Results from FIT Europe’s COVID-19 “Take 3” survey

Many thanks to the 753 language professionals from 29 European countries and 7 other countries who took the time to respond to FIT Europe’s “Take 3” survey. Responses levels were down compared to the Take 2 and Take 1 surveys, perhaps due to survey fatigue. With that in mind, the next edition of the survey will be conducted in around 3 months from now.

The Take 3 survey took a snapshot of how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting the business of freelance translators and interpreters in the period from 22 May to 3 June.  The timing of this survey is particularly interesting because it marked a period when some European countries had relaxed lockdown rules and economies were starting to re-open while other countries remained under lockdown.

Tentative signs of improvement?

The Take 2 survey had revealed what appeared to be tentative signs of recovery even amid the ongoing crisis. That would appear to be confirmed with the results of the third survey which show a swing away from business being “off a cliff” and an increasing level of business being normal. Things are by no means normal for everyone, but it would appear that clients are adjusting to the realities of life under lockdown.

Contact with clients

The Take 3 survey also reveals there has been a growth in the level of interaction between freelancers and their clients (whether LSCs or direct clients) compared to the previous 2 surveys.

Taken as a whole the three surveys reveal that as the crisis has gone on, clients and translators / interpreters have been increasingly interacting with each other, indicating that the translation/interpreting market is warming up again.

The table below shows some of the reasons why clients and translators/interpreters have been interacting. We didn’t measure quite as many variables in the first version of the survey which explains why certain data points are marked as zero in the first survey. Additional data points were added in in response to suggestions made by participants in previous versions of the survey.

What the table reveals is a strong focus on the human aspects of interaction, with reassurance being provided and with clients checking that translators/interpreters are bearing up under the crisis. A large number of translators/interpreters also indicated in the open questions in the survey that they had been actively contacting clients as well.

Interestingly, the surveys reveal a rise in the percentage of respondents indicating that clients are settling invoices ahead of schedule, though the imposition of lower rates or negotiations about lowering rates do appear to be on the rise again. However, these phenomena do not seem to be very widespread, having been reported by only around 10% or less of the respondents. Having said that, one of the top fears voiced by respondents is that rates will be driven down as time goes on (see below).

Encouragingly, the most common reason clients were in contact was to explore availability for work. Respondents, though, reported that volumes of work were down and files tended to be smaller than in the past. Another common reason for contact was to explore RSI-related issues, which was something we also saw in the Take 2 survey.

Support measures

More respondents also reported in the Take 3 survey compared to the Take 1 and 2 surveys that there is national support available in their country, reflecting the extension in the support available in many countries to cover the self-employed and freelancers, which sometimes were enacted with delay by national governments.

The Take 3 survey shows a marked increase in reliance on national support packages by respondents as the crisis has dragged on.

However, compared to previous editions, more respondents than ever flagged up issues with government support: ineligibility due to overly restrictive criteria, short duration of support which was no longer available, and low levels of support.

New issues explored

Having taken on board some suggestions from respondents to the Take 2 survey, various new issues were explored in Take 3.

We asked respondents if they thought the pandemic, lockdown and crisis was impacting on their mental health. Three fifths said it was having no impact on them. This could well be because freelancers are used to working on their own at home. Just under two fifths, though, did report their mental health was affected.

From the comments made in response to open questions, the primary reasons for this are added stresses with childcare/home-schooling while trying to maintain a business at home, the shift to RSI and fears that it may become a permanent feature of the market, fear of uncertainty and worries/concerns about the prolonged negative effect on the economy and their businesses.

Indicative of those concerns about the future, is the response to the question we posed about how respondents expect their income to change in the next three months. 44.1% said they expected their income to drop.

In a slightly different question to the previous versions of the survey, we asked how long it would be before respondents did not have enough money to cover their basic living expenses. The relatively high responses for 9-months to a year and over 1 year came from persons who indicated that they did not rely solely on translation/interpreting for their income and had alternative income sources or someone else in their household who has the main breadwinner, or had savings.

The picture here is consistent with that in other versions of the survey, and indicates that interpreters/translators are generally in a precarious situation. What emerges from the survey is a general concern about cash flows, liquidity and what will happen if reserves are depleted by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially if government support is no longer forthcoming or is considerably reduced.

We also sought to explore respondents’ views about confidence in the economy. Over two fifths of respondents said they were upbeat about things bouncing back to normal after the pandemic is over. That of course must be tempered with just under two fifths saying that they did not know if the economy would bounce back. This ties into the general sense of anxiety and uncertainty expressed by respondents in open questions in the survey.

We also explored the risks respondents believe they will face in the near future. Listed in order of frequency they are:

  • delayed/cancelled projects
  • losing clients
  • increasing pressure to lower rates
  • longer payment terms
  • running out of savings
  • worries about what will happen when government support ends
  • clients going bankrupt
  • inability to meet social security/tax payments
  • increasing work-life imbalance
  • RSI everywhere
  • general concerns about the state of the economy

Commitment to the profession

One of the encouraging findings from previous editions of the survey has been that respondents remain firmly committed to the profession with the vast majority saying they wish to continue as freelance translators/interpreters. That general picture is confirmed in the Take 3 survey.

Summary

Generally speaking, the overall mood among translators and interpreters continues to improve and remain optimistic, with the market slowly adapting to a new normal, however, there is still a general unease that we are not yet through the crisis and out the other end. Uncertainty on the markets continues to be a cause of concern, even among those who have seen little change in their workload.

Some areas, particularly in translation, that were initially very badly impacted are bouncing back. Other areas have changed considerably and are now providing reason for close scrutiny. One of these is remote simultaneous interpreting. Many experienced interpreters whose work has virtually disappeared for the moment have taken the opportunity to study in-depth the matter of RSI. The results make for interesting reading.

Attempts to combine caring for and home schooling young children and working at the same time is proving to be extremely difficult and stressful, resulting in a reduction in the translator being unable to accept work.

While many translators and interpreters run thriving businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has nonetheless provided proof, if proof were needed, of the precarious situation of too many freelance translators and interpreters. Many countries have put in place good support systems for freelancers, financial and otherwise, which have proved vital. Other countries have provided little or no support of any nature.

Even interpreters working in a freelance capacity for the EU institutions, generally with very good freelance contracts, are not eligible for benefits from their national governments as they pay income tax into the EU budget. The next step at FIT Europe will be to look more closely at the longer-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and begin planning for that “new normal”.

Stay tuned for the Take 4 Survey in a couple of months from now!

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