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An Oral History of Language Services During a Pandemic

image of people talking

No one could have predicted the multi-layered, worldwide impact the coronavirus would have when the first confirmed cases were discovered in Wuhan, China on January 7, 2020.

When then-President Trump enacted a travel ban from China on January 31 of last year, there were roughly 10,000 confirmed cases in China (the disease had already spread across 22 countries).

For perspective, a year later there are now well over 100 million cases and two million-plus deaths, according to the World Health Organization. The first case in the U.S. was discovered on January 21 in Washington State.

There is no doubt we were all caught off guard by the severity of it, but the most alarming thing about the pandemic is the disproportionate impact it has had on the roughly 25 million Limited English Proficient (LEP) people in the U.S (according to the latest Census data).

It has been disconcerting that Latino populations are twice as likely to contract COVID-19, more than four times more likely to be hospitalized and about three times more likely to die of COVID-19, compared to non-Hispanic whites, according to CDC data.

What’s more, there are about 11 million people who are either hard-of-hearing or functionally deaf in the U.S., according to The Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP).

The deaf and hard-of-hearing community has been severely impacted by the pandemic because it has limited their ability to communicate. Masks, while effective and necessary, prevent lip reading, which deaf and hard-of-hearing people rely upon heavily.

All of this means that, now more than ever, breakdowns in communication can be a matter of life and death. That is why language services are so critical – and always have been –  and why everyone at iTi is so passionate about helping people.

The following is a historical account of what it has been like to help the world communicate during a once-in-a-century public health crisis.

 

CORONAVIRUS? COVID-19? WHAT?

iTi President Francesco Pagano

Francesco Pagano, President: I didn’t see it being drawn out as long as it has been – I’m the eternal optimist. What was going through my mind (in the beginning) was making sure interpreters out in the field were safe, first and foremost. I actually participated with colleagues across the country to create a best practices document for interpreters to help them remain safe. My priority was making sure the company was set up to work from home, and second, that we were there for our clients every step of the way. Also, that we continued to be there as a resource for our freelance translators and interpreters every step of the way. The biggest challenge was not being able to see what’s going to happen beyond tomorrow or even today. That, hands down, was the biggest challenge from a personal and business perspective.

 

 

iTi VP Diana Pagano

Diana Pagano, VP of Sales and People Operations: We thought it would be a couple weeks, at most, and we just needed to make sure we could still serve our customers. The biggest challenge was having to cultivate the camaraderie that was no longer there. We had done a group virtual meeting to keep the engagement, talking about things like, ‘What’s helping you to work from home?’ and ‘How are you adjusting?’ Some of us have kids. Some people thrive being around other people. The challenge was how do we get everyone together and still feel like a team. It was different, especially in our call center, but they did a great job to fulfill the demand.

 

iTi Translations Manager Andrea Nease

Andrea Nease, Translations Operations Manager: Everyone was stressed out. It was the fear of the unknown. Our work schedules got thrown to the wind because the amount of hospital requests that came in was absurd. There were a bunch of us working from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., and then on the weekends, too. That schedule, coupled with the isolation of the pandemic, pushed everyone to their limits. But our translation department works for iTi because we genuinely believe in the vision of helping others. We are not providing a product; we are providing a partnership and a service to help bridge global communication, so it wasn’t hard to get people to put in extra hours. We are all behind this mission.

iTi Interpreting Manager Bill Raymond

 Bill Raymond, Interpreting Operations Manager: When the pandemic hit initially, we had to re-think our processes to facilitate the communication with the LEP community, our interpreters, and clients. I am very proud of how quickly we were able to adjust. The biggest challenge was the technology itself. A lot of clients were not used to using it. Even though we have been using this type of technology for many years and did our due diligence, there were still some hiccups early on. Knowing and understanding a platform is different than troubleshooting problems in real time when an interpreter is on a Zoom call.

Diana: We were able to pivot and say, ‘How can we provide these preferred interpreters to make sure those (LEP) communities are served?’ In-person interpreting was still happening, but it was very little. Having the technology on our side, which is something we offered before COVID hit, was a plus. Also, a lot of interpreters were afraid of in-person assignments, especially in hospitals, but when it couldn’t be done virtually, our interpreters stepped up. That’s why they are doing this. They went into this business because they care. It’s their passion. One of our clients had to erect a mobile hospital at warp speed; our team did what we had to do to provide Video Remote Interpreting and implement language services into the mobile hospital. The client was very happy with how fast we were able to get that done.

Andrea: We were contacted by a marketing group that was having a virtual conference. They set up an online chat booth, so we had to onboard some freelancers to be in the chat room. They were like instant messenger translators. That was something we have rarely encountered before: live, real-time translation. Typically, interpretation is simultaneous. Interpreters hear one language and output another. Translators are well-versed in anything written, and a lot of translators like to take their time with the document. It was finding people who had the interpreter’s mindset, but then the translator capabilities to work over instant messenger.

 

THE UNEQUAL IMPACT OF COVID-19 IN THE U.S.

 

Francesco: The lack of attention put toward LEP communities was a little bit surprising. So, we offered discounts, and in some cases, free translation across the board. We offered substantial discounts for those communities. It’s also interesting because it turned out to be just as much an economic crisis as it was a public health crisis and that was and still is kind of scary when you think of that combination. You see so many places shutdown. People aren’t able to feed their families and unemployment was taking way too long to get processed. That is also pretty scary.  There were some pretty horrendous events that happened last year, on top of the pandemic. We decided to partner up with two other companies, one from Connecticut, one from New York, to form The Supply Change Alliance in hopes of sparking entrepreneurship among minority communities. I’m really proud of that and we are starting to get some leads from it, and we are having active conversations. I am proud that we were able to come up with something like this, and actually make an impact on the world for communities that are otherwise overlooked.

“A lot of interpreters were afraid of in-person assignments, especially in a hospital, but when it couldn’t be done virtually, our interpreters stepped up.” – Diana Pagano, iTi VP of Sales and People Operations

Andrea: (The socioeconomic impact of COVID-19) was an eye-opener for me. I was aware there were disadvantaged communities in terms of healthcare and that it would hit certain communities harder. But seeing the amount of translation necessary, and the amount of community groups servicing Hispanic communities that have been dealing with COVID cases, it definitely was a little bit of a shocker, initially.

Diana: For those (LEP) communities, it has been about being strategic and offering a telehealth solution with virtual interpreters. Whether it’s a patient or client, they get used to a certain interpreter in some instances, so having that in sensitive cases is big. People tend to gravitate to certain interpreters, and we were able to pivot and provide these interpreters on Zoom. As far as school, they are still having to communicate with parents and some families aren’t even able to put their child on a computer. It’s been challenging for these LEP communities. But it’s definitely helpful as opposed to nothing.  As a parent, it’s scary. Attempting to do online learning for 4 and 5-year-olds wasn’t really online learning; it was let’s get together, so they don’t lose that connection. But I think the schools are doing a great job.

Bill: Our focus was on servicing the LEP community, our interpreters, and clients and keeping everyone safe. It was imperative to relay to the client that technology will bring the experience as close and seamless as possible to having the interpreter in the room. That was vital in reassuring the clients that we will not only meet but exceed expectations. We always took the time to explain that to the client, and the interpreter to explained it to the LEP individual.

ADJUSTING ON THE FLY WITH VRI

Andrea: We tried to put a special emphasis on communicating on a more personal level with our translators, especially since we operate on a global scale. A lot of other countries handled the pandemic differently, so we would have someone in Italy saying, ‘You have to find another translator because I can’t get to the office due to the lockdown.’ You have to find someone else. You have to be there for that person because they are a freelancer we work with frequently.  We also had some resources who were giving us free COVID materials to pass along to our clients.

The lack of attention put toward LEP communities was a little bit surprising.” – iTi President Francesco Pagano

 

Francesco: The overall use of video technology has increased tremendously – just look at Zoom’s stock prices now. I do think that a lot of people will see efficiencies come out of it. I think it will level off at some point, but if anything, it has just raised the awareness that the services are available and has forced us to better utilize the video technology that, quite frankly, has been around for years. I think there is a time and place for the in-person vs. remote interpreter services. As someone that’s been working with video technology since the early 2000’s, it’s exciting to see the adoption overall.

Andrea: In the spring it was fight or flight. By the summer, we were totally burnt out from three months of going and going. In the fall, we started to adjust. Things normalized because I think a lot of companies normalized their communications. We had a chance to breathe; our remote structure got more fluid and being in the office helped add some normalcy.

Diana: With ASL, we didn’t really do that much pre-scheduled video remote interpreting. Our ASL interpreters have been great with accepting the opportunity to do Zoom and be flexible. Thank goodness for that.

 

translations manager quote

 

Bill: When we pivoted to video for prescheduled ASL (American Sign Language) assignments, we sent an email to all our ASL resources saying, ‘Here’s our plan.’ I wanted their feedback because ASL is different over video. There could be a litany of things the person is not understanding when you’re signing. I received a lot of feedback from the interpreters, all positive. The ASL interpreters were proactively looking into these video platforms, even before COVID hit the U.S. At least a dozen of our ASL interpreters were educating themselves on the technology that could be used before it was even in our country.

Andrea: I really think about two things: One, we had so many hospital requests and I remember being online at 10 p.m., going back and forth with our senior project managers saying: ‘We need to get this out and get that out.’ We were putting everything aside to show up for our clients. Two, the prevalence of video and overall media localization and translation this year has been outstanding. We have seen videos come from almost every client we have. Everyone adapted so quickly. We adapted our subtitling process to be more agile and even more cost-effective in some instances, but we definitely increased turnaround times tremendously. We started offering COVID discounts. What I will remember is seeing the new virtual age enter so quickly.

 

“They were like instant messenger translators. That was something we rarely encountered before: live, real-time translation.” – iTi Translation Operations Manager Andrea Nease

 

Bill: One of our hospital clients had a patient who was hesitant about using any type of technology. The patient really wanted an in-person interpreter. There were COVID cases where the patient was, so it was difficult to send someone there, given ours and our clients’ safety protocols. The patient agreed to an interpreter over the phone and it went really well. The staff was giving us kudos for arranging something that made the patient more at ease. We were able to facilitate what the patient wanted and what the client needed (patient satisfaction) — and that is what we do.

 

“The ASL interpreters were proactively looking into these video platforms, even before COVID hit the U.S.”iTi Interpreting Operations Manager Bill Raymond

BIGGEST LESSONS OF THE PANDEMIC

Francesco: We, as humans, are extremely resilient to any type of interruption to our daily lives. When push comes to shove, over the past year we’ve had leadership failures and leadership breakthroughs. What I take away is we are resilient.  At the end of the day, everyone comes together, and that’s a really beautiful thing to see.

Andrea: For me, the biggest lesson was a clarity of communication. When I’m not able to talk to my team face-to-face, it provides a lot of challenges, so I’ve had to be very explicit and still welcoming over screens, over instant messenger and over the phone. It has been learning new ways to communicate that isn’t just using my body language and presence in a room.

Diana: There is always a solution to any problem. It’s staying true to what you do. Our clients are depending on us, so when it hits the fan, we have to stay focused on what we have to do. Yes, you have to pivot or strategize, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. One thing about 2020 is that we as a company are still standing. We actually grew over the previous year and we aren’t going anywhere. We actually hired people during this pandemic and grew the team with more of the right people.

 

“We, as humans, are extremely resilient to any type of interruption to our daily lives.” – iTi President Francesco Pagano

 

Bill: An enormous takeaway from the past year was how important it is to be proactive and planning for the unknown. No one saw the pandemic coming, but we were able to pivot quickly thanks to our proactive approach.  Personally, the biggest lesson is do not take anything for granted – family, the health of family, what you enjoy doing.  I honestly cannot remember a summer when I didn’t go to a Red Sox game and that didn’t happen this year.

 

Francesco: It took a pandemic for people to put down their electronic devices and go outside and take a walk. One of the most amazing things about the pandemic is that it brought the world to a screeching halt, and when it shut down, you saw the earth literally start to heal itself in a fairly short amount of time. It was incredible. I probably wouldn’t have, in a million years, had the opportunity to spend the amount of time I did with my family, especially having two small children. In retrospect, 15-20 years from now, I’m going to look back at 2020 and say, ‘What an awesome opportunity it was to stop and be present, to be with my family and explore the outdoors more than we would have any other year.’ The thing I’m most proud of from 2020 professionally, is that while everything else was shutting down, and things took a huge nose dive straight into the ground for six to eight months, we took a calculated risk and hired as many people as we could to continue moving our growth plans forward. I know in a few years that’s going to pay off and it makes me smile that we were able to make a difference and hire people when most companies were letting people go or holding off on hiring.

 

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

iTi has 30-plus years of industry experience, which matters immensely these days. We have more than 10,000 linguists and a team that can handle more than 250 languages ready to help bridge your communication gaps.

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