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Remote Interpreting: A personal position

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 2, 2020

If any topic is going to stir up interpreters, it is remote interpreting. While interpreters have been able to deliver their services remotely since the advent of telephone interpreting, new technologies and increasing internet speeds have made space for a new generation of remote interpreting technologies. This post addresses these and gives my own personal position as a researcher and consultant interpreter. Feel free to agree or disagree.

In many ways, this post is a follow-up to the brief note to conference organisers thinking of cancelling their events due to coronavirus (COVID-19). While that note was meant as a very brief suggestion for those who needed short-term, emergency help (which explains why two reputable remote interpreting companies where mentioned), this is the place for a fuller position.

The Starting Point

The starting point for this position is the position paper published by the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, which was based on the best and most comprehensive research available at the time. It gives recommendations based on a realistic view of the potential and pitfalls of remote interpreting. This is exactly what I will also do in this post for my personal position. If you would like the headlines, scroll down to the headers in italics in the section marked “my personal position” or click the link.

It is important to start from the position that, while there are lots of different remote interpreting technologies available, from hardwired remote simultaneous interpreting hubs to people working on their own at home, they have more in common than sets them apart. They all involve taking the interpreters away from the people for whom they are interpreting. No matter how good the technology, no matter which standards are upheld, this factor remains.

Another basic point that is also forgotten is that the world is seeing the growth in meeting formats that simply didn’t exist as few as ten years ago. Webinars, livestreaming, hybrid conferences, virtual conferences, remote participation, immersive events and the like will need a very different approach to interpreting than we have now. We simply can’t assume that the setups that were used for large diplomatic conferences in the 1950s will work for immersive VR events involving delegates located on four continents in the 2020s.

One last thing we also forget at our peril is that interpreters have to communicate differently to clients than they do to each other. While this blog is usually 100% client-facing, this is one of the few posts where I want to clarify a position to both audiences.

While it is perfectly correct to remind each other to uphold professional standards, our outward-facing communication has to concentrate on problem-solving. Sometimes suggesting a short-term solution to resolve an emergency is better than losing everything through inflexibility. How many people complain about bent bodywork on an ambulance when they’re being taken to hospital for urgent surgery? We have to uphold the highest standards to look after own own wellbeing and we have to find workable solutions to immediate problems. If those seem to conflict, we need to rethink our approach.

All that being said, it is important to understand remote more clearly, taking the kind of all-emcompassing approach I am taking here. Let’s do this fairly and start with the advantages of all remote, before looking at the disadvantages and synthesising them into my own personal position.

What Remote does well

The idea of interpreting being delivered in a different place to the actual speaker or even the event itself presents several distinct advantages. For a start, at a time when more meetings are becoming virtual and politics and health can restrict travel for events, remote interpreting of one form or another is an excellent solution, especially for the environmentally conscious.

At the risk of stating the obvious, remote interpreting means that interpreters can be hired from anywhere and work at any meeting. Not only does this allow them to overcome any short-term restrictions on their movement but it allows interpreting to be provided where professional interpreters would otherwise be in short supply.

Already, remote interpreting is allowing better access to healthcare and legal interpreting in remote communities. It is making interpreting available to front line emergency workers before an interpreter can get there in person, saving precious time, and is reducing the time taken to source and supply legal interpreting in many countries.

Add to this the possibility of webinars being made available in several languages at once, technology enabling speakers from the Global South to participate remotely in conferences they otherwise would be unable to attend and businesses being able to save cost and carbon by having initial meetings with potential global clients online and you have some incredible potential.

One last advantage, which is rarely discussed is that remote interpreting could improve work-life balance for interpreters and allow them to work more often when they have children. As much as we love travelling, enabling interpreters to work from home sometimes could be a key shift in improving interpreter wellbeing and income.

All of the advantages of remote interpreting are therefore clustered round two ideas: its ability to break down geographical barriers and its inherent flexibility. These are areas that interpreting has needed to address for a while and we can no longer ignore their importance. That being said, remote does have significant drawbacks, which are all too often ignored by companies selling it.

What is wrong with Remote?

Ironically, the disadvantages of remote stem from the very same roots as its advantages. Let’s start with the breaking of geographical barriers.

Yes, it is a good thing to allow interpreting to be supplied everywhere but research since the 1990s has shown us the importance of the physical presence of the interpreter. In a nutshell, separating the interpreter from the speakers prevents them from doing some of the very things that most separate them out from machines.

A simple example is that fact that researchers such as Cynthia Roy, Cecilia Wadensjö, Graham Turner, Ebru Diriker, Seyda Eraslan, Philipp Angermeyer and Jemina Napier have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that excellent interpreting involves the interpreter working with the other participants to make meaning. This includes adding explanations, omitting irrelevant information, asking for clarification, adjusting metaphors and pronoun use, talking to speakers and audience members between sessions, understanding the needs of each individual meeting, reformulating content and even, in some cases, acting as gatekeepers so they can actually interpret what is being said.

The fact that these behaviours have been found in situations ranging from a professor-student meeting to a debate at the European Parliament, as well as legal interpreting, is enough to tell us that all interpreting involves active participation by the interpreter and all interpreting requires incredible situational awareness.

We should therefore be very concerned that the research collated in the AVIDICUS project, which likewise covers just about every interpreting setting you can name, shows that remote interpreters universally feel more distant from the events for which they work. There are also several reports of interpreters feeling that they could not use the whole suite of skills they would be able to use in person, leading to feelings that don’t perform as well while working remotely. Studies in interpreter concentration likewise show that quality tails off more quickly when working remotely.

This sense of distance also seems to have had mental health implications and implications in terms of how clients work with interpreters. While the data on the issue is still scant, there are reports of interpreters saying that they receive less information when they work remotely and the growth of unsuitable solutions that allow interpreters to be routinely hired with no notice, such as the one offered recently by Zoom, will only make things worse. This is before we even think about pay and how this is calculated.

This leads neatly into the problems with flexibility. The lack of standardisation of remote and the way it has sometimes been sold means that there is a real risk that interpreters could end up working in ways that are not conducive to their long-term well-being. Poor ergonomics, lack of acoustic shock protection, poorly-suited screens, unsociable hours and working without human company for long periods are all real dangers in remote.

In short, the very flexibility that makes remote a good solution also creates problems. A simple example is a project I was offered, where an agency decided to hire interpreters in the UK to interpret remotely at a conference in Kenya. The time difference and conference schedule meant that every single day included unsociable hours. In addition, the pay was lower than usual and the client did not commit to sending documentation in advance. Needless to say, I turned it down but it represents the dangers that can arise precisely due to flexibility.

Oddly, that project is the reverse of the effect we might expect remote to have. It is entirely possible that remote could be used by unscrupulous actors to create a kind of price dumping, where interpreting is offshored to cheaper labour markets for events in countries where interpreting is more expensive. I have seen no immediate sign of this but it is a possibility.

What trends can we expect?

Before, we get into my personal recommendations, we need to ground them in reality. It might seem noble to scream at a falling coin at the top of your lungs but if you’re on earth, it’s still going to hit he ground anyway. Likewise, we have to understand what trends are likely and which are likely unstoppable before we come up with any kind of position. Better to make achievable improvements than to waste time on stuff that will never get done.

Here are the trends I am seeing:

  • Remote is here and it will continue to grow over time.
  • There will be very good remote providers, where experienced interpreters are in key positions or at least are listened to, and there will be poor ones, who care more about their marketing than they do about the interpreters who make their profits possible.
  • The client-facing marketing of remote will continue to say nothing much about its dangers. Smart providers will work on mitigating the issues anyway. In addition, some remote platform providers will simply provide a platform while others will take control of the interpreter hiring process.
  • Positions on remote will range from “remote is taking over everything, mwhahahahaha” to “remote is evil.” The truth will continue to be somewhere in the middle and interpreters themselves will probably be arranged in a rough bell curve across the two extremes. As usual, those with extreme views will make more noise than moderates.
  • Remote interpreting will make a huge difference to remote communities and to implementations where in-person interpreting just isn’t reasonable or feasible. Unscrupulous buyers and suppliers will also try to use it for unreasonable cost-savings. There will probably be more talk about places where it is being used stupidly than places where it is saving lives.
  • Remote will lead to the questioning, if not quasi-collapse, of taken-for-granted interpreting categories and assumptions, with interpreters increasingly becoming domain specialists (e.g. manufacturing, law, science, medicine), instead of setting specialists (e.g. conference, court, business). Geographical location will mean less and less and hence the idea of the “Paris market” or the “Brussels market” and even perhaps the idea of a professional domicile will also become lesss meaningful as interpreters work with the same clients across a number of settings, modes and virtual and physical locations. Many interpreters will therefore use remote on top of in-person work, or even vice-versa.

My personal position

This all leads to my own personal position, which is far more complex than it has ever been before. I’d like to apologise to any of my colleagues who were confused by what might have seemed like vacillation, as I was working out these ideas. Let’s go through the headlines.

Remote is not the same as in-person interpreting

Again this is very basic but underlines the rest of everything I will say. I believe that, for as long as we try to see remote as either a version of in-person interpreting or as performing exactly the same role, we will be headed for trouble. We have to understand that remote interpreting is neither the spawn of the devil for attempting to send us all to our rooms forever nor is it an angel from on high for freeing us from the shackles of booths. It is something different and needs to be seen from that vantage point.

Remote therefore should never be marketed as a like-for-like replacement of in-person work

Again, this borders on the obvious but it needs said. We know too much about the importance of real presence for the work of interpreters and their mental health for any reasonable human being to say that remote is just a high-tech way of doing in-person interpreting.

Instead of joining the bandwagon of assuming that remote will complete with in-person all the time, we should recognise it for its real benefits, especially in extreme situations, such as health crises, war, and a lack of local professionals. It must also be seen as the delivery method of choice for any situation where the participants are all in different locations. When there is no “there” for the interpreters to travel to, remote is the most obvious choice. If the delegates are all in the same room and travel is safe, the interpreters should be in the same room too.

The only exception to this is where time is of the essence. We should not see the use of remote by emergency workers as a threat to in-person but as a support that acts as a kind of paramedic until a human can be there in person, as long as all of the interpreting is provided by qualified professionals.

The top issue with remote is no longer tech but well-being

Since they provide the systems, pressure should be put on all remote interpreting providers to prove that they are taking interpreter well-being seriously. This ranges from installing acoustic shock prevention systems as soon as possible to demonstrating that they have provision for mental health support. They know the risks by now, they should be doing something about them.

This also means that, rather than taking sides in the hubs vs home-working debate, associations need to be working with providers to ensure that both solutions are physically and mentally ergonomic for interpreters. It is entirely possible for a home-working interpreter to have a more ergonomic setup than any ISO standard provides for. It is also possible for people to be treated like junk in a hub. Of course, there are also going to be amazing hubs and people working from home in awful circumstances. Both have their place and their problems.

In short, rather than trying to force remote interpreting into the mold and standards of in-person interpreting, we need work to develop new standards, which cover issues that have not yet been mentioned in existing standards in addition to what we already have. These need to take into account the latest research available, the unique challenge of different delivery methods and use cases and the inherent flexibility of remote, which is its key selling point.

In short, insisting all remote interpreting takes place in hubs is counter-productive and most likely, not feasible. Insisting that remote interpreting must be delivered according to the highest professional standards, based on what we have learned about in-person interpreting standards and the best research on remote available is inherently sensible. If anything, standards for remote interpreting need to be more stringent than in-person ones. New tech needs new thinking.

These remote standards will need to cover everything from encryption to shift length (shorter than current standards for in-person simultaneous), interpreter-to-interpreter communication, equipment and broadcast standards, mental health support and much much more. Taking the most relevant parts of current ISO standards will be a good start but we will need to go much, much further than we have ever done before and we will need to get all stakeholders involved.

Prepare for good and bad disruption

Irresponsible actors will be irresponsible and interpreters should be empowered to avoid them, whichever contracts they win. Good actors will be good and they need praise and public mentions.

Yes, some jobs that shouldn’t go remote will go remote. If the outcomes are as bad as we think, they’ll come back. Yes, some people will try to slash rates. If that leads to bad interpreters being hired, the rates will bounce back.

On the other hand, the flow of interpreting work could end up being more constant, interpreters will be able to come back more quickly from parental leave, new markets will open up and we might even more clients using interpreting. Bigger, even more complex, markets leave more space for everyone and the interruption of remote is likely to create more in-person work as people are sensitised to interpreting and what it can do.

Quit talking about in-person vs remote

This speaks for itself. No, not every interpreter will adopt remote and they won’t have to. No, not all remote providers will adopt the best standards but the good interpreters will avoid them. But we can only find a way through this mess if we commit to working together, even to the point of recommending solutions we don’t personally use, for occasions where they are relevant. I love working in the booth and still see it as the gold standard for in-person conferences. I also don’t currently offer remote as I have four young kids but I am still happy to suggest that adopting some form of remote during a crisis is better than interpreters getting no work at all.

The choice: order the waves to halt or build a power station

There’s an old British story of a king called Cnut, who sat on a chair on a beach and ordered the waves to stop. Depending on who you ask, he was either a raving lunatic who thought that it would work or he was showing his courtiers that even the king was subject to the natural world.

With remote, we can either do a Cnut and scream at it to stop or to look like the interpreting we deliver right now or we can build a power station to harness it for the good of all. The position we take is entirely our choice. Personally, I hope that we will work together to build tough but fair standards, welcome the flexibility, look after interpreters and deliver incredible, flexible, sustainable interpreting for clients. Remote isn’t something I routinely offer right now and my concerns about it haven’t changed much since I have started looking at it closely. But I would be a fool to ignore people like Sarah Hickey, who remind us that it is here and it works.

The challenge now is to ensure it works for everyone.

A tiny coda

Needless to say, all this will only work if we all work together, respect each others’ positions (even where we disagree) and commit to acting professionally at all times. This means being brave enough to talk directly with those with whom we disagree, trying to see things from others’ points of view and assuming the best of others until we have real reason to do anything else. This counts across clients and interpreters alike. If remote is the right solution for a client, let them adopt it. If they are thinking of going remote but in-person will give better results, explain why.

Is remote right for you as a client? Maybe.

Is it right for everything? No.

But it is right to make sure it works right in those places where it is appropriate.

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