The very real dangers of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting from our home.

October 17, 2019 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The idea to write this piece came almost a year ago when talking to some interpreters I noticed a growing tendency to quickly move the still very young remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) from the studio to the interpreters’ homes. I conversed with many of my colleagues throughout the world, attended conferences where the topic was discussed, spoke with clients, event organizers, and I also had long, detailed conversations with lawyers and people from insurance companies.

RSI is a true achievement of science and technology, combined with interpreting expertise by some prominent interpreters. Many of its more serious technological issues have been solved, and we are at a point where quality interpreting can be delivered remotely when done as many of my colleagues and I understood it was supposed to be done.

My personal experience, and that of other trusted interpreters, show Interprefy and Kudo (which I have not tried yet) as the most user -friendly platforms, and technology is not the only reason. These platforms were carefully developed with great input from experienced professional interpreters whose comments, suggestions, and opinions were essential to the final product. Unlike others, from the beginning, the people behind these platforms understood RSI was a different way to deliver professional interpreting services; they recognized that quality interpreting can only be delivered when interpreters interpret under the most favorable conditions. Their success depended on getting the best human talent, optimal working conditions, and the best support team. They presented a serious, viable alternative to in-person interpreting by creating RSI studios where interpreters could work in a booth, as a team, and with the required technical support. This was a great idea and positive results came in in both cases. Up to here, everything was on the right path, with perhaps a few wrinkles to be ironed out, and we will talk about them in a moment, but with some of the biggest issues already addressed.

Unfortunately, sometimes greed, overconfidence, or lack of knowledge can cloud even the most successful vision, and it is happening now with these and other platforms: For all, or some, of the reasons above, those in charge of recruiting talent, or organizing events, are encouraging RSI from home.  The idea of the studio where interpreters would work as a team sitting side by side in a virtual booth at a facility where technical support would be available has moved aside to leave a prominent place to remote simultaneous interpreting from the interpreters home or office.

I have attended conferences and other events where RSI platforms and agencies are actively recruiting interpreters from countries with emerging economies to provide remote simultaneous interpreting services from their homes. These colleagues are told of the professional and economic personal benefits of working big events, often otherwise inaccessible to them because of geography, by setting up a “studio” in their own house. They hear all they need is a highspeed internet connection, a professional quality microphone and headset, a computer, and two good screens. Sometimes they are told to condition a house room to be soundproof, which they are told, would be easy and inexpensive. These colleagues are offered fees well below those charged by interpreters in developed markets.

The above proposal is enticing and it sounds great to many interpreters all over the world. Some think of a little corner in their house that can be turned into their home studio; others believe that they are good at repairing things, or they know a lot about computers, so setting up their hardware would be a piece of cake. All that may be true, but it is like the worm on the fisherman’s hook, it looks good, but it also brings all kinds of hidden dangers to the individual interpreter. Let me explain:

The first thing interpreters considering RSI need to understand, and this also applies to those who only work at the RSI studio, is this is a new kind of interpretation. It is not conference interpreting, even though they both share many things as far as preparation and rendition. RSI interpreting requires interpreters do extra tasks they need not perform when interpreting a conference in a traditional booth. RSI interpreters must use a keyboard to communicate with each other, the tech support team, and sometimes the person directing the event. They read messages on their screens and hear things in their headsets traditional conference interpreters do not: “get closer to the microphone”, “do not move around that much because the microphone captures the noise and transmits it to the audience”, “we will run a sound test during the break”, are some instructions RSI interpreters will hear during an event while they are interpreting. They will also have to answer questions from technical support, the person directing/coordinating the event, and other interpreters from different booths, by typing messages while interpreting. RSI interpreting requires interpreters perform more tasks than those they perform when working a conference in a traditional booth. This is doable; interpreters can practice and accomplish these tasks, but the bottom line is that, compared to traditional conference interpreting, these interpreters are asked to do more work. We all would agree that more work = higher pay.

Contrary to interpreting agencies’ talking points, RSI interpreters should be paid more than their counterparts working in person. Agencies and organizers are getting their savings from avoiding travel expenses and setting up equipment at the venue. Interpreters should get paid according to the work they do.

Another issue of great concern to interpreters, not so much to agencies and event organizers, is the risk of acoustic shock. As many of you know, acoustic shock disorder (ASD) is an involuntary response to a sound perceived as traumatic (usually a sudden, unexpected loud sound heard near the ear), which causes a specific and consistent pattern of neurophysiological and psychological symptoms. These include aural pain/fullness, tinnitus, hyperacusis, muffled hearing, vertigo and other unusual symptoms such as numbness or burning sensations around the ear. Typically, people describe acoustic shock as feeling like they have been stabbed or electrocuted in the ear. If symptoms persist, a range of emotional reactions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression can develop. (http://www.hyperacusis.net/other-factors/acoustic-shock-disorder/)

We are talking about losing our hearing! This is a career-end risk that interpreters are not told when offered a job to deliver RSI from home. The dangers of this happening to any of us should not be taken lightly, but when working from an RSI studio, we can demand the best conditions to prevent an event that causes these incidents, and to minimize the impact of the event if it happens. All interpreters should discuss this risk with their clients, and demand the proper infrastructure and hardware to prevent a tragedy, including appropriate headsets for those colleagues without their own. This situation could happen when interpreting at the RSI studio, it could even happen during a traditional conference interpreting assignment, but the risk will be much smaller because the service would be provided in a controlled environment with the appropriate equipment. When working from home, interpreters have no control over these dangers: power supply fluctuations, solar flares, weather-related factors such as electric storms, satellite trouble, internet or telephone system failure, are all risk factors interpreters are exposed to when working at home. Remember: this can be a career-ending event, or at the least a very expensive medical treatment, coupled with loss of income due to a long period of interpreting inactivity due to poor hearing.   Interpreters need to make sure these issues are discussed with their clients and covered in the professional services contract.

There are many other concerns derived from RSI interpreting at home: Interpreters are professionals and they are expected to do their job: Interpreting, researching the subject of the conference, adapting their delivery to cultural considerations to make communication happen between those who do not share a common language. They are also expected to prevent and solve language-related problems that may come up during their rendition. They are neither equipped, nor expected, to deal with technical difficulties or problems derived from the installation or performance of the interpreting equipment, sound system, or any other non-linguistic or cultural issue.  Interpreters are not mechanics, electricians, sound engineers, telephone repairmen, software engineers, or IT experts. Even those who claim to be “amateur experts” do not have to be so. These services are needed to deliver interpreting services, but they are not provided by the interpreting team.

Because technology is so important in RSI, and because interpreters have limitations, the only way to guarantee (to a high degree) a successful event is by delivering the interpretation from an RSI studio where interpreters wit side by side and work as a team, and technical support is on site.

There are other considerations that are as important as the ones so far expressed in this section, that cannot be satisfied to professional quality when interpreting takes place in a house, office or apartment. Interpreters do not have all needed equipment, and even if they think they do, it will probably be outdated. Technology changes so quickly that it would be practically impossible and unrealistic to expect interpreters to keep up with the latest products, and then acquire them at their own expense, and properly install them to be used at the next home RSI event. At home, interpreters are alone, there is no technical support, other than a guy a the other end of the phone line, trying to explain to a lay person how to troubleshoot, diagnose and repair a technical issue while the event is in progress, and the other interpreter takes over the rendition for an uncertain period, with all its unwanted consequences due to mental fatigue and additional stress, until the problem is corrected or the event has to be cancelled.

When working from home, interpreters do not have a boothmate next to them. There is no support/passive interpreter assisting with research, writing down figures, and so on; in fact, to communicate with each other, they must type a message while interpreting, adding another layer to the very complex task of simultaneous interpreting. There is also the possibility of having technical difficulties that may keep an interpreter from taking over when their turn comes up, leaving the original interpreter on the mike for potentially hours. There are also the mental and biological considerations. Because RSI happens worldwide, one interpreter could be working from her home in Tijuana, Mexico while the other could be in Fukuoka, Japan; a difference of 18 hours. One interpreter could be fresh and energetic while the other could be tired and fatigued because she would be working during the night. This differs from traditional interpreting when we travel to the venue and get used to the time change before the rendition. With RSI from home, one interpreter could be sound asleep and then interpreting a complex scientific conference 30 minutes later. This is bad for the well-rested interpreter counting on the exhausted interpreter; it is unfair to the interpreter who just woke up because she is now working during the night after working all day the day before; and it is bad for the client as the rendition will suffer.

One danger from RSI at home concerns national infrastructure. I see agencies and promoters recruiting interpreters all over the world; I have seen them selling the job to colleagues who work with less common language combinations, a very desirable resource to these agencies, but live in countries where the technology and infrastructure may not be at the level needed for a successful RSI job. Power outages are an everyday event in many countries; this would kill an event, or at least, leave one interpreter working solo because the other one will have no way to continue. Outdated telephone systems, sub-pair internet speed, unreliable infrastructure such as poor satellite coverage or cellular phone towers will also kill the event, or at the least deliver a low-quality rendition for causes with nothing to do with the interpreters’ performance.

Living conditions can be a real problem. A dog barking, a neighbor mowing the lawn, kids playing next door, or ambulance sirens from a nearby hospital could diminish the quality of the service.  Unlike an RSI studio, a “sound-proof” home studio by an interpreter is not a professional studio.

Now let’s talk liability. Does the RSI home interpreter’s professional insurance policy cover RSI from home? Until today, I have seen no policy that covers such service; interpreter professional liability insurance policies do not even cover RSI at the studio. Period. The thing is, until there is clear coverage of this professional service, interpreters can argue that RSI at the studio can be equated to conference interpreting from the booth.  Also, just like at the convention center, interpreting from the RSI studio falls under the agency’s or organizer’s liability, not the interpreters’.

This is a real issue and we need to talk to the insurance companies to make sure there is a policy that covers these new modes of interpreting. The premium will be higher, and we need to be ready for that by factoring in the new cost into what we charge for providing our services.

A lawsuit could put you out of business for good, and losing in court because of a power outage , a poor telephone service, slow internet, or a noisy neighbor, while the agency/organizer who transferred this liability to you by getting you to work from home, stays in business would be an injustice.

This problem does not go away, even when interpreting from a different country, half world away from the event. Some countries’ legislation allows the injured party (client) to sue you regardless of where you are from, where you live, or where you provided the service from. The United States is one of these countries. It is a matter of jurisdiction.

The law allows for long arm jurisdiction, so a court, let’s say in the United States, can admit a lawsuit against individuals or corporations not physically within the United States, as long as there is a connection to the country, such as the client, the venue, the agent/organizer, equipment manufacturer, etc. (Becerra Javier. Dictionary of United States Legal Terminology. English-Spanish. Escuela Libre de Derecho 2008). All that is needed is the commission of a tortious act within the United States or affecting an individual, organization, or corporation from or doing business in the United States (International Shoe Co. v State of Washington. 326 U.S. 310, 316, 66 S.Ct. 154, 158, 90 L.Ed. 95) These are some reasons why the United States can create a trade embargo against foreign nations. In the past, even when the parties had no apparent link to the United States, American courts have taken jurisdiction because of certain nexus to the country. Even if you are at home in South America interpreting a conference in Africa for a European client, if you used Microsoft, Apple, Google, IBM, INTEL, an American telecommunications satellite, etc., a judge could admit a lawsuit against you for professional malpractice or negligence due to a defective internet connection or outdated hardware at your house.

The United States follows a contributory negligence system, so even if the agency/promoter is sued, you could be sued as well for contributing to the problem by such things as providing this service from home without knowing about computers, remote interpreting, sound, the condition of your home electrical outlets, the last time you backed up your system, etcetera. Having professional liability insurance coverage that works in the United States will help, because even if sued, the policy will protect you to your liability limit. These are issues that must be discussed with insurance companies, and I believe that until there is a policy that clearly covers these legal situations, I would close the home office and go back to RSI from the studio. I have talked to several tort, malpractice attorneys and insurance company lawyers and they are all catching up. As of now, insurers’ efforts are focusing on how to deny you coverage under current insurance policies.

I understand there is much to be said and researched, including how long is the arm of the law, but for now, and until we know what we professionally, medically, and legally face, I believe the success and full acceptance of RSI in our corporate, academic, diplomatic, and governmental worlds should be handled with caution. This includes going back to RSI at the studio as it was once welcomed and cheered by so many of us. I for one, as an experienced professional interpreter, and as a lawyer, will limit my RSI practice to the studio with a real partner next to me. I will also continue to educate my clients and colleagues on the dangers of working from home, and will talk to many more lawyers and insurance companies about the lack of coverage. That will give interpreters peace of mind. I hope the prestigious platforms follow and those greedy agencies/organizers understand the enormous risk they are taking by continuing to foster home-based RSI. Please let me know your thoughts on this so dangerous risk many of our colleagues are taking without even thinking about it.

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§ 8 Responses to The very real dangers of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting from our home.

  • Thank you for sharing this extremely clear and interesting article.

  • Kathleen M Morris says:

    As always, Tony’s comments are pertinent and insightful. I couldn’t agree more.

  • Patrick says:

    Maybe you should be aware that the London police has developed an exclusively RIS-based solution for their own needs with an impressive success on an impressive volume and that the University of Sussex (needs to be checked) has demonstrated that the loss of quality comparing remote interpreting and on-site interpreting is limited to some points of percentage so that quality is not an issue.

    • Dear Patrick, thank you for your comments. The article refers to conference interpreting where interpreting goes on for considerable longer periods than community interpreting, and the interpreters are usually working from a different country. The technical issues mentioned are not related to the platform’s quality; the concerns have to do with risks associated to the country’s infrastructure and service reliability. Slow internet service, power failure, and computer crashes happen regardless of the platform you are using, and they are more frequent in some countries.

  • Jean Marc Lariviere says:

    Thank you for this informative article which raises many important points.

    That being said, I can’t help but notice that it eschews the most critical RSI issue: the quality of sound received by the interpreters, whether working from a hub or home. Contrary to what the article asserts, this most serious of technical issues, i.e. end-to-end ISO standards audio and video quality, the sine qua non of quality interpretation, is still unresolved to this day.

    Platforms may claim to provide or capable of providing such quality, but as long as speaking participants are connected to an event via a regular copper wire line, a cell phone or, worst, Skype or such generalist VOIP services, we are light years away from ISO quality sound, even in the most industrialized countries.

    Until interpreters are provided with ISO standards quality audio and video, one thing should be perfectly clear: the provision of quality interpretation is just about impossible or, at the very least, not sustainable. Furthermore, risks of acoustic shock aside, working with substandard sound represents a serious harm to the long term health and well-being of interpreters.

    Jean Marc Lariviere, AIIC, ATIO
    freelancer, Ottawa, Canada
    vice-chair, Interpreters’ Working Group on New Interpretation Technologies

    • Dear Jean Marc, thank you your comments. You raise very important and valid concerns that have been brought up in the past, and as you said, they have not been fully addressed. When deciding what to include in my article, I chose issues not even mentioned somewhere else, including, in my opinion, the most critical: an interpreter exposed to civil liability that could leave her or him living under a bridge. I truly appreciate your valuable contribution. It makes the piece more comprehensive.

  • Fascinating and comprehensive article Tony. Feel free to share a link to it in the ProZ group, where I’m sure you’ll find many interested readers.

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