-site, online, and hybrid meetings. The criteria for making that decision will remain fluid for the foreseeable future.
  • Online delivery of professional training works and can be very efficient. After five years of delivering my interpreting classes at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies first in hybrid format and then completely online (for both students and professor), I can confidently say that training interpreters and translators online is possible and effective. Online delivery of content and curriculum is totally doable. The real question is whether we want to do it, and whether the benefits truly outweigh the inconvenience. Time will tell, but one thing is certain: translator and interpreter training programs the world over will have to grapple with this reality soon if they hope to remain relevant. See point two above.
  • Timing and preparation are everything. Finally, on a more personal note, I have learned that opportunities seldom present themselves conveniently or with a lot of lead time. They often remain open only for brief periods before they disappear. My previous decade of exploration with technology and interpreting had unwittingly prepared me for my experience at KUDO. When the opportunity came, I had to weigh all considerations in the balance and decide whether I would take it. I had no idea that my previous work would ever lead to an opportunity such as this. But I am grateful it did and that I was prepared.