Lockdown Economy USA with a Translator and Interpreter Robert Finnegan

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Tapasya Das

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview, we meet Robert Finnegan, the Portuguese-English Translator/Interpreter of the US State Department, independent contract, and adjunct professor at NYU located in Sacramento, CA, USA. Robert explains how his interpreting assignments changed from in-person to online meetings; how he struggled at the beginning of the pandemic as there was no travel or delegations meeting in person for state department assignments, meaning absolutely no work; and how he was able to overcome these challenges by participating in webinars, peer groups, investing on equipment to work from home and adapting to the online platforms where he now works as an interpreter. He also gives useful tips at the end of the video. Watch this interview until the end to get insights from an independent contractor who’s been a professional interpreter for over 29 years!

Watch the video version of the interview.

What do you do as a business?

Robert: Currently I am an independent contractor as a translator and interpreter.

How long have you been doing it?

Robert: I started as a translator working in Brazil. I was also an interpreter at the same time in 1991.

(That was long time ago, even before I was born.) Where are you based right now?

Robert: After spending almost 30 years in Brazil and having a company there, I was recruited by the UN. I went to East Timor, then to Indonesia and I’ve been in Sacramento, California for the last five years.

Wow, Indonesia, East Timor and now you are in the US. It sounds like a cool job. Do you have any employees right now?

Robert: Right now, no. I did have some employees when I had a company in Brazil.

So you are self-employed and you have no employees. How many clients or customers did you normally have before the pandemic?

Robert: As an independent contractor, I got most of my work through translation and interpretation agencies. I also have a few direct clients which could be individuals or companies. But it was mainly through agencies. So I might have up to twenty agencies and each one would call me for assignments. It could be once a month or once a week or twice a year and so on. Each one had a different pace. But fitting them all together and also with some direct clients, I had enough work to keep me busy and thriving.

How about now? In 2020, with the COVID 19 pandemic, how has the business changed for you?

Robert: It has changed a lot and it is entirely different from this time last year. Two things happened this year. One of them is the pandemic and the other one is the legislation called AB5 that started in January of this year in California. It was meant to ensure workers rights to people in the gig economy like drivers for Lyft or Uber, and so on. But it ended up getting interpreters and translators in the net as well. And it required any of these agencies, that would hire us for assignments, to consider us employees with benefits and all of the paperwork that goes along with having an employee. And most of them were not willing to do it. So I stopped getting work from California-based agencies and most of my work would come from agencies out of state. So that already impacted the business from January to March. And then in March, when the pandemic hit and the lockdown started in different parts of the world, a large number of international events just stopped. All of a sudden there was nothing, zero! So that had been my bread and butter either through agencies mainly in the Bay Area, or when the Silicon Valley companies would have people up from Portuguese speaking countries to buy equipment or find out the latest in their developments. All of that stopped. The State Department, which is a client providing most of my income on an annual basis, stopped having international visits. So I was no longer going from city to city accompanying these delegations. Everything just stopped completely. So yeah, that was a complete change and that was catastrophic.

That sounds like it was. And I think that is true for a lot of people. You would say you travel primarily for work and there is no travel going on right now. So what have you done to stimulate the business and attract customers or new clients?

Robert: So I have to say that the first thing I did, was cut out unemployment. If there was no work, if everything just stopped cold, I had to keep up some sort of income. So I applied and thankfully they had that exception for independent contractors where they could receive unemployment. And so until I got a certain flow of clientele back, I depended on that. Now that you asked about what I’ve been doing to get more clients, I must tell you that I have been participating in discussions among trade industry organisations. And some of my clients, particularly the State Department, have also provided webinars and discussions, to try to see, understand and prepare for the new reality. So I got some clients back through that, let’s say.

How is your business going now?

Robert: It’s still much slower than it was but the trend is to improve right now.

Being that we are on the verge of getting a vaccine out supposedly in some point in December and that probably we would get mass vaccines later next year, how do you see the next year for example? Do you have any customers or new ideas of the future?

Robert: I think remote interpreting is going to be the norm for the next year. I don’t think that I would have lots of traveling delegations coming to the US and requiring my support. I don’t think that there is going to be large-scale in-person events for a while. So, that’s what I used to do. Now I’m starting to do remote interpretation via Zoom or other platforms. And I’m sure that it would be the norm for the next year at least. Possibly in 2022 things will go back to what they were. But I don’t know.

So you mentioned a very important point there, which is the fact that now translation, events and meetings are being done primarily online via platforms like Zoom. How has it changed from how you would interpret before COVID 19 and how you’ve been doing it this year?

Robert: Simultaneous Interpretation has a very high cognitive load. You have to hear, process and speak at the same time. That is not normal for most people. So that is the norm with my business. But in the past in in-person events you have an interpretation booth or multiple booths, you have a sound engineer or a technician who is monitoring the flow of speech and levels and so on. If there is a problem, he rushes into the booth or works on his equipment in the back and fixes everything. So now the interpreter has to constantly monitor at least those things under his or her control, by himself or herself; be aware of those and have to try to resolve them on his own or on her own. So that’s a significant difference and it adds to that cognitive load. In addition, there is the fact that a lot of the process is no longer in anyone’s hands. If your internet provider starts having problems, no one can fix that. Nobody on the interpreter’s side, none of the participants nor the host can fix that. So all of this adds to the cognitive load and to stress

That sounds a little challenging. But I hope that with time and more practice it starts to become a little easier. I also believe that it seems like that is going to be the way to go, at least for another year.

Robert: Well I think that there are some things that we can do about it. You can acquire the best equipment you can, you can acquire the best internet connection you can and you can learn about the platforms and the technology. So those are things that you can do to help minimise those challenges. But there are also things that you can’t do. I mean we can hope that these internet providers will upgrade their infrastructure eventually, so that the information and data flow more smoothly. And we hope that the platforms improve as well so that, that part of the experience is better. So I think there is work on everybody’s part.

There is definitely a lot of development that needs to happen in all countries. How can we expect for them to have good internet connection in somewhere like Papua New Guinea or in small islands?

Robert: My last remote event was with participants from Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Principe. São Tomé and Principe and Cape Verde are relatively poor countries. Even their capital cities look like rural communities if compared to the US. The US has problems of connectivity in some of its rural areas. So they were not able to participate with video and they could only participate with audio because the bandwidth wouldn’t allow it. So I think that the world sees that we need more bandwidth and more equity of bandwidth. And I think that it is something that will improve with time. I think that this pandemic has exposed weaknesses all over the social system.

To close that off, I have just one more question. What are three things you need help with?

Robert: The first one is-possibly if there was any kind of incentives for improving your physical infrastructure for being able to provide remote services. The second thing would be getting more learning opportunities so that people in their different industries can learn how to transition to this new reality. The third one would be something in general. But I think that, as everyone improves their connectivity, as everyone improves their part of the experience, it will get better over time. It will be less stressful for the people running it and hopefully we will also go back to in-person events as soon as possible.

About the Guest

ATA-certified Portuguese-English Translator/Interpreter. Adjunct Professor at NY University. US State Dept. Interpreter. UN Serious Crimes Investigation team ex-staff translator. Former CEO of Contact Translations.


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