Conference and remote interpreting: a new turning point?

The rapid development of ICTs has led to profound changes in the working environment of many professions. Companies now offer employees the possibility of working at home, and video and web conferencing are increasingly common. Today interpreters need to weigh the pros and cons of remote interpreting – and need more information to do so.

Remote interpreting is attractive to customers on both the private and institutional markets. It’s seen as a way to cut costs or avoid travel-related difficulties, and regarded as a viable alternative when space limitations make it difficult to accommodate interpretation equipment in the conference room or when organisers want to restrict access to the premises for security reasons. Some advocates say that remote interpreting minimises travel and thus the carbon footprint of an event.

Over the past 10 years, videoconferencing has been increasingly used in criminal proceedings within the EU. Remote interpreting is also currently used in police and court interpreting, mainly in Anglo-Saxon countries. The EU has designated videoconferencing a priority in its European e-Justice Strategy. A EU funded project is now studying the use of videoconference interpreting in the criminal justice area with the aim of making it possible for courts to resort to qualified interpreters of minority languages not available in the country of the proceedings. Avoiding travel would help to speed up the process, or at least that is one of the stated objectives.

The 2009 AIIC Statistical Report corroborates that the use of remote is growing: “Between 2005 and 2009, both types of settings grew significantly: Remote Speakers from 2.2% of all work days in 2005 to 3.1% in 2009, Remote Audience from 1.7% to 2.1% of all days.”

Is a fundamental change upon us?

This brief overview shows that remote interpreting, though still in its infancy, is growing quite quickly. What does this mean for our profession? Are we again at a turning point, like in the 1950s when simultaneous interpreting slowly but surely took over from consecutive as the preferred mode?

It’s still too early to say. Yes, the technology has improved: audio and video feeds are less prone to disruption and lag than in the past. And some colleagues even say that when all technical conditions are met (i.e. ISO standards for SI equipment), they prefer to be in a remote location where they are not subjected to the distractions of a busy conference room - attendees constantly going in and out, people using cell phones just behind the booths, crowds of journalists and cameramen blocking their view, etc.

But technology is not the be all and end all. Human factors also contribute to the success of a meeting, such as fluid interaction between interpreters and attendees, or between interpreters and technicians whether at a remote location or in a conference room.

In a traditional setting interpreters can intervene at a moment’s notice. Just last week, for example, we were suddenly hit by a terrible hum. One of the team members, not on mic just then, jumped out of the booth and rushed to alert the technician, who was busy with a text message and had not yet noticed. The problem was swiftly solved – and we, the interpreters, felt we were more or less in command of the situation. In addition, interpreters working in the conference hall have easier access to the organisers (at least this is the impression we have).

In a nutshell, when opting for remote, all parties (organisers, speakers, technicians and interpreters) need to cooperate even more closely. And the planning phase is extremely important. A consultant interpreter can certainly provide all parties with the input needed to avoid potential problems.

The Stress Factor

It may be more difficult to come to grips with a different set of issues that arise with remote interpreting: new stressors whose effects, especially long-term ones, are still not clearly understood.

When interpreters have a direct view, they select what they look at. They can scan the room and choose any visual input they deem useful to grasping and conveying the speaker’s point (e.g. body language, gestures, screen, etc.). Visual elements complement the message that the interpreters must process and pass on, and are an indispensable part of communication. At a remote location, part of this message is lost because somebody else – a cameraman – chooses what the interpreters see on the screen.

Another potential difficulty is that conference interpreters rely on feedback from listeners. This feedback doesn’t need to be direct - the mere act of observing how speaker and audience interact informs and motivates the interpreter. This is at least partially lost in remote as the camera cannot capture everything going on in the room, not even with split screen technology showing various speakers at the same time.

Studies [1] suggest that these two aspects may be the most difficult ones to cope with. The upshot is that interpreters feel the strain of an already demanding task even more acutely. Some complain of headaches, sore eyes and dizziness; they feel alienated and unable to concentrate as well as they usually do. Many fear that such conditions will make the profession even more anonymous.

Is this déjà-vu? Some 50 years ago, when simultaneous interpreting was gaining ascendancy, interpreters feared that they would be perceived as mere machines or robots. Hans Jacob (Honorary President of AIIC) wrote [2]: “Durch die immer weitere Einführung des Simultandolmetschens ist der Beruf des Konferenzdolmetschers entpersönlicht und mechanisiert worden.” [3]

At that time, many interpreters still preferred to work in consecutive; they felt part of the event and could intervene directly whenever necessary. Nevertheless, over the years interpreters got used to simultaneous and today some even choose to refuse work in consecutive mode.

Is it just a matter of time until we get used to working under remote conditions? We are not sure. Certainly not everyone will find themselves working under such conditions. Those that are offered such assignments, however, should reflect upon the various factors involved before accepting.

Being there

It has been shown that a wide visual field enhances a sense of presence. In human communication people actively select the visual input they deem necessary to understanding a message. Remote situations cannot provide interpreters with the view they would have in the room; they cannot choose what they see - the cameraman chooses for them. But it is also true that every interpreter defines his visual needs differently: some will require more visual input; others may prefer to rely mainly on what they hear.

Although most studies have concluded that quality does not suffer in remote interpretation (according to customer feedback), a drop in concentration and a rise in error rates during the last ten minutes of the usual 30-minute shift have been noted. In a European Parliament study, interpreters did not evidence a higher degree of stress as measured by blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels. Nevertheless, under remote conditions they do report feeling more fatigued. The highest cost seems to be the psychological strain caused by an unfamiliar work environment and the sensation of being “far away” and not in control of the situation.

During its 2009 Assembly, AIIC recognised the possibility of resorting to the use of screens whenever a direct view of the speaker is not possible. But to safeguard quality and the long-term health of interpreters, AIIC should encourage more research on how fragmented and selective vision influences human communication, and what needs to be done to overcome the feeling of not “being there”.


[1] See Moser-Mercer, Remote interpreting: assessment of human factor and performance parameters, and Mouzourakis, That feeling of being there: Vision and presence in Remote Interpreting, both in Communicate, Summer 2003.

[2] Hans Jacob, Kind meiner Zeit, Kiepenheur & Witsch, Cologne, 1962.

[3] “Through the growing use of simultaneous interpretation, the conference interpreting profession is being mechanized and depersonalized.”






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Jon Potter

It remains important that as technologies become more "appropriate", that organisations that competitively tender are not allowed to lessen their consideration of the true requirements of the interpreting skill, in preference for offering a winning price-point or sheer profitability.

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