Making that long-distance relationship work

Making that long-distance relationship work

Remote and hybrid events present challenges for us all. For interpreters, there are particular concerns.

Rob Davidson, MICE Knowledge

Interpreters are key to the success of any multilingual event – whether face-to-face, virtual or hybrid. Rob Davidson, MICE Knowledge, caught up with the Private Market Sector Standing Committee of AIIC – the International Association of Conference Interpreters – to discuss how professional interpreters are weathering the pandemic storm that has rocked the world of MICE and found more of us participating in events without leaving home.

Is distance interpreting remarkably different from on-site interpreting?

There is a world of difference. Working from a hub or from a home office (in case of lockdowns or stay-at-home orders) is nothing like being where the action is. Usually, this involves remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) – a mode of distance interpreting where the interpreters are located at a different venue from the speakers and audience, and provide their interpretation at the same time as the speaker via a separate audio channel. 

While this has some similarities to simultaneous interpreting from an on-site booth, there is much less interaction with speakers and the audience, which affects the communicative aspect of interpreting. There are also technical obstacles to smooth and effective interpreting – like internet connections, audio quality, or equipment failures.

For these reasons, AIIC has always favoured on-site interpreting over RSI.

Interpreter with headphones and microphone

Recognising the imminent effects of the COVID-19 crisis on interpreters, in March 2020 AIIC issued a set of guidelines on distance interpreting to help interpreters and their clients weather the storm.

These guidelines aim to reduce some of the technical issues that make RSI particularly taxing for interpreters, and frustrating for event participants:

  • Poor audio quality – from speakers using technically inadequate microphones, from poor quality of processing, or disrupted transmission of audio signals;
  • Toxic sound and acoustic shock (interpreter jargon for unintended and sudden noise from feedback and technical failures –sometimes causing auditory damage);
  • Low-quality video with image blurring and lip asynchrony;
  • Internet instability, disrupting audio and video feed.

There is another striking difference: conference interpreting is a team effort. Not having our booth mates next to us can be disconcerting, and ultimately affect the quality of our work. Of course, as professionals, we manage the situation to reduce these impacts, but we do find the additional effort takes its toll.

Is the technology up to scratch? Are improvements needed?

RSI technology has come a long way, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. One issue that stands out is the cognitive load. RSI platforms could pare down their interfaces for a cleaner look and a leaner system – to free up computer RAM and Internet bandwidth and, most importantly, to help us interpreters focus more on what we are hired to do  – relaying your message in a different language. The more we have to focus on figuring out how to operate the software, the less we can focus on interpreting.

Another hot topic is the handover function, especially when we are not in the same location as our booth mate. Teammates need to be able to communicate with each other to enable a quick and easy handover – this is simple in a shared booth, but in RSI, it can be problematic. Some RSI software does enable us to listen to both the floor and our booth partner at the same time. Nonetheless, there are problems with microphone latency and lack of proper visual communication between booth partners, creating additional stress for the interpreters.

AIIC’s Taskforce on Distance Interpreting and Technical and Health Committee assist the profession by assessing technology against set standards for professional interpreting. In March, they released a set of recommendations and a useful checklist for interpreting assignments from home – in extremis during the pandemic. These documents are publicly available on our new website, and AIIC invites everyone, including non-members, to refer to them.

What are the specific challenges of using RSI for virtual meetings, where neither the participants nor the interpreters are ‘in the room’?

A major difficulty lies in the absence of visual cues: these are important in deciphering non-verbal communication. Usually, we can take the pulse of how our interpretation is received by keeping an eye on visible reactions, reassuring us that we are on track or allowing us to adapt our output in real-time. Interpreting is primarily about effective communication, involving both spoken and visual signals, and the virtual environment restricts the possibility of an essential part of the communication process.

Another issue relates to security and privacy policies. Much remains to be done in this field if we wish to ensure that virtual meetings are a safe game.

As members of AIIC, we are bound by our Code of Professional Ethics. The code lays down the standards of integrity, professionalism, and the absolute confidentiality of information. The virtual environment, however, means that we have less control of the technical aspects of the information flow, and deficient security precautions by speakers and participants, as well as network-related security issues, may impair end-to-end security of the information.

At the same time, we believe that interpretation remains essential in the current environment of virtual conferencing. Research studies in the field of global virtual teams (for example by Alfred Presibitero of the Department of Management at the Deakin Business Schools in Melbourne) indicate that language anxiety and the additional cognitive load of attending monolingual meetings (where everyone is forced to use a shared language) are detrimental to performance. This is clear evidence that quality interpretation plays an essential role in the current virtual environment.

Has the role of interpreters in the MICE industry changed because of RSI?

The COVID pandemic has accelerated the implementation of RSI solutions in ways that no-one expected. We were all caught by surprise. Especially during the first months of lockdown, conference organisers and end-customers would ask interpreters for guidance on how to organise and set up the technical environment for meetings. 

Events professionals are becoming more reliant on the technical expertise that interpreters have acquired over the years and trust their judgment when it comes to finding ways to bridge the language barrier.

Has RSI affected the relationship between interpreters and clients?

It is in everyone’s interest to make sure that interpreters do not become an unseen “virtual feature” and that a continuous flow of information is maintained before and during the event. A close relationship between interpreters and clients will smooth the bumpy journey of virtual meetings. In RSI settings, interpreters are increasingly called upon to provide guidance on how to best organise virtual or hybrid events so that they are interpretation friendly.

Making sure that the setup enables interpreters to perform at their best is in the interest of all parties: the interpreters, certainly, but also the audience, the speakers and, ultimately, the organisers. It is a win-win situation.

Do event organisers have a clear understanding of the challenges involved in RSI?

RSI is the brave new world of the MICE industry. During the past few months, interpreters and event organisers have experienced a steep learning curve. As a result, we are all now better equipped to face new challenges.

For us interpreters, a few key conditions are essential in any situation. This is especially true for RSI settings:

  • Impeccable sound quality: while interpreting, our voice masks that of the speaker. It is essential that we are able to hear the speaker perfectly. Even if the sound quality is considered acceptable by participants, it is often not sufficient for us.
  • We need to see and listen to the other colleagues in the team and be able to communicate with them smoothly.
  • We need to see the speakers and, ideally, the audience, to benefit from nonverbal communication cues.
  • Finally, as always, we must have access to any documents (presentations, speaking notes, list of names) to which speakers refer.

We have focused mostly on the hurdles of remote interpreting.  Does RSI have any advantages?

For most interpreters, RSI is not the preferred choice, but we do recognise it does have some positive elements, which would also apply in a COVID-free world. Here are some hypothetical examples:

Let us imagine that a distinguished keynote speaker is flown in from Japan to Latin America. For want of a local Japanese-Spanish interpreter, the speaker will be nudged into speaking in a foreign language, typically English.

Again, in this scenario, our preferred option would be an on-site simultaneous interpretation by local (or flown-in) interpreters. However, RSI could work as an environmentally-conscious option, for a short duration assignment in a language pair, which may be difficult to source locally.

By enabling speakers to use their native language, RSI would guarantee everyone the same linguistic and democratic rights.

RSI may also have advantages in situations where travel is hazardous, or where there is a risk of severe injury or even death (such as areas of conflict or war zones).

RSI could also enable interpretation where it might not otherwise have been offered in the past due to budgetary constraints, such as for small-scale meetings, training sessions, or interviews.

Lastly, RSI can help colleagues who find it hard to travel and reach conference venues. The RSI environment offers them new opportunities and a more level playing field.

The experiences of 2020 have radically altered the working environments for many professions, including the MICE industry and interpreting, and have stimulated rapid advances in remote working technologies. We look forward to a situation where we will be able to work on-site more regularly, but we also realise that these technological advances are here to stay.

AIIC will continue to make sure that whatever technologies are used, our members will deliver high-quality, professional interpreting to contribute to the success of multilingual events.

AIIC’s Private Market Sector (PRIMS) provides a forum for freelance conference interpreters working for private clients – including meetings, conferences and events. The PRIMS Standing Committee coordinates activities and events to bring private sector interpreters together and promote the value of high quality, professional interpreting to potential clients. A major focus is engaging with the MICE industry to bring about mutual understanding and new opportunities for multilingual excellence.

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  1. Raffaella Marchese says:

    Thank you Rob for this comprehensive interview. Everyone will benefit from close cooperation between MICE professionals and conference interpreters. A win-win deal!

  2. Minnie Mouse says:

    This is also good in order to avoid toxic colleagues hating one of their colleagues in the booth and doing everything to disturb your work. NPDs tend to grab higher-up places so they may silence you as well. The RSI environment protects one against them. Because NPDs are out for fuel and fuel is easier to get from direct contact, the RSI acts as a shield. Friendly atmosphere is welcome in any work setting, thus thanks to RSI and friendly colleagues the world could become a better place.

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