Traditionally, simultaneous interpreting has been performed from either fixed or mobile booths located in the venue where the interpreting assignment is taking place. Booth design is subject to rigorous technical ISO standards that make sure that interpreters work in optimal conditions. Simultaneous interpreting is a human-machine interaction, where factors such as the usability of the machine (the interpreting console) and the working environment (booths and teamwork) play an essential role in the interpreters’ ability to deliver high-quality interpretation and, as importantly, in their wellbeing.
New—and not so new—technological advancements have made it possible for interpreters to interpret remote participants and to work remotely themselves, that is, in a location different from the venue (or one of the venues) where the conference is taking place. This variant of simultaneous interpreting is often referred to as remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI), and although it might seem relatively recent, the truth is that it was first tested in the 1970s. Over much of the past decades, developments in RSI focused on interpreters working from remote interpreting hubs that recreate the interpreters’ traditional professional environment. Interpreting remotely from these hubs has been found to be more tiring and stressful for interpreters, with explanations being sought in the challenges that arise when interpreting remotely.
A few years ago, the emergence of simultaneous interpreting delivery platforms (SIDPs) created new possibilities. These cloud-based solutions aim at virtually recreating the interpreter’s traditional console and work environment. For instance, SIDPs commonly include a handover feature, provide the interpreters with visual and auditory inputs and offer chat functions that interpreters can use to communicate during the assignment. This has paved the way for interpreters to work from home, or an office, and even to be in a location away from their booth partner. Of course, this new way of working poses many challenges, but the benefits are also undeniable. For instance, whilst the interaction with the platform adds an extra layer of mental effort to the already cognitively challenging task of interpreting, one of the advantages that is often mentioned by remote interpreters is the reduced amount of travelling.
The reality is that, due to the current world scenario, which has had a tremendous impact on interpreters because most on-site events have been cancelled or switched to online, RSI has become the norm. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken interpreters out of the booths and into their homes, changing their working environment drastically.
The rapid transition to remote work has raised many new questions about interpreters’ workstations and ergonomics. Studies on interpreting have often agreed that not being physically present is a primary source of performance loss while working remotely. While some researchers associate this to the hardware used while remote interpreting—which is primarily comprised of one or multiple flat-screen monitors, mouse, keyboard, and headset— studies from the domain of remote working and user experience suggest that the combination of the hardware and the software used by interpreters to work remotely makes the interpreter’s absence more noticeable. Software needs to be designed optimally to mitigate any performance loss that the interpreter may incur while using it. This is one of the research areas at the University of Surrey’s Centre for Translation Studies (CTS), where a doctoral researcher at the Centre focuses on aspects of the software used in RSI and explores what visual information is most important for interpreters when using SIDPs.
In addition to optimizing visual and other components of the interpreter’s interface in SIDPs, the question is also what other elements can be integrated to support interpreter wellbeing. In this sense, another doctoral research project that is currently being conducted within the CTS aims at exploring automatic speech recognition (ASR) as a potential supporting tool for the remote interpreter1. Emerging research on using ASR in traditional simultaneous interpreting yields positive outcomes. For instance, an experimental pilot study, which used a mock-up system that transcribed, isolated and presented the numbers of the source speech thanks to ASR, showed that, when presented with the transcription of the figures from the original speech, interpreting trainees increased their overall accuracy on numbers which improved from 56.5 to 86.5 percent2. Bearing in mind the additional challenges of remote interpreting, the question is whether ASR could also be used to provide additional support to remote interpreters.
The interpreters’ working environment has evolved over the years. The most recent development, i.e., the shift toward cloud-based SIDPs, still requires critical analysis in order to assess its impact on interpreter performance and wellbeing. Emerging research, as stated above, suggests that RSI investigators are addressing the real-world issues arising from the ergonomic changes to the interpreters’ work environment. Indeed, industry innovators interested in developing quality solutions now have an opportunity to work in collaboration with researchers to mitigate the above-mentioned issues.
Ahmed Saeed is an engineer by background whose research domain is currently human computer interaction and user ergonomics. Eloy Rodríguez is a conference interpreter and trainer whose research interests are technology applied to interpreting and remote simultaneous interpreting. They are the project’s principal researchers.
1 The research supervision team is composed of Prof. Sabine Braun, Director of the Centre for Translation Studies (University of Surrey); Dr. Elena Davitti, Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies (University of Surrey), and Dr. Tomasz Korybski, Research Fellow (University of Surrey).
2 Desmet, Bart, Mieke Vandierendonck and Bert Defranck, 2018. Simultaneous interpretation of numbers and the impact of technological support. In Claudio Fantinuoli (ed.), Interpreting and technology. Berlin: Language Science Press.