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The Problem with Remote Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 20, 2018

[note from the writer]It’s quite rare these days for me to write a post that is not explicitly aimed at potential clients. This one is an exception, although there are lots of things for clients to chew over. All opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.

By the time you read this, the interpreting industry will have had some time to digest the latest move from the leading remote interpreting platforms. We have had product releases and demos, we have had assurances and articles telling us that we had all better sign up now! Now! No, right now! Why haven’t you signed up to be assimilated yet!? Resistance is futile!

And now, in the latest development, which means not much to anyone who isn’t an interpreter, we have the creation of the Interpreting Technologies Alliance (ITA). According to its own website and this press release via Common Sense Advisory, ITA represents a decision by the major Interpreting Delivery Platform providers (that remote interpreting companies to you and me) to work together on “to raise the visibility and credibility of emerging solutions such as remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) and amplify the presence of interpreting technology in the business community.” That would be marketing and PR then.

There is also a kind of entente agreed between the companies. Here’s another quote from the CSA PR piece:

The six companies agreed to set aside some of the micro differences between their products and interests and instead focus on the common good of pooling resources to develop new market segments. Their main activities will be to jointly engage the private sector and showcase interpreting use cases at industry events and through trade and social media. They also plan a series of joint campaigns to standardize terminology, increase professionalism, educate the market, and raise the capacity of language professionals to meet the needs of the private sector.

On the one hand, it is good to see companies setting aside any rivalries for the greater good but the whole thing opens a few important questions.

First off, why are only technology providers at the table? If the idea is to professionalise the way remote interpreting is delivered (good idea!) and to showcase its uses (again, good idea!) wouldn’t it be good to, you know have some interpreters involved who aren’t on the payroll of any of the big platforms? Or even to invite professionals associations to engage?

The second big question is what exactly is meant by “raise the capacity of language professionals to meet the needs of the private sector”. Since, to quote CSA again remote interpreting has “suffered from a mismatch between product solutions and actual market demand” how do we know that they know any better than currently active interpreters about “meeting the needs of the private sector?” And hold on, aren’t interpreters already doing that and educating each other about that?

The point is that the founding of ITA and its press release so far have simply underlined the longest-standing problem with remote interpreting – it has always been good about generating publicity but its engagement with the supply side, the interpreters, has been patchy. Some companies have done well enough, others have completely missed the boat.

Despite years of development, no-one can say for sure whether remote interpreting is good or bad for quality, good or bad for interpreter physical health, good or bad for interpreter mental health and good or bad for interpreting revenues. That is the main and maybe even the sole message of AIIC’s new position on remote interpreting. We already have burnout issues. Psychologists know that social isolation is a contributing factor to poor mental health outcomes. Might remote interpreting make things even worse? The answer is: we don’t know.

Research on interpreting since the 1990s has shown that in-person interpreted situations across all forms of interpreting are dynamic social environments where interpreters react in real-time to what is said and done. Might remote interpreting break that link and reduce real quality and outcomes? We don’t know.

With unanswered questions like those on the one side and the attempts at shiny PR image-making from remote interpreting tech providers on the other, it is no surprise that many interpreters are sceptical about remote, or at least sceptical about the future of remote interpreting promoted by its most ardent fans.

That’s why, if you get the more astute remote interpreting promoters in a corner and ask them quietly what their biggest challenge is right now, they will tell you that it is still very hard to get experienced, excellent interpreters to sign up. Yes, you get some cheery early adopters. Yes, you can do nice demos. But still, the biggest tension in remote interpreting is on the supply side, not the demand side.

The biggest problem with remote interpreting is interpreters. The tech can be as wonderful as you like. You can even do as much PR and marketing as you like but if you can’t get enough expert interpreters onside, it won’t work. And right now, many experienced expert interpreters are sitting on the fence about remote interpreting, if not swearing off it altogether, at least for settings where we currently work in person. Sadly, the creation of ITA and some of the rather unfortunate language around it has not made things any better.

For remote interpreting clients, the biggest danger will be that the supplier can’t find the high quality interpreter that they need. For remote interpreting platform providers, there will always be a tension between wanting to become a platform that supplies everything, including the interpreters (and thereby appearing like just another agency to interpreters and alienating those who want to get their own clients) and being the platform interpreters choose to use themselves (and thereby making it harder to sell to clients directly).

If the focus of ITA is really driving up standards in remote interpreting and ensuring that the interpreting provided is of high quality, the priority has to be knowledge and real partnership, above fancy stands at tradeshows. Invite interpreting associations to send a “lay member” or three to your board. Fund research that generates real, empirically validated data on the things that matter about remote interpreting. Work with mental health experts on preparing interpreters for the shift you see coming.

Please, for goodness sake, do something more than PR and marketing. The profession deserves much, much more than that!

 

11 comments on “The Problem with Remote Interpreting

  1. Jonathan, I am one of those early adopters of remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI). I was eagerly awaiting for Web RTC and all the rest of the technology that goes along with it (sound reproduction, screen refresh rates, video transmission, etc.) to catch up so we could have something to work with. The companies are working hard at meeting ISO standards and applying what AIIC standards they can to make sure we – the interpreters – are not overburdened.

    RSI is not a panacea, nor a one-size-fits-all type of solution. But it is working. It is the present. And at least one company is doing a lot more than PR.

    KUDO (US) is training interpreters and offering demos to both end users and interpreters so people can check them out before jumping in.

    And Headvox (France) has been upgrading their platform and offering training to those who are hired/interested in working with them.

    Ewandro Magalhães, the interpreting arm of KUDO, has a very strong background in our profession, is an AIIC member and Fardad Zabetian, the business/tech side of KUDO has also a very strong presence in interpreting, from the equipment side. They are establishing studios so all interpreters have to deal with is the same stuff they’d have to deal with in the booth. Their product is SOLID!

    Frédéric (Derick) Eppendahl had a second-hand love affair with interpreting and a first-hand affair with technology. Getting those two elements together was a natural development, and we have Headvox. They would not have the success they enjoy if their product was not EXCELLENT.

    My experience with Interprefy is not as strong and I need to revisit them soon. But the more the merrier, and I am ecstatic at AIIC’s involvement with RSI: they will make sure we, the professionals, are well represented in the development phase of all these technologies. Besides that, there is an association of interpreting associations that is working closely with the ASTM and ISO to make sure these developments take our well being, professional standards and outcomes into consideration.

    Again, RSI cannot be used in every situation, is not intended to be used in every situation, and is not to be used by everyone either. But I am happy to be an early adopter and be part of this journey with them.

    • Thank you for your perspective. While I have seen much of that work, I have also seen articles suggesting that if we don’t jump on the bandwagon, we will be left behind and much of the RSI PR has made it look like a panacea, which we both agree it cannot be.

      I would agree that a lot of work has gone into the product: things like sound and image quality and studios but very little has been done to look at the physical and mental effects of physically separating the interpreters from the clients and sometimes from each other. In the related world of video relay interpreting, research has begun to show performance issues and issues with the physical distance creating a feeling of mental/emotional distance. Feelings of isolation have also been reported there.

      As I said at the end of the article, I would like to see ITA as the developers take the lead in carrying out this sort of research on regular RSI users. The tech could be brilliant but if it has long-term mental health or performance consequences on interpreters, it will need to be monitored very carefully. Us sceptics are not cynics but it does sometimes feel that we are treated as such.

      • On the contrary. A lot of work has been done. The technology is not at its optimum and a lot of development is still to take place. But, because the isolation issue is real, studios are being created; because having access to speakers is an issue, good quality video was given priority before bringing it to the market, because interpreters are being considered as the number one link (i.e., the “weakest and most powerful” link in the chain) their well-being, the best technological developments, ISO and AIIC standards are being worked into the final product.

        Look at it like Ford looked at cars in the 1800’s: it was needed then and we are still working at making it better these many years later. Should we have waited until Tesla’s latest model was produced before introducing the car to the world? NO.

        I have used it. I have made suggestions for improvements. I keep telling people to give a whirl because it is here to stay and ignoring it will not make it go away. @Bill Wood was right: Technology will not replace professionals, but professionals who are proficient in its use will replace those who are not – that’s a paraphrase.

        I believe we owe it to ourselves to try it before trashing it.

        • I think you are slightly missing my point. There has been very little research into the long-term health effects of RSI on interpreters. I did mention the improvements in studios and video. Still, we don’t know if RSI is something that is going to cause even greater health problems for interpreters and the evidence so far from VRI suggests that we have bigger issues than just adding video and making sound better, especially since most VRI happens in studios and yet the isolation and feelings of distance are still there.

          Your analogy to Ford cars is interesting but a lot has changed since then. In most jurisdictions, products have to be tested before coming to market. There is also constant monitoring of issues and recalls are soon made. If research were to show that regular RSI was causing health issues for interpreters, would any company actually put their hands up to take responsibility?

          I also must admit that, as someone who was in a long-distance relationship for three years, I really don’t think that any quality of video and sound can replace being physically in the room with someone. As Barry Olsen said, in-person interpreting will cease to exist when we figure out how to drink beer virtually. It would be much better if the RSI PR were to acknowledge the place and importance of standard SI.

          And yes, I have actually performed remote simultaneous in my career for a paid client and was involved in a Troublesome Terps episode where we tested it live. I am not and never will trash it. I actually think that RSI has its uses but personally, I would only suggest it be used where for some reason standard SI is not possible. Ideal use cases would be: webinars, remote meetings, events where the there is danger or if the available rooms are too small. As I have said elsewhere, I think it has its uses but I am highly critical of the way it has been marketed as a panacea and of the way that those who are critical of it (not even cynical) seem to be rounded on and tried to have their minds changed. If it’s that good, it can speak for itself.

          • It may have been easy to miss. My concern, however, is that it seems that the RSI platform providers are trying to discourage critics. Discouraging cynics, I totally understand. Some people will never be won over. Yet, critics like me, who are basically just saying “can we slow down and look at the evidence before making crazy claims?” might actually be useful. Imagine the power of a critic saying “I have looked at the evidence and I support RSI under conditions x, y and z.”

  2. Jonathan, none of this should be surprising. Occupational health issues and real quality are two areas which are eagerly obfuscated by the shady technoprofiteers who clutter the language services landscape. The issues here are not unlike those involving post-editing of machine pseudo-translation where indications could be found in the pre-boom literature (among others: http://www.mt-archive.info/Aslib-1981-Bevan-1.pdf) that significant loss of skills could be experienced due to mental stress, but when the visions of profit plums grew too sweet for the greedy, all such considerations were suppressed and everything focused on profit margins and not the human input to the linguistic sausage grind.

    There are considerable legitimate concerns for the health of workers caught in the grinding gears of these technologies. If we are to achieve any sort of sustainable progress in providing better T&I with the possible assistance of technologies, these must be properly studied, and any necessary preventive and rehabilitative measures must be carefully defined. Anything else is grossly irresponsible at best, potentially disastrous for all stakeholders in some cases.

    • This is precisely my point. I feel that it is irresponsible to go for massive roll-out until we know about the health & safety issues of these products and services. A brief look at the literature suggests that the picture is mixed indeed.

  3. Jonathan – While all of the above is true to a degree, it suggests that you are collectively missing a major point. It’s a vast world out there, but the number of corporate entities making use of SI is so small as to be effectively zero. If you ask, in that realm, you’ll find the common wisdom is that consecutive interpretation is all that is possible. All that has ever been possible via remote means.

    The task before ITA is to raise the profile of what is possible, taking it to a wholly new market. That’s not a bad idea. New markets bring new opportunities for everyone. Even if you think that RI has no place in the traditional aspects of the business, there can be cases where RSI can enable things that were simply impossible via CI.

    It takes a huge effort to get companies to change their modus operandi. Old habits die hard. If ITA can push that rock a bit, it’ll be interesting to see what comes of it.

    As to matters of “Feelings of isolation,” etc. this is hardly unique to the language services industry. I know this all too well, so do many millions of workers who have transitioned from full-time reporting to an office, to working from a home office part- or even full-time. Not all ways of working are for everyone.

    (While I work with ZipDX, I do not speak for them. I am basically an independent observer of the space.)

    • Thank you for your interesting comment, Michael.
      While I would agree with your assertion that few companies use SI, most of the ones I have met don’t even know that consecutive exists. If anything, it seems that simultaneous has the bigger profile, at least here in Europe.

      I also find it a little disconcerting that you feel that we have missed the point. The point of ITA seems to be to raise the profile of RSI, not interpreting more generally. Now, if ITA were to join with associations to raise the profile of interpreting and to have RSI seen as a piece of that and as one possible modus operandi, I would be happy and so would my colleagues. Sadly, the PR makes it seem that ITA exists only to push the cause of RSI, which is where the criticism comes from.

      I have said here and elsewhere precisely that RI can do somethings that in-person interpreting can’t and I don’t think that anyone would disagree. Where interpreters have felt rankled is that we have all heard the “RSI is taking over” and “join now or miss out” sales pitches and quite frankly, they are getting very old. RSI definitely has a place but it should never be sold as the future of interpreting on its own.

      As for isolation, I don’t think we can shrug it off as part of modern life, especially since the particular feelings of isolation comes from VRI interpreters who say that VRI is more isolating than interpreting in person and that this, coupled with feelings of being distant from the client may cause quality issues. Poor interpreting is not in anyone’s interests. If RSI is going to work, it is going to need partnership from everyone and a real courage to see the issues and deal with them.

  4. What about considering the desires and needs of the most important stakeholders, the non-English-speaking (or insert dominant language here) consumers of interpreting services. Don’t their voices matter???

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