Remote conference interpreting: The interpreter’s new best friend?

April 23, 2013 § 16 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I constantly read about all the changes that modernity is bringing to our profession. I read of the new technological developments and I hear the voices of anger and fear from many in our profession. I must tell you that I fully accept and embrace these changes because they make our work easier and better: Who wants to go back to the days before computers and on-line resources when we had to drag along a library to the job? Is there an individual who longs for the days of endless consecutive interpretation before simultaneous interpretation equipment was introduced and developed for the Nuremberg Trials and the United Nations?  We need to keep in mind that as interpreters we work with languages, and as all linguists know, a language doesn’t stand still. Language constantly evolves; it reflects our ever-changing human society. It is not like we didn’t know that languages change when we first decided to enter this career.  I think that those who complain that there is too much new technology in the world of interpretation, and the interpreters who get angry when a new scientific term is created or the legal terminology of a country changes, should pause and think that it is not only their professional world that is being altered; they should think of all the engineers who gladly embrace new technology for our collective benefit, all the physicians who hurry to learn about the new discoveries published on the most recent science publication, all the attorneys who hit the books to learn the newly enacted legal reforms.  I am glad that medical doctors don’t get mad when a new vaccine is announced. I am thankful that they embrace change and learn for the benefit of society.  Dear colleagues, our profession is no different, we should face technological changes with the same attitude all other professionals do.  And by the way, it is also the right business decision as modernization will not stop, it will not slow down, but it will surely leave us behind if we don’t adjust and embrace it.

Just like many of you, I have been doing more remote interpreting than ever before.  At the beginning of my career I had my share of telephonic interpretation for the big agencies as many others did. After I developed my own clientele and as I became better-known I didn’t do much of this work for many years. There were a few exceptions and now and then I did the occasional business negotiation with a foreign counterpart that was done over a speaker phone, the court arraignments by video that some State Courts in the U.S. have been doing for about a decade, and the depositions by video with an attorney asking questions from a different location.  Then we get the economic crisis and the need to rethink procedures to save money during difficult times. This is when a few years ago the immigration courts began to hold master hearings by video from the detention centers, and the federal court system decided to implement the Telephone Interpreting Program (TIP) now widely used to cover most of the outline areas of the United States.

Of course, I have done all of the above assignments and I am familiar with the technology employed, but we were still talking about events where the job was to interpret for one person, usually for a short period of time, generally in regard to a single topic well-known by the interpreter, and with the parties sitting down around a speaker phone or in front of a PC-type video camera.  It was when I started to get requests to do conference interpreting from a facility different from the site of the event that I understood that the trend was irreversible. If I wanted to stay relevant I had to adapt.

I went down career memory lane to my previous assignments and selected those elements that I had learned doing all the jobs mentioned above.  As I was doing it, I began to remember other experiences that would be helpful:  Broadcast interpretation of live TV events that I did in the past such as award ceremonies, presidential debates, and political conventions came to mind. These were assignments that I had worked aided by a TV monitor and oftentimes from a different studio and even a different location after all.

Remote conference interpreting has been around for some time and it continues to grow. I have been able to solve some of my concerns as I have worked more of these assignments. It is obvious that a good sound system and a great technician are key to a successful remote interpretation. I have also learned that the broadcast quality is as important as the sound equipment. Sometimes the equipment is fine, but if the broadcast is poor you will suffer in the booth (or studio) and sometimes it is up to the events going on in the Solar System. Once I had a hard time on an assignment in the United States where the presenter was appearing by video from Scotland. Due to some solar flares affecting earth the transatlantic broadcast was choppy and the image and sound were very poor.

It is important to mention that remote conference interpreting is very appealing for our clients because it will always be more cost-effective than flying a bunch of interpreters to an event, paying for their hotel, ground transportation, meals, and travel time. It also benefits the interpreter as it allows us to do more work without so many travel days, and it puts us on a global market since the interpreter’s physical location will matter less. You can go from one job to another and still sleep at home. You can even do two half-day events on the same day.

At the beginning one of my biggest reservations about remote conference interpreting was that I would not be able to see the speaker or the power point on the screen whenever I wanted, or even worse, that I would never see those asking questions from the audience.  Like many interpreters, sometimes I relay on facial expressions to determine meaning and to understand difficult accents.  I have learned that the solution to all of these concerns can be found on the camera director. This is the person who sits in the video truck or the video room and switches from one camera to another.  A good conversation with the director and his camera operators on the day before the conference starts can be extremely helpful. I have explained to them the importance of seeing the power point on the screen when the speaker changes slides, the advantage of seeing the speaker as he addresses the audience, and the absolute need of having on screen the person asking a question while he is speaking.  This has made my life so much easier!

Of course, not all directors are the same, some are better than others (as I recently learned during an event on the west coast when the director did not work one weekday and the interpreters noticed it immediately, even before we were told that we had a different director for one day) and there are certain things that we miss with remote interpreting (like a world-class chefs’ cooking event I did last year where there were constant references to the smell of food that we could not experience from a different location) but I am confident that as technology advances, we as interpreters prepare better for this new challenges, and the market leaves us no other work alternative, the wrinkles will be ironed and we will be praising remote conference interpreting just as we now do with simultaneous over consecutive. I would love to read your opinions and experiences regarding this very important professional issue.

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§ 16 Responses to Remote conference interpreting: The interpreter’s new best friend?

  • Tony,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on remote conference interpreting and the pressure that technological change is putting on our profession. It is great to hear others’ experiences with these different platforms, both good and bad. I, like you, know that staying relevant professionally means embracing change. My hope is we can influence these changes to our benefit as well.

  • Ana says:

    I find it very interesting!

  • Mateo Reyes says:

    Hear, hear! Our profession admits little room for neophobia. Those of us who intend to stay at it for decades to come should probably expect, and relish, the day when we can log-on to our virtual booth from the beach, the mountain, a medieval village, or the park just across from our favorite museum.

  • Lucas Amuri says:

    Wow! Amazing. Thanks for sharing.

  • Dianne Riddick says:

    Your sentence “If I wanted to stay relevant I had to adapt.” sums it all up in a nutshell. I agree with your post and the points you clearly brought fourth.

  • Shirinbonu says:

    Thank you for writing about this very relevant issue. This article will help me adapt my new way of delivering services as Interpreter.

  • María Barrera Plasencia says:

    Thank you very much. I enjoyed reading your article because I’ve experienced some of the things you mention. I work in Brazil and over here remote interpreting is just starting. I’ve done a few events like this and I agree 100% with you on the fact that we do need to adapt to this change because it is indeed irreversible. I also agree on the importance of having a good chat with the camera director before, it has also made my life much easier.

  • I find your report very interesting although you have not touched all the arrangements that must be made in order for remote interpreting to take place, and that is:
    1. The type of equipment that needs to be used,
    2. What exactly is the role of the Director, and what does he need.
    3. How would the participants hear the interpretation?
    4. What would be the interpretation fee in that scenario.
    5. What equipment would the interpreter need, maybe just an earphone with an attached microphone?
    I have a couple of clients I would like to propose this to and I don´t exactly know what to suggest.

  • Pisqui Hoyos says:

    To my knowledge, noone praises simultaneous interpretation over consecutive: they’re two different things, each of them applied in different settings and for different audiences. They both have their merits and disadvantages, but hintig at the fact that simultaneous is a superior form of interpretation is simply not true. Consecutive is cumbersome for meetings where there is more than a pair of languages involved, but it is second to none when it comes to creating a close-up, intimate, friendly atmosphere between a reduced group of speakers working only in two languages. Remote iterpreration, however, is not a mode of interpretation. It is just a way to cut expenses for conference organizers and, yes, it does worsen the conditions in which interpreters work: being in the same room with your audiece and speakers, having the chance to see their reactions first hand and actually talking to them if the need arises highly improves the quality of our work and, I think, our motivation too. I’m no Luddite, mind you, I love new techs and the advatages they’ve brought about, but no, I don’t think remote interpreting will ever be loved and praised. And beleive me, I’ve done my share.

  • Fiona Cabassut says:

    Thank you Pisqui for your comment, I couldn’t have said it better. One big question to all remote enthousiasts: what about team work? What will become of that once we’re all supposedly happily connecting from the beach or the mountain?

  • Stéphane Grosjean says:

    Spot on, Pisqui! From a professional point of view, I don’t see the advantage of having all participants to a conference in one place and the interpreters in another. That is the difference between remote interpreting and interpreting a videoconference. In the latter, participants are in different places and therefore interpreters can work from a different place too. Communication happens on a level playing field.Moreover, I believe the author of the article relies too much on technology and good directors. In an ideal world, technology is capable of perfectly reproducing a conference setting or even provide interpreters with more and better visual information than a direct view of the meeting room. However, in the world I work in, i.e. a large multilingual public organization, I still need to see a system and a camera director capable of covering adequately a heated political debate with over 600 participants. I am no Luddite either. I welcome technology in the booth. I especially welcome screens in the booth when they complement my direct view of the room with a close up view of the speaker. Fiona, merci d’avoir évoqué la question de la motivation. Le fameux ‘sense of being there’ :)

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