Who’s in Control? A Look at Remote Interpreting

– Giovanna Lester © 2012

Remote Interpreting (RI) is defined as any form of interpreting in which the interpreter works away from the meeting room either by telephone or by utilizing video-conferencing tools such as cable arrangements, closed-circuit TV and other similar technologies.

Despite what many believe, RI is not new. Agencies and organizations that are part of RI’s history include:

  •  UNESCO “Symphonie Satellite” – 1976
  •  NYC-Buenos Aires United Nations experiment – 1978
  •  European Telecommunications Standards Institute study on ISDN video telephony for conference interpreters – 1993
  •  Various tests by the European Commission – 1995, 1997, 2000
  •  United Nations tests – 1999, 2001
  •  European Parliament – 2001
Nurse using video remote interpreting services

Nurse engages a video interpreter to help her communicate with one of her patients.

However, two important factors have contributed to RI’s increasing prevalence in recent years. The first and probably most important factor, from the point of view of language service providers and conference organizers, has been the advances in technological developments. These advances allow for the delivery of better sound and image quality for conference attendees and interpreters. The second factor is the development of technology industry standards that have made using these technologies easier and more affordable.

Some noted improvements relate to design elements such as improved ergonomics, less complex set-ups and a reduced number of input sources. The above developments, however, have had no direct impact on the professional interpreter, and the human element has become the most important variable in the process.

The human body has its own limitations and these have been noted in studies as recently as 2006 and as far back as 1998. For example, the lack of visual input results in greater stress and affects the interpreter’s ability to commit information to memory. Improper set-up can result in physical tiredness (eye fatigue, fatigue related to mental multi-tasking, etc.). Other complaints noted were related to the social isolation and the technical aspects of controlling multiple input devices.

A controlled study (Moser-Mercer, 2002) has shown that working live in a conference setting is less stressful and less tiring than working in RI environments. Another study, by Erickson and Kintsch (1995), shows that the RI-created environment affects interpreters’ efficiency, comprehension and production processes in their short- and long-term working memory, which is reflected in the quality of their performance.

My personal experience in the area of RI is not extensive, but it is varied in regard to both set-up and pay. It seems that the market has not found its point of equilibrium yet.

One of my first experiences was with the more complex set-up. It involved (1) using a landline and (2) a cell phone while (3) negotiating Yahoo instant communication service in order to (4) coordinate the hand-off to my colleague, while at the same time (5) following the PowerPoint slides on my computer, (6) using a headphone for the audio line and (7) holding the landline phone upside down so its microphone was closer to my mouth and the rest of the phone did not bump into my headset! Fortunately, the client had provided the PowerPoint slides ahead of time, which assisted my colleague and me in becoming familiar with the terminology and determining the rhythm and delivery needed to fit text and sound together.

In another instance, the client had me listen to the live presentation once, then listen to the recording of that live presentation, then interpret while listening again—all with no visual clues, no handouts, and no PowerPoint slides. I still needed two separate lines: one for hearing and one for speaking.

At my most recent endeavor in the RI field, the client got it almost completely right. I was invited into a studio and provided with the material ahead of time so we could agree on the rendition of certain terms and coordinate the speaking/slide synchronization. And there was a rehearsal the day before the event. On the day of the event, we had people joining us from eight different countries. Since we had been given their presentations ahead of time, there were very few surprises and all of them were negotiable. My colleague and I were given professional respect (they took our input into consideration and made changes to set-up and script), and were respected as human beings as well: we were given comfortable chairs, snacks, lunch, and technical support. Another indication of professional respect was the level of pay. The only reason it was almost perfect is because the monitor was below eye level and the microphone was not at the right height, which caused me to hunch forward, and resulted in upper back discomfort. The assignment was only one hour long and I could not have endured it for much longer. Again, ergonomics is very important.

What I learned from the above experiences: Remote Interpreting is the new darling in the field because companies are faced with new financial demands, and they are considering a wide variety of technologies that can potentially assist them in navigating those demands. However, they still need to learn what can and what cannot be expected in terms of interpreter performance. This is actually a great opportunity for professional interpreters—the human element—to have a stronger say in the development of this segment and to set limits.

Scientific studies show that the stress on interpreters during RI goes beyond the psychological. It is physical and has been recorded: eye strain, muscle fatigue, confusion and headaches, among others. Citing the Moser-Mercer study of 2002: “The remote interpreting situation appears to represent not only a novel environment for interpreters in which they need to invoke more effortful problem-solving strategies, but seems to cause more than the usual physiological and psychological strain in that the coordination of image and sound, the piecing together of a reality far away and the concomitant feeling of lack of control all draw on mental resources already over-committed in this highly complex skill.” Erickson and Kintsch (1995) suggest that shorter on-task times may improve interpreter performance.

During my experience as Moderator of the Technology Panel at InterpretAmerica’s Second North American Summit on Interpreting, I had the opportunity to discuss technology, training, expectations, design, and other related topics with several of the manufacturers present. It was surprising to learn that they do, in fact, want our input — that of the actual end-user, the Interpreter, and not just that of the buyer — with regard to their equipment design. They were surprised as well to learn that not much training was provided to either the interpreters or the technicians setting up our booths, and that the buyers of their equipment expected the technicians to read the manuals and convey that information to the interpreters. Some of these findings are recorded in the report by Marjory Bancroft, aptly titled, “Interpreting: Full Speed Ahead, Blazing a Trail Toward National Unity,” (starting on page 36), available for download.

Bancroft’s report, in addition to being more recent, took into account the recommendations of panels composed of stakeholders with different backgrounds and roles in the interpreting field. Hence, it may be the most relevant with regard to interpreter input on technology development.

Technology and the human element have to come together. And since technology is manipulated by and created to serve the human element, it is us interpreters who have to determine how to apply the technology, how to accommodate our physical and psychological needs, and how to educate our clients as to our own, human limitations in order to curb their expectations. We also need to work with technology providers to assist in the task-oriented and ergonomic aspects of the devices we use. Until interpreters take these responsibilities to heart and start educating our clients and advocating for improvements in working conditions, we can’t expect change.


AIIChttp://www.aiic.net/ViewPage.cfm/article879.htm#job – Remote interpreting: Assessment of human factors and performance parameters
AIIChttp://aiic.net/ViewTheme.cfm?Theme_ID=353 – Collection of articles and white papers on remote interpreting

AIIChttp://aiic.net/ViewPage.cfm/article85.htm – Guidelines for Remote Interpreting

Cadernos CMLhttp://multimedialinguas.wordpress.com/edicoes/ano-i-2010/0001-janeiro/panayotis-mouzourakis-%C2%ABremote-interpreter-training-training-for-remote-interpreting%C2%BB/

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