Remote Interpreting Technology Roll Out: The Devil Is in the Details



By Barry S. Olsen

Published Aug 3, 2017


In the May-June edition of the ATA Chronicle I published an article entitled Remote Interpreting: Feeling Our Way into the Future.” (If you haven’t read it yet, just click on the link.) The article highlights the challenges and opportunities that remote interpreting presents for multilingual communication, generally, and for individual interpreters. Just as it has permeated every other aspect of modern society, whether wanted or not, the increased use of technology to deliver interpreting services in new ways is inevitable. 


The article was generally well-received. Then came a must-read response in the form of a letter to the editor from Melissa González, an NBCMI-certified medical interpreter in Austin, Texas. Her letter is a real-life example of what happens when we, as a profession, fail to oversee the changes technology is imposing upon us. 


Melissa details in firsthand a disastrous implementation of remote interpreting in the workplace. She tells a tale of poorly implemented technology, disrespected interpreters, frustrated healthcare providers and ill-served patients. This letter to the editor (published in the latest edition of the ATA Chronicle) should be required reading for every interpreter, interpreting agency, technology vendor and healthcare provider considering how to implement any form of remote interpreting. I encourage you to click on the link above and read it now.


From start to finish, Melissa's story illustrates a clear example of remote interpreting technology implemented poorly and for the wrong reasons. I’ll share one particularly salient paragraph of the letter here: “Technology is a tool. When used as such, it can help us accomplish great things within our profession. However, when technology is employed as a way of replacing human knowledge and expertise to save money, it can only lead to poor and often dangerous results.” I completely agree.


New technologies can and are improving multilingual communication and expanding access to professional interpreting services. But Melissa's tale should give any organization pause that is seeking to employ technology as a principal means of saving money and replacing human expertise. This is a story that must be shared as widely as possible so it isn’t repeated.


Furthermore, if the transition and expansion to these new ways of working are to be smooth, interpreters, professional associations and other interested parties must get involved now and shape the implementation of these new technologies. Only through our active engagement will they be used appropriately to improve communication and expand availability of interpreting services. Only through our insistence can interpreters be helped to adapt to a changing workplace.  


This is the purpose of InterpretAmerica 6, which will take place in Washington, D.C. and online on October 30, 2017. This one-day summit will bring together interpreters, professional association leaders, language service company executives and technology providers to spark a collaborative, results-oriented conversation between interpreters and those who hire them. We've all seen the disruption the rollout of remote interpreting platforms is having on working interpreters. But we also see the potential for highly positive outcomes for increased language access and expanded work opportunities.  


*This blog first appeared on August 2, 2017, in The Tech-Savvy Interpreter column in Jost Zetzsche's Tool Box Journal.

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