“At MCIS, we don’t panic, and change the course. We look for Opportunities,” says Executive Director, Latha Sukumar.

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Latha was addressing a gathering of interpreters and staff at the Interpreter Appreciation Event on Saturday. Below is an excerpt of her speech:

Good evening and welcome dear friends and esteemed guests.  Welcome our MP Yasmin Ratansi.  It is an honour and privilege to be speaking to you today.  We go through our lives rushing around, busy and preoccupied.  So every once in a while we need to hit the pause button to express how much we appreciate and value each other.  So today we are doing just that.  I will tell you a little about MCIS’ evolution and what we have come to stand for.  I will express our immense and profound gratitude for the work that you all do.  I will also share our future plans with you which include all of you.  I will not keep you for too long so you have a chance to mix and mingle. 

So let us start with a joke.

Two cops are hanging around on a corner in the former East Germany shortly after the Wall fell; up ride two bicyclists from England, looking for directions.

“I don’t speak German,” one says to one of the cops, “Might you speak English?”

The cops shrug with incomprehension.

“Parlez vous francais,” the biker says, non-plussed.

More shrugs.

“Parla Italiano?”

Shrugs

“Habla Espanol?”

Same thing. The guy even tries Portuguese and Latin, no luck.

Finally, the bikers ride off, frustrated.

One cop looks at the other and says, “Hey, that guy spoke 6 languages!”

The first one shrugs one last time. “Yeah well, what good did it do him?”

Where did we come from?

So where did we come from, how did we get here, how have you made it all happen and what plans do we have for you? 

The evolution of MCIS parallels my own. 

I stumbled on to this path 21 years ago in 1996 and have felt incredibly privileged almost like the chosen one.  I had arrived in Canada in 1987 and as a newcomer had struggled to integrate and settle.  Language was not a problem for me and yet I had to learn a completely new vocabulary, adopt a different accent to be understood and use new terms and phrases.  So it was only 7 years after my arrival, and after I had completed my Masters, Law School and qualified as a lawyer in Canada that I found my voice.  However, it bothered me that I found myself in court rooms where immigrants did not really have a voice.  They did not speak English and could not navigate a very complex system especially given how stressed they were.  Not just victims of crime but also those who committed criminal acts.  One day I was in a court room where a woman took the stand and completely reversed her statement made to the Police.  When she had called 911, she had told the police her husband had thrown boiling hot water at her and her baby.  They both had burn marks from it.  Yet when she took the stand and testified through the court interpreter, she said it was an accident and her statement to the police was wrong.  Clearly, something was not right.  

When I dug deeper, I found out that she was more afraid of the system and her isolation than of her husband.  She did not trust the system to keep her and her child safe.  She found it to be extremely impersonal because no professional interpreter had been present through all her interactions with the Police and Crown.  Nobody had made her understand the system and what her rights were.  The Crown had to withdraw the charges in that case. The woman went back to the abusive relationship.  This bothered me a lot.  I did then and still see how invaluable professional interpreters are and the vital role you play in our society.  I jumped at the offer to work full time at MCIS, just working part time in law.  We were very small with 2.5 staff and 40 interpreters. 

One of the first fights we took on is to mandate police and Crowns to use professional interpreters in DV cases.  And then we expanded that to include CAS.  Then we said, what about when newcomers access TPH, LAO, and the Homeless Shelters and on and on. 

So we fought for the rights of newcomers to access interpretation services.  However, we did not necessarily win the contracts to serve the clients.  For e.g. When Legal Aid Ontario decided to provide interpretation services to all their legal clinics through one central bidding process we had to compete with other interpreter services in the private sector.  Also, Toronto Public Health and so on.

Our problem – we were bidding on public sector contracts competing with private sector companies which bid very low prices.  We were and still are also constantly fighting against budget cuts in a government, which keeps reducing the amount they will spend on professional interpreting services.  Over 95% of our customers are in government and this seriously affects how much we get paid and how much we, in turn, can pay you and this is the case even though we have over 800 public sector clients across Canada who use us in varying degrees.   And, after all those years, we still have not succeeded in getting the Toronto Police to engage interpreters in all investigations.  For that matter, settlement agencies when they assist newcomers to settle do not engage professional interpreters.  So our fight to have professional interpreter services everywhere continues…   

So what are we now? 

We are MCIS Language Solutions, a non-profit social enterprise with a vision to be a global voice.   Today, we have 45 staff and employ a roster of over 5,000 interpreters and translators.  We provide not just interpretation and translation, but transcription, dubbing, subtitling and a whole range of different language services in over 300 languages.

However, interpretation has always been at the core of everything we do.  And we would not be here without you.  So, Thank You.

      -For being there for a newcomer from when they enter Canada up to their settlement and integration.

-For being the only link for an isolated newcomer accessing services.

-For rushing from a police station to a hospital, to Children’s Aid where you face the heartbreak of a child being taken away from her mother.

-For waking up in the middle of the night with a cheery voice and providing interpretation for an individual providing a statement to the police in a crisis.

-For working through rain, sleet or snow any hour of the day and every day of the year and often braving it all on public transit.

You have forever changed the lives of everyone you have touched and in the most humane way possible.

You have stayed true to their voice and facilitated their communication with empathy and compassion, no matter what their circumstance. 

You have vicariously experienced every one of our lived human experiences, joy over the birth of a baby, or sorrow over the news of terminal illness. 

You have been in conflict situations, amidst heartache over the loss of life and through happiness over a triumph. 

You have been the greatest gift in every setting – bringing clarity, understanding, and comfort just being that voice. 

Just by doing your job, you have broken down stereotypes that foster prejudice and helped foster healthy relationships. 

What you do is a fine art and science and when done well you become completely invisible – your message gains pre-eminence over your individual self and ego. 

You have to practice discipline and restraint, always walking a fine line, maintaining perfect balance and never offering your own view on anything, but effectively using your language skills to ensure both parties have their voice.  And yet, you are only a witness to everything that happens – no more – and in the most profound sense, you pursue a most spiritual practice.  What you do is not easy.  It takes both your right and left brain.  And you do it all so well.

It may seem like we take you for granted or worse that we exploit you.  And who can blame you for thinking that way, given your working conditions and pay.  We are working hard to change those things, despite the adversity we face in the world which is riddled with changes resulting from global competition and technology disruption. 

So we have a lot of plans for you.

You see we earn money to fulfill a social purpose. 

We want to win contracts that make a difference in people’s lives by improving language access with professional interpreters.   We do this by showing customers who a qualified interpreter is, how a qualified interpreter is different from one who is not and therefore why the lowest price does not necessarily guarantee the best service.

We want to build partnerships with you, our language professionals and our service providers, so we can work with you to benefit all.  So, we work with Ontario Council of Community Interpreting towards Accreditation for Interpreting as a profession.  We encourage you to learn more about Accreditation and becoming an ACI.  We plan to sponsor some ACI memberships in the fall.   Simultaneously we are helping Service Providers develop a Language Access Plan – we want all services – hospitals, school boards etc.  to have a plan which involves using interpreters.

We want to build and improve the capacity of the language services sector with training and technology.  I will talk about that in a moment.

But above all we want you to be happy working as interpreters.  What makes for a happy professional? 

  • -The ability to develop relationships
  • -To enjoy freedom
  • -To develop competence, and above all
  • -The ability to earn money while doing what they love

We hope you build networks through the training opportunities we provide and events such as these.   If you have other ideas or initiatives that you want to take on and develop, we can support you.  Let us know. 

We have always encouraged you to work across sectors enjoying your freedom as independent contractors.

To help you develop your competence, we are doing several things:

Offering free weekly webinars on topical issues.       

Offering you training to use your language skills to become translators if that is something you want to add to your skill set – Learn more about our FREE translator training program.

Providing you additional training opportunities to gain accreditation as Court and Medical Interpreters to work within court and medical settings – also increasing your potential to work more and earn more.

Which is a great segue to ways in which we would like to help you earn more money:

Slowly, contract by contract we are increasing the rates we pay and trying to bring in premium rates for our qualified professionals who have advanced training.

Also, we are increasing your opportunities to work, by winning more contracts and by offering our customers in Canada and abroad video and telephone interpretation – you can watch a demo – we have a couple of large contracts for which we are specifically hiring video and telephone interpreters so please sign up if you are interested.

We are all only as good as our technology. So, MCIS is using technology to streamline our processes and become more cost effective. 

But the elephant in the room is technology that is seen to be replacing humans.  Neural Machine Translation, where machines can interpret.   We believe we have to stay ahead of the curve when disruption happens.  Anticipate it, adapt to it and embrace it.  Here I want to share a short Zen parable before I conclude. 

 “Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away.  Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

Perhaps,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “What great luck!” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Perhaps,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Perhaps,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Perhaps,” said the farmer…

Like the farmer in the story, at MCIS we don’t panic and change course with every little setback or disruption, but look for opportunities.  And there is plenty of disruption caused by technology and global competition.  We adapt and keep scaling heights trying to improve the lives of all around us.  We know, if we do it all with equanimity, success will be ours! 

I would like to conclude by thanking you once again for playing such an important role in building our communities and helping people engage.   We thank you also for allowing MCIS to carry on its work.  You are all part of what makes Canada great.

Thank you for this opportunity, and on behalf of MCIS’ Board and Staff, I wish you much success in all your endeavours and much peace and joy in your lives.   

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