Integrity Languages


Brexit and the Future of Interpreting Part I

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 27, 2016



No client, no matter how powerful, can force interpreting into recession. No agreement, no matter how unfair, can spell the end of our profession. The people responsible for the future of interpreting are professional interpreters, and it will always be that way.

Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence, p. 101


When I wrote those words a few months ago, I had no idea how prescient they would become. Within less than a week, my home country has gone from a relatively stable, peaceful set of islands to being a Divided Kingdom, riven by generational enmity, regional rivalries and political upheavel. A simple question “Remain in the EU or Leave the EU” has turned into a Gordian knot. And interpreting is caught in it.


To say that interpreters have benefitted from the existence of the EU is to  state a truism. Freedom of movement of people and capital has created conferences, press events, and policy fora, as well as increasing the need for medical interpreters, court interpreters and interpreters in business negotiations, lobbying meetings and European Works Councils. And, for the most part, despite the often negative press, this has brought incredible economic benefit to the UK. We have literally created jobs, helped deals get done and reduced the cost for medical treatment by decreasing the likelihood of mistakes.


But Brexit is challenging that. Over the past few days, I have read more worried messages about the future of our industry than ever before. Yes, some of us got riled by the rise of technology but I have never seen so many people contemplating leaving the country – an idea that makes even more sense in the light of the increase in racist incidents against nationals of other EU countries.


It’s isn’t pretty but it’s here. Actually, that could basically sum up a lot of changes in the history of interpreting. As my expert colleague Alexander Drechsel wrote not too long ago, interpreting has always seen disruption. From the introduction of simultaneous interpreting to the rise of the tablet, interpreting has found a way to adjust, reinvent itself and somehow come out stronger. Disruption? It’s just history repeating, he says.


He is right. A divided world needs experts in communicating across cultures, nations and tribes. A worried world where people feel like they need to retreat into their own little bubbles needs people who are adept at offering people wider vistas. A world that is threatened by xenophobes and racists needs walking, breathing examples of acceptance of people whatever their background.


I know few other professions as needed today as interpreters. Yes, the sheer complexity of international politics can be and is a boon for conference interpreters. There is no international negotiating table in today’s world without a rack of chattering interpreting booths around it. Few meaningful deals can get done nowadays without an interpreter or four making sure that communication actually works.


Sure, things will be uncomfortable. Absolutely, the old ways (and perhaps places) of doing business are looking pretty bleak but we are mostly small business so we can be nimble decisions that the big players simply can’t. In a matter of months, we can change country. In a matter of weeks, we can get new clients. In a couple of years, we can have a new specialism. We can adapt. Even if adapting hurts.


What choice do we have? Anger is understandable. Fear is almost inevitable but interpreting is a business that can and does survive crises. We already have!


So, while turmoil grips nations, while companies need to negotiate contract changes, while people with different native languages check into GPs, courts, hospitals and police stations, the need for these three professions will remain: loving pastors, wise leaders, and expert interpreters. And the one that helps the other two work across the boundaries of nation, language, and state is interpreting.

To be continued…

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