ATA’s position on Remote Interpreting
Remote interpreting is used in place of on-site interpreting whenever qualified interpreters in the languages needed are unavailable or when meeting in person is not an option. Remote interpreting poses unique challenges. On-site interpreters rely not only on the words spoken and the tone used, but also on the speaker’s body language and facial expressions to process meaning. When interpreting remotely, however, many non-verbal cues are absent. This, coupled with a lack of context and background information, negatively impacts interpreters’ work.
Although remote interpreting has existed since the 1970s, due to the increasingly wide range of technologies used for its delivery and the broadly varying settings where it is employed (conference, healthcare, legal, educational, etc.), to date, no standardized, industry-wide best practices have been established. The purpose of this paper is to identify differences between on-site and remote interpreting and offer a set of best practices for effective remote interpreting.
Types of Remote Interpreting
The following are terms commonly accepted in the United States for the different modalities in which remote interpreting services are provided.
- Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) uses platforms with two or more audio-visual channels specifically designed for simultaneous interpreting in spoken languages.
- Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) uses a single audio-visual channel that restricts spoken language interpreting to consecutive and sight translation modes. For sign languages, VRI does allow for simultaneous interpreting.
- Audio-only interpreting (e.g., over-the-phone interpreting or OPI) uses a single audio channel that restricts interpreting to the consecutive mode. An exception is the Telephone Interpreting Program (TIP) used in federal district and magistrate courts.
- “Makeshift” remote interpreting solutions are currently being used when the audio-visual platform does not offer a separate channel for simultaneous interpreting. Interpreters have to juggle a combination of technologies and/or devices while performing the already highly taxing cognitive task of interpreting.
Challenges of Remote Interpreting
Interpreters, whether on-site or remote, always carry a high cognitive load (the amount of information an individual retains in their short-term memory). The following limitations further increase the interpreter’s cognitive load and the stimuli the interpreter must process, and consequently decreases the quality of their work:
- The inability to change their vantage point or improve the quality of the video or audio transmission.
- The complete dependence on the quality of the technology used.
- The limited or total inaccessibility to crucial non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language, which hinders interpreters’ understanding of the source message.
- The fact that remote meetings are viewed on two-dimensional screens interferes with the brain’s visual attention system and forces the interpreter to work harder to maintain concentration and re-create additional missing dimensions.
- Poor sound quality (e.g., volume and clarity), especially while working in simultaneous mode, because interpreters must hear and understand the speaker’s voice above their own.
- The continual adjustments to changes in audio levels and ambient noise.
- The demands made on interpreters to perform technical troubleshooting or to juggle multiple communication devices while providing interpreting services.
- The absence of a booth (either physical or virtual) that allows interpreters to hear and perform essential support duties for each other forces them to use additional platforms or devices to share terminology and manage turn-taking.
- The need to use the chat function as an additional source of content
places an added demand on the interpreter’s ability to focus and interpret
the message accurately.
- The requirement for interpreters to remain on camera contributes to fatigue, as interpreters may feel compelled to maintain the same posture for extended periods.
Best Practices for Remote Interpreting
In response to the challenges noted above, the following best practices should be adopted to ensure the quality of interpreting services:
Use appropriate technology
- Interpreters and speakers should be logged on to the same platform. They must use high-quality, wired headphones and noise-cancelling unidirectional microphones.
- Interpreters’ internet connections and computers should meet the specifications of the platform to be used.
- Given that headphones increase the risk of acoustic shock, headphones should include protection that limits maximum volume to 85 dB (decibels).
- Interpreters and all active participants should have a high- speed, wide-bandwidth internet connection of at least 60 Mbps (megabits per second), with computers connected through an Ethernet cable, to ensure that the connection:
- is clear and audible;
- delivers high-quality video;
- is free of lags, choppy, blurry or grainy images, and irregular pauses in communication.
Limit audio-only interpreting to shorter sessions
Because non-verbal cues are not present, this modality is not appropriate for lengthy meetings or complex communications.
Ensure technical support
The person or group responsible for providing technical support before and during the event (and their specific duties) should be agreed upon ahead of time. This person should not be the interpreter.
Provide training and rehearsal
Prior to the session (e.g., several days, a week), interpreters and all key participants must be trained in the use of the specific remote interpreting technology. A rehearsal to verify that all systems are working is essential.
Provide event details in advance whenever possible
Prior to the event, interpreters must be told the type of event (e.g., conference, court hearing, medical consultation, etc.) taking place, the topic, the interpreting modes required, the names and roles of the participants, and the platform to be used.
Make documents and materials available
As with on-site assignments, interpreters must be provided access to all documentation and relevant materials prior to the event in order to prepare. Interpreters should also receive all materials distributed and presentations made during the actual event.
Incorporate an informational pre-session announcement
Before the session, the host should advise all participants, in all languages, on how to access the interpreting channel(s). Introductory comments should include a reminder that speakers must not talk over each other so that everyone’s message can be heard and interpreted.
Ensure a clear view of the speaker
The camera should be focused on the speaker and any projected presentation at all times.
For sign language interpreting, ensure a clear view of the interpreter
Sign language interpreters must be visible throughout the virtual meeting and their video tiles should be pinned or fixed to a specific spot on the screen.
Implement team interpreting
All simultaneous interpreting assignments should have a team of at least two interpreters, as should all consecutive interpreting assignments lasting more than one hour. For events lasting longer than two hours, such as a conference or training session, a third interpreter should be added to each language team.
Insist on a quiet workspace
To support accurate interpreting, interpreters and speakers should be in a quiet, private location free of background noise and interruptions.
Since remote interpreting relies on technology and connections that are ultimately beyond the interpreters’ or participants’ control, an extra interpreter and additional devices and internet connections should be readily available in case of technological failures.
Follow remote meeting etiquette
- Everyone should be in a quiet environment, free of background noise.
- Computer and telephone notifications should be disabled.
- Participants should mute their microphones when not speaking. A moderator or host should ensure that only one microphone is open at a time.
While on-site interpreting provides the best quality interpreting services, remote interpreting does offer solutions in many circumstances. It allows businesses, hospitals, courts, schools, governments, and international organizations to provide interpreting services in situations where on-site interpreting is not an option.
We are still learning about the impact of the demands and stresses that remote interpreting has on interpreters and the quality of their services. It is clear, however, that following best practices is essential to delivering high-quality interpreting services. We, the American Translators Association, are confident this paper provides a clearer understanding not only of the conditions interpreters need to perform accurately, safely, and effectively in virtual settings, but also of what participants can do to ensure optimal results in remotely interpreted events and interactions.
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