Simultaneous Interpretation in the Post-Covid World

March 10, 2022

It’s unclear when exactly the pandemic will end but for sure the world won’t be having total lockdowns anymore. Onsite meetings are returning and most of them with an online element, i.e. hybrid events. Naturally colleagues would be thinking of setting up booths and consoles onsite.

What’s changed?

However, with almost 2 years of user behavioural change, clients are much more informed about the feasibility of distance interpreting. From the cost (and logistics) perspective, remote interpreting solutions are clearly more attractive than the traditional SI setup onsite.

In the meantime, don’t forget what happened in 2019, the pre-existing RSI platforms competed with onsite setups and forced interpreters into less than onsite working conditions out of their own business interests, ignoring the suitability of RSI for an onsite event. This horrible situation will return, and most likely going to haunt every interpreter, because during pandemic the monsters have already tasted a slice of meat, and will definitely come back for more.

From the client’s perspective, the cost advantage is undeniable, and if there is any reason to prevent the prevalent usage of RSI in onsite events prior to 2020, that would be the concerns of reliability and practical feasibility of it. But it’s been 2 years. The situation now is much different. Clients may need to justify why can’t do it online/hybrid with a lower budget. Cost would seem to be the only factor of concern now. To return interpreters to an onsite booth, would only make sense if the physical equipment cost isn’t higher than RSI solutions.

The same cake, yours or mine?

Some interpreters may not worry about this as the job is still in the market, shifting project owners only. However, for many LSPs and consultant/coordinating interpreters, this would mean loss of jobs/clients to RSI platforms (effective agencies), a life-or-death race.

If we zoom out to look at it from a higher level with a slightly longer time frame, the uberization of our industry is inevitable (or even worse: training machine interpretation using human interpretation data collected without interpreters’ permission or knowledge, which has already been happening), if we, the pillar of the industry, aren’t clear of the situation and take actions.

Platform or not?

Let’s not fall into the trap of comparing functionalities of this and that platform. For our work, interpretation, to get across to the audience, the only thing we need, whether onsite or remote, is just the console and channel, i.e. what’s set up within the physical booth. It’s never about the platform. Online meetings have been around for a long time.

We just need a tool to deliver what the interpreters say. This is the key to break the vicious cycle of letting the platforms decide which interpreters get to have a job, preventing the industry from racing to the bottom and saving small LSPs’ living.

A virtual booth toolset for every LSP and every interpreter (and consultant/coordinating interpreter), enabling everyone to provide a full service to client in a truly inclusive manner, and compete fairly just like pre-covid times.

This would effectively prevent the winner-take-all power concentration by the few RSI platforms, and catalyse the healthy market development back to track.

Win-Win-Win can be achieved

Interpreters and LSPs then would be able to provide comprehensive solutions (both onsite and remote) proposals without losing their customers, achieve a better balance of onsite/remote setups and work at their own ease. That would be the win-win-win, created among end clients (or event organisers), LSPs (or consultant interpreters), and individual interpreters.

Technology should work FOR us

Distance interpreting technology brings down the cost and geographical for diverse audience, but at the same time, we the language industry players need inclusive tools for everyone, so technology factors should be taken out of the equation when client makes a decision on procuring interpreters, opposite from the twisted reality now.

AI-augmented, not AI replacing

AI with no doubt will advance further in the language and audio processing field to assist human interpreters to do a better job, with what machines are good at, i.e., analytics, processing, recognition, etc. But human interpreters would still be the centre piece of the simultaneous interpreting, with the human touch, emotions, creation, interpreting meanings so much more than constructing sentences. Human-centred AI would be core service model, with human interpreters leveraging on AI capabilities to deliver better interpretation.

Of course, there will be challenges and re-training needed, but choosing this career as an interpreter means life-long learning, isn’t it? Technologies will and should make our life and work easier, and in a human-centred service industry, technologies should not be played as a privilege to block customers accessing their preferred LSPs or interpreters.

Not everyone would agree on this, but at least we can see the benefits of such a future, vs. the one we will run into if we continue to let platforms steer our careers.

Call to action: bearing in mind the difference of current reality and the future, remind ourselves of the imminent uberization, and to try out and use (completely independent) virtual booth toolsets in our daily work (and subsequently AI assistance tools) which will effectively replace RSI platforms in almost all occasions. It is a worthwhile effort, for benefit of the entire simultaneous interpreting ecosystem and career.

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If you want me to provide you Interpretation/Translation service in English to Chinese (Mandarin) and vice versa, or a quotation for conference interpreting services of any languages, simply contact me by phone or email.

Dr. Bernard Song