Interpreting in the Face of a Pandemic

(The following was originally published on the blog of ATA’s Interpreters Division,

On January 21, 2020, the state of Washington reported the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S. On February 29, it announced the country’s first COVID-19-related death. The virus has since spread across the country, just as it has around the globe. And as the world hunkers down against COVID-19, those of us who work in language access services face an abruptly-changed environment.


As social distancing was implemented and stay-at-home orders issued, conferences and events were cancelled. Courts closed. Depositions and interviews dropped off the calendar. School districts closed their doors and found ways to provide meals. Hospitals and clinics scrambled to find beds and equipment.

Traditionally, onsite interpreting has accounted for over 80% of all spoken-language assignments, while the remaining percentage of the work was done by over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) or video remote interpreting (VRI). In a few short weeks, that scenario flipped.1

Judicial: Initially, courts took a short hiatus. They postponed all nonessential legal proceedings and jury trials in the expectation that things would soon return to normal. Interpreters’ only measure of protection was the use of wireless equipment. Now, judges and court staff are learning to hold many proceedings remotely. Depositions are being held using online platforms. Many court interpreters with a lifetime of experience have been struggling to find their footing in this virtual world.

Health Care: While remote services are provided where possible, health care interpreters still have to report to hospitals and clinics in person, which makes them the most exposed during this pandemic. The need for personal protective equipment has increased, but shortages are widespread. The protective clothing (or bunny suits) required in these settings can muffle the voices of medical personnel. Most medical staff and interpreters understand the need to project their voices, especially when wearing masks. However, keep in mind that patients and their family members—who are already sick, nervous, or scared and unaccustomed to wearing masks—could be more difficult to understand if they speak as they would under normal circumstances.

Education: School districts across the country closed their buildings (at first temporarily, then indefinitely). Districts worked to educate families and feed schoolchildren while shifting to online learning and implementing technology solutions so all students could study online. In California, the Orange County Department of Education, which serves nearly 500,000 students, cancelled all existing interpreting assignments until Individualized Education Program (IEP) and other meetings could be rescheduled. Schools have traditionally used a combination of trained in-house interpreting staff, independent contractors, and language services companies. However, it takes time to equip school personnel for remote work.

Conference: Early in this pandemic, before the full impact on health care, judicial, and educational interpreting was felt in the U.S., conferences and meetings around the globe began to cancel. Conference interpreters, booked months in advance, watched their calendars empty, with no idea when they would be rescheduled.

All interpreters, in these categories and others, have been affected by the pandemic, and for many (if not most), the financial threat is significant. Some may find it necessary to shift to other lines of work. This could result in a loss of qualified professionals before the world finds its new normal.

What Comes Next?

Where do we go from here? How do we continue to serve our clients and feed our families?

We train. This is the time to expand our skill sets. Learn that new tool you’ve been eyeing. Explore unused features of tools you’ve had for years. Read those books on legal contracts that have gathered dust while you waited for time. Listen to podcasts, watch webinars.

We retrain. For those of you who, like me, have always squirmed at anything other than in-person interpreting—it’s time to get over it. The hallmark of a professional is the ability to give our best regardless of the circumstances. Right now, giving our best means relearning how to do our jobs.

Training in OPI, VRI, and remote simultaneous interpreting is being offered by numerous individuals and companies. For example, the Metroplex Interpreters and Translators Association in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is holding peer-to-peer online training and practice sessions, including mock depositions, for its members. There are also webinars, articles, books, and training videos.

We maintain our professional standards and rates. The only thing that makes providing remote services easier than in-person is the lack of a commute. There is no valid reason for rates to change when the service provided (and its quality) is fundamentally the same.

Here are some other things we need to consider doing:

  • Learn to use online platforms before you have to use them professionally. Be prepared to guide clients on how to communicate through an interpreter while using remote solutions.
  • Rather than driving to a client’s office, invest in your own online meeting account (Zoom, GoToMeeting, UberConference, etc.) and reach them virtually.
  • Avoid locking yourself into a given field. Court interpreters in limbo, for instance, might find opportunities with school districts as they restart IEP meetings. Look beyond your usual clientele.
  • All equipment must be up to the task. Our skills are of little use if no one can hear or understand us. Make sure that your equipment delivers the best possible results or replace it.
  • An online calendar (such as Calendly or Acuity) can let clients check your availability and schedule interpreting services at their convenience.
  • Be intentional. Draft an outline of what services you will and will not offer. Identify how you will provide them. List your hourly rates, any equipment you might need to acquire or upgrade, and your availability. Writing it out can help you identify issues before they become problems.
  • Learn how your clients are handling business during this time. If you know what changes they have had to make, you will have a better idea of how you can serve them.
  • Become familiar with protective gear for in-person interpreting in hazardous situations (see
  • Learn about dealing with vicarious trauma (see
  • Consider offering related services, such as online language classes, while waiting for clients to get back to business.
  • Look into any government or other relief programs that may help you stay afloat as the world finds its footing.

The New Normal

Eventually, the pandemic will subside. Businesses will reopen, conferences will be held, and school kids will be back in the classroom. But we’ll never go back to “normal.” The world will be changed. We’ll be changed. We need to accept and embrace that as of now.

Companies may alter their business models, more people may work from home, and protocols and procedures may change. We don’t know the exact shape of the changes to come, we only know that they will. And we can be sure that our services will be just as essential in that new normal as they were before and are today.

So, while the world hunkers down against COVID-19, please remember: we’re all in this together. And we have work to do.

Resources (Just a Few)

ATA Webinars On-Demand: “Understanding Remote Simultaneous Interpreting”

Better Business Bureau
Tips for Business Owners during the Pandemic

Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters
Statement on Ensuring Interpreters’ Safety during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Comparison of Popular Remote Meeting Tools
(Please note that some of the information is outdated, but this comparison can help you ask the right questions as you evaluate online platforms.)

Consumer Reports Coronavirus Hub
Tips on Equipment and Services

InterpretAmerica 2020: A Unified Response to Ensure Access to Interpreting Services

Choosing a USB Headset for Remote Interpreting

International Association of Conference Interpreters
Best Practices for Interpreters during the COVID-19 Crisis

KUDO Online Meeting Platform

National Center on Deafness at California State University Northridge
YouTube Video on Using an Interpreter in Zoom

National Council on Interpreting in Health Care
Webinar on the Temporary Transition to Remote Interpreting During Health Emergencies

Rochester Institute of Technology Libraries
Healthcare Industry Association Practical Interpreting II: Video Remote Interpreting

Free Webinars

Troublesome Terps Podcast
“Remote Interpreting with a Cat on Your Lap”

U.S Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights
Guidance on Telehealth Remote Communications

Introduction to Zoom Conference Interpreting

  1. Interpreting in Times of COVID-19 (Nimdzi Research, 2020),

Carol Shaw, CT is the editor of ATA’s Interpreters Division (ID) blog and a member of the ID Leadership Council. She is an ATA-certified translator (Spanish>English) and licensed court interpreter, and has been providing Spanish<>English translation services to school districts in North Texas for nearly 20 years. She created a brief training program for district employees providing informal language services, consults with districts regarding their translation and interpreting needs, and occasionally serves as an interpreter for district-level meetings. When she is not partnering with schools to enhance communication between parents and educators, she primarily focuses on legal, business, and marketing translation. Contact:

Interpreters are a vital part of ATA. This column is designed to offer insights and perspectives from professional interpreters.

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