Remote Interpreting: The Elephant in the Room

Remote Interpreting:
 Feeling Our Way into the Future

Published by The ATA Chronicle

New communications technologies make interpreting available where it wasn’t in the past. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the way we will work remotely, because what’s going on is game changing and shaking our profession from top to bottom.

In April 2015, I published an article and video on the blog A Word in Your Ear by Lourdes de Rioja called “Technology and Interpreting: Three Questions on Every Interpreter’s Mind.”1 In that video, I addressed some of technology’s broad effects on interpreting. In this article, I’d like to address a specific technology topic that’s also on many interpreters’ minds—remote interpreting.

Remote interpreting is a vast field and one that cannot be done justice in all its depth and breadth in one relatively short article. What’s more, the growth of remote interpreting is taking place within a much broader context of radical technological change that’s affecting society as a whole. Demand for interpreting is expanding and evolving because mobile communications technology has completely changed the way we communicate.

Keep in mind that this has happened in a relatively short period. Not over a century or even over a generation, but in about a decade.

Ten years after the beginning of the smartphone revolution and the launch of the iPhone in 2007, it’s probably impossible to quantify exactly how much mobile technology has influenced and expanded human communication, but it has completely changed how just about everyone on the planet communicates. We’re now communicating in ways that we couldn’t have imagined at the turn of the 21st century—and across more borders, cultures, and languages than ever before. Consequently, interpreting services are often needed with much less lead time, sometimes instantly, in places where it was never needed before and in ways never conceived of previously.

My hope is that after reading this article you’ll have a broader vision and better understanding of what remote interpreting is and may become, how it’s changing and expanding how we work, how clients access the services we provide, and how we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the way we will work remotely. What’s going on is game changing and shaking our profession from top to bottom.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Let me begin with a brief analogy. In many ways, remote interpreting is like the proverbial elephant being described by several blind men who are touching it in different places. Unable to see the entire animal, they must rely only on their sense of touch.

“It’s long and round and it bends like a snake,” says the one touching the trunk.

“No, it’s hard, smooth, and pointed,” says another running his hand along one of the tusks.

Still another says, “No, it’s big and rough like a wall,” as he feels the elephant’s side.

And yet another touching one of the animal’s strong back legs says, “You’re all wrong. It’s thick and round like the trunk of a tree.”

And so they argued, each convinced that he was right and that the others surely didn’t know what they were talking about. The irony is they were all right—at least to a degree. However, by relying exclusively on their own personal experience, they were unable to piece together the bigger picture. They were incapable of gaining a broader vision of what the entire elephant looked like.

I see something similar happening with how interpreters often perceive remote interpreting. Let me explain.

Feeling Our Way into the Future

Interpreting today has many different modes, settings, and specialties. Interpreters work at the United Nations, the European Institutions, and in diplomatic circles. We work in courtrooms, boardrooms, and classrooms, police precincts, and prisons. We work in hospitals and clinics, conflict zones, and refugee camps—practically any place people come in contact and don’t speak the same language. The need for interpreting services has expanded dramatically with the growth of international commerce, travel, migration, and interaction among peoples and cultures. The settings and requirements of each interpreting assignment vary greatly from one job to the next, but it’s all interpreting—different parts of the same beast, if you will.

Remote interpreting, like face-to-face interpreting, is varied and has many different implementations. The technologies used for remote interpreting are as varied—or even more varied—than the current modes of face-to-face interpreting. We must understand this to see the bigger picture, because far too often we look upon other modes of interpreting through the lens of how and where we are used to working. Sometimes we even put blinders on, refusing to see that other ways of working are not only possible, but potentially more efficient and effective.

Replacement or Expansion? 
Both, Actually.

Remote interpreting can be viewed as doing two things: replacing existing interpreting models—what many view as a zero-sum game—but it’s also expanding access to interpreting in new ways and creating more opportunities for interpreters. Let’s talk about replacement first.

Remote interpreting is replacing, and will continue to replace, some (not all) face-to-face interpreting in medical, court, and conference settings. Though many lament this development, there’s little that can be done to stop it. The change is most evident currently in health care settings in the U.S., where telephonic and, more recently, video remote interpreting (VRI) are being implemented at a quickening pace. Some face-to-face jobs are disappearing, but most are evolving.

In the courts, remote interpreting has been a topic of heated discussion for years, but the momentum for its use is growing. In the U.S., at least two major remote interpreting pilot projects have been launched and are in different stages of development. The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) began working on a nationwide remote interpreting pilot as early as 2014.2 However, the current state of this project is unclear. Also in 2016, the Judicial Council of California approved a pilot program for VRI in the state courts.3 After a round of testing in 2016 to select the technology platforms for the VRI pilot, two systems from different vendors are set to be deployed in various courtrooms across the state in July 2017.4 Many smaller courts across the country have either implemented or are considering how to implement some form of remote interpreting into their operations. Resistance from court interpreters has been particularly strong in some states.

In conference and diplomatic circles, remote interpreting has been around for many years, but the technical and financial barriers to implementation were often prohibitively high. However, this is no longer the case. Instances of conference interpreters working remotely onsite (i.e., from outside the actual conference room, but in the same building) and off site via an online connection are growing.

As this shift to remote interpreting happens, it’s paramount that we clearly understand and be good at describing the value of face-to-face interpreting and identifying the interactions where its use is crucial. For example:

  • In medical: trauma, end-of-life, and special needs scenarios;
  • In legal: multi-day trials and evidentiary hearings;
  • In conference and diplomatic settings: sensitive negotiations and protocolary events, to name just a few.

The pressure to reduce costs while increasing access to interpreting will continue. We must be articulate as we explain why and in which scenarios face-to-face interpreting should be the first choice, and the only choice in some cases. But we must also embrace new delivery methods and recognize that reducing the overhead associated with providing interpreting (travel, per diem, and administrative costs) and improving access will require adaptation on our part. Digging in our heels and refusing to change is a bad idea.

Now, let me touch briefly on how remote interpreting is expanding access to our services and creating new opportunities for interpreters.

Remote interpreting is ideal for new forms of communication, such as video conferences, audio conferences, webinars, earnings calls, virtual press conferences, and expert network interviews. Here are some actual examples of remote interpreting in action:

  • A United Nations agency conducts executive committee meetings via conference calls with remote simultaneous interpreting in English and French with participants on three different continents.
  • A tropical fruit producers’ association holds biweekly meetings online in English and Spanish to discuss fruit production and export activities.
  • A South American nongovernmental organization conducts webinars where a group of panelists from different countries presents the results of their research to a global audience. The webinars are held with simultaneous interpreting in Spanish and English, which allows people to engage and to interact in their own languages.
  • An investment manager conducts an interview over the phone with an expert in the mining industry in China with remote interpreting (consecutive or simultaneous) between English
and Mandarin.
  • The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies convenes an emergency teleconference with simultaneous interpreting in multiple languages to help nations around the globe coordinate efforts to address the spread of the Zika virus.

In these examples, none of the participants met in the same place. All of them were remote, just like the interpreters. In fact, none of these meetings was ever planned to take place face-to-face. The participants didn’t travel to attend, so why should the interpreters?

These use cases put the interpreter into an interaction where in the past doing so was either cost prohibitive or technically impossible. But as these examples show, new communications technologies make interpreting available where it wasn’t in the past.

Challenges Ahead

The growth in remote interpreting is not without its challenges. We must engage with our clients and the technology developers to ensure appropriate working conditions, particularly for interpreters who may work remotely all day. This includes addressing concerns like:

  • The number of interactions interpreted per day
  • The number and frequency of breaks
  • Fatigue
  • Isolation
  • Stress
  • Fair remuneration for services
  • Audio and video signal quality

But it’s important to remember that interpreters aren’t the only professionals adapting to new communication technologies. Think of telemedicine, where the doctor and patient aren’t even in the same room anymore, or the thousands of webinars and meetings that take place by audio and videoconference every day. How can we insist that where we work remain the same if our clients are no longer interacting the way they used to?

Remote interpreting truly is a boon to multilingual communication. It makes our services more available than ever before and in new ways. As the market for our services expands, it diversifies. Put simply, that means things are not going to remain the same. Evidence of this can be seen in how interactions requiring interpreting have become much more varied in format and duration.

What We Stand to Lose…and Gain

As practitioners who are experts in our own modes and specialties of interpreting (e.g., conference, court, and medical), we are keenly aware of what we stand to lose if the way we work changes. What we often don’t see is what we and society as a whole stand to gain if we evolve to offer our services in new ways.

So far, the discussion of remote interpreting among practitioners has tended to revolve around what we stand to lose, not what we stand to gain. These conversations echo those had by translators starting in the mid-1980s, when the use of computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools such as translation memories began in earnest. Technological advances affecting translation have proliferated in the past 30 years and the types of translated content have burgeoned. The written word on the printed page has become only one of a vast array of content types that need translation. I see the initial stages of a similar development with remote interpreting.

That said, face-to-face interpreting at conferences, in courtrooms, and health clinics will not disappear because of remote interpreting. It will evolve. There is great value in the long-standing modes of interpreting, just as there is great value in meeting people face-to-face to build and maintain relationships of trust and work together. This will not change.

To sum up, remote interpreting is here. It poses both challenges and opportunities. If we focus exclusively on what remote interpreting will replace in our profession—or what we stand to lose—it will seem threatening and scary. If we ask ourselves how it can fit into our professional practice together with all of the other modes of interpreting, we stand to gain and will be able to help shape the future of international communication. And that’s a good place to be. 

Notes
  1. Olsen, Barry. “Technology and Interpreting: Three Questions on Every Interpreter’s Mind,” A Word In Your Ear (April 14, 2015), 
http://bit.ly/interpreting-technology.
  2. Video Remote Interpretation as a Business Solution, http://bit.ly/VRI-business.
  3. “Council Approves Remote Access Initiatives,” http://bit.ly/remote-courts. Also see: “Video Remote Interpreting Pilot Project,” www.courts.ca.gov/VRI.htm.
  4. Faes, Florian. “Court Interpretation in California Goes Virtual,” Slator (March 23, 2017), http://bit.ly/California-court.

Barry Slaughter Olsen is a veteran conference interpreter and technophile with over 20 years of experience interpreting, training interpreters, and organizing language services. He is an associate professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, the founder and co-president of InterpretAmerica, and general manager of multilingual operations at ZipDX. He is also a member of the International Association of Conference Interpreters. For updates on interpreting, technology, and training, follow him on Twitter 
@ProfessorOlsen. Contact: bsolsen@miis.edu.

One thought on “Remote Interpreting: The Elephant in the Room

  1. Have done it with very basic phone settings. I suggest you checks systems you are using earlier. And make sure you can use earphones whenever possible.

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