How COVID-19 is impacting independent translation and interpreting professionals

FIT Europe, represented by Annette Schiller and John O’Shea, took part in a webinar on Friday, 17 April to present some of the findings of the main European Language Industry Survey and the follow-up survey FIT Europe conducted on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the translation and interpreting professions.  

The COVID-19 survey

The COVID-19 survey ran for one week (from 27 March to 3 April). 1,036 independent language professionals from 29 European countries and 18 other countries responded. The survey was short with just 5 core questions and a couple of follow-up questions.  

It was designed to take the pulse of the market and get a snapshot of how the pandemic had impacted the translation and interpreting sectors at that point in time.

The findings

At the time the survey closed, COVID-19 was proving to be a game-changer.  

The main survey showed that many independent language professionals in 2020 were already in a financially precarious situation, with many unable to earn enough from freelancing and having to top up their income from other sources, and many unable afford private insurance if things go wrong (like illness, or inability to work) and also unable to plan for their future retirement, mainly because of unstable earnings from translation/interpreting.

Then came COVID-19. The picture of the market on 3 April when the COVID-19 survey closed was that the vast majority of translators and interpreters said business had been affected to varying degrees. Of those who reported their business was affected:

58.1% of respondents reported their business had fallen off a cliff 

38.7% of respondents said business was slow for them 

That’s a staggering 96.8% of respondents impacted. A few respondents did report that because of their subject-matter expertise business was better or booming (2% of respondents).

Weathering the storm

At the time the survey was conducted not all countries had announced measures to support independent professionals, including translators and interpreters.

So we asked, in the absence of government support, how long respondents would be able to weather the storm. The majority said no more than 3 months (most said 1-2 months only), which ties into the situation of precarity among freelancers identified in the main 2020 survey. 

Of course, some countries were already offering support to translators and interpreters and others were discussing the introduction of measures. And when it comes to those measures, the picture was (and is) pretty mixed. Support comes in varying degrees, with varying requirements. Some independent professionals can access support, others don’t meet the eligibility criteria. Check out our rolling blogpost on the topic.

Others also reported that the eligibility requirements weren’t clear in their country and they wanted to wait and see if things improved or for clarifications to be provided before seeking government support. On the date our survey closed only 18.3% of respondents in countries where support was available had actually applied for it. 62% were waiting to see and said if they needed support they would apply for it.

Client response

We also asked independent professionals whether clients had been in contact with them. Encouragingly 54.1% had, with most contacting translators/interpreters to offer reassurance that they would assign work when some came in, to check that they were safe and well and even to settle invoices ahead of schedule. Around 16% reported that clients had been in contact to unilaterally reduce rates, citing the pandemic as a reason.  

What’s next

Some of the figures from this initial COVID survey are shocking. @FIT_Europe is now repeating the survey to see whether those high percentages represented (merely) an initial short, sharp shock, or whether they continue to hold true for the translation and interpreting professions.

During the webinar, Annette Schiller announced the launch of a second COVID survey. The link can be found here.

The survey closes on Friday, 24 April.

FIT Europe intends to repeat the survey every couple of weeks to monitor trends, to see if things are improving or worsening for independent language professionals.  We call on our member associations to share the links to the surveys with their individual members and to encourage them to take part.

A glimmer of light

One upbeat finding from the COVID survey is that independent language professionals appear committed to the freelance model of work. 95% said they intended to remain freelancers when things return to normal. Of course, many also expressed caveats about that, with concerns being voiced about how long it will take to return to normal, and about what the market will look like in the future. Concerns were voiced about more reliance on MT by clients, about the emergence of machine interpreting (MI) and a shift to remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) via interpreting delivery platforms (IDPs) which could disrupt the traditional model of how interpreting is provided permanently.

Thank you and please share

The Board of FIT Europe would like to thank the numerous freelancers who took the time to respond to the first COVID survey and ask them to take part in the second and future surveys and share it with colleagues and friends in the profession.  It’s important to have data like this at this time. Help us collect it.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. It is true that the impacts of COVID-19 have been experienced to varying degrees across all translation and interpreting sectors. From reading the figures provided here, the fluctuating provisions for translators and interpreters between different countries across Europe are outstanding. These language professionals merit some form of support just like other professionals receiving aid in some way during the current crisis. They play such a valuable role in translating and interpreting all forms of COVID- 19 related materials for medical studies and treatments as such. With this in mind, medical translation is a key specialist area within Stealth Translations and we have been able to assist a number of our customers who are involved in care for those who are both directly and indirectly affected by the pandemic. Everyone has a part to play and deserves the recognition for doing so.

    Very informative article

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