We are pleased to continue with our series of interviews with SeproTec experts. This time we talk with our Head of Interpreting Department, Isabel Arroyo—so let’s go!
Isabel has been working in the company for almost 12 years and she heads the Public Services Interpreting Department.
- Hi Isabel! Thanks for booking time for us in your busy calendar – we know the last few months have really been busy for you! We would like to get to know you better, so let’s get started! Can you tell us how everything started?
12 years ago, I was hired as a manager when we began the interpreting services project for the National Police. It was the first time that this client had put the management of these services out to tender, and it was pretty chaotic. Back then, many of us entered the Department at the same time and, even though there was a lot of work, we had a great time. We learned an enormous amount. Slowly but surely, we began adding new clients and the Department started to take shape. In 2010, I was appointed coordinator, and since 2012, I’ve been the manager. I’m a Sepro veteran now!
- Did you always know you wanted to work in the industry?
To be honest, this job came up as soon as I finished my degree. Even though I specialized in translation and had always had teaching in mind, when I saw this job offer, I thought it was really attractive. Working in the translation and interpreting sector was always my first choice.
- Can you tell us what your role involves, how it fits into the wider language service industry?
Our job is not a common one in the labor market. Interpreting for the public services is relatively limited, but I have to say we handle some very different kinds of tasks. In my case, I have duties of all kinds, covering the supervision of all tasks concerning the Public Service Interpreting area, including preparing, reviewing, and approving price quotes and reports, supervising the databases, managing the team and the services, organizing training courses, contacting and visiting clients, presenting proposals and following up on quality plans, participating in the preparation of bids, etc. However, this project would not work without the great administrative team behind it, currently more than 40 people (coordinators, account executives, selection specialists and clerks) in the various offices (Las Rozas, Barcelona and Valencia). Every day we have to face a wide variety of challenges. I think that the fact that the team is so diverse (different nationalities, ages, educational backgrounds, etc.) makes it more complete. We learn a lot from one another because everyone contributes something to the service. To complete our tasks, we work closely with other departments such as Human Resources, Administration and Marketing & Sales. It is also very gratifying to know that all our work has a social impact, and that we work with and for people and are often able to come up with solutions for really complex situations.
- What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
The most challenging part of our job is making this sector more professional and making people acknowledge the value provided by interpreters. There is still a lot to do to get there. The first step is to raise awareness among the public institutions of how important it is. We also need to work on qualifications and improve the levels of service in general.
- SeproTec is a leader in translation and interpreting for public services. How is this different from providing services for non-public/ non-institutional clients?
From my standpoint, besides the obvious differences in the way people are hired, salaries and the types of services, one of the key aspects that makes our management different is the immediacy. Our team is operational 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and, generally, we have a two-hour margin from when the request is made to when the interpreter arrives at the site. Also, the range of languages is very wide, and we are obliged to provide a service in any of the official languages and dialects from practically anywhere. Among our latest requests have been languages such as Malayalam, Tibetan, Ilokano and Baluchi. It’s quite a challenge! I always say that our interpreters are true all-rounders because they have to cope with very different situations on a daily basis and do not always have information about the people they are going to assist. For example, often they don’t send us any information on the type of crime or documentation on the cases and so our interpreters might find themselves assisting anyone from a person arrested for petty theft to the parties involved in a complex tax evasion case in the courts.
As a general rule, the main method used is liaison or bilateral interpreting. However, some clients understand the role of the interpreter better than others, so they are not always helpful as regards timing and pauses or just in general. Maybe the ideal solution would be to provide all these services by way of simultaneous interpreting, but in practice this isn’t easy given the budgetary limitations to install technical equipment at every site and the number of professionals available in this discipline.
I feel strongly that much work remains to be done to raise awareness in the public services about the role of the interpreter.
- Do you agree that today’s society can be defined by multiculturalism and multilingualism?
It’s clear that migratory flows are having a very significant influence on the social context and therefore on our work. While, say, 12 years ago, there were a large number of requests for Eastern European languages, over the last few years, the war in Syria and the huge influx of people arriving on the coasts of Southern Europe in small boats have changed the situation. Also, yes, I believe that today’s society is more open to multiculturalism and multilingualism, and that there is a growing number of tools for communicating with people from anywhere in the world, but I also have to say that professionals are still needed to facilitate legal proceedings, as there are still cultural barriers that reduce the effectiveness of communication.
- Now and then we see some articles complaining about the externalization of this service to LSPs, mainly due to a lack of knowledge of their services. Will you please help us understand the difficulties of the service?
Although interpreters who pursue a public service career in many countries are still virtually unknown (sometimes interpreting is barely differentiated from translation), are not covered by specific industry regulations, and often aren’t taken into sufficient consideration, fortunately people are becoming more aware of the problems that this creates and the industry is working to change this situation. To start with, we need to remember that the Translation and Interpreting track at university is relatively new. The profession, however, has always existed. The logical tendency is for this field to become a true profession, and it is inevitable that during that process there will be all kinds of experiences.
For some years now, the Public Administration has been opting to outsource part of the Translation and Interpreting service. There are interpreters in place directly hired by the Administrations. However, because there are very few of them for the huge volume of work, and, therefore, few language combinations are available, and especially because there has been a rise in the number of requests for minority languages, the private sector is increasingly being used to cover the real demand for translation and interpreting services and the specific challenges each situation presents.
During our years of experience in the business, we have found employees in the industry who had never worked legally before joining us. Our interpreters comply with the confidentiality regulations and are hired in accordance with the labor legislation in force in the country or region where the service is performed, so their salaries can vary from one zone to another.
While this is always something that private enterprise has been criticized for, their rates reflect the maximum prices set by the Administrations in their tenders and, unfortunately, the economic situation has not been very favorable over the past few years. People also have a rather mistaken idea of how much the company earns. Many people take the maximum bid price as their point of reference, but you have to remember that a bid must be made and the price must include both the interpreting and the management of the service: the gross salary of the interpreter, Social Security, severance packages, vacations, administrative management, service 24 hours a day/365 days a year, selecting interpreters, travel and per diem costs, management tools, and other general expenses. In short, the profit margin is not nearly as large as it might appear at first glance.
Taking Spain as an example, SeproTec currently works with a monthly average of 1,000 interpreters who provide around 550 interpreting services daily for the courts and police. Approximately 350 of them have a permanent contract and, of these, 230 have a full-time contract.
Regarding our positive experience as interpreting service providers for the Public Administration, we can say that the volume of complaints or incidents reported is minimal compared with the volume of services rendered (less than 0.08% in 2018).
We are committed to defending and respecting our profession, collaborating with the Public Administration in a continuous process of renewal and a search for solutions that fit the needs as they arise. That is why it is crucial for private companies, associations, and the academic and professional fields to work together to strengthen and secure the future of public service interpreting.
- What languages are being demanded? We bet it must be a wide range…
So far this year we have received requests for about 120 different languages.
In the case of Spain for example, the languages most in demand have not changed much over the years: Arabic (33%), English (10%), and Romanian (10%), followed by French, Mandarin Chinese, Georgian, Russian, Urdu, Albanian and German (accounting for 28% between them). This year, for example, there has (fortunately!) only been one request for each of the following languages: Twi, Bissa, Chechnyan, Dyula, Gujarati, Ilokano, Kasonke, Oromo and K’iche’.
- Are we right in imagining that it’s a fast-paced work environment in which one day is never the same as another?
Indeed, one of the major characteristics of this job is that it is impossible to predict with any certainty what we are going to face each day. The only exception is at night when you watch the news or tune into the radio on the way to work in the morning and hear that a criminal group has been arrested, there has been a raid, or several boats have arrived… Then you know exactly what to expect! In general, winter is usually quieter than summer, but it all depends on who our clients are at that moment and on the Department’s specific situation.
- Do you have any amusing anecdotes to share with us?
Lots. I think we could write a book. Apart from some of the interpreters having strange names (as you can imagine, with so many different nationalities), often you don’t know if you’re going to come across a man or a woman on the other end of the phone. For example, when I was starting out, I had to call a person whose name was Issa. I was certain that it would be a woman, but when I met Issa in person, it turned out that he was a man who towered over me.
Civil servants can also create some really unlikely situations, and at times they have asked us for “hands-free” interpreters when they meant to say sign language interpreters, while at other times they don’t know how to specify the language and they ask us for interpreters of Belgian, Nigerian or Shi’ite… They get quite confused!
- And lastly… Imagine one day without: work, internet or phone calls… What would you do for this one day?
I think I’d prefer not to imagine it… It would be chaos!