By Cyril Flerov
Even though experiments with Remote Simultaneous Interpretation (RSI) have been taking place since the early 1970s, it is only relatively recently that we have heard more and more about this type of interpretation.
It may exist in several configurations, namely:
- Internal cable – interpreters are in the same building but not in the conference room. Professional consoles, booths and equipment are used. Professional quality audio feed and the video feed of the speaker and of the PowerPoint charts are provided. Interpreters have the ability to interact with delegates and ask questions.
- External cable – interpreters are in a different location than delegates or users of interpretation. This is a more problematic option, because interpreters may have no access to the delegates, video feed may not be provided and sound quality may be substandard. Dedicated audio and video feeds might not always be used.
- RSI from home – attempts are being made by various commercial parties to develop platforms to be used by simultaneous interpreters from their homes or offices.
While internal cable is certainly possible (though not ideal) and external cable might be possible under very specific and tightly controlled conditions with a possible loss of quality, RSI from home is the most problematic option for a variety of technical and logistical reasons.
It would be a mistake to promote RSI from home as equal to or better than internal or external cable.
Source-language sound quality should not be evaluated by interpreters subjectively. For professional simultaneous interpretation, sound quality is defined by ISO Standard 2603 (fixed booths for simultaneous interpretation) and ISO Standard 4043 (mobile booths for simultaneous interpretation). The standards require to “correctly reproduce audio-frequencies between 125 Hz and 12500 Hz.” Sound quality either is or is not ISO compliant.
From home platform designers intend to use Voice over IP (VoIP), landlines and cellular phones with their RSI systems. The quality of VoIP connections varies significantly as can be seen in this example:
VoIP (even the Wide Band Audio option limited to 7,000Hz instead of 12,500 Hz required by ISO) does not provide sufficient sound quality. As a result, higher frequencies such as treble, which are important for speech intelligibility, are lost. The use of landlines and cellular phones results in a loss of lower frequencies as well as in an additional deterioration of sound quality.
The human voice becomes more difficult to understand when using VoIP/Wide Band Audio and landline/cell phones. It becomes muddy and tinny, and loses its dimension. While conference participants may be more tolerant as far as sound quality is concerned, it is worth remembering that they are only listening to the presentation and are not interpreting. Interpretation is a very different cognitive task from listening, and therefore, interpreters require better sound quality than do delegates.
Additionally, VoIP has a number of other complications not related to the poor frequency reproduction. These include excessive gain, packet loss, packet delay, jitter, signal latency, etc.
All of these small, but multiple, issues may start to add up, and if the presenter has poor public speaking skills, RSI’s proverbial camel’s back might just break.
Excessive use of relay, unclear hiring practices, undefined equipment requirements, acoustic shock, legal issues, lack of video, interpreter provided hardware – these are but a few items from a laundry list that can complicate the quality of the interpretation and therefore affect the end user.
Interpreters are effectively being asked to work in substandard conditions with poor sound quality and potentially user-un-friendly interfaces, something that may be justified by statements such as, “for convenience’s sake” or “you cannot stop progress.” However, the reality is such that, as of today, there are no RSI platforms known to this author that would provide an ISO quality experience for the interpreter.
While we need to appreciate all attempts to develop Remote Simultaneous Interpretation for whatever the setting may be, both interpreters and their clients must be aware that today it is still a very experimental technology, not yet ready for commercial application. Purchasing such services is at the client’s own risk, and standards of the profession cannot and should not be lowered to accommodate underdeveloped technology.
In the future, we may see more one-time RSI external cable events with large budgets and possibly somewhat improved sound quality. The question as to when ISO compliance will be achieved in RSI remains unanswered. Governments of some countries are already participating in, and in fact piloting RSI projects, with mixed results.
In its current state, RSI poses a significant danger of degrading and dehumanizing our profession. The situation is somewhat similar to that of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago, when new technology was introduced without considering the impact it would have not only on those producing the goods, but also on those receiving the end product.
This blog entry is based on the author’s presentation at the 2015 ATA Annual Conference. Full downloadable PowerPoint slides can be found at: https://app.box.com/s/n7tjbw4jpgxr9iiepsefqwjmjyypcnuq
Cyril Flerov is a professionally trained USA based Russian conference interpreter (Russian A, English B). He has over 25 years of experience and worked freelance at events organized by major US and international clients. A member of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) and of The American Association of Language Specialists (TAALS), he has extensive experience teaching conference interpretation both in Russia and in the United States, including at MIIS – Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. His speaking engagements and seminars about interpretation include ATA, CHICATA, NCTA, CFI, NASA, STIBC, and others. www.cyrilflerov.com