The evolution in interpreting service provision

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1 July 2021

The COVID pandemic first brought our profession to a grinding halt with travel restrictions, prohibition of gatherings, and lockdown – making multilingual meetings impossible, then gave it a massive boost with the pivot of pretty much everyone to transacting any kind of business online.

Companies that had already begun to work on providing online platforms for interpreters to work their language magic on instead of traveling to an event venue and work with equipment also brought to the venue at considerable expense to clients and the environment. Their use (and number) has exploded over the last 13 months, and their now guaranteed presence on the scene makes it impossible – and even undesirable – for clients, LSPs and interpreters to ignore them.

One of the biggest Multilingual Meeting Platforms coming out of the crisis is KUDO, and I have been invited to write a blogpost for them about the experience of a professional interpreter with their platform and services for or including interpreters that they offer:

My Experience as a KUDO Pro Interpreter

Did you know?

When WFH also extends to multilingual meetings, participants in those events will confirm that the experience is miles from the one at an on-site event.

No fancy coffee machine outside the meeting room, no appetising buffets during the breaks, no networking over dinner, no friendly ladies or gents handing out receivers for those who require interpretation. Everyone needs to be their own equipment provider right now.

Interpreters, too, have had to invest in their own professional gear to be able to shift their work to RSI platforms – although many have even gone above and beyond the exacting entry requirements to optimise their workflow which involves lots more task than before, and to ensure the best possible experience for their listeners, as well.

The problem – and trust me, it is turning into a serious one, leaving many interpreters with hearing damage that was rare under controlled conditions on site and that could end their professional careers – is that platforms do not actually produce the sound they transmit as loss-free as possible, it is everyone who unmutes their microphone. While the listeners of the interpretation are largely getting a sound that is equivalent to that at the international meetings of yore, floor listeners (among them interpreters) in turn are all too often not getting the same level of service, especially in settings without technicians at hand who can assess what simply isn’t good enough and intervene.

Let me focus on one issue today that is quite easily fixed but shockingly frequently ignored: integrated microphones. No professional RSI platform would allow an interpreter to use one. So how come this is exactly the kind of sound quality that listeners, including interpreters, get to hear from the floor?

Everyone knows by now that interpreters are some kind of magicians who can hear, understand, analyse, put into another language, rephrase, and speak at the same time – but only that which they can hear. And as they are not just listening but also doing all these other things, their sound needs to be extra clean. Makes sense, right? In fact, so much so that there is even an ISO standard for the sound quality for distance interpreting.

Built-in microphones don’t deliver ISO20108-compliant sound. They are also usually so well hidden that most speakers who use them unfortunately seem to have no idea how to address them. Most don’t even notice when they hit them, potentially hurting the ears of anyone unfortunate enough to be listening to them (which is ironic, seeing as anyone who takes the floor does so for others to hear them).

Hand on heart, do YOU know where the microphone on your device is? Don’t worry if you don’t, I had to look it up myself – not for me (I already have a professional USB mic, remember?) but to illustrate that finding integrated microphones can be like an Easter egg hunt. I started with one of my own devices, the MacBookPro 15 inch 2018. 👉

How about others? Let’s take a Dell. 👇

I guess you can see now that none of them are truly ideal presentation microphones, no matter the claims of ‘professional sound’ by the manufacturers. None of them directly face the speaker nor have a special recording pattern to exclude noise from elsewhere in the room (which interpreters’ microphones must have), so all of them are at least as good if not better at picking up all kinds of other noises near the microphone – like clicking pens, typing, ringing or vibrating phones, touchpad clicks, and coffee cup clanging on saucers – than a voice half a meter away and around a corner – and trust me, they do! Not to mention one of my pet-peeves: paper copies of presentations placed on top of the mic which manages to rustle horribly AND block the speaker’s voice at the same time. 🏆

So when giving professional presentations online, why not simply do it with equipment that does them justice? And even if you don’t believe good sound helps get your message across, it might still be a good idea to get to know the equipment you have and use it properly.

Your listeners will thank you. 🙏

Visit of SPD Secretary General to the London branch of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 2004

“Mrs. Antje Bormann was my interpreter during a trip to the United Kingdom in my capacity as Secretary General of the SPD in November 2004.

The trip included visits to various institutions and required varying vocabulary and different interpreting techniques and approaches in accordance with the prevailing circumstances. All conversations proceeded fluently and without any kind of linguistic misunderstandings. Mrs Bormann always succeeded in adapting to the situation and keeping the conversation flowing to my full satisfaction.

During all of this Mrs Bormann was polite and professional in her dealings with myself, my attendants and my host, the then chairman of the UK branch of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, as well as our British interlocutors.”

The shortest-lived form of one of the oldest professions has a future, after all?

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After the announcement of series A funding to the tune of $21m for KUDO at the end of March 2021, now a second online language-as-a-service platform (Interactio) has secured series A funding worth $30m.

KUDO started its existence in 2017, set up by Fardad Zabetian (who had previously founded Media Vision, a conference equipment company, in 2002) and his 3 co-founders, one of them a former chief interpreter at a UN department. Nearly 2 decades of equipment provision, including to the UN, is a pretty good starting point for coming up with ways to provide the same top-class service in the digital age.

Interactio started out in 2014 because of the cumbersome traditional microphones at big events delaying participants’ possibilities to ask questions, so they came up with what was later generally known as BYOD (bring your own device); software that turns participants’ mobile devices into microphones. As they reflected on their beginnings during their online announcement event, their first main clients were churches holding services for congregations speaking several languages, just not all of their members speaking all of them, thusly truly giving grassroots communities a common language by allowing everyone to speak their own.

From those very different starting points, both companies – and a number of others beside them – began to offer online platforms that allow professional conference interpreters to perform their magic from any place offering a stable wired and sufficiently fast internet connection and the quiet surroundings needed for delivering clean, professional sound. Interpreters have since then been able to work from hubs which basically replicate the conference installation on site but in one permanent location that is linked remotely to events in other places, or (especially since COVID19) they had to BTOD (bring their own devices) home to work, including in some cases radio broadcast quality USB microphones, multi-channel mixers, several laptops for the actual work and for background material and glossaries plus communication with booth colleagues, often in another country, if not on another continent altogether, said quiet environment and stable and fast broadband connection, possibly noise dampening for walls and floors, new desks (investments many could ill afford during times of a complete loss of income and precious little help for self-employed event professionals from most governments that are at odds with the expectations on the part of some clients that interpreters should somehow be charging less for their work than before). But at least, after having lost pretty much all their work due to government restrictions on travel and in-person meetings and any prospect of that kind of work coming back anytime soon, LaaS was a lifeline to interpreters, allowing them to start working again.

Both companies have thusly reinvented the way professional interpreters provide their very unique service, untying them from the hired equipment set up on site for clients with pockets deep enough to pay for equipment and one or two technicians, all the interpreters (at least 2 per language required), as well as transport and accommodation for all of them.

I am sure other platforms will follow, some of which I have already learned how to use but have had less actual working experience with, that I believe are also deserving and capable of being part of this new and exciting way for interpreters to provide their services to an even broader audience than ever before, extending the profession’s ability to bridge language gaps to more people, for even more worthwhile causes, and generally more communication. And let’s be honest, humankind is in dire need of that more than ever.

The nod of approval from the early investment community intimates that there is definitely a market for these services in this form, so there is a future, at least for now, for the human interpretation that these platforms facilitate, despite the misgivings of some in the profession.

Then again, simultaneous or conference interpreting the way we know it now took off only in the first half of the last century thanks to cabled IBM telephony equipment in a famous court in Germany, increasing the reach of the immediately interpreted word from the 2 or max. 3 persons that whisper interpreting works for to everyone in the room with headphones.

Although the hard cables have been replaced by wireless technology over the years and the table-top glass windows turned into reasonably sound-proof portable booths, this setup has essentially remained the operating model for simultaneous interpretation for more than half a century.

We are now experiencing another such watershed moment for the profession. The reach of simultaneous interpretation has been extended ‘beyond the room’, to borrow an apt phrase from KUDO’s website, to anyone anywhere in the world with a device and a viable internet connection.

Take care of your hearing

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It used to be a professional health issue for a limited number of people in work. Thanks to COVID19 and the extreme increase in online forms of working and professional networking, it has become a professional health issue for pretty much everyone: hearing damage.

Some ideas on what can be done to prevent it, both in terms of technological development and an adoption of less casual, more professional approaches to taking part in online meetings as well as self-checking to spot warning signs early, can be found in my post on LinkedIn on the subject.

caption: sample of home hearing test result

Innovation in Interpreting Summit 2021

Having dusted off my website only yesterday, I have some catching up to do. Let me begin with the present.

Today was the final day of three of this summit, dealing with all aspects of technology in interpreting: the reality of remote working on day 1 (from setting up a workstation at home via which platforms are out there all the way to useful tips in terms of equipment and etiquette to guarantee a pleasant and professional online experience for participants and interpreters alike), the tools and resources they have for staying on top of their game in these times of massive change on day 2, and the benefits and perceived threats to the profession of interpreting through even further technological developments, particularly AI, on day 3.

The entire event was conceived and put together by one of those very resources for interpreters to help them stay on top of their game, techforword‘s Josh Goldsmith and Alexander Drechsel. An array of well-known interpreters/interpreter teachers shared a wealth of useful information and – just as important – brought interpreters from all over the world together to learn together, exchange experiences and ideas and feel part of something bigger.

For anyone who wasn’t able to be there but would like to catch up on the wealth of information, there is still a bundle of the presentations and panels and much more besides available here until 3 March 2021.

I for one am looking forward to further such events as I have never before really had the feeling of belonging to such a big and stimulating family.

CPD has never been this much fun!

There was a time when I thought I’d been there, done that, and had the t-shirt (or event badge) to prove it.

And then COVID19 happened and turned all our professional lives upside down. Suddenly, when asked forcefully by our respective national guidance to work from home, I found myself much more in touch with colleagues than in the preceding two and a bit decades. I also realised that I needed to learn. Then that I had useful information to share, too.

One of the first ‘resources’ for interpreting insight and wisdom I had begun to follow even somewhat before is Techforword.com. Now I am regularly checking what they have to offer.

Right now they are putting on their Innovation in Interpreting event that I would recommend should be visited by online event hosts (it’s free) just to see how to put on a sleek virtual show! Who else if not the tech-savviest interpreters around?

It is also full of useful information for interpreters wanting to know more about how to use technology in their permanent quest to improve their work.

And it is, like other such events, a great way for us interpreters to network, to break out of our local or national bubbles and become a truly global profession, learning and developing our skills, our work environments, and the ways we can provide our services to more and more clients, together.