If you are an interpreter, it has been hard to get away from the rise in the profile of remote interpreting. It’s not that there have been any massive technical breakthroughs. Suppliers have simply managed to leverage increases in internet speed and faster processors and GPUs into products that are far more reliable and useful. But is this enough to turn remote interpreting into a replacement for good old in-person work?
When it came to writing an upcoming critical review of remote interpreting, I wanted to try to be fair and to review the evidence that was actually available. Did the quality differ according to whether or not the interpreter was in the room? Were there any clear indications that we all need to join the remote bandwagon or be left behind?
Let’s leave aside for a moment any questions of how quickly remote interpreting is growing. After all, any figures we might quote about the growth in virtual events have to be set against the growing importance of in-person networking, experience and live interaction at business events (see here, for example: http://www.themeetingmagazines.com/acf/2018-meetings-industry-forecast/).
If events are increasingly about experience, then being in the room is a vital part of that experience and that most likely means having interpreters there too. This runs counter to the rather bold suggestion that “the biggest casualty in the deployment of IDPs [remote interpreting platforms] will be interpreters who don’t want to use interpreting delivery platforms.” (Hélène Pielmeier, a Senior Analyst at Common Sense Advisory, http://www.ata-divisions.org/ID/interpreting-delivery-platforms-get-bandwagon/)
Leaving all that aside, it is important to look at the evidence available on remote interpreting. On this point, we should all be very grateful to Prof. Sabine Braun for leading the AVIDICUS projects on interpreting in legal settings (http://wp.videoconference-interpreting.net/). The information gathered by the AVIDICUS team goes even further than their project scope and includes pointers to research on remote interpreting using a variety of setups in sign language interpreting, conference interpreting, business interpreting and, of course, legal interpreting.
While the best way to get a feel for this research is to read the critical review that will be published in a free e-book by the Research Network of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting later this year, it is useful to look at some of the main themes.
Firstly, whether there is a difference in quality between interpreting provided in person and remote interpreting really does depend on how you define “quality.” It might be an old academic trick but here it is an appropriate question.
For example, a study by Roziner and Shlesinger (2010) on remote interpreting in the European Parliament found little difference in the performance of interpreters, as evaluated by independent judges, whether they were working remotely or working in-person. However, studies in legal interpreting and sign language interpreting have pointed to the inability of remotely working interpreters to interrupt proceedings to seek clarification, the higher frequency of people speaking over each other and the greater difficulty in building up rapport between interpreters and clients when interpreters are not on site (Napier and Leneham, 2011; Braun and Taylor, 2012; Napier, Skinner and Turner, 2017).
In addition, for some years, health issues have been associated with remote interpreting. These range from greater stress (leading to interpreter performance dropping off more quickly) (Moser-Mercer, 2005) to neck and back pain (Mouzourakis, 2006) and feelings of isolation and disconnection (Napier, Skinner and Turner, 2017). There are no signs that any of these issues have been resolved recently.
Yet it would be unfair to ignore the potential of remote interpreting and the market segments that seem ripe for it. Increasing use of webinars, web conferencing and other types of online meetings provides a marketplace where remote interpreting can shine. If the interpreting users are not all in the same room, it makes sense for the interpreter to use a remote interpreting system. Similarly, remote interpreting can be used where there is a shortage of qualified interpreters. It’s far better to bring in a good interpreter via remote interpreting than to put up with a bad one in the room.
As much as it would be exciting to set up a big metaphorical fight between remote interpreting and in-person interpreting, that doesn’t really get us anywhere. Instead, it would seem best to value remote interpreting as a useful solution for online events and situations where there is a shortage of qualified interpreters, doing the best we can to work with the remote interpreting platforms to mitigate the negative effects of remote working. There are real problems with remote interpreting, which mean that it should not be viewed as a replacement for working in person. But it is far from being a last resort.
Dr. Jonathan Downie is a consultant conference interpreter (French<>English) based in Edinburgh, UK, trading under the name Integrity Languages (http://www.integritylanguages.co.uk). His first book, “Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence,” was published by Routledge in 2016. As well as being a regular in European conference circuits on translation and interpreting and events management, he co-hosts the international award-winning podcast, ‘Troublesome Terps,’ with Alexander Drechsel and Alexander Gansmeier.
Braun, S. and Taylor, J. (2012) ‘Video-mediated interpreting: an overview of current practice and research.’ In Braun, S. and Taylor, J. (eds.), Videoconference and remote interpreting in criminal proceedings. Antwerp: Intersential, pp. 33–68.
Moser-Mercer, B. (2005) ‘Remote interpreting: issues of multi-sensory integration in a multilingual task.’ Meta: Journal des traducteurs / Meta:Translators’ Journal, 50(2), pp. 727–738.
Mouzourakis, P. (2006) ‘Remote interpreting: a technical perspective on recent experiments.’ Interpreting, 8(1), pp. 45–66.
Napier, J. and Leneham, M. (2011) ‘“It Was Difficult to Manage the Communication”: Testing the Feasibility of Video Remote Signed Language Interpreting in Court.’ Journal of Interpretation, 21(1), p. 5.
Napier, J., Skinner, R. and Turner, G. H. (2017) ‘“It’s good for them but not so for me”: Inside the sign language interpreting call centre.’ Translation and Interpreting, 9(2), pp. 1–23.
Roziner, I. and Shlesinger, M. (2010) ‘Much ado about something remote: Stress and performance in remote interpreting.’ Interpreting, 12(2), pp. 214–247.