In 2019, veteran conference interpreter and MultiLingual Media editorial advisor Barry Slaughter Olsen charted a pair of hit videos produced with WIRED magazine.
Today, Olsen, his colleague Walter L. Krochmal, and the WIRED team are looking to make lightning strike thrice. They have a third video launching on WIRED’s YouTube channel and website covering the capabilities, limitations, and potential of AI interpreting versus human interpretation. And if the past is prologue, the video stands to introduce to a whole new audience the cutting edge of language tech — as well as the professionals who harness that all-important human touch.
“I’m always looking for opportunities to explain the interpreting profession and the intricacies of multilingual communication to a general audience,” Olsen said. “That’s why the creative team at WIRED is so great to work with because they are just as passionate about unpacking and explaining complex topics for a curious audience as I am.”
It’s no overstatement that Olsen’s previous videos with WIRED represent a massive success. As episodes four and five in the WIRED Masterminds first season, the videos Interpreter Breaks Down How Real-Time Translation Works and 2 Interpreters Test Their Interpreting Skills (Speed Challenge) logged 7.2 million and 2.5 million views on YouTube, respectively.
“The first two videos we did back in 2019 surpassed all my expectations,” Olsen said. “With all the views on the WIRED website, YouTube, and the bootleg copies subtitled in other languages, tens of millions of people all over the world have seen them. The videos were made with the general public in mind so they could understand and appreciate the challenges and the contributions of the interpreting profession.”
It’s appropriate, then, that the team is back together to break down some of the most potentially disruptive technology in the interpretation business. Thanks to some solid recommendations, Krochmal joined the project to lend his interpreting expertise, and the partnership proved memorable.
“As an actor, as one who has been homeless and seen hard times, translation and simultaneous interpreting became an important part of my livelihood as of 2000,” Krochmal said. “The latter line of work, so highly specialized and well-paid, I considered relatively unassailable given the deficiencies artificial intelligence has with ‘fuzzy logic.’ The technology advances of recent years, however, made me begin to question that assumption with a certain urgency and disquiet.”
From the beginning, the goal was not to take down the idea of AI-powered interpretation but instead to illustrate its capabilities versus human capabilities in the most even-handed way possible.
“The most important aspect for me as we put this project together was to ensure that we were as fair and balanced as possible when assessing the performance of the AI and our own performance as interpreters,” said Olsen. “No one likes to highlight their shortcomings, especially on camera.”
“During the process itself, we worked very hard to ensure that the actual test would, to some degree, establish a level playing field, meaning that we would not come in cold, but would engage in some version of the preparation process a simultaneous interpreter undertakes before launching into an assignment of this nature, which in some sense has echoes in how the artificial intelligence gathers information,” Krochmal added.
Interpretation is difficult work, requiring an astute sense of nuance, lightning-fast mental processing, and often a high degree of social awareness and emotional intelligence. That makes it a difficult job for many to wrap their minds around.
“You forget how ‘superhuman’ the task can appear to someone who doesn’t understand both languages or hasn’t been exposed to simultaneous interpretation before,” Olsen said. “Watching the AI perform speech-to-speech translation was also impressive. But the memorable part was when we started to peel away the superficial layers of the initial “wow” factor and really assessed the key elements of what makes for a good interpretation and meaningful communication.”
The experience of creating the video proved educational not just for the laymen on the production team but also for the professionals. Indeed, Krochmal walked away from the experience with many of his previous fears allayed.
“Looking back on the whole experience, some of my most memorable moments involve the debunking of certain prior assumptions and misgivings I had about this technology and walking away with a clearer idea of how, used properly and with human guidance, it can be an extremely valuable tool that we need not fear,” he said. “The surprise I felt as I saw the weaknesses and also the great strengths of this technology laid bare was a ‘humbling’ experience, as Barry so eloquently put it; and the renewed sense of commitment to study and improve, to acknowledge in a more formal manner my own weaknesses and strengths with a nod to what Martha Graham called ‘divine inconformity.’”
As someone all too familiar with the anxiety of replacement that afflicts many in the professional world, Krochmal hopes that their effort won’t just offer an education. He believes it’s essential that his peers understand their humanity won’t be obsolete any time soon.
“I believe [that the possibility of redundancy is] a long way away, and [I hope] that it brings us together in new and unexpected ways to champion our profession, to work closely with each other for the advancement and recognition that we deserve, and to understand the vital role we play in a world that is in ever-greater need of effective communication,” he said.
Launching a new video project is an exciting time for all involved, and with the WIRED team publishing it, it’s certain to reach another receptive audience. And doubtless, as new and exciting technology emerges in the interpretation space, there will likely be room for future collaborations. For Olsen, he’s happy to wait for the right idea to strike at the right time.
“When we see the necessary elements for a successful project start to emerge, the wheels begin to turn, and we start to throw ideas around. So, who knows what the future will bring?” he said.