In March 2020, almost overnight, a strict lockdown was imposed on a good proportion of the planet, paralysing the global economy. All activity, unless it was deemed essential, came to a standstill. What has become of the conference interpreting sector, which is entirely dependent on international meetings and travel, both of which are subject to heavy restrictions?
The impact of COVID-19 on conference interpreting
Conference interpreters have tended to be resistant to remote interpretation because of the technical risks involved and the depersonalisation of their profession, but they quickly realised that if they wanted to continue working they would need to follow in the footsteps of numerous businesses who were shifting to virtual conferences. Remote interpreting on videoconferencing platforms provided a makeshift solution for clients wishing to hold multilingual meetings. Interpreters began working from home, using computers and telephones as communication tools.
Consultant interpreters, who organise teams of interpreters to meet the requirements of their clients, have also had to adapt. Since the simultaneous interpreting systems offered by the various videoconferencing platforms were all at different stages of development, it was necessary to test them and learn how they worked. There are two types of platform: those which were designed for online meetings and then added a simultaneous interpreting function, and those which were designed with the technical requirements of interpreting in mind. The latter offer significantly more comprehensive functionality for interpreters, but are also more expensive.
After taking stock of the situation, companies recruiting interpreters added simultaneous interpretation to their virtual meetings to enable them to maintain contact with their clients, suppliers and employees. International organisations, on the other hand, turned to more sophisticated multilingual systems which could cater for their more complex needs. Given that these technologies are new, many users of interpretation require advice and guidance from consultant interpreters.
Clients have appreciated interpreters’ efforts to adapt, while recognising that the working conditions are more difficult and more tiring.
Some simultaneous interpreting equipment providers have set up so-called interpreting hubs with interpreting booths and offer technical support for videoconferences with remote interpretation.
This shows how all the players in this particularly hard-hit sector have adapted to survive.
In the light of this abrupt turn of events, and the real prospect of this new mode of interpreting being here to stay, representatives of professional conference interpreters were quick to draw up new guidance on working conditions. Shorter turns interpreting taken by colleagues in the same language booth, reinforced teams and the need for high-quality equipment are just a few of the points included in the AIIC Guidelines for Distance Interpreting.
Opinions continue to differ on the principle of remote interpreting. For some it is pure magic, while others regard it as a risky venture. However, professionals acknowledge that for the time being it is essential, while agreeing that it should only be practised under certain conditions.
Many interpreters and consultant interpreters remain unconvinced by remote interpretation.
“Although interpreting from home has provided a welcome stop-gap solution during lockdown, interpreters are eager to return to work alongside both delegates and colleagues at physical conferences,” says Danielle Grée, Calliope member for Spain, who is based in Barcelona. “For a consultant interpreter, it is crucial to be on-site. Obtaining a copy of the minister’s speech just before they take the floor, signalling to the technician to move a microphone closer to the speaker, quickly reorganising the team to cover an extra language where possible, circulating a note to the interpreters with the technical term confirmed by the client: this is all part of the job of liaising effectively between the different players and ensuring high-quality interpretation which will satisfy both the organisers and the interpreters.”
Others find remote interpreting liberating and regard it as a promising development.
“I no longer need to spend hours making travel arrangements, I don’t waste time travelling, I can sleep in my own bed every night, I can choose the very best, most reliable, colleagues, regardless of where they happen to live, I am building stronger relationships with my clients because I am providing them with solutions and they are very grateful. In short, I believe that remote interpreting has many benefits. Obviously you need a good computer, a high-quality headset with integrated microphone and a high-speed Internet connection. But once you have that high-performing equipment it is a new solution that can help us,” states Laurence Corréard, Calliope member for Portugal.
Remote interpreting will not replace face-to-face meetings. Participants in videoconferences all repeat over and over again how much they are looking forward to meeting in the real world. But it is a new tool which enables discussions to be held more frequently, and which is accelerating market developments. Hazel Cole, Calliope member for Canada, confirms this trend: “One of my clients in the automotive sector has started talking to its dealerships every week rather than organising two meetings per year”.
The future looks set to be hybrid, with speakers, interpreters and some participants present in the conference venue, while others join the meeting remotely.
The challenge for everyone, and especially for conference interpreters, will be to ensure that the technology benefits humankind, rather than the other way round. Calliope is up to this challenge.
Contact Calliope-Interpreters, your global network of consultant interpreters. We can help you to plan your next hybrid event or videoconference.