Specialists in oral translation services

Friday, January 25, 2019


By Felix Ordeig, AIB

As conference interpreters we should always be keeping an eye open for the latest technological developments which may have a bearing on our working environment and the manner in which we deliver our professional services.

Technological innovations have disrupted many sectors of our economy—travel, tourism, the hotel industry, the world of entertainment and art and culture (think of music, tv and film) and others, with considerable potential for social conflict (as I write there is a very acrimonious taxi strike affecting many Spanish cities, and bringing some of them to a virtual standstill, as a protest—legitimate or not—against lightly regulated competition from web-based chauffeur-driven private vehicles for hire, which are seen by traditional cab drivers as an existential threat). In this context the chances are that rapid technological change will also lead to some deep transformations in our profession.

The practice of conference interpreting—in simultaneous mode, and that is what I shall be referring to in this post—by and large has not really changed that much in the last few decades, whether it be in international institutions or in the private market. We either work in fixed booths, or in mobile equipment, with sound proofing, using more or less sophisticated consoles with headsets and microphones from which we carry out our work. There are ISO standards for all this equipment, compliance with which provides a guarantee that we are able to deliver the service that we have undertaken to provide. We are usually in the same physical meeting room as our audience, and we should be able to clearly see and listen to the participants, and we will normally be in that booth with at least one or on occasions two colleagues, who are there to share the workload and assist us when necessary—and who will remain attentive to the proceedings. The equipment may be better or worse, and the same of course applies to the quality of sound and vision, though we require, expect and demand the highest standards in both, and to that extent rely on qualified technical support staff (usually very close to our booths, to ensure a quick response in case of glitches) to deliver the quality that our clients pay for and expect. We also require dispatch of documents prior to the event, and the circulation of room papers or e-documents provided during the course of the meeting: to that end a presential liaison with meeting staff is very important.

There are exceptions, of course: we often have to work in another room at the same venue, either because physically it is impossible to set up booths in the meeting room, or because the end-client finds them aesthetically unpleasing—and on those occasions we will be working with screens displaying the speakers and also their presentations. But we will usually be “wired” and not far removed from the meeting room. Or else during our presential meeting we may be called upon, almost always with prior notice, to interpret a remote presentation via Skype or live video; but we will still be in our booths and responsibility for technical crashes will not be ours. There are also circumstances where portable headsets and microphones will be used (Infoport or “bidule” systems), practical for small roving groups of participants visiting a factory, a shopping mall or some other kind of facility—but not suitable at all as a cut-price substitute for soundproofed booths.

From my personal point of view one of the defining concepts of conference interpreting is team work, which is fundamental—more on that later. In fact working on one’s own in simultaneous mode is frowned upon, and should only be contemplated in specific circumstances, such as a very short event (certainly not exceeding one hour).

Nonetheless, as I have said, change is on the horizon—or is here already. Conference interpreting, unlike our sister profession, translation, has up to now not really had to face big changes, as I have just pointed out.

But now Distance Interpreting may well revolutionize the way we work—with some positive and also negative knock-on effects, potentially with considerable consequences for our professional lives.

Distance or Remote technologies are not new—as I have said above we have often been in situations where there was no direct view of participants. They have been used for some time in community interpreting, in the health field above all and also in law courts and police stations, and in many cases interpreters in these fields have found systems imposed on them without having much of a say in how they developed. 

I am only a Conference interpreter (and a bit long in the tooth at that!) not a technical expert in remote or distance systems, nor am I familiarized with the specific terminology, and I am certain that many younger—or even not-so-young—colleagues will know a lot more than I do. In this respect the terms Distance or Remote interpreting would appear to me to be synonymous (but if any reader comes up with a clear and sensible distinction which doesn’t just split hairs I’ll be happy)—and for the sake of clarity from now on I shall refer to Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI).

What is RSI? Well, I’ll take a brief definition off-the-shelf as provided by Rob Davidson, not an interpreter but a UK-based businessman in the Conference sector who has cooperated with our interpreters’ main global professional association in recent years:

“…a technology based system whereby rather than being located in the same room as speakers and delegates, the interpreters are “remote” –operating from a distant site, which can be in the same venue or in another location altogether, in another country, from a hub or even in the interpreters “own office”. He adds: “Over the past few years, a number of commercial enterprises have launched onto the market RSI communication Platforms which provide this alternative to conference interpreters operating from booths located directly in the same room”.

Maybe because of my lack of knowledge, or also because I always jump at the chance to catch up and socialize with friends and colleagues in the profession whose company I enjoy, but with whom there aren’t always many chances to get together—alas, something typical in our line of work—I decided to attend a seminar/workshop on RSI organized by the international professional association I am a member of (AIIC), and to which many practitioners belong. Participants—about 170 of us, mainly from Europe but also with colleagues from the Americas and MENA (Middle East and North Africa)—had the valuable opportunity not only to listen to presentations from commercial RSI platform suppliers and representatives from the Conference and Convention industry, but also to try out for ourselves the equipment and services advertised by the platforms, in a situation which was as realistic as possible (unfortunately limited in time, due to the unexpectedly large numbers of interpreters who by registering had expressed interest in taking part in this test). The workshop organizers had also ensured enough time was allotted at a later stage for colleagues to be able to freely and critically talk about their experience and discuss possible strategies on how to build business relationships with RSI platform providers while at the same time protecting our interests and professional working conditions, toughly won over many years hard bargaining and negotiating with both institutional and private clients.

Now, this post is a personal view, and in no way should it be seen as an attempt to provide minutes or official proceedings, so that is my disclaimer upfront. I had a chance to try out four platform suppliers, though for very short periods.

First a general consideration: There is no “wiring”—success depends very much on the reliability of a powerful internet connection, which is increasingly a viable proposition, and in most cases the sound quality was excellent (though the quality of the visual input did vary quite a bit). Much has changed for the better in the last decade or so: I remember thirteen years ago attending a sales pitch by a fly-by-night operator attempting to interest agencies and interpreters in a primitive RSI system—when a live demonstration was attempted both the sound and internet connection crashed and failed utterly.

I would distinguish between: 1) platforms who provide “hubs” in a given location, from where interpreters will work as at present in a booth, side by side with your colleague providing interpretation to participants in an event which could well be hundreds of kilometres or more away. There would be screens showing both the speaker and the presentations. In some cases even a “classical” console is provided; in this instance there would not be much difference from current practice. There would be technical support on site, so responsibility for possible crashes would or outages would not be laid at the interpreter’s door. In the majority of cases a console is replaced by an “interpreter interface”, normally a laptop: the platforms’ software allows for volume controls, mute, and some other functions. It takes some getting used to, but in life there are always Steep Learning Curves which crop up now and then, and we interpreters are supposed to have flexible mindsets and an ability to adapt to quickly changing circumstances, right?

Model 2) is very different and the one which in my view raises many challenges: the “Dispersal” model as defined by one speaker. It involves RSI with two interpreters in different locations (it doesn’t really matter whether they are one or five hundred miles from each other). The laptop will crucially include a switch-over request, which must be accepted by the remote colleague and a chat function to communicate with remote technical assistance, plus presumably someone from the distant meeting venue to provide presentations as the event progresses. In my view, for the system to function well the interpreter—working from his/her home or an office—would need a second laptop to be able to access documentation and glossaries, as the “interface workstation” would display views of the speaker. The main issue for me and many other colleagues is “cognitive overload”—one would have to simultaneously be interpreting as well as managing the chat function at the same time, which no doubt would add enormous levels of stress to our work. Furthermore, smooth functioning of relay in a multi-language scenario could turn into a nightmare if not carefully catered for.

During the ensuing discussion the main issues which were raised involved questions concerning the considerable risks, reputational and otherwise—such as liability in case of power cuts, poor signal quality, etc.—and therefore the need for robust contractual terms, covering necessary training and certification, liability, remuneration and including questions of copyright protection in instances where interpretation was webcast or recorded. In that respect the specific need for disclaimers was raised. There was much unease at the possibility of losing control and negotiating leverage, and the key principle of interpreting as team work being diluted.

On the upside, I would recognize that if the system works properly it could generate more work for interpreters, as there would be considerable savings for organizers, and events which are currently managed without interpreting because it is seen as too expensive a proposition might use our services, which would be positive as it would also raise awareness of the benefits of multilingualism. On the other hand the savings in costs could be exaggerated for organizers, given the expenditure outlay in using these systems. Furthermore, if interpreters are to work from home, and guarantee a professional service, and avoid the image of “working from their kitchen or in their pyjamas” they would probably have to invest in setting up their own “workstation”, properly sound-proofed and with back up internet connections, which wouldn’t come cheap. 

The tentative conclusions were that RSI is here to stay, but that currently there are many technical issues to be ironed out, and there is a lot of room for considerable improvement in the functioning of RSI platforms to minimize risks (in particular, compliance with frequency responses and latency is a problem) It is essential for interpreters and their associations to enter into a critical dialogue with platforms and providers (quite a few founded or staffed by trained interpreters, by the way) and ensure that our interests are represented and defended, and that we help define future practice to our benefit whilst ensuring that users of our professional services can obtain the same high standards of quality they are used to in an RSI context. Conference Interpreting is a “knowledge based industry” and the main threat we face, that we must understand and combat is “commoditization”, a ghastly word (not mine, I hasten to add, but widely used in discussions).

I shall wind up on two points: firstly by saying that happily in our profession there is a body of expertise, from people who have used these systems, and are fully aware of the potential opportunities they offer…and of the drawbacks, plus others who are very proficient in technical matters and have done a lot of work in helping to define new ISO standards in this field, and finally colleagues who have carried out academic research in the field. Furthermore, in this respect AIIC has very recently published the first version of the “Guidelines on Distance Interpreting”. 

Secondly by making a brief reference to the elephant in the room, though it is not the subject of this post: AI (Artificial Intelligence) and the world of Conference Interpreting; the jury is still out. It could well be a threat to our profession, but even though developments in AI are moving at a quicker pace than many envisaged, it is still a long way off as an effective replacement. 

Useful references

Much has been written on the subject. Here—apart from the “Guidelines” from AIIC—are two documents which were mentioned during the event.

AIIC Guidelines on Distance Interpreting

Platform Abundance 

New technologies for interpreters: An unstoppable wave