Remote Simultaneous Interpreting Hubs or Platforms: What’s the Best Option?

In times of lockdown and social distancing, remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) has suddenly become the perfect solution for many, despite being still technically imperfect. Two work environments have emerged for delivery that interpreters will need to explore before they jump on the bandwagon. The following sheds light on both to encourage interpreters to reflect on this somewhat unchartered territory.

The outbreak of COVID-19 turned the world upside down across industries, forcing everyone to shift gears to avoid a full stop. The translation and interpreting industry was no exception. All at once, the schedules of interpreters around the globe became a long list of crossed-out assignments. Then a topic that many interpreters had underhyped for years suddenly became overhyped: remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI).

RSI was being used widely in many countries long before COVID-19, yet there was a solid dividing line between supporters and naysayers. The former thought that RSI was another technology-enabled solution to provide interpreting services. The latter believed it went against the fundamentals of traditional interpreting. A similar situation occurred when computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools were introduced. At first, many translators saw this technology as a threat but later discovered its benefits and harnessed them to increase their productivity, and hence their income. It was just another example of human resistance to change.

RSI platforms were going through a trial period when COVID-19 broke out. Although these platforms had been around for some time, most interpreters reported technical issues when using them. However, when in-person events were wiped out in a matter of days after the pandemic hit, these platforms became the perfect solution—despite still being imperfect—and the naysayers rapidly changed their attitude.

Many clients and interpreters only associate RSI with online platforms, but RSI has a much more friendly side: RSI hub networks. In fact, RSI services can be delivered through hubs or over online platforms. The following aims to shed some light on the differences between both work environments for interpreters so they can make an informed decision to best serve their clients or to accept or decline an assignment.

Hubs and RSI Platforms: What’s the Difference?

The main difference between a “hub environment” and “RSI platforms” is that hubs are a “controlled environment” that replicates most of the features of a traditional interpreting setting. Although the interpreter is not there, they work under the same technical conditions as being onsite. By contrast, RSI platforms are like aircraft that the interpreter has to fly alone, with plenty of buttons but no automatic pilot.

Hubs and RSI platforms involve two different distance interpreting (DI) setups. The table above summarizes the main characteristics of each one.

HUBS: MAIN CHARACTERISTICS RSI PLATFORMS: MAIN CHARACTERISTICS
  • Interpreters are co-located.

  • Interpreters are co-located.
  • Qualified technician is onsite.

  • Interpreters are co-located.
  • Ensures the quality and continuity of the data connection.

  • No co-location.

  • Safeguards the confidentiality of all communications.

  • Some platforms provide remote technical support.

  • Provides a private, soundproof setting.

  • Connectivity problems may arise.

  • Provides interpreting consoles or interpreter interfaces.

  • Your connection may not be safe.

  • Ensures that the interpreter has access to conference documents and can view them live as they are displayed to the audience.
  • You must create the right work setting at home.
  • You work with a PC.
  • Handover is difficult.
  • Relay restrictions.
  • Power may go out.
  • Interpreter is in charge of most technical aspects.

Hubs: Advantages/Disadvantages

Let’s analyze hubs first. Most hubs are compliant with the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) standards for simultaneous interpreting (ISO 201081 and 201092). This means that they meet the technical requirements set for quality and transmission of sound and image to interpreters and from interpreters to participants, and for the configuration of the interpreter’s working environment. The interpreter works via video and audio feed remotely from the event venue.

Hubs provide three main advantages:

1. Co-Location and Technical Support: Simultaneous interpreting (SI) is about teamwork. In a hub environment the interpreter can rely on their boothmate as much as in an in-person setting, whether the interpreter needs to switch turns more often, needs help on a particular word or figure, experiences a technical glitch on the console, or has a coughing fit! As such, the interpreter only needs to focus on the interpreting task (a task that’s already a “multi-task”).

2. Technical Support: A qualified technician is in charge of all the technical aspects, securing the appropriate working conditions at all times. Usually hubs support backup systems to prevent any connectivity issues from jeopardizing the event.

3. No Relay Restrictions: Hubs can accommodate several language combinations, so no relay restrictions exist in the case of multilingual events.

The downside of hubs is that by being away from the event venue, interpreters miss plenty of information that they usually gather by being there. This includes not only being debriefed by speakers and meeting moderators, but also picking up information first-hand that can have an impact on the development of the event. Big conferences or face-to-face events are not just about what happens on the main stage, but also about what transpires in the exhibition rooms and break-out sessions. Coffee breaks are a good opportunity for attendees to network and for interpreters to collect additional information they can use to enhance their work in the booth when sessions resume. All that is missing in a hub environment.

RSI Platforms: Advantages/Disadvantages

Compared to hubs, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. RSI platforms do not fully comply with ISO interpreting requirements and are still going through a trial-and-error period. Some work better than others but none are entirely error-free yet and need further development to come close to the efficiency of traditional interpreting equipment.

These platforms are like a cake you pull out of the oven five minutes early because you’re starving. It may taste good, but it has neither the right color nor the right texture. With RSI platforms, you can tell those five minutes are missing.

The main disadvantages of RSI platforms are:

No Co-Location: When working through platforms, and even if two interpreters are involved, they are usually not co-located, which hinders the support process. In a booth situation, mutual assistance is an intuitive, almost automatic act. When using an RSI platform, however, working with another interpreter becomes a hassle. Interpreters have a chat function available to communicate with their mates working remotely, but this forces them to allocate a portion of their attention to technical aspects beyond their control. This may impair their delivery process and lead to increased cognitive load and fatigue.

Technical Support and Work Setting: The fact of not working in a controlled environment means interpreters also have to undertake certain technical tasks. RSI platforms provide remote technical support from a technician located somewhere in the world. But again, like a pilot, while you call the air traffic control tower for assistance you have to continue flying the aircraft. Maybe the pilot can place the airplane on autopilot for a while, but the interpreter cannot do so with a live event. So, if a technical difficulty arises (e.g., power outage, connectivity failure, poor video or audio feed, etc.), the interpreter will have to add yet another task while trying to keep on providing the service.

Interpreters are also in charge of the work setup, which entails securing a soundproof setting and having the right equipment in place, which means a top-notched computer, ISO-compliant headsets with built-in microphones and noise-canceling features, preferably more than one screen, a hardwired Ethernet 15 Mpbs internet connection (or better), and last but not least, a good command of the platform to be used.

Handover and Relay Restrictions: Most vendors provide handover and relay functionalities. However, in reality, switching turns on these platforms is not as seamless as it should be and can create rendition gaps. Perfect coordination between the interpreters is then required to mute and unmute microphones at the exact moment. In a booth setting, this is done almost automatically since consoles turn on and off by default. The same applies to relay functions that are available on some platforms. However, these functions don’t yet work as smoothly as they should and can seriously hinder the rendition of those interpreters depending on the relay output.

Latency: Latency is a measurement of roundtrip time (RTT) for a packet of data, or the number of milliseconds it takes a packet to travel to a destination (server) and back again. In simultaneous interpreting, sound input is the interpreter’s most important source of information. The image of the speaker and of all visual materials used in the conference is almost as important. New technologies allowing for different forms of audio and video signals are now being used increasingly to transmit sound and images to interpreters. Their quality determines the working conditions of the interpreters.

Pursuant to ISO standards, image and sound must arrive at the interpreter’s screen and headphones within 500 milliseconds (0.5 second) of being produced at the source. On the other hand, latency between the original speech and the reception of simultaneous interpreting by the audience should not exceed 1,000 milliseconds (0.1 second). Not all platforms provide the right latency levels and sometimes deliver out-of-sync audio, which can be rather disturbing as it forces the interpreter to choose between the audio and video feed for concentration purposes.

Acoustic Shock: The International Telecommunication Union and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute define acoustic shock as: “Any temporary or permanent disorder of the ear or auditory nervous system caused by an abrupt and unexpected increase of the acoustic pressure in a telecommunication system.”

Unlike professional interpreter consoles, which are fitted with acoustic shock protection functions to modulate the volume whenever the input volume suddenly shoots up, interpreters using RSI platforms have no control over peak loads that can result in acoustic shock. Using headsets with noise-canceling or noise limiting functions is one way interpreters can protect their hearing. However, there’s nothing they can do about the audio feed they receive. Therefore, knowing the technical specifications of each platform before accepting an assignment is of paramount importance to protect one of the most valuable assets interpreters have—their ears.

What about Interpreting Using Zoom?

I would like to dedicate a few words to the “new kid on the block.” Everybody knows Zoom is a meeting platform that’s being widely used for interpreting purposes mainly for cost reasons. Zoom only allows for the interpreter to be assigned the role of interpreter rather than that of host or participant, and it doesn’t support any other interpreting functions such as handover or relay features. The interpreter depends entirely on the video and audio feed provided by other participants. This can be problematic since some participants may be using a poor internet connection and introducing all kinds of artifacts into the communication such as blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness, and out-of-sync audio, not to mention overlapping conversations, people not muting their microphones, or using their computer microphones and loudspeakers. All of this can result in latency issues.

In summary, RSI platforms will require further enhancements to become fully interpreter-friendly and client-effective.

So, What’s the Best Option?

Simultaneous interpreting is a complex cognitive process where the interpreter’s focus should remain solely on the communicative task. Adding technical variables means increasing the interpreter’s cognitive load, which can have a toll not only on the interpreter’s health but also on their performance.

For the time being, only hubs (not all, of course) comply with the International Association of Conference Interpreters’ DI requirements, which makes them the best option for DI, although nothing will ever replace the beauty of being onsite.

However, RSI platforms should be given a chance. They can be an excellent solution for short events lasting less than three hours and involving a small number of participants. This could encourage company teams located around the globe to meet more often and eventually increase the demand for qualified interpreters. To become fully effective, though, these platforms need to be further improved to fulfill the standards of the International Organization for Standardization and guarantee the right working conditions for interpreters. In this regard, vendors should get qualified interpreters onboard from the beginning to ensure that RSI platforms meet their expectations and don’t just take into account the vendor’s profitability or the end client’s cost savings. If we want to maintain a high level of professional service, the interpreter’s opinion matters.

Finally, RSI calls for customer education now. Interpreters must ensure that clients understand what they’re embarking upon when they want to hold a meeting or an event through a hub or over a platform. And most importantly, they must understand that an interpreter’s output is only as good as the input.

RSI is a threat and an opportunity. History shows that resisting change only places us behind those who embrace it. So, let’s consider RSI an opportunity and contribute to making it a good solution for clients and another tool for interpreters in an ever-changing world.

Never has the world come to a halt as it has recently. No doubt, these are turbulent times, but as the management consultant, educator, and author Peter Drucker said: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” If we want to continue promoting the best professional standards and safeguard our industry, we must keep abreast of the new scenario, and this may require applying tomorrow’s logic to today’s new context.

Additional Resources

Supiano, Beckie Supiano. “Why Is Zoom So Exhausting?” The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 23, 2020), https://bit.ly/Supiano-Zoom.

International Association of Conference Interpreters Guidelines for Distance Interpreting, https://bit.ly/AIIC-distance-interpreting.

International Association of Conference Interpreters Technical Study on RSI, https://bit.ly/AIIC-RSI-study.

Notes
  1. ISO 2018 “Simultaneous Interpreting—Quality and Transmission of Sound and Image Input—Requirements.” https://bit.ly/simultaneous-quality.
  2. ISO 20109 “Simultaneous Interpreting Delivery Platforms—Requirements and Recommendations,” https://bit.ly/ISO-simultaneous-interpreting.

Silvana G. Chaves, CT has 27 years of experience working as an English<>Spanish (ATA-certified: English>Spanish), Italian>English, and Italian>Spanish translator and interpreter in Latin America and Europe. She is the owner of Estudio Chaves, a translation agency with offices in Buenos Aires and Madrid. Currently, she works as a conference interpreter based in Madrid, providing services to leading companies in the private sector and to European Commission bodies. She has a degree in legal translation from the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba and a degree in conference interpreting from the Universidad del Salvador (Argentina). Contact: chaves@estudio-chaves.com.

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