Is Remote Interpretation Getting Closer to the Norm?

Is Remote Interpretation Getting Closer to the Norm?
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October 25, 2017
Renato and Michael with Barry Slaughter Olsen
New technologies are moving interpreters farther and farther away from the center of the action. Whether it's remote video interpretation or over the phone, the traditional rules of interpretation are changing. Hear what three of the world's top interpretation experts have to say about new advancements—and the future for interpreters. 
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Speaker Transcript
Michael I’m Michael Stevens.
Renato I’m Renato Beninatto.
Michael And this week on Globally Speaking Renato, we’re talking about interpretations.
Renato Remote interpretation to be more precise.
Michael Yes because everything changed. It took me years to figure out what’s happening with interpreters, and there’s a lot of new technology, new process.
Renato Interpretation is one of those glamorous areas of the translation business because you’re actually not interacting with a computer. You’re interacting with people. You’re listening to people. You’re talking over people.
Michael Kind of like us on our podcast.
Renato Exactly. So, you’re in people’s ears. Alright. And there is this whole element. There are movies about interpreters, right? There’s The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman, and there’s even apparently, I hear, there’s a TV series in China that is about interpreters also. They have glamorous lives, and they travel.
Michael Well, we get to talk to three glamorous guests today that are going to help us understand this space and the trends that are happening in it a little more, and it should be great to let them introduce themselves.
Renato Absolutely. Let’s listen to the podcast. Okay.
Barry May name is Barry Slaughter Olsen. I am a conference interpreter. I am also an interpreter trainer at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. And I am also a bit of a tech nerd and someone who has been looking into remote interpreting and studying it and trying to figure out how it works, how it can work, and how it can expand the opportunity for interpreters, and also expand access to professional language services.
Renato One of the reasons why we wanted to talk to you is also because you organize a conference, and you have a lot of exposure in the area of interpretation. So, you have the chance to really look at all the angles of this aspect. You’re an interpreter, but you’re also a consumer of the service. Tell us a little bit about InterpretAmerica.
Barry Happy to do so. In fact, I didn’t mention that in the introduction, I should have. I am the Co-President of Interpret America, together with my Co-President Catherine Allen. We’ve been organizing conferences on interpreting since 2010.
Michael So, I’ll ask a controversial question for our audience. And Barry, I tend to meet a lot of people who have ended up as translators who initially aspired to be interpreters. And so, are all translators B-list interpreters?
Barry Not even. No way, shape or form. I think what I would say is most interpreters translate, but not all translators interpret.
Renato Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Barry I think that would be a good way to explain it. Now, I don’t think you can say that translators are B-list interpreters at all. What you’re seeing, especially in today’s market, is things are becoming so specialized that it’s really difficult to be able to exercise both professions at the same time. Particularly if you’re going to be working with a lot of the kinds of translation projects that a lot of translators work on now, where you’ve got to use translation memory, where you have to be using CAT tools, where you’re dealing not only with those things, but also localization of software and websites and gizmos and gadgets.

There’s so much more that goes into the localization and the translation of the content for those things, that trying to stay up on that and then also remain at a professional level with your interpreting practice. I mean, that’s a tall order.
Renato That’s an interesting point because the image that people have of interpreters is a little romantic, maybe because of the movie with Nicole Kidman, and she was at the United Nations and all those cool things. That you go to New York and you speak at the conference. But the interpreter job is not that glamorous, is it?
Barry No, there is that opportunity to bask in reflective limelight, depending on who the person you’re interpreting for is, right? And so, those opportunities do present themselves, and I think if you were to ask any conference interpreter or diplomatic interpreter about that experience, it can be exhilarating. You are there while history is taking place.
Michael But what about the tools? The difference. What do interpreters need to keep up with?
Barry Well, interpreters need to keep up more with technology today than they did ten years ago. If you were to look at the technology curve for translators and localizers and compare that to the technology curve for interpreters, the interpreter technology curve is several years behind where translators are today. In the news recently, actually just last week, where Google announced its new pixel buds that can interface with the new pixel phone and Google translate. And it can simultaneously, without any lag, according to them, interpret between languages. Up to forty different languages.

Now, every time something like that comes out, the general press is all over it; the tech press is all over it, and they write these short articles that could be anywhere from 400 to 800, and if we’re lucky, 1,000 words, but the basic gist is, “Okay, game over. Technology’s done it; let’s move forward.” Right? ‘Now just stick this thing in your ear, and you’re going to be able to travel the world, and everybody will understand you, and you’ll understand them.’ It’s, again, talk about a romantic image, right? All it takes is this little earbud.

The funny thing is, if you watch these, go through, and you can watch the videos of these many different gadgets that are being designed, most of them are still being designed, some are starting to be manufactured, but they … almost all of them have a non-other language speaking boy, wanting to talk to another language speaking girl. And, enter one little earbud, “Here, put this in your ear, I’ll put it in mine, and suddenly, we can chat, and let’s go see Paris together.” Right?

I find that kind of humorous, because if you meet someone on the street and say, “Here, stick this in your ear.” Would you? I don’t know that they’re going to do that, much less a boy meets girl scenario. But of course, that’s the marketing, and that’s the way things go. But I mention this simply because with all of these gadgets and tchotchkes that are coming out, we may have reached that machine translation moment for interpreting that translation hit, oh goodness,15 years ago?
Renato Enter Google.
Barry Ten years ago?
Renato Years ago, yeah, yeah.
Barry We’re on the third iteration…
Renato Yeah, yeah.
Barry We’re now in the third iteration. We started out with just machine translation; that was rules based, and you moved on to statistical MT, and now you’ve got deep neural networks, right? Where they’re using NMT, neural machine translation, and we’re seeing marked improvements, and it is being used and folded into the workflows now with translation to a certain extent.

We haven’t hit that at all with interpreting yet. Really, it’s like this consumer-level stuff that, maybe, “Oh, I’m going to try this out, because I don’t have any other option. It’s the only thing available to me, and so, oh, I’ll give it a try, oh, it worked, oh fabulous, I was able to find out where the bathroom is.” Or, “Oh no, it didn’t work, this is hilarious, oh well, fail, move on.” Right?

So, we might be at that point now where we can say, “This is where it started.” But …
Renato You make a very good analogy Barry. The analogy here is that these consumer gadgets are just like Google Translator, professional translators. It’s something that it’s there, it’s available, you could correctly use and play with it, but it’s not in a professional environment. What we want to talk about today is actually this concept of video remote interpreting. Or, VRI, which is something that is hopping up like I don’t know, weed, everywhere, every day, I hear of another tool, of another solution, for video remote interpreting. Another company coming out.
Barry Yeah.
Renato Why is that? What has happened in the last couple of years that has made this proliferation of tools for video remote interpreting?
Barry Well let me start with the technological side, because, that really is what has empowered this mushrooming of different platforms for different applications of video remote interpreting, or just over the phone interpreting, which has been around for a while. But there are lots of different flavors of this, right? And the technology has advanced to where we can now do interpreting over the web.

So let me … let’s see if I can explain this in a concise way. You have a new technology that was introduced, Web RTC. If you’ve heard of Web RTC, Web Real Time Communications. This was a standard for exchanging video, audio, and data streams over the internet, in the browser. No plug-ins needed. You could just use a browser that works with Web RTC, and you can build whatever application you want with audio, video, and data streams, right?

So when that came around, and there were key browsers that could function with it, namely Google Chrome and Firefox. We’re now seeing where Microsoft Edge is saying that it will be compatible with Web RTC, and also Apple indicating that Web RTC will function within the Safari browser. We now have the main browsers on board for this. So when this standard was introduced, and it’s still being tweaked and worked on, there’s a work group that focuses on it, many of the entrepreneurs looked at this and said, “Hmm, okay, now we can do this.” Bandwidth has also expanded significantly, right? Where I’m located in the Washington DC area, you can get fiber optic now to your home, and you can have a gigabit connection. So I mean we’re seeing the expansion of dependable broadband internet, which also makes this possible at a pretty significant distance, right? So that technology really did it.
Michael So you had people playing by the same rules, and then a delivery method that allowed the pipes to be big enough for it to go through?
Barry Yeah. And that’s very true, and let me also just introduce here quickly that there are those within the conference interpreting sphere that say, “That’s not acceptable. We have our standards; we need to make sure that we adhere to them.” And they have the ways that they want the audio and video to be provided.

There are frequency response levels that they want to have with their microphones, etc. And, you have other applications that are highly engineered, right, where you’re going to invest in a lot of dedicated data streams, where you’re going to have multiple cameras and video feeds for the interpreters to see when they’re working outside of a conference room, and this is a highly engineered solution that is meeting these standards that have been established within the international organizations, right? So they’re looking to find ways to be able to share interpreter resources between headquarters, say, in New York or Washington, DC with Vienna, or with Nairobi.
Marc Well, my name is Marc Gershuny. I work for a company called TeamPeople. We’re a managed service provider for organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank and the IMF. I’m a technology executive with the company, and I currently work on site at the World Bank. Our company provides meaningful service to these organizations, in so much that interpretation is not only vital to the operation of these organizations, but it is mandated in many cases that official meetings be produced in multiple languages.

So, we represent the sophisticated end of interpretation where we work with high-end technology, the best interpreters in the world, and very, very critical listening environments, where nothing but perfection would be acceptable to these organizations.
Renato How did you start working with remote interpreting?
Marc Well, we began working with remote interpretation, and it’s only been very recently by the way, but we began working with it because these organizations are running out of real estate to build conference rooms that support it.
Renato So, the location of the interpreter becomes irrelevant at this point. If they can do it from anywhere in the building, they can do it from anywhere in the world. Is that the premise?
Marc That is basically the premise; however, doing it anywhere in the building was possible a little further back in time than doing it anywhere in the world, for many reasons. The technology only recently has caught up with the need, based on the fact of things like reliability and risk. For a long time, the interpreters would refuse to work in the conditions that were available only a few years ago because of things like audio quality and latency and the unreliability of video being transmitted at a high resolution over the internet, and things like that. That’s now become more of a reality that everyone is accepting, that the technology is acceptably good enough now to begin to do remote interpretation from anywhere in the world, even outside of your building.
Renato Tell us a little bit about this transition, and where we are. Is this the new reality? Is this the majority of the meetings are done like this? Or is this reserved for, let’s say, lower-level meetings, and in higher-level meetings, you have the presence of the interpreter on site, and things like that?
Marc Well, I think where we are, is we’re at the nascent stage, where it’s becoming more of a reality, and it’s becoming more acceptable. But in certain circumstances, it’s not completely a reality because we still at our organizations, the multinational organizations, still have the infrastructure in their bigger rooms, whether it’s the General Assembly Hall or the World Bank board room, to provide the local interpreter right in the room, and that’s still preferable in many of these organizations. However, when you go to a situation where maybe there’s a meeting going on in New York or Washington, and then there’s another meeting going on in Paris, and the meeting and the people in Paris do not have conferencing infrastructure like the meeting in New York does, well then the people in Paris need some other solution, and that’s where a software solution is acceptable in that case. It’s not just remote interpretation at that point; it’s remote participation. That’s where this is all going.

I think there’s another part of this, as well. The other part is that the interpreters need to accept this as a reality now, and they need to get on board, and they’re starting to create best practices around this and ISO standards, where they can start to accept that this reality, younger interpreters are coming up; they’re going to have to grab on to this, and if they don’t, the competition will be with artificial intelligence.
Ewandro I am Ewandro Magalhães, interpreter by training and experience. I’ve been an interpreter for about 25 years. I was also chief interpreter of United Nations Specialized Agency in Geneva for about seven years. Five years, and then head of conference management, dealing with interpreters day in and day out, staffing and training them. So it’s a pleasure to be here and be able to talk to you a little bit about remote interpreting.
Michael Yeah, well just as I have sort of gotten comfortable with the role of interpreters, they literally have been taken out of the box. There’s been this move from interpreters working in their little enclosed area, so they can be right where the action is, to doing more video. Can you talk a little about that transition from your perspective?
Ewandro Yes, and It’s something that the interpreters are kind of sour about, but it’s not the first time it’s happened. When simultaneous interpretation was introduced, more specifically during the Nuremberg Trials, it had been tested before and so on, but this is where it really became a staple of our meetings as we have it today. The interpreters used to be at the very center of the action. They were standing by the delegates, they were very good and well-trained public speakers, and they got to share most of the spotlight.

Now they’re being kicked out of the room, and they think they’re the only ones, and we have that feeling, that “why are they doing it to us”? As an interpreter, I had that happen to me, and I reacted more or less the same way, but the truth of the matter is that everybody is being kicked out of the room.

The interpreters look at these new technologies with a certain degree of fear, for reasons we all understand. Now, it is important to take their resistance, which is how we label that kind of fear, for what it is. Nobody resists for the sake of being difficult. Basically, we resist because we don’t know what’s going on; we don’t know what’s behind the new technology and so on. So very often, the interpreters, they are pointed to as the troublemakers, as the ones who are getting in the way and so on, and actually, they’re not trying to do that. They’re trying, they’re asking and begging to actually be provided enough reassurance that this is going to be okay on the levels that need to be okay for them to actually relinquish that resistance.

Once you get the interpreters involved, this has been my experience in ITU, where we introduced remote participation. They go the extra mile. For example, in ITU we got them involved early on, and there were many briefings and debriefings with delegates where we got to discuss, and it goes into places that you don’t imagine. For example, convincing a delegate what is good enough quality for a delegate, who is playing solitaire, and just waiting for his turn to speak is not good enough quality for an interpreter who has to get every hesitation out and a voice and such and so on.

So, once delegates realize that and see it for a fact, they are more understanding of interpreters, and when you clear the interpreter’s reputation, meaning, when you open the call, open the meeting, by saying, “Listen, we are testing a new system. The interpreters will do their best. At times the audio may deteriorate, and if it does, they may feel hindered in their ability to interpret; if that happens, the interpreters have the last say.” At that point, the interpreters say, “Okay, I’m okay, my back is covered,” and they go the extra mile, and they try very hard to accommodate, even accommodate horrible pieces of audio. They want to be accommodating and they want to be helpful, but we have to give them a voice.”
Michael One question, what should companies start thinking about who are not currently leveraging interpretation?
Barry You know, you have these big multinational companies that are meeting online or with conference calls every week, and they’re putting teams together, and they’re just like, “Everybody in our company speaks English, so we just use English.” And when the reality is, well, two people on the call speak English really well because they’re native speakers; there are a couple others that are really fluent and tend to be quite loquacious, and then you have another six that just kind of hang back, and they’re like, “Yeah, I speak English, but I’m not going to say much because I don’t like my accent, and I’m not sure if I can explain this complex thought that I have, so I’m probably just going to sit back and not say anything.”

So, I really think that if these large companies were to look carefully at their teams and say, you know, what kind of expertise are we missing out on because we just assume, because we say everybody needs to speak English in our company, or everybody needs to speak French, that they may be missing out on some expertise and some real knowledge that could help what these teams are doing?

End of conversation

Barry Slaughter Olsen

Barry Slaughter Olsen, Co-President of InterpretAmerica, LLC, is a conference interpreter and translator with more than 25 years of international-level experience under his belt. He has interpreted professionally since 1993, having spent the bulk of his career based in Washington, D.C.


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