Leading the World’s Largest Interpreting Service With Genoveva Ruiz Calavera

SlatorPod #116 - EU Commission's Genoveva Ruiz Calavera

In this week’s SlatorPod, we are joined by Genoveva Ruiz Calavera, Head of the Directorate-General for Interpretation (SCIC) at the European Commission, the world’s largest employer of conference interpreters.

Genoveva reflects back on her 30-year journey working for the European Commission in an array of different roles; and what led her to switch to leading SCIC. She shares SCIC’s mission to provide high-quality conference interpretation to institutions and organize corporate conferences.

The Director-General relays the main challenges she overcame as she stepped into the role in the middle of the pandemic, with Covid disrupting in-person interpretation. Along with a dramatic drop in demand, SCIC had to adjust to a hybrid culture and develop new video-conferencing tools to provide interpreting services during the global crisis.

Genoveva also talks about working with the European Parliament and Court of Justice to pilot a new accreditation testing platform for freelance interpreters. She shines a light on the BeHeard Campaign, an initiative created by the European Parliament, to increase awareness about meeting etiquette when it comes to connecting online. 

She touches on how SCIC partners with non-EU countries to share expertise in interpretation, ensuring the EU remains a global player in the world. The pod rounds off with SCIC’s support for Ukraine and how interpreters play an important role in facilitating the EU’s democratic decision-making process.

Transcript

Florian: Tell us a bit about your career before you joined the Directorate-General. What attracted you to that role in the interpreting side in particular?

Genoveva: I have a 30-year career in the European Commission. I have had very different positions, but very much in the external domain. The commission is a very attractive employer where you can do a lot of interesting things and I began my career in 1992 working in the implementation of the customs union when we established an internal market inside the European Union. I was coming from the industry and I came with the knowledge of the economic operators, and what they needed to ensure the goods, people, services, and capital. Very soon I moved into preparing the new accessions to the European Union and I worked in the negotiations of Sweden, Finland, and Austria, the countries that joined in 1995. I worked as well in the negotiations with the Baltic countries and Eastern European countries, Malta and Cyprus that joined us in 2004. I did monitor embargoes in the context of the wars in the Western Balkans in order to stop the wars in the 90s and I was attached to Pristina in Kosovo after the conflict in 1999, so I have had a career in External Dimension. From there, the European Commission is responsible for the units that were dealing with Crisis Response and peacebuilding across the world. I was very glad to be part of the initiation of the European External Action Service, the foreign policies that were created in order to enhance the EU’s role on the international scene. In 2016, I was appointed Director for the Western Balkans and I went back into working in this region, which is very dear to my heart. Preparing last-minute negotiations and working on the EU relations with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. After five years, I decided I wanted to do something different and I am a linguist by training. Across the board, in my career I have felt how important it was to communicate in the languages of our interlocutors and how important the role of interpreters is in helping us engage and create confidence building and creating conditions for a meaningful dialogue. When the position was vacant, I was very interested to see if I could access this important position and I am very honored that I have been taken on board. This first year in the DG has been extremely passionate and fast. It feels like it was yesterday when I joined.

Florian: First, tell us a bit more about the structure of the Directorate-General, its size, and its reporting lines. Where does it sit in the broader commission structure? 

Genoveva: Directorate-General is in a way back-office services supporting policy DGs and it is a very important service that has played a fantastic role during the Covid pandemic because our mission is articulating the three main areas. The first is we facilitate the democratic decision-making process by providing high-quality conference interpretation to all the institutions except the parliament and the court of justice. We are working with the European Commission, with the Council, with the Committee of the Regions, with the Economic and Social Committee, with EU agencies like Europol, the European Investment Bank, et cetera. In interpretation, we deliver 24 official EU languages as well as a considerable number of non-EU languages because we have our ministers talking to partners around the world. We provide those services. The second strand of our work is we are providing corporate conference organization. We are preparing for this high-level conference in Strasbourg organized by SCIC. We have a very important role, much less known outside the house, which is conference room management on behalf of the commission. We are responsible for 600 meeting rooms in the commission and by the end of the mandate, we will be responsible for 1000 of these meeting rooms. The commission is moving into new collaborative ways of working with open space and being able to have this infrastructure is extremely important for the commission as a whole to continue delivering this mandate. We work under the auspices of Commissioner Hahn, who is the Commissioner responsible for Budget and Administration. He reports directly to President von der Leyen. 

Florian: You mentioned SCIC, is that the way you refer to it internally? 

Genoveva: It is the French acronym, Service Commun Interprétation-Conférences. This is a service that is like a family and people have been working with the Directorate-General, which officially is called Directorate-General Interpretation, for many years. Inside the house is the heart of all the people that work in the service. They still call it SCIC and I am very happy to embrace that. The staff of DG Interpretation has always referred to themselves as SCIC.

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Florian: You have been in the role now for over a year. What have been the top two or three challenges since you started?

Genoveva: The first challenge was to be starting at the helm of a very big service. We have around 100 staff in the Directorate and then we work with around 2,900 of our external colleagues. COVID has been extremely disruptive for the interpretation community as you can imagine and it has been stressful for our interpreters. We had to protect them and establish all necessary measures for social distancing which included the installation of plexiglass partitions in the booths that did not allow them to work in their normal conditions. They could only fit two instead of three. We had a dramatic drop in demand for interpretation services which affected our external colleagues because there were no jobs and no business. We had to develop in a very short timeframe new video conferencing tools that would allow interpretation. It has been revolutionary. These interpretation platforms have helped us to provide services during this crisis but it has forced us all to be very attentive to the impact of that technology as well because sound has not yet been fully mastered. There are a lot of dimensions of sound which include not only the technicalities of the platforms and the connections but the etiquette of the participants in those meetings on a remote basis. Our interpreters need very good sound quality to be able to listen and speak at the same time and to be able to deliver the high-level interpretation and quality that they are accustomed to. That has been a very important challenge to live through these difficult times and constantly adapt our modus operandi to the evolution of the pandemic. I am very happy that my first year has been investing in creating a very close dialogue with our customers from the different institutions to identify where the future is going because we have learned a lot of things as well from these cases and we have seen that there were new and different needs emerging as well. I am very happy in any case that we are seeing the end of the pandemic as of the 1st of May in SCIC. The full commission started to get out on the 1st of April. We have taken one month more for the service to adapt and it is going to be gradual but we are going back towards this new normal which will allow us to be back into the meeting rooms, more in presence, but at the same time to take advantage of the new technologies because we see that some of the meetings will continue to not be fully virtual but hybrid and this is an area where we have to continue investing. My colleagues have been extremely resilient and I am very pleased because we have reached now comparable levels of interpretation to the pre-COVID times, among other reasons, thanks to a very active French Presidency and because of the international context which is forcing all of us in the European Union to work 24 hours, seven days a week in order to respond to the challenges that are now in front of us.

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Florian: You are saying a particular country’s presidency influences demand on your side and the general macro picture. 

Genoveva: It does. I think this presidency has been extremely useful in this respect because our French administration wanted to ensure that multilingualism is preserved because the agenda they have on the table has been very busy and they have been extremely proactive in recreating conditions for the meetings of the council and the other institutions to take place as soon as possible within the constraints that we had because of the pandemic. They are certainly very committed to going back toward normality.

Florian: How do you work with auxiliary conference interpreters? When would you engage with them and when not? Can you just tell us a bit more about that?

Genoveva: Our auxiliary conference interpreters are part of our business model and they are very well-integrated into the way we do business. There has been a strong partnership with AIIC, the association of international interpreters and I am committed to nurturing this relationship but we have had two difficult and uncertain years which have had a strong toll on this community. I am now more optimistic looking toward the future because of the pickup of demand. They are clearly part of our business model and will continue to be part of our business model. We have a need in order to be able to deliver the 24 EU languages and the non-EU languages which we are heavily depending on our freelance community for. 

Florian: How does remote influence training and recruiting? Are there any new ways of recruiting and accrediting certain interpreters?

Genoveva: We are piloting technology across the board. We have learned from this COVID crisis that there are other ways to do things, not only the traditional ways we had and these ways can be more useful for administrations that have to deliver public goods. Interpretation in the EU of 24 languages is a public good that the Directorate General delivers on behalf of all the EU citizens and the decision-making process of the European Union. In delivering those public goods, you have to realize that our administration as well is bound by the overall political objective of this commission. There are two overriding political objectives of this commission, which are the dual green and digital transitions applied to the European Union economies and to the way the public service does business. I think that reflection has been put to test during COVID. From one day to the next we had to take our computers and go home and 80% of the staff had to work on a remote basis. This helped us to realize that if we wanted to continue delivering business, we had to move many things remotely. That has been the case for training. We managed to continue our pedagogical assistance and a lot of the training schemes on a remote basis through our platforms. It is not fit for all the assistance and training that we want to do, but there is a lot of training that can be more inclusive and have a much larger audience and outreach if we can do it remotely, so we have had an opportunity during these two years to develop our remote training models and activities and working practices. There is training that will go back to be in-person as well. The accreditation is an interesting area where we are working together. We have a model which is inter-institutional accreditation tests for freelancers and interpreters and we are now working together with the Parliament and the Court of Justice on a new pilot procedure to use different platforms to do the accreditation tests. We have done several series of pilot testing this year. We want to continue this pilot in order to look into all the things we can learn and we can benefit from these new tools. Our objective is to increase the number of people in our accreditation at least and this remote type of testing allows us to be able to organize more than one test a year. We want the process to be sound from the point of view of the quality, the point of view of the legality, and the point of view of the delivery of the output, and that is why we are piloting with the other institutions. I am very optimistic that these are areas that we will continue developing because they are in the interest of the institutions but in the interest of the interpreters as a whole.

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Florian: Let us talk about the use of English in the European Union and Commission specifically. How has the use of English changed as a lingua franca or not since Brexit?

Genoveva: English remains one of the 24 EU languages even despite the departure of the UK from the European Union. Someone like me has been working for 30 years to make the EU stronger and bigger and has been working on all the different successive enlargement waves. It was a moment of real sadness to see. It is a decision we respect, it is a decision of the people of the UK and this does not mean that English is no longer here. English is here to stay. We have two EU member states in which English is the official language: Ireland and Malta. We see English is still a very important relay language in particular for the countries that came from the EU enlargement of 2004. We are a service that responds to demand and the demand continues to be there for English. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the new member states that joined in 2004. We have already the first generation of young people from those member states that have become the voting age. They are 18 years old this year and this shows that our multilingualism is here to stay. We have new generations that are now EU citizens and English is part of the languages they speak. 

Florian: I recently picked up on an initiative you are running called, BeHeard. Tell us more about that. 

Genoveva: I am extremely happy that our colleagues are working in very close cooperation inter-institutionally. This is a campaign from the European Parliament. It is fully supported by the European Commission because technology is now a very big part of the way we do business and we are all struggling with the same issues related to sound. It is very important that the users that connect on a remote basis to our meetings understand that the objective of their connection is that their message is received. In order for the message to be received, the sound has to be correct so that the message can be loud and clear for the people who are participating in those meetings and for the interpreters that need to interpret that message. It is a very topical issue at the moment. We are joining forces to look into how we can improve the connections, improve the platforms, and improve their peripherals. A very important part of this campaign is how do we increase the awareness of the people that connect? We need to have this meeting etiquette. You should not connect from outside in a car, in the middle of the road, or on a train. If you are not in your office, you have to be in a room with the right light, the right isolation, and the right conditions. This is a matter of ensuring that not only the meeting goes well, but that the work of our interpreters can continue to be delivered in the best possible conditions to provide quality interpretation. This requires a lot of awareness. There are many people that still do not understand the liability for their prestige and their reputation to come across in such a bad, unprofessional manner and this is part of the efforts that we are doing in all these institutions. To increase this awareness within our institutions and with our partners outside. We are sharing all our campaigns with international partners like the UN and some other important players in the interpretation world to make sure that we join forces. I am very happy that the European Parliament is now extremely active and providing the backbone that we are following in the commission. It requires a change of culture and we will continue investing in this. 

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Florian: You are also working with non-European Union languages and non-European Union countries, so how does this work? How does it fit with your objectives?

Genoveva: For us, one of the strategic objectives of the commission is to make sure that the European Union is a global player in the world and that means that the work of the European Union has two dimensions, an internal dimension with our member states and an external dimension of partnership with all our international partners. That requires that we work a lot in EU and non-EU languages when we have bilateral summits and all sorts of engagements at different political levels. We provide interpretation in non-EU languages in Chinese, Turkish, Arabic, Japanese, and Ukrainian, as you can imagine, to name a few. We have a lot of pedagogical assistance in the third countries that are extremely politically important. For example, in the context of the ASEM, the Asia summit that was hosted in Mongolia a few years ago. We helped them train interpreters so that they can host this big international event and these interpreters are now regularly working for our EU delegation in Ulaanbaatar. It fits very much into our EU objectives and this is an area where we are working very closely together with our freelance community.

Florian: How have you been involved in supporting refugees from Ukraine? There are millions coming across the border in countries like Poland and now coming further west. Can you elaborate on your role there?

Genoveva: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to start with a much more generic global statement I want to say. The EU stands by Ukraine in the face of this unjustified aggression by Russia. All across the board in the EU institutions, we are working to do as much as possible to stop this war and we stand behind the people of Ukraine that are very courageous in defending the values of democracy they are defending now. Across the board in the commission, we are very active. We have already put five packages of sanctions on the floor. You can imagine that this is an enormous amount of work and the interpreters have a very important role because those packages have to be adopted by unanimity of our EU member states and require an enormous amount of meetings at all levels of our institutions to get there. In addition to our work now to support the EU decision-making process, we have a lot of initiatives at an individual level of our interpreters and staff from SCIC. Our colleagues are hosting refugees, we are donating funds. They are very active in volunteering activities. We have helped the commission as a whole because the commission has a very active voluntary program to support the hosting of these refugees, so we have helped develop tips to help community interpretation because there are a lot of people now that have to accompany those refugees to get registered and we have developed those interpretation tips and we have offered our services in order to be able to support any initiative that the commission has in response to this crisis. It is very rewarding for me to see the level of solidarity that my colleagues in SCIC are demonstrating, not only as a service but as well as individuals. 

Florian: Absolutely. What are your top one, two, or three initiatives for the next couple of years at SCIC?

Genoveva: We have to continue preparing the service for the future and I tell my colleagues that the only certainty we know about the future is that the future is uncertain. We have seen all these latest crises, we have seen the pandemic, so the future is uncertain. The service has to be ready to respond to whatever the future brings and that is my first priority, to continue preparing us to be able to be there every time that our services are required. This requires a lot of creativity because the first thing that preoccupies me is that we deliver high-quality interpretation and this is something I want to maintain. It is the brand of our service. I want the SCIC to continue to be a center of excellence in everything we relate to interpretation, but also in organization and conference management, which are the two other strands of our work. There are a lot of opportunities for cross-fertilization of these three strands and our biggest challenge is to maintain the motivation, the assets we have, which are our people, and to embrace new technologies. In the two years since COVID, we have demonstrated our staff is resilient and that our ways of working are resilient, and that we are capable of adapting to new challenges. This certainly makes me optimistic that the plans that we have for the future of SCIC are realistic as well.