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Remote Interpreting: the honeymoon is over, but is RI here to stay?

In the past six months TRANSLIT, like many other language service providers, was compelled to learn a lot about remote interpreting (RI). We would like to share some of our discoveries with you in this article, and also in the webinar that is scheduled for October 14, 2020 (please register here).

Remote interpreting takes centre stage

As normality was being pulled from under our feet last March, and the world was slipping into total lockdown, interpreting agencies and interpreters started receiving cancellation emails in droves. In a few days, dozens of physical events that had been planned for months vanished. No new events could be planned with any degree of certainty. The future of the interpreting business looked bleak. 

But (drumroll), luckily for all, a knight in shining armour appeared, seemingly destined to save the interpreting damsel in distress. Remote interpreting (RI) took centre stage, offering us all a lifeline.

It has been around for a while

Remote interpreting was not exactly the new kid on the block. The first type of remote interpreting – so-called OPI, or over-the-phone interpreting, has been in use since the late 1950s. Its next modification was VRI – video-remote interpreting, particularly useful for interpreters working with sign languages. The newest incarnation of remote interpreting was the high-tech world of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI), propelled into being by the development of a number of cloud-based platforms that allowed interpreters access to virtual booths, and speakers and listeners – freedom to access interpreting from anywhere in the world.

However, we can safely say that prior to the pandemic, remote interpreting was used in limited situations and circumstances. Most interpreters worked successfully for many years without ever needing to resort to remote interpreting. And then, suddenly, various modes of RI became the ONLY possible way of providing interpreting services. Big international conferences, high-level inter-governmental meetings, court cases, immigration interviews, medical assignments – everything had to move to remote interpreting. 

Steep learning curve

All parties to the interpreting service: interpreters, agencies, clients – went on a steep learning curve. Interpreters had to get new skills very quickly. Here at TRANSLIT we know it first hand. When we put up a webinar on Remote Interpreting back in April, it was quickly oversubscribed, drawing in hundreds of interpreters from all over the world. 

Agencies needed to quickly upskill, too. What platforms should we offer to our clients? How should we assess an interpreter’s RI skills if they have never done RI before? Who is to be responsible for the technology and connection issues? How can we ensure that the RI experience is positive for all parties involved? Answers to all these questions needed to be found as a matter of priority. 

What do we know now that we did not know then

Fast forward six months. We have now worked closely with remote interpreting for quite a while. What have we learned?

Our learning can be summed up in one sentence: the honeymoon is over, but we are convinced that RI is here to stay. We have discovered that remote interpreting comes with its own significant challenges for us as an agency, and for our fantastic team of freelancers; however, benefits of RI outweigh its challenges.

Challenges for interpreters

We see that while remote interpreting offered possibly the only way for interpreters to do their job during the pandemic, it has placed significant additional weight on their shoulders. Here are just some of the issues that we have discovered:

  • Interpreters now have to ensure strong and reliable (read – expensive) internet and phone connection, and high-spec equipment. 
  • The cognitive load on an interpreter working remotely is significantly higher than that in a face-to-face situation. They are often expected to double-up as technicians while all their focus is required for the interpreting itself. 
  • Interpreters tell us about being offered lower payment for RI, which is “justified” by the fact that there is no travel involved. 
  • In remote simultaneous interpreting settings, interpreters really miss the presence of their interpreting partner and have difficulties with turn-taking. 
  • Interpreters are often paired up with people they have never worked with before, and whose level of experience they are not sure of.
  • In RI situations breaks for interpreters can be easily forgotten about, leading to a burn-out. 

Challenges for agencies

As an agency we have figured out that there is often more work involved in preparing a remote interpreting event than an on-site one: 

  • Technical and connection issues require their close and detailed attention; strong technical support is vital. 
  • Access to interpreters from any location raised a question of ensuring their experience and expertise. 
  • Clients expect to make a saving on virtual events, which raises a question of fair pay to interpreters.

Benefits outweigh problems

However, despite these challenges TRANSLIT firmly believes that RI is here to stay because its benefits far outweigh the challenges. We work hard on ironing out various current problems. We are learning to deal with them or to live with them, because we cannot overlook RI’s benefits: 

  • It saves time & money: there is no travel, no expensive equipment for each participant, no conference rooms or accommodation to book. This can lead to up to 50% saving for organisers of virtual events. 
  • Specialised remote interpreting platforms offer instant access to qualified interpreters; this is really helpful when dealing with emergencies.
  • It gives clients and agencies access to a larger pool of highly qualified professional interpreters and offers interpreters access to more jobs. 
  • In many cases, no specific software is required. For highly sophisticated multi-language simultaneous projects, reasonably priced easy-to-use applications are readily available.
  • It helps save the planet: the carbon footprint of interpreting plummets when parties to the process do not need to travel across the world.

RI is here to stay

These benefits are significant; they justify learning more and more about remote interpreting and becoming the best at it. And, considering the whispers of the second and third waves of the pandemic, we may not have any choice in the matter at the moment.

To learn more about Remote Interpreting and to improve your RI skills, you are invited to attend our webinarMaster your Remote Interpreting Skills” on next Wednesday 14 October 2020 at 15:00 (Dublin / London time); please register here

/By Svetlana O’Farrell, TRANSLIT Training Development Manager/

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