Speaking up for speaking out

13/12/2021

Remote interpreting increasingly became part of every interpreter's toolbox with the first lockdown. The learning curve was steep for many of us but we managed to a large extent. Ever since, remote interpreting has become an integral part of many an interpreter's life.

It is a blessing that many of us can continue to work without having to brave the volatile travel situation or the ever-changing country entry requirements. There are, however, some challenges that still persist to this day. I would like to highlight some of these challenges, mainly from my perspective as a conference interpreter, and, where possible, suggest some possible solutions that could improve the situation.

· Lack of best practices for participants in virtual meetings

When the pandemic struck, virtual meetings were new to many people. Just as when mobile phones were first introduced in our lives, there were no clear etiquette rules for online meetings. At the beginning of the pandemic, the internet was rife with stories of 'gaffes' committed during virtual meetings, such as participants taking their devices with them to the toilet with the camera on or applying a filter that changed their appearance. Remember the lawyer stuck with a kitten filter that he couldn't turn off?

As people became more adept at meeting virtually, one would expect them to become used to following best practices to ensure successful meetings. Unfortunately, this is still often not the case and there are quite a few consequences for interpreters. One of the main problems is that many presenters continue to log into meetings regardless of their location. For example, some interpreters reported that presenters logged in from cars (both stationary and moving) and trains, while some colleagues have been astounded to see presenters join in from subways and even while biking! This also means that they are logging in from devices like phones, rather than from a computer. What does this mean for an interpreter? An unstable audio and/or video quality. Some speakers have to turn off their cameras to save on bandwidth and give a better audio quality but then the interpreter loses the visual cues which are also quite important.

· Bad sound

IN ADDITION, JUST BEING AT A COMPUTER ISN'T NECESSARILY ENOUGH. In order to have acceptable sound quality in a virtual meeting, interpreters, speakers and other participants need a newer computer; reliable high-speed internet connectivity and an adequate headset. THEY NEED ALL THREE OF THESE, BUT IN REALITY, ONE OR MORE IS OFTEN MISSING. Many speakers, more than a year into working from a home office, are still using their computer speakers! As a result, the interpreters are frequently unable to hear the speakers clearly and as interpreters are not fiction writers and can only interpret what they hear, THEY have to use a disclaimer and suspend the interpreting till the audio quality improves. Participants relying on the interpreting to follow the meeting have to miss parts of the exchanges as a result.

Other related problems are the fatigue, stress and even acoustic shock THAT THIS CAN INFLICT ON interpreters. Interpreters may end up acting as filters of bad sound because they often have higher-quality equipment and a better setup than the speakers. In other words, even if a listener understands both the source and target languages, they are better off listening to the interpreter as they will get a better sound quality from them.

Difficult as it sometimes is, client education can help. Often clients simply don't understand why any of these could be a problem. AND IT IS USUALLY TOO LATE WHEN THE MEETING HAS ACTUALLY STARTED. It helps to explain, AS EARLY in the process AS POSSIBLE, that the better the connectivity, and audio and video quality, the better able the interpreters will give the participants a voice in another language. Organising a dry run (in the same location and using the same devices the participants will use during the meeting) can also go a long way in addressing any technical issues. THAT WAY the client can have time TO ARRANGE THE PROPER EQUIPMENT - AND THEY ALSO REALISE THAT THE INTEPRETERS ARE ON THEIR SIDE.

· Speed

No, not the movie, even though there are similarities! Virtual meetings are usually shorter than in-person meetings. There are several reasons for this. One is the increased cognitive load for participants and interpreters: virtual meetings are simply more tiring for all who attend. Staring at a screen, especially if the accompanying sound quality is poor, is hard to do for very long. And in addition, participants are often joining from different time: if a meeting starts at 11:00 am London time, this is a rather early start for someone in New York but the end of the day for someone in Seoul.

As a result, there can be a tendency to try to cover as much as possible in the limited time available. We are quite used to hearing speeches read out at the speed of light, but new trends in online meetings are making this worse. Busy speakers often choose to send their contributions in the form of pre-recorded video messages. The speaker usually reads out a script from a teleprompter. This again means that their speed is usually faster than average speaking rate.

AGAIN, MORE COMMUNICATION CAN HELP OVERCOME THIS. IN PARTICULAR, IF WE ARE GIVEN THE SCRIPT FOR A PRE-RECORDED MESSAGE, THIS WOULD BE VERY HELPFUL. In the same way, if the meeting organisers can make other documents and videos available in advance, this would also enable us to do the best interpreting job possible.

· Old parameters in the 'new normal'

THE MEETINGS MAY BE SHORTER BUT this doesn't necessarily mean less time spent on the preparation. For conference interpreters, a workday, whether for an organisation or in the private market, used to consist of two sessions of three to three and a half hours (including breaks) separated by a lunch break. Such long workdays have almost faded into nonexistence with the advent of online meetings. It is tiring for the interpreters and the participants alike to have such long meetings online, especially considering the other strains involved.

What is more, this longer day is not being reflected in our pay! Interpreters still get asked for their half-day and full-day rates in the understanding that half a day is four hours and a full day is eight hours.

The genie is out of the bottle; remote interpreting is here to stay so it is high time to revise the parameters and fix this disconnect. Might professional associations play a role there by opening the communication channels with their corporate members?

· Lack of universal standards

Several interpreters' professional associations have tried to tackle the lack of national and international standards for remote interpreting. Within Europe alone, six national associations have issued position papers or guidelines on remote interpreting. While their efforts are a step in the right direction, as a profession, we ended up with varying standards. This can be confusing in a very globalised remote interpreting market where the interpreters could be located in different parts of the world. There is no agreement on the length of a work day, recording/live-streaming fees or team strength, to mention but a few elements of contention.

It is important that professional associations talk to each other to discuss the possible convergence of remote interpreting standards. Maybe an umbrella organisation like the International Federation of Translators, of which many professional associations are members, could be the place to start discussions?

In conclusion...

This was by no means an exhaustive list but an attempt to highlight some of the persisting issues with remote interpreting as I see them at the moment. Due to the pandemic, meetings are taking different shapes and forms, and remote interpreting is here to stay. It is a form that has several advantages. If all stakeholders (to use a typical international meetings expression) work together, they can make remotely interpreted meetings a more effective and less exhausting experience for all. 

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