New technologies for interpreters: an unstoppable wave

by Marzia Sebastiani - twitter: @Comunica_Marzia

For some time there has been discussion about the technological revolution that is affecting the sector of interpreting services. Various new technologies have become established, arousing great interest as well as qualms and fears. Besides, it cannot be denied that our means of communicating is moulded by technology and its innovations. Just as the translation sector has been revolutionised especially in the last fifteen years by the development of automated solutions and by web- and cloud-based technologies, so too in the interpreting world have technological innovations appeared that respond to the demands of a more and more interconnected world. Expectations have changed and everything relies on the consumer’s experience. We are surrounded by smart, multifunction devices, always connected to the Internet, with which we expect to be able to access any service, at any time and anywhere. What changes have come about in the interpreting sector to cater for the new expectations?

New trends in the interpreting sector: a new Nurnberg?

Various trends have come to the fore: the development of multifunction solutions that can be adapted to different contexts and events, the launch of an increasing number of specific apps for smartphone and tablet, and the possibility of transmitting the translated speech directly to mobile devices, the design of new control desks for interpreters and the progress of distance interpreting services as an element that breaks down the boundaries of lecture rooms and other locations, placing them in a potentially global context. This article proposes to outline some of the current trends that are taking hold and the emerging future technologies.

New technological solutions for simultaneous interpreting, marked by quality and functionality.

The panorama of technical instruments for simultaneous interpreting services has remained mostly unchanged for a long time. Depending on necessity and on the situation, the choice was between infrared technology and radio frequency. While infrared technology transfers the sound through the light and, in the digital version introduced recently, guarantees a secure communication that is unaffected by interference with wireless devices such as cell phones and microphones, radio frequency is based on FM frequencies. It is subject to interference, and is therefore less secure, but it allows rapid installation and is easily transportable, making it the first choice in the case of guided tours and similar situations. In recent years, come companies that manufacture control desks for simultaneous interpreting have introduced some product innovations aimed at improving their functionality. Through the control desk, the interpreters can choose which video input to show on the screens in the booth (speaker's slides or other cameras in the room, as well as the cameras built into the speaker’s desk), rehear the speaker’s last sentence thanks to a buffer memory, and communicate with the organisers and the sound engineers by means of text messages. The interpreters can also check the number of people listening and whether the translation is being recorded or transmitted by streaming. Multimedia content can also be shared on all the speakers’ and interpreters’ control desks by USB.

BYOD mobile devices - bring your own device

Faced with the proliferation of smartphones, some developers, first abroad and then also in Italy, have recently presented apps that allow users to listen to the simultaneous translation of an event with their own cell phone, which is thus transformed into a receiver. Nothing changes for the interpreter, who translates, as usual, with the traditional control desks installed in soundproofed booths; instead, the participants are asked to install an app on their cell phone to enable them to listen to the translation over a Wi-Fi connection. The software portal can also be used by the event organisers to issue communications, notices and advertising.

The BYOD offers evident advantages, including a notable reduction of receiver hire costs, but its limits and risks are equally evident. The system is highly dependent on the bandwidth of the available Internet connection. Any connectivity problems will affect the audio quality of the translation. The cell phone battery might be run down, the user may have left the charger in the hotel, or for some reason it is not possible to install a new app on a company cell phone, the user may have lost the ID and password, or the device may not have sufficient free memory.

Remote interpreting: a not too distant future

Remote interpreting is increasingly becoming a logistic mode applied in various sectors. Let’s be clear about this. Remote interpreting means that the interpreters are not physically in the same room as the speakers and the participants in the event. Widely used examples of remote interpreting envisage the installation of interpreter stations in rooms adjoining the main room of the event, which for reasons of space or other reasons perhaps cannot contain all the booths or the audio equipment. Thanks to the closed circuit cameras installed in the main room, the interpreters can follow the event on the screen. Simultaneous remote interpreting is often used in television shows. A new evolution of this technology, based on Internet protocol and on network cables, was presented during the latest edition of Integrated Systems Europe in Amsterdam, the most important world fair of audio/video and systems integration. Thanks to this method, any audio-video source arriving from the speakers, the interpreters, the cameras in the room or a personal computer, is distributed over a cable network. Like the closed circuit system, the interpreters are physically present at the location of the event, but their station can be in a different room or on a different floor from the room in which the event is being held. If the interpreters are not present at the event location, this is remote interpreting in the strictest sense. For this purpose, in recent years, numerous Internet-based platforms have been created in Europe and in the United States, which bear the name IDP, interpreting delivery platforms, through which the interpreting service can be provided in different ways.

OPI, over-the-phone interpreting. This technology offers only audio. With a remote connection, even from home, using a traditional telephone line with copper cables or, more and more frequently, with an Internet connection and a specific application, the interpreter translates the participants’ conversation in consecutive or simultaneous mode. This solution is suitable in cases of extreme urgency, in hospitals, police stations, or where there is a very limited budget (social services, refugee reception centres). The absence of video input deprives the interpreter of any reference context, with negative consequences on the dynamics of the conversation.

VRI, video remote interpreting. The term VRI was initially coined in the sector of sign language and is now used to identify systems that use audio and video. The spread of broadband has recently promoted the development of numerous VRI platforms. The visual contact facilitates the translation activity and makes this system particularly suitable for telemedicine, as long as the conversation is between a restricted number of participants. Among the aspects to consider is the necessity for hospitals to acquire the devices (ideally tablets), to keep them in sterile conditions and to train personnel in their use.

RSI, remote simultaneous interpreting. With this technology, a virtual booth is created in which the interpreters, located in different towns, can take turns in translating an event in real time by means of an Internet connection and a portal or an app that substitutes the traditional control desk in the booth. The speakers and the public can also be in a remote location, and take part in the work through a portal or an app, virtualising the entire event. The advantages are immediately clear. The expenses for the hire of audio systems and receivers with headphones are notably reduced. Transport costs are practically eliminated and there are no travelling times. Events can be organised even at short notice with less difficulty, as there is no need to move heavy equipment. Some platforms also allow all the work to be recorded at the same time and, with the reduction of costs, perhaps new market opportunities will emerge and simultaneous interpreting may find a wider application than it now has in certain contexts. However, as in the case of all new systems, there are inevitably some justified dubious points.

Interpreters do not always have video input available, or do not have the possibility of choosing the camera. If audio or technical problems arise, or simply to get a colleague to take over, they have to make use of the chat and this makes remote interpreting much more demanding and stressful. For this reason, according to the results of a survey held by CSA Research among 45 operators in the sector, customers often prefer to have the interpreters on the spot so that they can give them indications and material at the last minute and monitor the translation service to ensure that it is going well.

In addition, RSI platforms are strongly dependent on a strong Internet connection. If the Internet signal is absent for any reason (storm, unexpected maintenance on the network), the interpreters are not in a condition to provide their service.  The possibility of recording all the work may prove to be a double-edged sword. Then the fact that events can be organised at short notice could result in very short preparation times.

Some aspects such as the greater cognitive load and the more purely technical characteristics of the audio input are currently being studied by the AIIC Technical and Health Committee, which is involved in defining the new standards ISO/FDIS 20108 and 20109 (Simultaneous interpreting - Equipment - Requirements), and will be debated at the AIIC General Assembly in Valencia. Today more than ever, the necessity is felt for a constructive and open exchange of information and opinions between the world of interpreters and the operators who have launched new platforms on the market, or are about to do so.

Recommended citation format:
AIIC. "New technologies for interpreters: an unstoppable wave". July 28, 2017. Accessed March 28, 2020. <>.