Caring for the Linguist Supply Chain - Our Analysts' Insights

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In a separate blog post, we examined some of the challenges that freelance linguists face right now on two fronts: COVID-19 and changes to labor law – with a focus on the situation in California – that have created difficulties for individuals who work as contractors for multiple LSPs or clients. In this post, we turn to some of the concrete actions that LSPs, end buyers, and linguists themselves can take to improve the situation of the freelance supply chain. Although we cannot avoid all of the problems that will result from current challenges, collective action and concern can reduce the pain as much as possible.

What LSPs Can Do

If you run an LSP, you can take the following actions in the face of COVID-19 and AB5:

  • Provide clear guidance. For contractors that still have to work on site, explain that they should perform the work only if they feel safe. Provide tips to help them stay healthy. For example, your interpreters may be torn between their sense of duty to helping a hospital patient and safety when there is a lack of protective gear. And for those who deal with heart-wrenching life and death situations, provide extra emotional support to help them cope with the challenges they face. Even if your freelancers are not employees, you have a responsibility to them.
  • Be aware of linguists’ challenges. Many of your linguists will be experiencing unpredictable disruptions to their personal and professional lives for the foreseeable future. Relax your expectations where necessary – for example, you may have to tolerate more background noise from your interpreters in the short term. Collaborate with linguists on deadlines – maybe a 5 pm delivery is less practical for them than an 8 am delivery the next day and wouldn’t change your timeline to the client. Also, beef up your vendor pool if needed so you don’t make your lack of available vendors the client’s problem.
  • Balance new candidates with keeping your existing providers busy. Now is the time to show some loyalty to your existing translators and interpreters who served you well over the years. While your vendor managers may be flooded by résumés from applicants willing to bend over backwards for a chance at some work, favor your regular linguist pool when assigning work.
  • Prioritize payments to linguists. Businesses are responding to COVID-19 by invoicing early and paying late. This may pose a cashflow challenge for LSPs but do what you can to keep linguist payments on time or even early. It will reduce stress for your providers and encourage productivity. They will remember that you treated them right when it counted.
  • Talk to your clients to learn their plans. Be prepared for a profound lack of certainty on their part but find out what you can and notify providers of disruptions on accounts they routinely handle.
  • Seek practical solutions to challenges. For example, many LSPs are currently waiving cancellation fees for interpreting gigs to their clients, but they may create funds to pay interpreters so they do not carry the full cost of the current situation. LSPs can also proactively promote remote interpreting options to their clients as an alternative to on-site services rather than wait for them to ask about it in order to give them as much lead time to prepare as possible – and to forestall cancelations.
  • Provide linguistic resources. Many of your translators and interpreters are working on communications about COVID-19 and appointments dealing with its symptoms and effects. Develop glossaries to help your linguists work efficiently and accurately.
  • Create a sense of community. Enable a discussion forum where your linguists can share their experiences and ideas to survive through these difficult times. Create newsletters with updates. Or simply pick up the phone and check how linguists are doing.

What Translation Buyers Can Do

If you are a buyer of language services, some of the steps you may take include the following:

  • Keep work flowing if possible. In times of crisis, many organizations default to freezing all activities while leadership tries to figure out what to do. However, excess caution creates problems for you because customer demands and legal obligations to provide localized content do not stop just because of emergency declarations. They may even increase in many cases. Do everything you can to keep essential content flows moving to LSPs and linguists.
  • Don’t omit any foreign constituencies in your messaging. Most buyers are translating a greater amount of messaging to clients, staff, and vendors, often into a greater number of languages than normal. Ensure you don’t leave anyone out. Now is not the time to create liability issues by neglecting needed translation or interpreting.
  • Let your LSPs know as soon as possible about disruptions and changes. The more lead time you can provide your LSPs for either decreases or increases in work, the better they can meet your needs and help their supply chain adjust as needed. Remember there are people down the line whose livelihood will be affected: Freelancers have no safety net.
  • Openly discuss challenges with LSPs and linguists. Find out what they need and how you can support them. Often, it is small things – such as relaxing deadlines or providing a heads-up about new work – that can really help your providers. Reducing stress on them will help both you and them out.
  • Take advantage of availability to carry out deferred tasks. TM maintenance and terminology work always seem to get pushed to when side during normal times. If you have a slow-down for new content, use the lull to complete these tasks, especially as they do not require urgent deadlines.
  • Provide a safe environment for contractors who must still come on site. Sanitize surfaces. Enable social distancing and provide protective equipment. If you can’t, be open about other solutions to provide access to your systems or to deliver the service. Although some standard rules may have to be bent in the interim, clearly state expectations and boundaries in advance.

What Freelance Linguists Can Do

If you are a freelancer, our advice is similar to what we recommend for LSPs and buyers:

  • Be flexible. The LSPs that work with you and their clients are trying to figure things out. You may need to meet them half-way, even in areas that were previously non-negotiable for you. Be open to new work methods, such as shifting from in-person to remote interpreting or working at home instead of in an office. You may need to adjust working hours around family needs or urgent demands for time-sensitive content. Just as you will remember which LSPs worked with you in this time of challenge, they will also remember which linguists helped them.
  • Review projects you accept closely. Negotiate deadlines if required because you are home schooling a child or taking care of a dependent. However, do whatever you can to avoid dropping your level of service and responsiveness. Communication is the key to ensure expectations are met.
  • Pay attention to your equipment. For interpreters, a good chair, headset, microphone, and – if needed – camera can greatly improve your work experience. Coordinate with family members to ensure that streaming media or school assignments do not use up too much bandwidth during your work assignments. If you are working on site, pay special attention to disinfecting any provided equipment you may use. Translators will face fewer equipment issues but should also ensure that they address their ergonomic requirements.
  • Take care of your mental wellbeing. Interpreters in particular face real challenges if they have to take on tasks like remotely interpreting for a dying person who is alone in an isolation ward with family there only by Skype but everyone wants to talk to doctors. These situations take a toll on you. Even if you do not face such direct problems, the steady trickle of disastrous news can make it hard to focus and stay engaged. This may mean you need to cut back on hours or relax your own expectations for turnaround time. Take advantage also of the counseling programs that many interpreting-centric vendors offer to help you release emotions tied to difficult situations.
  • Follow health guidelines. This can be especially challenging for front-line interpreters involved in medical or community areas, but it is crucial for you to do. If you don’t feel reasonably safe to conduct an assignment, trust your judgment on whether you should still proceed.
  • Stay on top of accounts receivable. Collections will be tough and take more of your time than you are used to, but your financial viability is at stake.
  • Encourage your clients to create isolation funds. Some of the clients may be able to set aside funds to help you or other linguists in the event that you become ill with COVID-19. If they do, consider contributing some of your own income to this fund to help fellow linguists who may otherwise face catastrophic financial consequences.

Things Will Get Better

Even if the language industry never gets back to precisely the way it was before, the situation will improve. The demand for language services is not going to go away, and those linguists who can adapt now will be better positioned for the future. LSPs and buyers who take care of the supply chain will suffer less from disruption and enjoy a good will bonus going forward. All of this requires open and honest communication and a willingness to be flexible.

About the Author

Arle  Lommel

Arle Lommel

Senior Analyst

Focuses on language technology, artificial intelligence, translation quality, and overall economic factors impacting globalization


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