Integrity Languages


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Free Interpreting at the Olympics: Is it a big deal?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 16, 2016


The world’s most watched sporting event might not seem to be the ideal context in which to debate the ethics of free interpreting but, while we are all watching incredible gymnasts, stunning runners and mesmerising tennis, Japan is already limbering up for its shot hosting the Olympics in 2020. At the heart of this will be some 80,000 volunteers, including many volunteer interpreters.


So should we be alarmed? On the one hand, as professionals, we might want to shout loudly that this undermines our value and paints the picture of quality interpreting being something within reach of anyone with a few years of language skills under their belts. On the other hand, people are quite right to point out that there are other volunteers doing skilled tasks for no pay and the Olympics is after all, about displaying the virtues of sportsmanship, generosity and unity.


Except the Olympics earns mind-numbing sums from corporate sponsors and some people do get paid for their work. So not everyone involved in making the games a success is a happy amateur or plucky volunteer.


Obviously, a line has been drawn somewhere and, for now, many interpreters are on the “don’t worry, they can do it for free” side of that line. Does this mean we have a cause for consternation? Might we hold some kind of protest or, I don’t know, start a mass emailing campaign?


We could but I doubt it would work. There are already thousands of people desperate for their shot at helping and, you never know, for some it could be their first chance to interpret and some of them may become future professionals. If we don’t put them off with arguing and moaning about them not getting paid, that is.


At the risk of revisiting old ideas, a lot can and should depend on the perceived value added by the interpreters. If, as some people have suggested, their contribution amounts to giving directions, explaining subway maps and helping people buy travel tickets then it is very difficult to argue for them to be on professional rates. There are apps that do that kind of thing rather well and I can’t see many established professionals wanting to sign up for those jobs anyway.


If, however, there are plans to use inexperienced volunteers in broadcast settings, then that is a different matter entirely. Just as no TV station will ask their camera crew to pay their own way; it would seem rather ill-advised to put a volunteer interpreter into the limelight. Of course, as you can read in my book, there are some interesting debates the choice of interpreters in media work but the bottom-line is that it is our responsibility to convince people that interpreters add value when it really counts.


As with most things in life, the issue of free interpreting at the Olympics is far more complex and subtle than it seems at first glance. While it is nice to imagine that all interpreters would be paid, the reality is that pay correlates with the perceived value of our work. When we are doing tasks that seem routine and when clients think we are little more than language machines, we should not blame them for trying to find the cheapest option. Instead, we should take on the responsibility of openly discussing those situations where interpreting really makes a difference and describe what exactly it is that we add.


In short, partnership will always beat protest as a marketing strategy.