Thursday, October 27, 2011

My First Time as Telephone Interpreter

I’ve long been qualified as an Expert Conference Interpreter; and after a year of medical and social services interpreting for a man suffering from dementia and for his wife, I might perhaps qualify as an Expert Community Interpreter. The latter has been volunteer, non-professional work; there are other British residents in Spain who do it out of sympathy for their aged or obtuse compatriots who don't learn the language of the country. I’ve also done a little remote interpreting for TV. But until last week, I’d never done telephone interpreting (TI), although it’s now probably the most rapidly expanding mode of professional interpreting. Just look at the ads for it on the internet.

TI was pioneered by the Department of Immigration in Australia 40 years ago – yes, around 1972 – fostered by the explosion of immigrant languages and by the need to cover long distances on that continent. It reached North America, and at the same time a commercial market, a decade later in the form of AT&T’s Language Line, which is still going strong, and from there to Europe and beyond. Its pros and cons are well known in professional circles.

- Logistics. It’s no longer necessary to transport the interpreters to where the speakers are. Indeed, with three-way phones it’s not even necessary for the participants in the conversation to be in the same place as one another. If the purpose is in any case to translate a telephone conversation, then the interpreter just plugs in.
- Economy. There are consequently substantial savings in both cost and time.
- Pay as you go. The logistics make it unnecessary to book an interpreter for an hourly or daily period.
- Equipment. It needs minimal equipment, and of a kind that all the telephone companies can supply. It should, however, be of good quality.
- Logistics again. It makes it possible to provide interpreting in remote places or in unusual languages for which it couldn’t be supplied otherwise.
- Almost instant availability around the clock if it’s well organized, and therefore very useful for hospitals, the police, airports, etc., instead of calling out an interpreter in the middle of the night.
- For the interpreters, they can accept work from almost anywhere in the world.

- It’s subject to the quality and vagaries of the telephone equipment and network, especially when using mobile phones.
- The interpreter can’t see the body language of the other participants.
- The interpreter can’t use body language either, for instance to halt the flow of speech by raising a hand.
- The interpreter can’t see any visual displays accompanying what is being said.
- Likewise the interpreter can’t see any documents that are being referred to, nor do any sight translation from them.

Most of the CONS will be overcome or mitigated in time as Skype type visual hookups improve in quality and reliability.

Anyway, don’t take it all from me. See for example the practical advice in the InSync document listed below.

My own initiation came last week when the Cullera dementia tragedy come to crisis point again and I couldn’t get down there physically from 30 km away in Valencia. For the background to this story, enter cullera in the Search box on the right. This time the interpreting wasn’t medical, but for a home visit by a social services caseworker in Cullera to the wife of the sick man. At the suggestion of the caseworker, we decided to try a mobile phone setup. Very primitive: no three-way telephony, just a single mobile phone passed from one participant to another and me on the house phone at home. Somewhat to my surprise, it worked.

The CON that caused me real trouble was the last in the list above: inability to share documents. There were some very important ones in Spanish that the caseworker had to get the wife, who speaks not a word of Spanish, to sign. He was anxious that she understand what she was signing for, and so was I. (In the event, on one crucial point she didn’t agree.) To interpret them verbatim in consecutive would have taken too long, and even then we doubted she would understand the administrative jargon. So we improvised the following procedure:
1. The caseworker gave a brief explanation in Spanish of what each document was about, and this I translated to the wife.
2. To make sure, I had the wife tell me what she had understood.
3. I translated the wife’s version to the caseworker for verification – a form of back translation – and when necessary we went through a similar correction cycle.
I repeat, it worked. At minimal cost and to the satisfaction of all concerned. What’s more, we’ve done it again since then.

However, I did have one important advantage that needs emphasising: I was already very familiar with the case. What lay people don’t realize is that, as one veteran interpreter put it, “Half the success in interpretation comes from knowing their languages, but the other half comes from knowing what they’re talking about.”

Remote or distance interpreting means the interpreter is situated at a distance, sometimes a great distance, from the speakers and they communicate with one another electronically in real time. Telephone interpreting is one form of it, and training is now offered.

Back translation: translating a translation back into the original language.

Utilizing Telephone Interpreters. Sandy, UT: InSync Interpreters.

New! Videoconference and Remote Interpreting in Criminal Proceedings. An AVIDICUS e-book. Edited by Sabine Braun and Judith L. Taylor. Guildford: University of Surrey, 2011. 270 pp.

Image: “Dr. Danielle Ofri relies on telephone interpreters daily.” –


  1. Thank you for this account of your experience with TI! As a sign language interpreter, I am gaining experience as a VI (video interpreter), and I have noticed that when the interpreter's presence in the room is merely through a laptop computer, his or her voice cannot command the attention of the people in the room when the Deaf person wants to make a comment; the interpreter's voice is thin, "tinny", and doesn't vibrate the air in a way that the hearing people even notice.
    I first noticed this when I was the on-site interpreter, and a VI was on call to relieve me throughout the day when I needed breaks. Fortunately, I was able to let the Deaf person know about the situation, and we agreed that even on my break, I'd still be available to do ASL to English in order for the interpretation to command appropriate attention.

    Technology is transforming all of our work, it seems!

    Aaron Brace, CSC, CI & CT

  2. Thank you for this contribution. I’m always glad to hear about SL interpreting, because I no longer have any contact with it myself.

    It seems the new technologies require new minimum standards, both for the technologies themselves and for their use and working conditions. In my case the telephone interpreting was improvised; and although it succeeded, I wouldn’t recommend that it be done that way.

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