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WebRTC and the Rising Tide of Remote Interpretation over the Internet

Published January 19, 2016

For generations, scientists and innovators have lamented being limited by the technology available during their lifetime. Translators for centuries were subject to limits inherent to quill, ink and parchment—the technology of their time. Then along came the typewriter, followed by the word processor, translation memories, the Internet. Translation continues to evolve with the technologies of the times.

So it goes with interpreting as well. As communication technologies advance, interpreting is being made available in ways that it never could be before. There are many technologies used to deliver interpreting services from a distance today. For this blog I want to focus on one that, while still in its infancy, is having a profound effect on the way interpreting is being provided: WebRTC.

WebRTC stands for “Web Real Time Communication.”  Here’s the “techy” explanation. WebRTC supports “browser-to-browser applications for voice calling, video chat, and P2P [peer to peer] file sharing without the need of either internal or external plugins.” (See Wikipedia entry here.)  

That sounds suspiciously similar to Skype, and other web conferencing services like GoToMeeting or WebEx. So, what’s the big deal? The short answer is that it is all about the “browser plugins,” as in, we won’t need them anymore.

The Internet has made the web browser (e.g. Chrome, Safari, FireFox, Edge) the computer’s most used and recognizable tool. A browser is our gateway to all that cyberspace has to offer. As users began to demand more of their web browsers in the early 2000s, like watching streaming video, playing videogames and communicating with friends, traditional html code just couldn’t keep up. So along came plugins—those pesky add-ons that have to be downloaded, often crash and need to be updated regularly. What is more, some of them can slow your computer to a crawl and expose you to vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers. To make matters worse, many plugins are not compatible across different web browsers or operating systems.

What this has meant for the user experience is more clicks to connect and slower connection times to web meetings or having to update and reboot a computer unexpectedly before being able to connect to a web conference or webinar. All frustrating when you have people waiting for you to connect. With the advent of mobile devices like smart phones and tablets, things became even more complex.

How does WebRTC change all this? Simple. It does away with the need for plugins. As the programmers like to say, the ability to start a phone or video call is “baked in” to your web browser. No plugin or software download needed. You will not need to open Skype to make an internet-based phone call, or WebEx’s or Adobe’s “add on” to participate in a webinar. This new capability is simple to use and is currently the backbone of several remote platforms designed to provide interpreting over the Internet.

As I said at the beginning, WebRTC is still in its infancy. It is not supported by all browsers yet. Currently Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Opera support it. Microsoft Explorer and Safari do not. However, Microsoft’s new web browser Edge, which is supposed to replace Explorer, will. Google is tracking some 750 companies currently that are using WebRTC today for browser-based applications.

In practical terms, what this means for interpreters is that their computer with broadband connectivity can now easily be converted into an interpreting studio, which is why startups and well-established video remote interpreting providers on three different continents are working hard to gain a foothold or strengthen their position in the remote interpreting market by using WebRTC.

Ultimately, technologies like WebRTC make cross-border communication easier than ever from just about any Internet enabled device. Interpreters ready to adapt to this new on-line environment stand to benefit by expanding their service offering to a new segment of the interpreting market. Communication technology continues to advance and interpreting is adapting along with it.

Do you have a question about a specific technology? Or would you like to learn more about a specific interpreting platform, interpreter console or supporting technology? Send us an email at

*This blog first appeared in November 2015 the Tech-Savvy Interpreter, a column written by InterpretAmerica for Jost Zetzsche's monthly translation technology newsletter the Tool Box Journal.  


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