New Interpreting Delivery Platforms: An opportunity or a threat?

 | Interpreter insights

New Interpreting Delivery Platforms have provoked diverging views from technology developers and conference interpreters. However, both need to work in partnership for such initiatives to succeed. Having tested the most promising new tools, Calliope-Interpreters presents the results of its investigations.

headphones on keyboard

More ambitious technical solutions for distance interpretation have led to a new generation of Interpreting Delivery Platforms (IDPs). In October 2016, InterpretAmerica published a guest blog entitled Interpreting Delivery Platforms: Should You Get on the Bandwagon? The author acknowledges that technology is not enough for IDPs to be a success, and states that the greatest barrier is recruiting sufficient highly skilled conference interpreters who are willing to use them. The reason, she suggests, is that they are reluctant to embrace new technologies. However, this neglects to consider the issue from the point of view of interpreters, who have to be certain that the technology will consistently work to the correct standard so that they can provide a high-quality service to their clients. Having tested several Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) systems, Calliope has identified only two tools that are close to being market ready. Even when the new technologies have been refined, Calliope believes that both clients and conference interpreters will need further reassurance in the form of recommendations on interpreting equipment, hiring and charging practices, and the settings in which it will be appropriate to use RSI.

The technical barriers

This view is reflected in a clear and informative article by Cyril Flerov for the American Translators Association (ATA), entitled Remote Simultaneous Interpreting: Options and Standards. Flerov makes two key points. 

First, not all RSI situations are equal. RSI via an internal cable is already used effectively by international organizations, but the sound quality may suffer when an external cable is used. RSI from home is problematic for a variety of technical and logistical reasons.

Second, he focuses on the crucial aspect of sound quality, making the point that source-language quality must be evaluated against the relevant ISO standards, rather than subjectively by the interpreter. At home RSI systems tend to use Voice over IP (VoIP), which is not compliant with the relevant sound quality standards, a problem which is exacerbated if landline or cell phones are used.  Flerov makes the point that conference interpreters require better sound quality than delegates because of the cognitive task in which they are engaged. He also reminds us that booths are there for a reason. Inside a booth, reverberation is reduced to the ISO standard of 0.3 to 0.5 seconds, whereas outside a booth reverberation is much higher, which also reduces the intelligibility of speech.

Flerov concludes that RSI from home is still a very experimental technology, since ISO compliance has not yet been achieved. He warns against the impact on the interpreting profession of using the new technology in its current state.

Prerequisites for the deployment of RSI technology

Flerov’s analysis of the maturity of the RSI technology available is in tune with Calliope’s own findings. Having tested several different interpretation software packages, Calliope believes that there are four important prerequisites for their responsible deployment:

  1. The technology must be ISO compliant, not only to ensure that the sound quality is consistently and reliably high quality, but also to safeguard interpreters’ health and safety.
  2. Guidelines for the equipment used by interpreters at home need to be defined, based on the existing standards for headset quality, noise cancellation, broadband quality and processing power.  Support from a qualified technician is also a must. To guarantee an uninterrupted interpretation, a cabled rather than a wireless Internet connection is essential.
  3. Recruitment and charging practices need to be considered, with input from AIIC, to safeguard interpretation quality.  Resulting recommendations might cover, for example, duration of interpreting time, increased fatigue levels and the use of relay.
  4. Guidelines for clients on the types of events for which RSI is suitable would need to be drafted. In general, unidirectional events such as webcasts, with little or no audience participation, are more likely to be successful.

Advantages and risks

The advantages of RSI for both clients and interpreters are clear:

  • Interpreting budgets stretch further
  • Multilingual communication is offered at a wider range of events
  • Sound quality is superior to Skype or phone lines

However, there would also be risks, foremost among them:

  • Technical failure
  • Quality of communication impaired
  • RSI deployed in unsuitable settings

It is in the interests of interpreters and developers alike to ensure that RSI is used responsibly in order to enhance the reputation of the new technology.

Partnership is key

In conclusion, conference interpreters and software developers need to work in partnership if RSI is to become a reality. Once the technology is of the requisite standard, interpreters’ expertise needs to be harnessed to ensure that the software is not used inappropriately, and that hiring and charging practices are fair, in order to prevent a lowering of standards in the profession as a whole. Clearly there is a significant role for the consultant interpreter in providing advice to clients about the appropriate interpreting model to use. Calliope-Interpreters intends to continue exploring the technology and to be in the vanguard of technological developments, but not at the expense of interpreting quality.

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