The Impact of the Coronavirus on the Interpreting Industry


While there has been much talk of layoffs and rising unemployment in certain industries across the United States (and globally), from travel and tourism to retail, manufacturing, construction, and more, there has been little discussion of the impact of the coronavirus on the interpreting industry. While there have been recessions and depressions in economic activity in the past, this current situation is quite different because of the dangerous public health component.

There is no doubt that doctors, nurses, and other critical frontline responders are the true heroes of this crisis. Not to mention the brave workers who keep the supermarkets stocked, keep the food supply chain moving along, and keep collecting our garbage every week. Many other “essential” workers are propping up the economy as well. Still, they do not obtain the recognition they deserve (or pay) for sacrificing their health and well-being, as well as those of their families.

Interpreters Are “Essential Workers,” too!

Some of the most often overlooked of “essential” workers during the current pandemic have been foreign language (and sign language) interpreters. With more than 25 million Limited English Proficiency (LEP) individuals in the United States as of 2015, and increasing rapidly every year, interpretation services have become critical to ensuring equal access to services for these individuals. For anything from immigration court hearings, medical appointments, and almost any interaction with local and federal government services, a professional interpreter is often necessary. This is especially important now when people are scared, and there is so much misinformation spreading around.

In the past, the language services industry has been relatively immune to economic crises, particularly those who were either large enough to withstand the financial turmoil or those who had more diverse clients, markets, and revenue streams. Business diversification for language service providers (LSPs) – such as offering multiple services, many languages, and serving both the commercial sector and government – allows many of them to weather the proverbial economic storms.

The industry has also learned the importance of conservative fiscal management and even temporary reductions in gross profit margin goals to survive economic uncertainty, as the industry has always been accustomed to the “feast or famine” nature of the industry. As a result, the language services industry is often seen as “recession-proof,” stemming from their successes during the last Great Recession in the late 2000s.

Technological advances over the past decade have revolutionized interpreting services. New technologies, such as online platforms, allow users to quickly connect to an interpreter, often without having to schedule in advance. Over-the-phone interpretation (OPI) and video remote interpreting (VRI) solutions have consequently become more commonplace because they provide a lower-cost solution and more flexibility in scheduling. Despite those advances and increases in usage (particularly in specific sectors), many interpreters still traveled to clients’ locations to provide their services.

From hospitals to courtrooms across the country, interpreters had become a ubiquitous part of the regular, full-time staff due to the high demand. You could also frequently find them interpreting by-appointment in lawyers’ offices, banks, doctors’ offices, community events, conferences, and more. However, though interpreters have become “essential” providers, and even with the ability to provide those services remotely, the impact of the coronavirus on the interpreting industry has still created many problems and affected many jobs.

Impact of the Coronavirus on Interpreting Providers

Some of the largest buyers of foreign language interpretation services in the country are federal, state, and local governments. To meet the legal requirements of providing support to rapidly growing LEP communities, these programs have quickly grown into multi-million-dollar contracts. And, for the many small businesses that are primarily focused on providing on-site interpreting services (of which there are many), their very survival depended on one or two of these larger contracts.

However, as soon as governments started issuing mandatory “stay-at-home” orders, that work disappeared overnight, with no indication of when those contracts may start again. This has resulted in losses of million and millions of dollars of revenue for interpreting service providers, and therefore, the contract interpreters they work with as well. Many of these small interpretation providers have found themselves laying off employees and their business dropping by 70% or more. Many of these companies may not even survive the economic impact that has been wrought by this recent crisis.

On the other hand, other types of language services providers (LSPs) who work with Virtual Interpreting Technology (VIT) have been able to maintain their businesses, and some have even thrived, depending on the diversity of their revenue streams and types of clients. For example, over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) or video remote interpreting (VRI) service contracts that support public schools have been hit hard since most schools have been closed indefinitely. Also, businesses that utilize OPI or VRI services but whose employees are not working on-site have drastically reduced their use of these services.

The Future of the Interpreting Industry

Eventually, the coronavirus will pass into history, and the economy will begin to rebuild, and interpreters will be able to get back to working full-time again. However, it is also likely that the use of over-the-phone interpretation (OPI) and video remote interpreting (VRI) will expand significantly and take even more market share from the traditional providers of on-site interpreters. How many of these smaller interpreting companies will survive the impact of the coronavirus on the interpreting industry remains to be seen.

Finally, the language services industry has shown itself to be resilient and quick to adapt to new technologies. Whether through remote interpreting or computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools, the language industry is continuously looking for the next revolutionary technology to address the changing needs of their clients. Therefore, the impact of the coronavirus on the interpreting industry may very well create new opportunities for innovation.

Latitude Prime has been at the forefront of adopting emerging technologies, which make for a better and more efficient experience for our clients, with higher quality, and even reduced costs. Please contact us for more information about our OPI and VRI interpreting services, and we will be happy to help find a customized solution that fits your needs!

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