All right, this post has a prerequisite video. It is short, it has drama, and it has Brad Pitt in it. I’ll explain why shortly, but try to keep it in mind as you read this.
OK, now put Mr. Pitt aside for a couple of minutes. I promise I’ll get back to the video.
One of the most interesting presentations I attended during ATA’s Annual Conference this year was the aptly named “Getting Ahead of the Story: A Proactive Approach to Best Practices for Remote Interpreting for Interpreters, Buyers, and Vendors”, presented by Katherine Allen and Barry Olsen (of MIIS, Glendon MCI, and InterpretAmerica fame).
The underlying topic, as inquisitive readers will have guessed, is the advance of remote interpreting into the mainstream and the opportunities and challenges it presents for current and future stakeholders.
Allen and Olsen obviously know what they’re talking about. They’ve both written and spoken extensively on the subject for a while now, including through ATA (in the Chronicle and conference presentations such as this one), this year’s InterpretAmerica conference (which I also attended and was pretty great, by the way), podcasts, blog posts, and the other usual venues. Their attention is not at all unwarranted, of course. The topic is definitely controversial, and affects a non-negligible (and growing) number of people and organizations throughout the world expressing widely varying perspectives on the matter.
Introductions aside, let us get back to the presentation itself.
In the first half, Allen and Olsen sought to lay the foundations for the discussions ahead. I would summarize what they said as something like this: while we may still consider remote interpretation to be in its infancy (albeit to varying degrees, depending on what particular segment of the industry one is involved in), the writing on the wall is unmistakable: remote interpreting is here to stay. What will it bring?
And therein lies the (hor)crux of the matter. Remote interpreting is here to stay, Allen and Olsen asserted. It is nothing new or revolutionary, just something that became more viable—and consequently more popular—in recent years. As we face a transitional period in which this kind of interpreting is still on its way to inevitably becoming a more relevant part of the industry as a whole, what are the pitfalls to avoid? What should interpreters, buyers, and vendors be doing to help shape this nascent global industry into something better for everyone?
With that in mind, the speakers went into the second part of the presentation. To drive discussions, they relied on the excellent Mentimeter platform to collect text comments in real time from participants (we just opened a simple website on our phones and typed away). The questions were truly inquisitive, and the app was an excellent way both to get instant, actionable statements from the audience that were visible to everyone and to let all of us find out more from different perspectives in the field.
I spoke to one participant, for instance, who is a recruiter of interpretation services and who recently visited a large hospital to receive care. She mentioned to one of the physicians what her work is and was surprised to hear that this particular organization already had an on-demand remote interpreting program in place. “No prescheduling necessary,” the physician said. “I simply grab an iPad, tell the app what I need, and, moments later, an interpreter is in a video session with me.”
I’m a conference interpreter and have never done any medical interpreting, so you might imagine my immediate reaction to this. It just feels… wrong. It feels like a commodification of what we do, as if the industry were ready to shoot an “Uberizing Beam” into a profession that involves incredibly complex work and skills. Is this the future for us? Is this the way I would want to provide services?
I’m not alone in this reaction, of course. The three “Troublesome Terps” recently recorded a podcast talking about the same subject for a good hour. During the podcast, Jonathan Downie made clear the point he had advanced elsewhere: that, whatever remote interpreting is about to offer, he doesn’t feel like that’s his cup of tea. And it may as well not be. I honestly see absolutely nothing wrong with that.
But then again, I realized that that my initial view of remote interpreting was somewhat narrow. There are so many other variations to consider and so many other ways to go about this. There are also so many ways in which this can be a positive influence in the market. It can be inclusive, it can be transforming, it can help bring interpreting to frameworks, settings, and events in which it would have simply been deemed unfeasible before. It can drive innovation, help economies, help people.
And this is where I come back to Mr. Beane in the video above. For those unfamiliar with it (light spoilers ahead), Moneyball tells the story of a particular baseball team manager who, finding himself in a pinch, attempted to get out of it by using innovative practices that the sports establishment unabashedly opposed.
To be very, very clear, I am NOT saying that the way we deliver conference interpreting today is the “old” way of doing things or that it is ripe for replacement. I do not say that because it is not true.
But I still kept thinking about this very scene during the presentation. It’s a great movie (especially if you share my respect for The Sorkin), so I won’t spoil the ending, but I couldn’t fail to see the signs. We have been doing things a certain way for a long time, and the Major Interpretation League agrees with most of us on what good interpreting is and how it should be delivered. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But there is a major force coming into the equation that is about to drive changes. And it sure is coming. Everyone is looking into it—from small individual clients to the UN (this is not hearsay: the UN is indeed actively researching the use of remote interpreting). Equipment and software vendors are multiplying and evolving as you read this. The chips are slowly but surely falling into place.
The main goal of Allen and Olsen’s presentation, at least as I saw it, was not to provide answers but, rather, to get the ball rolling, to get us thinking about what questions we want answered and what answers we want to have to the questions posed by whatever changes may bring. I would say that was handily achieved.
At the end of the day, we can metaphorically put our hands over our ears and sing really loudly for a couple of years and see where things stand when we stop—or we can try to help steer the debate towards a more sensible future. I, for one, am uncomfortable. I’m uncertain; I’m reluctant. But I’m choosing the latter path. And so, it seems, were the presenters. I applauded them all the more for it.
Daniel Maciel has been a freelance translator and interpreter for about ten years. He is a sworn translator and interpreter in Brazil, a technical translator and conference interpreter in a bunch of other places, and a consumer electronics geek in failed recovery in all places (which doesn’t help with saving a lot from whatever he makes with the first two but is totally probably maybe not really worth it). His areas of expertise are legal, financial, and IT, but life has had him dabble with a bunch more. You can find him on Facebook and LinkedIn. He also has issues with writing about himself on the third person, as he was asked to for this particular mini-bio, and would like all readers to please keep in mind that he is a totally normal first-person-using person when not writing mini-bios.