What is remote interpreting?

Life ‘post-lock down’ has given us a myriad of terms that were previously used only by health care professionals; coronavirus, pandemic, confinement, asymptomatic and many others.

The world of translation and interpreting has subsequently followed suit. New concepts being slowly incorporated into our vernacular include; simultaneous remote interpreting, distance interpreting, interpreting via virtual booths, Zoom and the names of other telecommunication, virtual meeting platforms. So, what is remote interpretation?

Whether done simultaneously or consecutively, remote interpreting is a type of language interpreting which facilitates communication between speakers of different languages who also happen to be in different locations.

Historically, these ways of interpreting have been restricted to international phone calls or video conferences and are used both in the private and business sphere, as well as by the general public. Telephone or video conference interpretation was, and continues to be, used mainly in the context of commercial negotiations between representatives of different companies in different countries. For example, they may be used during the negotiation period preceding a distribution agreement between a manufacturer and a potential distributor of that company’s products in a given target country. They are also used in the case of legal disputes, for example, when a dispute concerns the sale or lease of a second residence of a person with their main property abroad.

In any case, within the world of simultaneous or consecutive interpreting, remote interpreting has always been left to the wayside. This is due to the dominating belief that the physical presence of the interpreter(s) is necessary at congresses, seminars, conferences, fairs, festivals, press conferences and other events.

However, the global pandemic and our ‘new way of life’ (which, by all indications is here to stay), has made remote interpreting the new shining star of oral translation. The aforementioned congresses, seminars, conferences, fairs, festivals and press conferences, which previously had audiences present, have now been forced to look to alternative ways to communicate in order to move in tandem with this new era of social distancing. To achieve this, they have had to employ a wide variety of digital platforms. As with those same specialised medical terms we mentioned earlier, names such as Zoom, Houseparty and Facetime are now all household names.

In fact, these digital platforms have seen such success that many are wondering whether they will end up definitively replacing previous face-to-face formats.

We needn’t go any further than to use a recent experience we had with one of our clients as an example. Due to the lockdown, an international arbitration hearing had to be held remotely via a digital platform and with remote simultaneous interpreting. Both the lawyers and the president of the tribunal agreed that the results had been much better than expected. They concluded that interaction in this way offered unforeseen advantages when compared to face-to-face hearings. For example, they were able to view the evidence materials (documents, slides, graphics, etc.) much better.

So, we could naturally conclude that online platforms work well for meetings, hearings and seminars. But, what actually happens when you employ interpreters?

Previous telephone interpretations done without any other form of technological help, made simultaneous translation practically impossible. Consecutive interpretation was the only way forward. One of the interlocutors would speak for a short while, stop their train of thought, and then the interpreter would translate or make a brief summary in the listener’s language. Then, the speaker would give a short response and, again, the interpreter would intervene, and so on. Of course, it doesn’t take too much to realise that this meant doubling, or even tripling, the normal amount of time that any other type of telephone conversation would last. In the case of commercial negotiations, for example, losing the natural flow of a conversation could further prolong, or even, obstruct conclusions and agreements between companies.

New online digital communication platforms now allow for a much easier and smoother simultaneous interpreting process. For example, with regards to Zoom, its rooms option offers users designated rooms for each language. Listeners, therefore, are able to choose to receive the audio from the room which corresponds to their own language. In an English language meeting or seminar, the main room, where most of the audience is gathered, will naturally be in English. However, it is also possible to create Spanish and French rooms in which interpreters of these two languages can be employed to facilitate communication. This way, Spanish or French-speaking attendees, who prefer to listen to the audio in their native language, will be able to change rooms in order to hear it.

These new advances are well suited to business meetings or seminars with few participants; where the budget is limited and large costs cannot incur. The usual simultaneous interpretation done in a booth with consoles, audio receivers and all kinds of other devices used to obtain the best sound quality (analogical infra-red equipment, etc.) stands head and shoulders above the rest. There is no doubt that listeners prefer smooth interpretation with clear sound. As far as the interpreters are concerned, losing sound quality (as used to be the case) complicates their work. Unless they are physically in the same room (bear in mind that simultaneous interpretation is almost always carried out with two people), they won’t be able to hear each other. This can cause serious problems when relaying information or signalling to a colleague (writing notes, for example, about some figure or name that has been omitted or misinterpreted).

Nowadays, the most professional and reliable interpreting method for important events, such as congresses, is using virtual booths.

Offered by only a few translation agencies, virtual interpretation booths are advanced digital tools which bring together the physical interpretation booth and the interpreting consoles. This allows for interpreters to do their work in the same way they would if they were interpreting face-to-face. The more sophisticated virtual booths, such as the one we have here at englishpanish, also offer participants an app which, with a simple download and the plugging-in of headphones, allows them to listen to the interpreters, no matter where they are. Users are given total freedom to move around and no longer need to be glued to the screen.

The interpreting quality that comes from this type of interpreting is so good that it’s not uncommon to find clients who, in addition to praising the interpreter’s work, actually prefer remote interpretation. This is mainly due to the quality of audio and because of how much autonomy the app gives them. Of course, another factor is that this method comes at a much lower price than physical simultaneous interpreting, where all the necessary equipment must be assembled and rented at the event site.

So, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the field of simultaneous interpreting “post lockdown” will most likely continue to “socially distance” its interpreters. But, not to fret, despite this distance, with the help of the best remote interpretation technology available, their voices will never really be too far away.

About Francisco de Borja González Tenreiro

Born in Galicia, Spain. Degree in Law from the University of Santiago de Compostela, studies in Translation from Birmingham City College (Birmingham, UK) and in Philosophy from UNED. Expert in legal, financial and institutional translation and interpretation, with more than fifteen years of experience as a translator and interpreter in Spain, United Kingdom, United States, Portugal and Brazil. In his long career as a simultaneous interpreter he has been the Spanish, English, Portuguese and Galician voice for many well-known personalities coming from the world of culture, science and politics, such as the latest two U.N. Secretaries-General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon and Mr. António Guterres. He has also been the editor-in-chief for several bilingual publications, an award-winning column writer and is the general manager and head of legal-financial projects for englishpanish.

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