Friday, August 21, 2020

Covid-19 and Distance Conference Interpreting


Woman wearing a headset with a microphone sits in front of two laptops.

After a string of theoretical posts, here’s one on a practical and very contemporary topic.

Distance interpreting aka remote interpreting means that the interpreter is not physically present in the place where the speaker(s) and listener(s) are located but is connected to them by audio or visual link from a separate site. The opposite is on-site interpretingIt’s by no means new. In my All of Interpreting, written 30 years ago (see Sources below), there was already a section about it. The American telephone interpreting enterprise LanguageLine had been launched in 1982 and been acquired by AT&T. It remains very successful both in the service it provides and commercially, as do the many similar enterprises that you can see advertised nowadays on the internet. They are widely used by hospitals, social services and the police. Whatever their shortcomings compared to on-site interpreting, they can offer immediate 24-hour availability and a wide variety of lesser-spoken languages; and above all they are economical.

Modern technology has extended these services to video interpreting and hence to sign languages.

However, a characteristic of all such services has been that they were intended for person-to-person communication or for small groups that could be connected in a conference call; what is often referred to as dialogue interpreting. Now the advent of computer platforms like Zoom and Skype makes it possible to interconnect much larger groups and to have remote conference interpreting. Zoom, for example, provides a simple interface and claims to allow access to online meetings with up to 500 attendees.

Then came the bombshell, Covid-19. It decimated the conference interpretation market by cancellation of many meetings. And it threw a spanner into the logistics because interpreters could no longer move around freely. It even reached to the holy of holy of conference interpretation, the United Nations headquarters in New York.

“When the coronavirus pandemic brought New York City to a halt, United Nations interpreters ran into big trouble: their booths and equipment were no longer accessible. However, they are rising to the challenge, exploring new ways to service multilateral meetings, including from their homes...

“’We unexpectedly found ourselves in our apartments wondering how to continue performing our duties and contribute to multilingualism,’ said Veronique Vandegans, Chief of the French Interpretation Section. ‘However, it quickly became apparent that we could adapt and interpret remotely, given the proper equipment, testing and training.’"

So much for the many objections. Suddenly it could be done, as surely as when Léon Dostert introduced simultaneous interpreting over the objections of the old guard of consecutive interpreters in the late 1940s.

No one doubts that there are problems. For instance,

“One major challenge is [for interpreters] to find a suitable place in their homes. Even under optimal conditions, a home location is not on par with a confined booth, where interpreters can reach the high level of concentration their job requires.”

Some improvements could be made. The quality of the equipment is crucial. Early experiments in the 1960s failed because communications were uneven or the sound and picture were too poor. One of my own early experiences with remote interpreting was for a televised Canadian election debate in 1984. On that nationally important occasion it was decided that the interpreters couldn’t be accommodated in the studio with the candidates, and so the TV engineers provided me with a video link to a room in another part of Ottawa. In so doing, they provided me with something I never had again: a giant TV screen that made me feel I was really present in the debate studio; and when they did close-ups of speakers I could see their expressions better than I would have on site. I would still recommend larger video screens. On the other hand, something they didn’t provide was a circuit for direct connection and feedback between the interpreter and the moderator of the debate. On site, if there is any hitch the interpreter can wave to the meeting participants or send a colleague to explain.

Also a long time ago there was a proposal, I think in Eastern Europe, for a centre where there would be a pool of remote conference interpreters on permanent duty instead of arrangements being set up anew for each event. I don't know what became of it.

But now the question is, what will happen when the crisis eventually subsides?  Return to the old way or consolidate the new? I think the latter, inevitably, because of the economies it represents. Only very rich users like the United Nations or the Canadian Parliament will be able to hold out against it. Of course something is lost in remote interpreting, but every new technology requires a trade-off between craftsmanship and price.

In addition, the success of both remote dialogue interpreting and remote conference interpreting make it imperative to add them to the training for student interpreters in the universities.


United Nations Department of Global Communications. Portraits: UN interpreters adapt to new work modes during Covid-19. August 2020. or click [HERE].

Brian Harris. All of interpreting: a taxonomic survey. or click [HERE]. A Spanish translation is available from the same site under the title Panorámica de los distintos tipos de interpretación.

LanguageLine Solutions. Wikipedia, 2020.

Canadian leaders debates. Wikipedia, 2020.


Lana Ayyad, Chief of Arabic Interpretation Section, works from her apartment in Brooklyn. UN Photo/Manuel Elías UN Photo/Manuel Elías.


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  3. So this is a pretty awesome update (not sure exactly when this update occurred) Also a long time ago there was a proposal, I think in Eastern Europe,

  4. Simply enter into your topic and look above the first video (to the right). However, a characteristic of all such services has been that they were intended for person-to-person

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