Will interpretation ever be localized?

They were rare, but greatly appreciated. I’m referring to those few translation projects that came in and required a translator who could adeptly translate between Ecuadorian Spanish and American English. Usually, the documents were published by the government of Ecuador, and the client was typically a company from North America that wanted to understand environmental regulations in order to do business there. Of all the translation projects I used to handle, the ones requiring Ecuadorian Spanish were really minimal — probably less than half a percent of my total project and word count volumes. 

But, oh, how I savored them. It was always a joy to translate from the variety of Spanish I knew best into my native tongue. It made me think that translators who work into languages with very few regional variants probably can’t comprehend what it feels like for a Spanish translator, who deals with so many different varieties of one language on a regular basis, to stumble upon a project that is perfectly suited to just the right flavor of a language. Still, I was grateful to get locale-specific work in the rare instances in which such projects materialized.

However, as an interpreter, my chances of interpreting for someone from Ecuador were even lower than my chances of getting a translation project for Ecuadorian Spanish. I didn’t live near any of the large Ecuadorian communities in the United States, so I didn’t have the advantage of proximity to a court or hospital that would require someone with knowledge from Ecuador. When I interpreted via telephone, perhaps one in every 100 calls or so was with someone from Ecuador. Whenever I was lucky enough to receive one, the communication always seemed smoother, and the interpreting work seemed much easier. “If only,” I wished to myself, “I could interpret for Ecuadorians all day long.”

Working in the United States, most of the content I was translating was from Mexican Spanish, and most of the individuals for whom I interpreted spoke Mexican Spanish too. Yet while a good percentage of interpreters and translators also used Mexican Spanish, the proportion of language professionals who were more comfortable in other varieties of Spanish was quite high. Many of the translators I worked with were from Argentina, and a good number of interpreters were from Puerto Rico or Cuba. As a result, we would frequently research new terms and leverage each other’s knowledge in order to become more familiar with every variant of Spanish, or at least the most common ones.

A very frequent topic of discussion among us was regional terminology. The word for drinking straw in one country could mean milkshake in another, while another term for the same innocent item could actually be a vulgar term in yet another place. Staying up to speed on so many varieties of Spanish was a constant challenge, especially when interpreting via telephone. An interpreter who lives in Miami is more likely to be familiar with Cuban Spanish. Likewise, someone who lives in New York has probably learned plenty of Puerto Rican Spanish. Living in Texas or California, you’ll become pretty familiar with Mexican Spanish. But when your work is spread across the entire United States, as it is when you’re a remote interpreter, you get exposure to the full cornucopia of Spanish speakers. It’s incredibly fun, but enormously challenging, too. 


Remote work, bidirectionality and role definitions  

There’s no doubt that localized interpreting would be beneficial. But is it even possible? Let’s look at some of the major factors that make localization possible for written language. 

First, translation benefits from one key element that interpreting lacks — access to a globally distributed workforce. Because of the way translation projects are sourced, if a translator with a given locale-specific knowledge is desired, tapping into a large group of freelancers, who might live anywhere in the world, makes it possible to find such a person. From within such a broad pool of resources, it’s likely that a person can find someone well-suited to the locales required by the project.  For spoken language interpreting, this kind of access is rarely possible. The vast majority of interpreting activity still takes place on site and in person, with human beings traveling across cities, regions and even countries, in order to do their work. Much of interpreting relies heavily on transporting human beings around so they can get to the right place at the right time. Most interpreting work is not done virtually via audio or video, but rather in person. 

That said, the industry has seen some very interesting developments in video and audio interpreting technology recently. For example, a company called ZipDX now enables interpreters to provide conference interpreting services in simultaneous mode, so that an audience in one country can have access to a remote interpreter who is based in a completely different location. This means, for example, that if a head of state is visiting a foreign country, and her favorite interpreter happens to be stuck at an airport due to travel delays, she could still have that interpreter in her ear, so long as the interpreter has a good internet connection. 

In an even more common use case — and one with great future potential — this kind of remote simultaneous interpreting technology enables companies to broadcast a webinar and have attendees listening from around the world in multiple languages, not limiting the audience to one country or language. This kind of technology could shake up the way conference interpreting is provided, especially if supplemented by a camera that enables an interpreter to see a live presenter’s slides and body language. While remote interpreting would certainly solve many of the barriers along the road to obtaining “localized interpreting,” a second major challenge is that the vast majority of the interpreting work that goes on in the world occurs in a bidirectional form. Thus, an interpreter needs to master and produce source language output not just in one locale, but in two. Conference interpreting makes up only a tiny percentage of the global interpreting market. The rest is made up of community interpreting — the type that occurs in courtrooms, hospitals and schools. For those settings, interpreters must go into and out of both languages. This is not a problem for translation, since projects usually go in only one direction.  

For example, an interpreter who is fluent in Peruvian Spanish could be called to interpret remotely for any court within the United States, assuming that all of the courts had access to high-quality video connections. This would guarantee that any individual who speaks Peruvian Spanish would have access to an interpreter familiar with this particular variant of Spanish, which is advantageous to ensure there are no misunderstandings, and that communication is seamless between the interpreter and the Peruvian Spanish speakers. 

However, an interpreter who is court certified will likely be more familiar with the laws of a given state. So, if an interpreter were to interpret in state courts for each and every state in the United States, the interpreter would not be highly specialized in any one state, but rather, would have diluted knowledge about many different states. This is no trivial matter, because laws and even definitions of crimes can vary tremendously from one state to another. Even the interpreter’s knowledge of a given court or a given judge can help improve the speed and quality of the delivery.  In effect, even if a remote interpreter could be connected in order to assist a Spanish speaker in his or her native variant of Spanish, the interpreter would be trading one type of local knowledge for another. Both types of local knowledge could have a bearing on the outcome, and arguably, the local legal knowledge might be more important than the knowledge of a Spanish variation.

A third barrier to the idea of localized interpreting is the problem regarding inconsistency of the interpreter’s role. In most settings, the role of an interpreter is much more complex than that of a translator. If we accept that the ability to access a large network of interpreters who might live in different locations is a must in order to distribute interpreting resources in a way that would facilitate localization, we run into a challenge that technology cannot easily solve. The role of an interpreter varies tremendously from one place to another, not only in terms of country, but in terms of setting and even mode. 

An interpreter who escorts a head of state might not only be converting words back and forth, but advising on cultural matters and even quirks of foreign leaders that the interpreter has observed under previous administrations. An interpreter who works for a professional athlete might interpret in one fashion when serving as the voice of an athlete at a press conference, but in another manner when interpreting between the athlete and coach. 

In some places, a health care interpreter might advocate on behalf of the patient, while in others, this is inappropriate. Interpreters have even been known to help people find their way to the pharmacy in a hospital or to the appropriate ticket window at a police station. Remotely, the local knowledge of the interpreter, including the micro-knowledge of individual facilities, can easily get lost, especially when roles are not standardized in the interpreting profession. Even from medical interpreting to court interpreting, which both fall under the same umbrella of “community interpreting,” there is significant variation on interpreter role definitions.


Toward localized interpreting

While I’ve so far presented mostly challenges to implementing systems that would enable fully localized interpreting, I do believe that it’s possible to improve upon the status quo. There are many ways to address the barriers described in this article.

One of the most important steps toward making localized interpreting a reality is to ensure better capturing and management of data regarding both the interpreter’s preferred “locales” and local language variants, so that resources can be routed appropriately. By the same token, better tracking needs to take place regarding the language preferences and national origins of individuals for whom someone is interpreting. This is more difficult than it might seem. For example, in hospital settings, it’s difficult just to convince health care systems to capture data about patients’ native or preferred language, let alone the variant they speak. But it’s entirely possible with enough client education or institutional support.

Language service providers could easily add data about the regional variant an interpreter is most familiar with, but very few do. In the future, it’s likely that this will be a required field for most interpreter profiles in interpreting management systems, as more and more organizations realize the importance of having access to that information in order to intelligently route assignments to the most well-suited interpreters.

However, it isn’t just the human resources that need to be pooled. Better access to centralized information resources will also be critical in order to overcome barriers regarding local knowledge. For example, what if the aforementioned Peruvian interpreter could quickly come up to speed on major differences between state law in two places by watching a tutorial prior to the assignment? Even if the interpreter had to prepare for several hours, this would likely still be more efficient and less expensive than paying for travel time from one location to another. Also, this knowledge could be leveraged by that interpreter again, and by any other interpreters in similar situations in the future.

Likewise, how many hospital interpreting coordinators explain the same directions to interpreter after interpreter, telling them how to get from the parking lot to the actual area of the hospital where they are needed? This is a very common scenario. Interpreters should have this information available via SMS message, in a mobile app or left for them in a voice mail they can listen to while walking to the appointment. Information of this type, which is so critical to getting the interpreter to the right place at the right time, simply isn’t collected or distributed in any strategic and systematic way today. As an industry, we’re still in “manual mode” for many, many items like this that affect interpreting services and could be easily automated. One of the things that cannot and will not be easily solved by technology is the reality of the interpreter’s role, which has many shades and hues that change from one place to another. Still, there are many lessons we can learn in this regard from the work that already exists regarding standards and ethics for remote interpreting. Granted, we may never be able to offer localized interpreting in a way that is as easy or consistent as we might like, and that would truly enable interpreters to offer the full benefit of their locale-specific knowledge. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Every step we take toward better matching interpreters with locale-specific knowledge to the situations and people they are best prepared to interpret for is a step in the right direction. The barriers, while numerous, are not insurmountable.