Interpreters speak for those who can’t otherwise be understood. Their job is to go wherever they’re needed – the courtroom, a medical office, a school – and convert the message of one speaker into the language of the person who needs to hear it. Most interpreting is done on-site, and for good reason. Interpreting is usually for a specific purpose and setting, most of which requires both the speaker and listener to be present. Many interpretation scenarios are highly private and sensitive, and can’t be dependent on the relative quality of an Internet connection. For most purposes, interpretation is done the old-fashioned way.
However, a growing body of research is looking into how remote interpreting can be used in certain situations, including highly sensitive ones. Interpretation using videoconferencing is already being used in some areas, mainly for business purposes or for community interpreting (e.g., legal, medical and social services). It can be used for spoken language or sign language and across different fields. The professional interpreter community is active in discovering the pros and cons of doing interpretation work when one or more participants are in a remote location.
There are several different possible scenarios for a remote interpretation:
1. The primary participants are at two different locations, and the interpreter is at the main site (e.g., a courtroom).
2. The primary participants are at two different locations, and the interpreter is with the non-native speaker (e.g., a jail).
3. The primary participants are at the same location, and the interpreter is in a different location.
Views on Remote Interpreting are a Mixed Bag
It’s a point of contention among professional interpreters whether remote interpreting is a viable means of carrying out interpreter responsibilities. It comes with its challenges, more so than most other situations that would be applied to videoconferencing. Some interpreters believe that remote interpretation can speed up communication and provide quick and easy access to an interpreter. However, others think that the potential for distractions and decrease in the quality of the interpretation aren’t worth the risk.
Research Shows Potential, Not Perfection
The research done so far in this area has mixed results and no clear conclusions, but does shed some light as to what types of interpretation might be more appropriate for videoconferencing. In repeated case studies on the use of video conferencing for interpretation in the EU and UN, interpreters experienced increased stress, frustration, and feelings of alienation when they were not on site with the non-native speaker. They also found it difficult to stay focused and motivated and often experienced headaches and other physical complaints. On the other hand, a study of medical interpreters found that remote interpretation is “at least as acceptable” as being physically present, with interpretation accuracy being rated as equal. Both doctors and patients were also satisfied with the quality of the interpretation and the overall experience. In cases of business interpretation where the two primary participants were in the same location and the interpreter served via videoconference, all participants adapted well to interacting on the videoconferencing medium. They were able to coordinate who would speak at what time with the leadership of the interpreters. Interpreters struggled sometimes with understanding the source text and producing target text, mainly when sound quality was poor. But overall, the interpretations were successful without much added difficulty.
More Research Needed for Widespread Adoption
So far, there seems to be some evidence that if the situation is right, remote interpretation may be a good option, particularly if an interpreter is needed at the last minute. The biggest problems encountered in a remote interpretation are on the interpreter’s end. Videoconferencing, if sound quality or Internet connectivity aren’t clear, can put a strain on the interpreter, who is working hard to make sure all parties are well understood. Regardless, videoconferencing has the potential to extend much-needed interpreter services to more clients and allow interpreters to reach more people. Additional research into specific interpreting situations, as well as experimentation with different platforms and perfecting sound quality and Internet connectivity, may reveal how videoconferencing can be more widely used in the interpretation field.