Remote Interpreting:
The New Face of Spoken Language Services

Ramadan Breima 

Ramadan A. Breima is an Arabic-speaking sworn interpreter and translator with 18 years of experience in the field, as well as in journalism. He holds a post-graduate diploma in translation studies from UKZN, South Africa.

Afaf Steiert

Afaf Steiert is president and founder of Afaf Translations, where she works as a conference Arabic interpreter, and oversees all translation services at Afaf Translations. She obtained her M.SC in plant molecular biology from University of Basel, Switzerland.

Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, remote interpreting (RI) has quickly replaced most on-site and face-to-face interpreting. But despite the excitement accompanying the surge of RI and the proliferation of platforms facilitating the RI process, there are many challenges from both the technological side and the position of the interpreter.

Remote interpreting now… and then

RI, as the name implies, is performed by remote or offsite interpreters to facilitate communication between people who speak different languages. It’s similar to video relay services used by the Deaf and hard-of-hearing for sign language interpretation, in which the parties are located in different places.

In the past, RI services, if available, were generally provided via telephone. RI is traditionally known as a service that is rendered to hospitals, police stations, airports, and border posts — in other words, locations and situations where there is immediate demand for an interpreter, but an interpreter is not present onsite due to logistical or cost-related factors. Like all interpreting, RI facilitates communication between people who speak different languages and otherwise cannot communicate with each other. Events of this nature are, in normal practice, conducted face-to-face among two or more individuals and the remote interpreter’s role is to enable or facilitate communication between them.

Pre-COVID-19, the number of interpreters who would render RI services were few in comparison with interpreters providing onsite or face-to-face interpreting, for two main reasons. The first is that RI interpreters, especially those working with hospitals and law-enforcement agencies (such as medical and legal interpreters) are specialized in their field of interpreting. The second reason involves body language and facial expressions, which are easier to read in a face-to-face setting.

“Other platforms stepped in to solve these issues, such as KUDO and Interprefy. These two platforms are designed specifically for the purpose of remote interpreting, and they have all the facilities one would expect to find in an interpreting booth.”

Within a short time, RI evolved dramatically from being mostly phone-based to instead being conducted on new plat-forms that emerged to assist in all aspects of the interpreting ecosystem. Zoom comes to everybody’s mind, and while it was developed for enabling online meetings, it quickly became useful for interpreting during the pandemic. However, Zoom was not built to easily embed language interpreting support such as relay and other forms of an interpreter’s communication with booth partners. Other platforms stepped in to solve these issues, such as KUDO and Interprefy. These two platforms are designed specifically for the purpose of remote interpreting, and they have all the facilities one would expect to find in an interpreting booth. An interpreter can communicate with their booth partner (in this case the booth partner may be in an entirely different part of the world) smoothly and can listen to their booth partner without causing any disruption to the audience. The only shortcoming is that using these platforms requires some degree of training. Some among the older generation of interpreters may feel a bit more challenged with getting used to new technologies, so learning to use these platforms can be more difficult.

While Zoom is easy to use and is thus popular even for interpreting sessions, there are two major downsides with Zoom. One is that not all languages are included in the system, which means, for example, the Arabic audio feed may be labeled as Japanese or Korean. This may cause confusion to audiences when they are asked to select, following this example, Korean or Japanese to listen to the Arabic interpreter’s voice. The second problem with Zoom is that the interpreter needs to log in with two devices, on one as the interpreter and on the other as a meeting attendee (in order to keep up with the entire online meeting progress). This two-device solution also works as an alternative arrangement for relay interpreting. Another way of solving the relay problem is for the interpreter to connect with their colleagues of other language combinations through a separate messaging service such as WhatsApp. 

“All the interpreter needs now is a strong internet connection, computer, headset, a quiet environment, and simply being familiar with the available RI tools”

COVID-19 gives fresh impetus to RI

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world irrevo-cably, forcing almost every industry to rapidly adopt online technologies to continue operations. Interpreters have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, given that the lockdowns in major parts of the world that restricted all in-person events, including conferences and other public meetings. In a recent study by CSA Research, 55% of language service providers reported a decrease in business since the outbreak of the pandemic, and showed great concern over the uncertainty of how long the pandemic will last and what its impact on business will be.

However, even though the professionals who have continued to perform their duties in a traditional way found it hard to cope with the requirements of simultaneous remote interpreting (SRI), the COVID-19 pandemic has been a blessing in disguise for other interpreters who reside in less accessible parts of the world, or who find it difficult to travel internationally to interpreting events due to visa requirements. These RI interpreters are now able to cover events in countries and regions where they had not been able to travel before.

Video RI can be a cost-effective, quick, and easy way of providing interpreting services. RI is cost-effective for event organizers since they do not need to pay for airplane tickets, hotel accommodations, remunerations, or meal expenses for the delegates, as is often the case with traditional in-person events. All the remote interpreter needs, for their part, is a strong and reliable internet connection, a laptop, a headset, and a relatively quiet environment. In this way, organizing an event attended by thousands of people becomes as inexpensive as the one accommodating a handful of people. While the events held behind closed doors cater to a small number, virtual events are attended by a potentially limitless number of people.

Technical challenges

Despite the positive aspects RI has provided to professional interpreters, technical challenges are a major obstacle. In many countries of the world, internet connections are weak or unstable. This network instability or weakness leads to blurred images and interrupted sounds. In many cases the movement of the speaker’s lips and the sound are out of sync, which makes simultaneous interpreting rather challenging. A strong internet connection is key to successful RI services, and those remote interpreters who lack access to a reliable internet connection are left behind.

It can also quite frequently be observed that during the progress of an event, a panelist is new to online conferences and meetings and has not practiced using the online systems. They might not be aware of how the interaction with the remote interpreter works and be oblivious to the presence of the interpreter. This is turn may leave the interpreter struggling to catch up with a fast-speaking presenter who otherwise might have been reminded or made aware of such a situation.

Other challenges for the remote interpreter working from their home base may include any type of background-related disturbances, mostly noise — for example from children, pets, visitors, unexpected construction activities, and so on. 

Professional challenges

One of the professional challenges of RI has been terms of payment. Some agencies impose rather unfavorable payments thinking that the interpreter needs to be paid far less because of working from the convenience of home. In the authors’ experience some agencies have tried to impose rates-per-minute payments and no longer offer hourly pay with the industry standard two-hour minimum. Also, non-payment for online appointments that were canceled last-minute has been suggested. Some agencies tend to forget that interpreters prepare for new meetings, especially conferences, ahead of time and that preparation time should be priced into the interpreter’s pay. After all, the agency or end client still saves on traveling costs to and from assignments, and it seems unfair trying to save money on the actual service the interpreter is hired for.

Added to professional challenges, there is also a lack of physical presence in remote communication that makes rapport-building exceedingly difficult. This may cause dis-comfort to some speakers who are not familiar with this type of communication, which can have a negative impact on the way they organize their thoughts, and ultimately RI interpreters will take the blame should anything go wrong. This lack of physical presence also impacts how interpreters handle unfamiliar (to them) accents. With face-to-face interpreting, the interpreter has the chance to talk to presenters prior to the event to familiarize themselves with presenters’ accents and the way they pronounce certain words. However, this is not the case with RI, which sometimes requires that the interpreter guess the words intended by speaker. If their guess is wrong, then the meaning is compromised. In one of the authors’ own experience, the most difficult accents that cause disturbance to RI interpreters are those of English and French speakers from Asia, particularly India, and from West Africa, particularly southern Nigeria, Liberia, and French-speaking West Africa.

Some interpreters’ associations may have to revise and update their bylaws regarding qualification and certification of simultaneous interpreters, since the conditions of interpreting are changing with the absence of booth presence, and interpreters will not be familiar with each other on a more personal level as has been the case in the past. In fact, a new etiquette for the use of RI platforms must be introduced to interpreters to make sure the interpreter is using proper equipment such as good microphones for sufficient sound quality, and there is plenty of light from the front and not the back. The interpreter should also continue to be dressed professionally and be present in front of the camera during the entire interpreting session to keep the connection with the audience.

 

Coping with technology pays off

Despite the panic that overwhelmed interpreters in the first few months following the outbreak of COVID-19, those interpreters who managed to go virtual survived the pandemic’s toll. They managed to turn peril into a blessing. Instead of traveling long distances, RI interpreters can now cover events in any part of the world. In fact, they can even cover more than one event in different parts of the world during a single day. Coping with the new RI environment means that interpreters need to learn what it takes to be an RI interpreter. Getting familiar with RI platforms is a must. This means making time to watch training tutorials on YouTube, studying manuals, and consulting with the technical teams of these online meeting platforms. Despite the initial impression that RI platforms are complicated, it does not take a lot of work to become familiar with them. 

Compared to other interpreting services, VRI is very budget-friendly. If an event organizer were to set up an in-person interpreting service, there would be minimum charges starting with travel costs and other fees for the language specialist. Not so with VRI. There is also no need to buy or rent expensive equipment. A simultaneous interpreter who is at a conventional event in-person will require a soundproof booth and audio and visual links to see the speaker. Headsets will be required for every attendee in the audience who needs interpreting. As pointed by the UK-based localization firm Asian Absolute, when using a video remote interpreter for a meeting, the only outlay is the generally very cost-effective rate of the actual interpreting ser-vice. As long as there is a strong enough network connection, the sound will be clear and the interpreter will be able to clearly see the lips of the speaker as well as their facial expressions and other body language.

Takeaways

Platforms such as KUDO, Interprefy, and others have given RI the proper tools to allow the interpreter to work with a virtual booth partner as if they were in the same place. It is sometimes even better and smoother than being in one place, because the traditional method of handover between interpreters may be perceived by the audience as an interruption.

RI has gained momentum and thus changed the landscape of the interpreting industry, due to the fact that the importance of strong internet connectivity is being taken seriously by countries aspiring to further their development. And many countries are, in fact, now realizing the importance of having a network that supports strong internet connections for the sake of development. Many of them have made solid strides in this respect and can now pride themselves on having robust networks.

With the possibility of overcoming the challenges of RI, the interpreting industry will witness an unprecedented transformation. All the interpreter needs now is a strong internet connection, computer, headset, a quiet environment, and simply being familiar with the available RI tools.