Interpreting the future: remote, over-the-phone, speech-to-text interpreting

This interview is taken from IEO Conference “Language Access and the New Reality” winter edition of 3-4 December 2020. On 4 December 2020 (2:30-3:30 pm EST) on the panel “Expanding skills and careers” Alessandra Checcarelli discussed the potential to diversify your career by acquiring new knowledge and skills together with Rafa Lombardino and Natali Lekka.

  1. 2020 has been a year of tremendous disruptions, but also a year of tremendous opportunities and innovation in digitization and such. Please share with us what you have been doing and how your areas of expertise have been impacted.

For me, 2020 has been a really strange year from several points of view.
First of all, when the pandemic was declared, nobody of us knew what to think about the virus. We could only figure out that world governments would impose domestic and international travel bans, and this is exactly what happened at the beginning of March. In this scenario, things did not look good at all for conference interpreters!

Before the first lockdown – At the end of January in Italy – the country where I come from – there were already some rumours about the new virus and only a couple of weeks later the media began urging people to stay home. These initial circumstances did not affect my job very much at the beginning. January and February are generally low periods for international conferences and interpreting assignments. What I usually do in the first weeks of the new year is improving online marketing for my interpreting business and working on translation and transcription assignments. This is what I did in the first months of 2020, together with some international conferences that were organised in Rome, the city where I currently live and work. In fact, despite the usual low period and the rumours about the new virus, my city still had something interesting to offer in terms of institutional events and business meetings.

During the first lockdown – This is what happened until the end of February, then a first lockdown was imposed and it lasted for almost 3 months. Unfortunately the highest number of international conferences generally takes place from March to June and from September to December. Of course I was worried about the upcoming conference season: all of my conferences were cancelled and the same happened to all of my colleagues. Luckily enough, I kept doing translations for both old and new clients, mainly medical translations of clinical trials for testing new drugs, and I kept working as a remote and over-the-phone interpreter for the same international clients I worked for before the pandemic outbreak. I also kept working as a remote live transcriber and live subtitler, another specialization I will talk about later. Definitely I cannot say that the first conference season of the year went as well as it could go in any of the previous years, but I cannot even say that it was catastrophic. I managed to work and diversification and having foreign clients really helped me a lot. In particular, what immediately became clear to me and my colleagues was that technology and remote interpreting we had started doing before the crisis were here to stay and to help us survive.

Italian clients – What we needed to do then was to try and educate and convince our Italian clients to go virtual and move their on-site conferences online. This was not easy during the first lockdown, as all of us had to readapt to the new circumstances and those clients who preferred to organise live meetings were completely lost. I think this has also much to do also with our cultural mindset. Italy has always had much to offer in terms of beautiful venues, breath-taking landscapes and excellent food and wine tasting. Some conference organisers have always tried to give their international guests a warm welcome, by accompanying their events with typical local Italian food, interesting sightseeing opportunities after the conference day and gala dinners. In short, the Italian meeting industry has always been the jewel in the crown of the Italian economy and something strictly connected with tourism and also with our culture and way of living.
With the coronavirus everything disappeared like a bubble overnight and conference organisers were not immediately ready for the shift to digital economy. Many of them did not postpone their meetings or moved them online, they just cancelled them.

Before and during the second lockdown – When summer came, we did not expect anybody to organise any conferences in July or August, as a new low season was back as usual, so we waited for another high season to come back from September onwards. At the beginning it was very slow, the meeting industry tried to recover and to come to terms with the government, but the second wave of the pandemic came and today we are still on a light lockdown. In-person conferences and meetings are generally forbidden and in the meantime some Italian clients have been able to make some form of digital shift. I have worked quite a lot recently with remote interpreting for both Italian and international clients and I think all forms of remote interpreting are definitely here to stay, with the hybrid mode probably being the best option, at least in the near future.

  1. What about 2021 and beyond – how do you see the industry changing and innovating?

Remote interpreting before COVID-19 – I can manily speak of conference interpreting, as it has always been my core business since I started my freelance professional activity in 2010. As I said before, I think remote and over-the-phone interpreting are here to stay, even though they will not be the only solutions available on the market.
2020 has only taught interpreters and clients that there are many other possibilities beyond those they already know. Conferences can take place in person, but also online, and OPI and RSI platforms have been improving a lot over the years. I remember starting with my first remote interpreting assignments in 2017, when it had already become part of our daily life as conference interpreters for some years already. In fact remote interpreting is not new, it is just something that existed before and it was driven further by the current pandemic, which urged RSI platform developers to improve their technologies and sometimes to offer their clients turnkey solutions.

Over-the-Phone Interpreting – OPI is still widely used to allow people working from different parts of the world to have an interpreter ready when they need to discuss their business or do market research for example, in order to open up to the possibility of exploring new markets.
From an interpreter’s perspective, OPI is an extremely difficult task, even though I personally find it fun and very interesting. You need to know the topic very well, you need to have a general knowledge of the business and market dynamics and you have to do with a sound quality that is never perfect, as you are speaking on the phone. Moreover, many business people or market researchers have never worked with interpreters, so they do not know how to speak clearly on the phone, so as to allow interpreters to understand the message clearly and to convey it smoothly. As an interpreter, you must know how to handle such situations and how to manage the communicative exchange. You also need to act professionally in a situation that does not give you the chance to see the person speaking.
As we all know, facial expressions and body language are essential aspects of communication and being able to watch the speaker is a big advantage to interpreters. Our role is not only that of repeating words in another language, but it is to convey a message, and a message is much more than words and concepts, it is also cultural context, speaker’s personality, intentions and feelings based on the single circumstances. This is true especially with Italian speakers, as we are famous for being emotional and speaking with both mouth and hands.

Remote Simultaneous Interpreting – RSI may have the same issues in terms of preparation time, short notice, knowledge of the topic, bad sound quality, speakers talking too fast or overlapping each other etc., but luckily enough many remote interpreting platforms give interpreters the chance to see the speaker and to read their PowerPoint presentations, which really helps a lot while we are interpreting. Moreover, sound quality has very much improved over the years and if we use the right tools – last-generation headsets and good Internet connection – together with a good and reliable virtual booth partner, there you have it, and you will see that technology has improved interpreter’s life a lot!

Hybrid mode – Having said that, I believe that in-person meetings and conferences will never disappear. Communication is something human that requires human beings to meet, see each other and exchange ideas without the hurdle of sitting alone before a screen as you were talking to a machine, which is sometimes the impression I get while working remotely. Technology is useful, but it is not a universal remedy. Conferences – and conference interpreting – are human experiences by definition, and not all of them can take place online.

  1. What are your recommendations for linguists who are either new to the industry or pivoting from other areas, such as onsite interpreting, or just in general?

The power of diversification – To linguists who are new to the industry, especially to those who have just graduated in translation or conference interpreting, I would say that studying at university is not enough, it is just a springboard to the exciting world of language professions. Interpreting and translation are very specialized and they require practice, and practice does not make you perfect, but it makes you better at facing new situations, people and working environments. So – I would say – start working with languages while keeping the focus on what you really want to do, and never ever forget the power of diversification. The market is dynamic, it is in continous evolution, and 10 years from now you will not end up doing what we do today, let alone what your university teachers did when they founded the profession.

Embrace technology – We have been talking a lot about innovation, technology and remote interpreting. Technology and innovation will move us forward, and they are already doing it at a breakneck pace. Learn how to use remote interpreting platforms and, in general, learm how to work remotely. Even though I believe that in-person meetings and conferences will never disappear, remote and over-the-phone interpreting are here to stay.

The multiple faces of interpreting – Moreover, use the skills you already have as the basis for acquiring new skills.
You have probably learned about conference and business interpreting at the interpretation school, so you know what I am talking about.
But interpreting is a very wide field of expertise: for instance, have you ever thought about community interpreting and television interpreting?
Well, community interpreting is a type of interpreting that is used in community-based settings and situations, such as healthcare, police, education, law. If you already master the consecutive interpreting technique and if you are a communicative and empathetic person, what you need to work as a community interpreter is to attend an introductory course and specialize in one or more fields, for instance a medical or legal terminology and knowledge course. Community interpreting also offers some great chances to work remotely and video remote interpreting is the preferred mode in medical and legal settings.
There is also television interpreting, which is not exactly a field of expertise, but it is a work setting that requires other specific skills. For example, if you are a breezy and self-confident personality, have a beautiful voice and good acting skills, television interpreting may be for you. You may try to explore voiceover or TV interpreting on teleshopping programs or TV shows where selling or acting skills are required. Here clients look for translation accuracy and speed, but also for interpreters who can play well with their voice and fascinate the audience. Television interpreting is also another option that may fit well with anti-COVID measures in the near future, in that you mainly work in your booth in a separate area of the TV studio and even though you work on-site, you follow the show remotely.

Live subtitling and live reporting – Another specialization that comes from both my education and work experience is live subtitling and live reporting.
Here most people will probably think of stenography or stenotyping.
But there is another technique that is used to produce written text or subtitles in real time starting from a speech source and it is called respeaking. Here you do not need to use your fingers to write anything, you only need to master the simultaneous interpreting technique and to repeat what the speaker is saying by dictating the message to a speech recognition software, which recognises your voice and automatically writes the text.
The text can appear in at least two different formats; the first one is a transcript – or, even better, a computer-assisted real-time transcript – on a Word file and it may be used as conference minutes or court report, for instance. The second option is to let the text appear in a software that will convert it into subtitles. In both cases you can work on-site or remotely with adequate technical equipment.
As you may understand, you can “respeak the speech” by dictating either the message in the speaker’s language or the translation of that message into another language.
The first option is called intralingual respeaking (from and into the same language) and is mainly used to the benefit of the deaf community. In fact for many deaf people sign language is not enough and for complete accessibility they need to read either signs or words or both of them.
The second option is called interlingual respeaking (from a language into another) and may be used in community interpreting settings or at conferences, where the attendees will be able to read the simultaneous translation of the speech on a big screen or on their smartphone or tablet. This kind of written interpreting is also called speech-to-text interpreting or subtitled simultaneous interpreting if we are producing subtitles.
As you may guess, this task requires a higher workload than simultaneous interpreting. In fact the product of respeaking is a written message, and conveying a written message is different from conveying an oral message.
First of all, subtitles must be adapted, they must be readable to the end user, they must probably be shorter but without skipping any sentences or relevant information.
Second, if you are dictating to a software, you need to dictate punctuation too, so you need to have the sentence structure clear in mind.
Third, a software is not a human being: it can capture the sound and transform it into a written output, but it may make mistakes. This means you need to do editing and correct mistakes in real time and you need to do it fast, while you are listening, adapting, dictating, and maybe translating, without losing the rest of the message.
Like in simultaneous interpreting, respeakers or interpreter-respeakers always work in pairs and ideally one of them dictates and the other one edits the written text in real time before sending the final version.

Intersteno – If you are curious about respeaking and other live subtitling and live reporting techniques, I am also a board member of the International Association of Respeaking onA.I.R.-Intersteno Italia. It is an Italian association which was founded in 2012 and later became the Italian delegate association of Intersteno. Each country has its own Intersteno branch. Intersteno is the international federation for information and communication processing, which organizes international competitions in the main speed writing techniques and subjects. We have Internet contests every year and the big one-week Intersteno congress that is organized every two years in a different city in order to exchange ideas and best practices in the sector. If you are interested, you can go to www.intersteno.org: we wait for you in July 2022 in Maastricht! You will attend conferences, youth events and the biggest international competitions in text production, text correction, word processing, audio transcription, speech capturing, real-time speech capturing, note-taking, reporting and much more.

  1. What about mental health, what do you do to keep yourself healthy and grounded?

When talking about this topic, we cannot but say that COVID-19 has really tested the limits of our mental health.

Interpreting is per se a very stressful activity, as it requires the ability to concentrate on what we are listening to and saying, let alone how we are saying it in order to make the original message linguistically and culturally clear to our public. When talking about simultaneous interpreting, all of this happens at the same time, of course.
Then what about the long hours or even days we spend studying the conference topic and preparing glossaries before the assignment? And what is more, let us never forget that freelancers do not do only their job, they are also their own accountants, marketers and bosses. Freelancing is stressful, then add to this conference interpreting and translation, and last but not least, the coronavirus!

But entrepreneurs cannot afford the luxury of relaxing or getting stuck for long, if they want to keep being successful or, quite simply, to live on what they do. The secret to “survive”, as it were, is to find time to learn new skills we are interested in, to stay with friends and positive people, but also to simply do what we love.

In particularly stressful periods I meditate regularly – it really helps me stay grounded and keep a sort of internal balance. After assignments I also love cooking: this is an activity that can really relax me, I like trying new recipes from different countries and I sometimes create new ones.

There are also some activities I do every day for my physical and mental health: I walk in nature, sometimes listening to music at the same time, and I read books in my working languages. Reading is something I have always done since I was a child, it is something I have always loved, as this is the only way you can get to know different worlds in a short span of time. To me reading really means travelling, especially now that we are not allowed to, or we are not free to do as we would like to.

Conclusion

To conclude, I would like to quote from a book that I have recently read, its title is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comedy science fiction novel by Douglas Adams. Some of you have probably heard about it, it was written in late 1970s, originally it was a radio comedy that had been broadcast by the BBC, then it was transformed into many other genres. I am quoting it because it made me laugh so hard and because it is one of the few books that mentions the relevance of the role of interpreters as language mediators and the possibility for technology to replace interpreters, unless we learn how to embrace it.
In this specific case, the interpreter is a small creature called Babel fish and if you stick it in one ear, you can immediately understand any message conveyed in any language.
Quote:

“The Babel fish is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with the nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish. Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen it to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.”

Unquote.
Babel fish is a machine translation tool for the oral language, a machine interpreter, which represents for sure the dream of many language engineers and computational linguists today. But I believe it will belong in the science fiction world for long… or forever, I hope, as long as we interpreters learn how to use technology!

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