The end of conference interpreting?
Thread poster: Conrado Portugal

Conrado Portugal
Local time: 23:44
German to Spanish
+ ...
Nov 23, 2005


Yesterday, I received an email from a French company asking me to answer to a questionnaire about interpreting since they were gathering information about conference interpreting and conference interpreters from all over the world.

I clicked on the linked and started to answer. At the end, they were revealing that they are about to offer, by mid 2006, a new online interpreting service. That is: the conference interpreter would work at home or office just with a mike and headphones thru a PC with ADSL connection. This way, they could reduce travel costs, hotel costs, the booths themselves and so on. Reducing cost is always a very welcome selling argument with clients.
They were asking me if I’d work for them and if I think interpreters and clients would go for it…. What do you think?

We know this is technically somehow possible and I cannot say we didn’t see it coming but facing it as a reality for next year many questions came to my mind, like:

- how is the relais interpreting going to work?
- how is your ‘cocabin’ going to help you with numbers, when you are too tired, when you don’t understand or miss a bit, get to go to the men’s room or just get sick?
- what about sound quality issues? The webstream conferences I watched on my PC show problems and glitches although I know SCIC is proving videoconferencing quite successfully … I’ve heard somewhere... but webconferencing is something different, isn’t it?
- we will lose interaction with the client, with the speakers, missing a lot of implicit information that is very important we need in our work. Moreover, we are already just a voice but we are there, they can see us, sometimes our clients come to talk to us, we can ask for last minute documents etc… now, we’ll get even more dehumanized
- and speaking about reducing costs… We saw some time ago a very controversial debate in the Spanish forum relating to rates and competition Europe/Latin America or Asia. This would without any doubt affect our wallet in the long run, particularly in the case of certain very common language combinations.

I just want to post this thread to find out about the opinions of my fellow interpreters. What do you think? Is it really that feasible from the technical point of view… no glitches? Would conference interpreters work like that and would the clients happily take it and if so, what would be the implications for us?


Conrado Portugal


Kevin Kelly  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:44
Member (2005)
Russian to English
+ ...
Could be heaven, could be hell.... Nov 23, 2005

I have mixed feelings about this. My main job is as a simultaneous (conference) interpeter for an organization where we have the luxury of working on-site with state-of-the-art equipment. However, I would welcome the idea of working remotely, IF the technical challenges have been solved. This means the ability to hear and see everything, full real-time visual access to slides and/or written materials, good sound quality, working in 30-minute shifts with another interpreter (rather than being expected to go for an hour or more without relief), etc. In addition, I would think the interpreter should be paid slightly more for this kind of work, although I am not so naive as to think that conference organizers and agencies would actually pass on any savings to the people who work the hardest to make conferences work.

Some years ago I became enthused about the idea of interpreting for videoconferences in which the principals are located 8-10 time zones from one another, until I learned of the massive logistical and technical problems associated with this mode of work. Hopefully, those hurdles have been cleared.

As you pointed out, there is also the important dimension of human contact. Being a disembodied voice is hard enough, but if you are physically located 5,000 miles (and several time zones) away, the situation is exacerbated.



Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:44
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Shifting costs to the interpreter Nov 23, 2005

conrado portugal wrote:
At the end, they were revealing that they are about to offer, by mid 2006, a new online interpreting service. That is: the conference interpreter would work at home or office just with a mike and headphones thru a PC with ADSL connection. This way, they could reduce travel costs, hotel costs, the booths themselves and so on.

You'd still need a booth, unless the client is satisfied to have an interpretation with ambient sound in the background, plus (in some cases) children's voices, phone ringing, doorbell ringing, etc. So ultimately you'll have to spend more to stay in business.


Tsu Dho Nimh
Local time: 15:44
Potential client comments Nov 23, 2005

I have done training sessions - monolingual - with a full video hookup. Even with expensive industrial setups at both ends, and a private network in between, there were annoying artifacts in the transmission.

We use VOIP at my current employer for internaitonal phone calls, across a private network, and the sound drops bits of words out. I can't envision a home setup, using VOIP and public internet, that would provide adequate quality to an interpreter.

For interpreting, you would miss many of the context clues unless you also had a camera hookup.

A potential client would have to consider the potential cost of a mis-communication versus the savings from not having an on-site interpreter.


Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 15:44
English to Spanish
+ ...
Limited, perhaps Nov 23, 2005

This could be tried on a limited basis and in some instances might work OK, but there are a lot of considerations that make it difficult such as you have mentioned. Not the least is the question of equipment, perfect sound, video hookup, etc.

I have done some phone interpretation for the Federal Courts using a system developed by some colleagues of mine. This may be checked out on the Net. It requires specialized equipment installed in courtrooms and various centers in different places that provide the service. It canoot be provided from anywhere, to anywhere. Plus there is no video.

The Federal Court System uses this mainly for short preliminary hearings and it has been very successful there. I even recall working part of a trial once, but the negative considerations come more into play there. Court interpreting is not conference interpreting, but many factors are similar.

I could see limited use under some circumstances, but not a displacement of conference interpreters.

Then of course how many of us have a perfect setup for working conferences? I could tell you some good stories of how difficult working conditions can be.


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