Remote Interpretation: Dystopian or Utopian?
Remote interpreting is a general term describing oral translation where interpreters are not in the same location as the participants (audience, speakers) of an event. It can range from configurations where all participants meet in one room and all the interpreters work from another adjacent room in the same building to multilingual meetings where each member of the audience is in front of a computer at their office and interpreters scattered all over the world working online via a software platform that transmits sound and image over the internet.
Scenarios like these have been the holy grail of interpretation for many “game changing” equipment and language providers over the last couple of decades. The accelerating pace of technology has made it possible to broadcast content (audio and video signals) over the internet very fast and with minimal loss of quality. This has enabled cloud-based platforms to be used for remote multilingual simultaneous interpretation.
Interpreters are lucky compared to many other classes of professionals in the sense that the highly creative nature of language has not and in the near future will not make it possible for machines (or robots) to replace them. But, will remote interpretation be the “second worst” scenario available? Does a dystopian future await us, where isolated interpreters will be working alone, in office-type cubicles, for clients unaware of their existence? Will we be assimilated to remote devices, paid by the minute, pitted against each other on an app?
Or, is it true that remote technologies will only add new assignments (as the service providers conveniently argue today) with many events now taking place without interpretation being “enabled” by less costly services in the future?
If we wish to get inspiration from the past in order to answer these questions, we have to turn to the mid-20th century when simultaneous interpretation was first introduced (driven by technology and need) and revolutionized the profession. Most colleagues were against it claiming that it relegated interpreters to a different universe, away from their “breeding grounds”. Alienation, commoditization, stressful conditions were the keywords then, just like today. Yet, simultaneous interpretation prevailed and nowadays represents 80-90% of the workload of modern conference interpreters. Most of them, could not even conceive of a world where they would have to work in consecutive every day!
Does this mean that, after an adaptation period, interpreters will feel safe again, working remotely? That, after counting a few “victims” today, we will go back to a remote normality later? Well, not necessarily. While the consecutive-to-simultaneous transition was mainly driven by international institutions (where staff members and AIIC representatives actively participated in shaping the new working conditions), the transition to remote interpretation is happening in a very decentralized manner, driven mainly by the private market and in a way that hardly engages interpreters.
Change, once again, is unavoidable. In a globalized society, there is no way to stop the development of remote technologies – and probably no reason to, either. But new business models and “disruptive” technologies frequently also disrupt the lives of real people.
Right now, there are several competing models for doing remote. For instance, from a home/office environment or from a hub/studio? Working together with our booth colleague(s) or separately? Paid by the minute or by the session/contract? Interpreters should make their voice heard and influence the way remote will be practiced in the near future according to the interests and best practices of the profession.
AIIC, the only international association representing the profession, is the right vehicle and the guidelines for remote interpretation AIIC has issued are an excellent starting point. But, ultimately, each individual interpreter will have to apply due diligence, decide where to place her/his red lines and stick to them.
AIIC conference interpreter