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Remote Interpreting: How Would You Define It?

Published: 13 January 2014

Few people think of the same thing when they hear or use the term “remote interpreting,” and with good reason. 

I’ve spent much of my time and energy over the last two years speaking about technology’s growing influence on interpreting. As I have conversed with interpreters, educators and clients all over the world, one thing has become painfully apparent: few people think of the same thing when they hear or use the term “remote interpreting,” and with good reason. The term is bandied about to refer to a multitude of different scenarios that are as different from one another as apples and oranges.

So, what to do? First off, the meetings or interactions that make use of remote interpreting should be divided into two broad categories: face-to-face meetings and virtual meetings.

Face-to-Face Meetings

In face-to-face meetings with remote interpreting, the interlocutors (delegates to a conference, a physician and patient, or participants in a courtroom) are all physically in the same place, only the interpreters are remote. These types of interpreted encounters are on the rise in conference, legal and healthcare interpreting. The most notorious example of this kind of remote interpreting is probably the meeting of European heads of state and government at Hampton Court in the UK in 2005. The historic castle had neither the space nor the technology to accommodate the army of interpreters, interpreting booths and equipment needed to provide interpretation into 22 languages simultaneously so a temporary structure was built nearby to house the operation (see photo below). Remote interpreting? Yes, but just a hop, skip and a jump from the meeting room.

Over-the-phone and video remote interpreting operate under the same principle, the interpreter is the only "remote" participant of the meeting, but instead of being in a booth or across the hallway, they may be across town or across the globe from the interlocutors. The technologies employed tend to be less complex and the interactions interpreted are often shorter in duration.

Remote interpreting for face-to-face meetings is one of the main sources of concern for interpreters today, as it removes them from a venue where they were once physically present to do their job. Although I don’t believe this trend will physically remove interpreters from all interpreted interactions, this drive for efficiency will continue.

Virtual Meetings

In virtual meetings, not only the interpreters but also the meeting participants are “remote.” All are connected using some kind of technology, be it videoconferencing equipment, webinar or web conferencing platforms on personal computers or the tried-and-true telephone. These mostly monolingual interactions have been around as long as the technologies that have made them possible. And no doubt, new technologies will surely emerge to make these virtual interactions better and better as well as more cost effective. As a result of this progress, the number of virtual multilingual meetings is also on the rise, whether they are conference calls, webinars, videoconferences, or web conferences. I expect the demand for interpreting services for these virtual interactions to increase as well.

Virtual meetings, for the most part, represent a new frontier for interpreting. These interactions seldom replace face-to-face meetings, they actually augment them. They take place before and after conferences, court cases and doctors’ consultations. They have the potential to expand multilingual communication. Unlike face-to-face meetings with remote interpreting, virtual meetings provide participants and interpreters with the same conditions, a level playing field, so to speak.

Every profession is grappling with how to adapt to this new environment. Personally, I see this growth in virtual communication as a new opportunity for interpreters. But as a profession we must find our place in these new virtual interactions and learn to operate successfully in this new virtual environment. We all must learn to function in the collaborative economy of the XXI century that is still figuring out how to operate in a borderless, virtual world. The opportunity is ours for the taking, but we would do well to remember the words of Thomas Alva Edison: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

How do you define remote interpreting? What remote interpreting scenarios have you worked in? Share your thoughts. 

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