The Role of Remote Interpreting in a Post-COVID World

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The translation industry has not escaped the global transformations forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the biggest changes has been in the way interpreting services are delivered.

Because during 2020 and 2021, businesses around the world have had to change to a distance-based way of operating, events of all sizes have suddenly had to become online events too.

This has meant that many of the language services needed to facilitate business operations and those events – not to mention critical frontline healthcare and legal services – have had to go online too.

But remote interpreting services – as interpretation provided online or over the phone is called – is not a new thing. In fact, it’s been a growing part of the languages industry for many years.

That growth has been driven by advances in technology. But it has now been massively accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote interpreters are suddenly more in demand than even their broadening recognition within the industry would have suggested a few years ago.

What will happen though, after the COVID-19 pandemic is eventually over? What will be the role of remote interpreting in a post-COVID world?

Onsite interpreting vs remote interpreting

As of the mid-2010s and even beyond, onsite interpreting services still represented around 80% of all spoken language services delivered around the world.

The figures aren’t in for 2020 just yet. But it seems likely that pandemic lockdowns and stay-at-home orders will have dramatically shifted that weighting.

It is important to understand exactly what is meant by the two broad types of interpreting being discussed here:

What is onsite interpreting?

Onsite interpreting is the traditional way spoken language services have been delivered – ever since one group of people first needed to speak to another group and used a single person with knowledge of their language to do it.

These days, there are several discrete types of onsite interpreting. What ties them together is that the interpreter providing the language support is almost always in the same building – often the same room – as the people who need the interpretation.

  • Simultaneous interpreting – is often used to verbally translate the words of someone giving a speech or presentation. It requires no interruption in the flow of words. Audience members usually listen to the verbal translation via headsets at the same time as the speaker is talking.
  • Consecutive interpreting – is more often used when two different parties need to converse back and forth. In this type of interpretation, a speaker talks for a minute or two. Then they pause while the linguist interprets. The speaker can then continue to talk or allow the other party in the conversation to respond.
  • Whispered interpreting – is much the same as simultaneous interpreting, but is designed for situations where only one or two people need language support. The linguist stands close to the people in need of support and whispers or murmurs the translation into their ear.

What is remote interpreting?

Remote interpreting is usually available in the same modes as onsite interpreting. The key difference is that neither the linguist nor any party involved in the conversation needs to be in the same physical location.

Remote interpreters have already been in common use in conferences, healthcare, judicial, and diplomatic circles for years.

The cost of these services used to be high. But today, thanks to advances in technology, they are almost always the more affordable option out of the two.

  • Over-the-Phone (OPI) – just as it sounds, OPI is delivered with parties in a conversation and an interpreter communicating via a shared phone line. This is one of the most cost-effective ways to deliver interpreting services. But there is a downside in that some vital visual cues – a key part of any communication – might be lost.
  • Video-Remote-Interpreting (VRI) – VRI is remote interpreting delivered via telecommunications software. Being able to see the other parties involved in the conversation ensures there is no room for miscommunication.
  • Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) – simultaneous interpreting services delivered via telecommunications software. Common examples of use might include during virtual presentations, webinars, and any other time one person is addressing a group of people and ideally shouldn’t be interrupted.
  • Remote Consecutive Interpreting (RCI) – conference interpreting delivered via telecommunications software. Common examples of use might include virtual business meetings, negotiations, legal interviews and doctor’s appointments.

What are the benefits of remote interpretation?

The growth of remote interpreting as a share of the overall volume of spoken language services delivered worldwide has been growing for years. Like the transformation seen in other industries, this is due to the rapid speed of technological change in the past few decades.

Demand for interpreting services continues to expand, fuelled by an increasingly global market where organisations which speak different languages wish to do business with each other.

Paired with those advances in technology, remote interpreting solutions like OPI, VRI, RSI, and RCI have rapidly become the go-to choice for many people in need of language services for several reasons:

1) Convenience

RI services have a clear edge over onsite interpreting in the realm of convenience. With just a little forewarning, a linguist with relevant subject matter experience can be added to any call quickly and easily. There is no need to wait for the linguist to physically travel to the site.

This option is so convenient that call centres and other support services in all kinds of industries – from healthcare and medical device manufacture to banking and the airline industry – often have remote interpreters standing by.

2) Cost-effectiveness

Phone interpreting is almost always the most cost-effective option when it comes to spoken language services.

Video remote interpreting is not far behind – especially now that easy-to-use apps and digital services have reached the market.

With no need to cover travel costs and usually no costs if the interpreter is not needed on certain days, most RI services are much more cost-effective than their onsite counterparts.

3) Flexibility and scalable

With no commitment to using expensive interpreters, businesses of all sizes find themselves able to access the language support they need on a flexible basis which scales to meet their demands.

4) Less complexity and onsite preparation

Finally, remote interpreting services offer a generally simpler option than onsite interpreters. There is less of a need to prepare equipment or facilities such as soundproof booths.

Highly secure, cloud-based services such as Interprefy take the form of intuitive apps which conversation participants can use to access spoken interpretation through their mobile device. All without any risk of reducing the quality of the language support provided.

Are there any situations where onsite interpreters are preferable?

This is not to say that there aren’t many situations where having a linguist present for a face-to-face meeting isn’t preferable. These tend to be situations where high levels of compassion and sensitivity are required, such as:

  • Traumatic medical care
  • End of life care
  • Legal trials or hearings which last for many days
  • Some diplomatic negotiations
  • Events involving some diplomatic protocols

The COVID-19 pandemic may have introduced an added risk to these kinds of situations, meaning some may have switched to remote options during the short-term.

Nevertheless, most parties involved in situations such as the above will likely be keen to get back to conducting them in-person as soon as possible.

When is using a remote interpreter the best solution?

But for many situations, RI services were increasingly the choice of many organisations before COVID-19. Few will wish to switch back to traditional models after the crisis finally – we all hope – fades away. Some of the most popular fields for remote interpreters to be used in include:

1) Healthcare

It has been demonstrated on numerous occasions that if a person receives healthcare in a language they are not fluent in, they are likely to:

  1. Not follow courses of medication correctly
  2. Leave a hospital even when being advised not to
  3. Overall, ask for and receive less preventive-type care

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare providers around the world were realising that remote interpreting services offered the ideal solution to this problem.

Being cost-effective, flexible, and convenient, these services enable healthcare professionals to have language support on hand as and when they need it.

The COVID crisis has only emphasised just how useful – and highly necessary – language support like this is in a healthcare setting.

  • Use of video remote interpreting is becoming a natural addition to the virtually-delivered telemedicine which is increasingly a feature of how healthcare can or must be provided to certain patients.
  • Over-the-phone interpreting services remain in common and increasing use by many healthcare providers.
  • VRI is generally to be preferred over OPI because it allows the linguist to see facial expressions, gestures, and body language in addition to things like tone and pitch of voice.
  • Video interpreting is also important for Deaf and Hard of Hearing patients and healthcare professionals.

2) Virtual meetings

As business meetings migrate to the online space, the language services they require follow them.

Organisations in every industry are using RCI services to communicate with potential clients and partners around the world.

Plus, these services enable businesses to allow all of the talent they have available to them to communicate confidently and clearly, no matter what their native language happens to be.

3) Virtual events and conferences

It is a rare international conference or event at which you will not find a team of interpreters. Now that these events are happening more and more online, the natural solution is to bring the language support they need online too.

Using spoken language specialists in addition to options like captioning has been shown to increase the international draw of all kinds of events.

4) Many physical events

Many events in the real world were taking advantage of the lower costs and convenience offered by remote interpreting services delivered by apps and other technological tools well before COVID-19 hit the public consciousness.

Providing every attendee with hassle-free language support from a team of offsite RSI interpreters via each attendee’s own mobile phone remains an attractive prospect for many events organisers.

Using remote interpreters – best practices

Using remote interpreters might be more cost-effective and convenient than most onsite language support options. But there are still a few things which are important to bear in mind when booking them:

1) Choose the right professional

For any industry or event – but particularly for the healthcare and legal fields – using a linguist with extensive experience or knowledge in the field is a must. Without it, you risk your interpreter not understanding or mistranslating vital pieces of terminology or jargon.

For example, at Kwintessential, we have the same criteria for selecting remote interpreters as we do their onsite counterparts. On top of mastery of both of the languages involved, this means a minimum of five years of experience and/ or Masters degree-level qualifications in the relevant field. Often, it means both.

We are also looking for deep familiarity with the cultures of the speakers behind the languages. This is important for understanding things like common gestures or interpreting facial expressions. Both may not be as universal as you might expect.

2) Plan as much in advance as possible

It is often possible to arrange a skilled interpreter at relatively short notice.

But for best results, always aim to give your chosen Language Service Provider (LSP) enough time to select just the right specialist, as well as time for you both to properly brief your linguist on the project they are being assigned to.

3) Provide a briefing

Make sure that your interpreter isn’t flying blind. They need to understand the context of the situation, your desired goals, as well as any necessary specific terminology vital to the subjects under discussion.

Everything you can possibly tell your linguist about the situation may be relevant. If in doubt, your Language Service Provider should be able to advise you what would be helpful.

4) Work with a partner

It is by no means a requirement, but identifying a go-to LSP you can trust for language support can be a move which will smooth the way for your future needs.

The more experience you have of working together, the more accurate and efficient your LSP will become in getting you what you need.

5) Check for accreditation

Not sure what sets different translation agencies apart from each other?

Check for things like ISO:9001 certification as well as membership of official bodies such as the Association of Translation Companies (ATC) in the UK or American Translations Association (ATA) in the US.

6) Select the most suitable type of RI service

The main options when it comes to professional remote interpreting services – OPI, VRI, RSI and RCI – all have situations where they really shine.

For instance, you might use over-the-phone interpretation if you have a very limited budget or you know that your conversation participants may have no audio-visual equipment or compatible devices.

Many other situations might call for a kind of video remote interpreting service, either RSI or RCI. If in any doubt, it is always a good idea to ask your LSP for a recommendation.

Remote interpreting services – is the future already here?

A translation company like Kwintessential, which has extensive experience of organising remote interpreting services for global events already, has been well-positioned to continue to provide those services during the COVID pandemic.

But is an increased demand for those services a change that’s likely to stick in a post-pandemic world?

Many organisations – among them Facebook, Twitter, and other tech companies – have already said that the change to working from home will become permanent for many of their employees when the pandemic is over.

Trends in industries such as healthcare seem set to continue too. The pandemic only heightened and exacerbated a change which was already happening.

Onsite interpreters may soon be back at work in certain situations. But in the post-COVID world, it looks like the increasing recognition of the cost-effectiveness and convenience or remote interpreting is here to stay.

Considering whether remote interpreting is the right choice for you?

Talk to an expert. Kwintessential helps organisations around the world set up the interpreting services which are right for them.

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