In Focus: Distance Interpreting Operational Feedback Analysis 2021
'Construction Time Again', Depeche Mode
All ‘In Focus’ series articles are very big. The texts contain much information and references regarding issues in question. It is all deliberate, as thereby we discuss our own concentrated experience gained thus far. These articles are mostly targeted at two types of audiences: our peer interpreters and translators whom these narrations may help to better adjust to on-going changes; as well as prospective clients and our future partners who may be willing to cooperate with us, and, thus, need to know about our workflow, work principles, values and professional attitudes in greater detail.
In Focus: Distance Interpreting Operational Feedback Analysis 2021
Basic Concepts of Distance Interpreting
Strategizing Initial Response
Staging Up and Consolidation
· In-Process Communication/RSI ‘Aviation Lingo’
· Interpretation Delivery Stability
· Hosting, Administering and Client Support
Summary and Results
Arnold Toynbee, the prominent British historian, introduced the concept of Challenge/Response in his legendary study the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ indicating that evolution of civilizations is determined by response of the historical formations to historical challenges encountered in the process of becoming. Vibrant and structured vitality manifested in responding to a challenge has become some sort of Zing Factor (the quality that makes someone lively and interesting) for me since the concept was first internalized, as the challenge/response paradigm lends itself so naturally for use in order to assess and evaluate processes, phenomena and people.
The focus of this article is on the experience gained by our interpreter group in an effort to respond to the challenges brought about by the 2020 Pandemic Crisis that first caused angst, embarrassment and even panic in the professional community as literally all on-site jobs vanished melting in thin air almost overnight. I intend to ‘shed light’ on how we strategized for the future back then amid the greatest uncertainties, masterminded tactics to achieve new objectives in order to stay in business, relevant practical steps, actual operations in the New Norm and operational results to date.
It is not impossible that elements of this narrative will be insightful and help some of our peers to launch or fine-tune their Distance Interpreting business or improve own practices, as all vigilant actors always turn their inquisitive ear to everything that can be incorporated to stand readily available for clients with new requirements and be up in arms in general.
We consider assessment as the initial sizing up, whereas evaluation should be done for a representative period of time and against certain defined criteria. The criteria used for this endeavor will be: response time, new scope of operation, retention of the old and acquisition of the new clients. To date over 18 months have passed since the World Health Organization has announced the Pandemic, thus, this period should be quite representative for the purpose.
Distance Interpreting collectively refers to a number of formats of interpretation delivery involving the use of different telecommunication technologies which envisage that an interpreter is not present in situ and is operating from a distant location. There are two elements in the interpreter work: audition, the process of listening and understanding of speech in target and source languages, and rendition, converting information to a different language. Both functions are performed remotely by interpreter who is working from a dedicated DI Station, specially equipped DI facility or own DI home office station. Furthermore, there are so-called Hybrid Setups where some participants are located in one place, and others can take part virtually (interpreters can be co-located together, or be present on site, or (part) of audience is concentrated in one place).
Distance Interpreting sub-modalities include Remote Simultaneous Video Interpretation (RSI), Video Remote Consecutive Interpretation, sometimes referred to as the Video Mediated Interpretation (VMI), Over the Phone Interpretation (OTP) and Simultaneous Interpretation Over the Phone (SI OTP).
Distance Interpreting is not something new that has evolved after the Pandemic has begun; it has been around for quite a while before, occupying some 3% of the entire market of interpretation services, according to certain reports. Relevant experiments with distance interpreting began in 1970’s with advance of modern telecommunication technology. Below is the link to a very informative historical study of the subject: Present? Remote? Remotely present! New Technological Approaches to Remote Simultaneous Conference Interpreting, Klaus Ziegler, Sebastiano Gigliobianco)
Interpreting (interpreting is the process; interpretation is the result) in DI modalities necessitates that an interpreter possesses great deal of technical knowledge with regards to operating of the relevant systems and equipment along with a set of psychological qualities to withstand the so-called ‘techno stress’ as you have to work alone, handle and manage many in-process technical issues; you cannot rely on the support of technicians, and in general the rendition in the virtual environment is pretty stressful compared to that when your presence is physical.
Barry Slaughter Olsen, professor of Monterrey Language Academy, invested much effort, time and personal dedication to the promotion of DI technology in his outstanding Technical Savvy Interpreter series, definitely a recommendation to anyone willing to engage in DI, and, according to what we know, contributed greatly to the development of interpreter functionalities in such DI systems as ZipDX, Zoom, and now Kudo, effectively making our life technically easier.
Strategizing Initial Response
Myself and most of my peers are have been in interpretation and translation business for more than 25 years. Over this period never did we engage in any sort of self-promotional or marketing campaign of any kind; the only promotional technique employed was to ‘do your work well’, which as a matter of fact is pretty subjective from both the performers’ and client’s point of view. But it worked very well, as rendering linguistic services to clients at an on-site venue means two things: a) people from other organizations are also present; if you are engaging, effective and radiate the atmosphere of solid safety, some of them will definitely ask for your business card; b) your client has colleagues, partners and client’s clients who need interpreting services on and off and they basically would like to skip pre-employment process for interpreter asking to recommend someone who was already effective. Thus all jobs came due to such kind of exposure or referrals. We predominantly specialized in energy, finance and accounting projects, so the word-of-referral traveling cycle was fast and quick enough to generate sufficient number of jobs in the past, as any world of professionals is quite small.
Never were we involved much in any of the major DI operation as well; you cannot consider interpreting at few conference calls or Skype videocons really a DI assignment.
Thus on March 11, 2020 the world came crushing in - not only on us, but also on our clients, since there was so much in plan - but everything suddenly halted, coming to a standstill after the Pandemic was announced. Quite an eerie feeling. Mostly inside yourself.
The first thing we realized in terms of formulating response was that we need to find a new way to deliver interpretation. The second was that we have to do it fast, because when our clients recover from the impact of this initial shockwave that was still reverberating in our ears they will asks us what we can do - and we should be in the position not only to provide solutions but propose a number of alternatives, being then capable enough of giving them a chance to ‘kick the tires’, show that ‘all buttons work’ of the new systems, assuring it will be business as usual.
In the modern world what is the first thing you do when you bump on the problem? You google it, but of course. So, tons of new information were processed only to ascertain the fact that we are indeed much deeper in trouble than the initial scoping has shown. Thus, google deeper into it, time and again.
We learned that there are specialist interpreter platforms allowing to operate remotely, such as Interprefy, Kudo, Voiceboxer, Interactio, Catalava; we know about at least 24 platforms by now. On-boarding process began along with talking with some of the platforms regarding their technical and professional compliance criteria. This was something, but not to the point at all.
There are freelancers who like working with the agencies, however, there are those who prefer to be mostly dealing with direct own clients. We are of the latter type. Thus proposing our clients to go to dedicated interpreting platforms was not really an option after we calculated how much they would have to add to our interpreter service fee for an hour.
This was pretty discouraging situation until we came across Dragoman video on Zoom. Dragoman YouTube channel is definitely one of the specialist channels we always monitor to know more about the world around us (along with excellent educational videos of the Interpreters Reveal).
Staging Up and Consolidation
It took us two months to strategize, create infrastructure and properly train for response, right on time when our clients began asking the above very natural questions. When the first request came in, we offered a demonstration: a PowerPoint presentation of our newly acquired RSI capabilities, with one of us narrating and two interpreters doing the rendition. Initially the client’s representatives were very skeptical about the fact that simultaneous interpretation may be effectively delivered using a virtual platform. It was very encouraging to see how they suddenly realized that they were listening to all of this through interpretation - during seven minutes already without even understanding that.
Zoom was a discovery. We were Columbus.
However, there is always a ‘but’, as learning how to do something in principle is not only insufficient but can be detrimental, as thinking may dominate over acting (you can be overconfident assuming that you are already okay without all-out prior practice). One should not only familiarize but learn to be able to do things well, efficiently and quickly or chances will be running high that you may either price yourself out of the market or compromise yourself otherwise. We have purchased Zoom Webinar Pro license (as it includes Remote Simultaneous Interpreting functionality) for $55 a month to begin the headlong intense practical training to remediate the following challenges outlined below.
RSI Interpreter should do a lot of previously unaccustomed multitasking (monitoring shift change times and procedure and making sure you are always on the right channel; coping with: inferior sound, as even now many participants rely on their computer mikes; acoustic shock generated due to different types of interference; occasional Zoom outages that may throw you out offline for a minute or for half an hour; participants using wrong language channels and talking together at the same time, etc.).
Working at times with the conference interpreter colleagues outside of our team we feel that many of them still consider RSI the annoying evil that you have to tolerate. Whereas we over time grew affected to this mode of work. Mainly, perhaps, by the virtue of very intense four weeks of initial training that was sufficient for us to become confident - and even more, due to our ‘in-house’ standard and emergency communication procedures. The working assumption is that these two elements (training to automation and strict compliance with communication rules) reduce technostress by good 70%.
You cannot hear your booth mate in Zoom (such functionality existed in early 2020, but was abrogated); you cannot rely on assistance of a technician if there are problems with your gear, participant equipment or software operation. Thus, communication is crucial to keep things going properly. Communication should be quick, always straight to the point, and very formalized and structured to achieve that. Asking for clarification, delays, misinterpretation of in-process communication may cause embarrassment and confusion in the floor as well as inside interpreter team and incapacitate the whole process for a substantial amount of time.
Almost immediately in the course of the initial training we came to realization that we need some kind of ‘Aviation Lingo’, this special language that pilots and traffic controllers use. They all operate being super concentrated, confronted with possible grave eventualities of mistakes, under continual stress - and cannot simply afford: ‘Hey, Joe, I am hearing something different here, you’ve lost me, say it again, please’.
It was with much surprise that we learned that this aspect was also reflected in one of the Interpreters Reveal videos.
Thus we use ‘affirmative’ for ‘yes’, ‘negative’ for ‘no’, ‘roger’ for ‘acknowledged’ and all the rest of the useful AL code-words for situations. The intent is that no phrase can have any connotation or be interpreted differently than initially defined during training, so it goes straight to energize your new instincts acquired by training. Also important is that ‘pleasantries’ such as thank you, please and rest are strictly disallowed: there should be minimum info in operational chats to help interpreters stay focused and not distracted as, apart from our own chat, you have to monitor Zoom session chat, and, at times, the chat with the event hosts. We use messengers like WhatsApp or Telegram for the in-process communication both for standard and emergency operations.
What ‘procedure’ anyone tends to follow the best in an emergency? Panic. When your mind is in RSI multitasking you have seconds to actually understand what should be done next and in what is the priority order. Essential is the response time from panic setback to state of regained control. As with everything else, it is remediated by training and then by actual work experience. This is some kind of trivial statement as it can be easily said, however, difficult to achieve.
We use three-letter ‘alpha-codes’ for interpreters in this communication system. Furthermore, one of the deployed interpreter team of two, or at times three, is assigned the team lead responsibility. This is to ensure that there is only one person responsible for initiating, leading communication with partners and client/host and making decisions to remediate problems, which in essence is the implementation of some kind of the ‘single unity and chain of command’ principle.
In crisis, when many people are trying to ‘help’ in earnest driven by first emotional moves in the non-coordinated manner, things may quickly escalate from ordinary bad to extraordinary worse.
Below is an example of some in-process communication:
AAA: report ready
AAA: enter via link 12.00
AAA: report status
BBB: waiting to be admitted
AAA: is it coffee-break?
AAA: shift change
AAA: report you hear floor now
AAA: confirm you are in Zoom outage
AAA: report when back on-line
AAA: will they send new presentation to us now?
BBB: await; checking on this
AAA: end of transmission
Interpretation Delivery Stability
The critical element of an RSI session is smooth handover - the transition from one interpreter to another - when they cannot hear each other. We have our own system that adds even more to that ‘robotics’ feeling about the way we operate in Zoom RSI. However, the robust in-process communication is just one element to provide for the RSI sessions operational stability. In addition to this, the stability of the process is ensured by compliance with technical requirements and organizational redundancy arrangements which were developed to compensate for potential equipment or human operational unavailability.
Listed below are the basic DI operation technical compliance criteria.
· computers with i-core 5 or 7 processor (or equivalent), 8 Gb RAM or more;
· professional grade USB headsets with noise-cancelling functionality, and/or
· USB microphone with good ‘monitor’-type headphones;
· Dedicated smartphone for in-process communication
· Computer should be connected to internet using cable; Wi-Fi is unstable and strictly cannot be allowed;
· Good internet bandwidth; the essential for RSI is not the download speed, it is the upload speed and ping (or latency, which is a more correct term). Upload speed should be 5 Mbps or more. Zoom runs quite well on 0.5 Mbps because it is “light”, but Webex for instance will be slow with 0.5. The smaller is ping the better; latency under 20 is excellent; it is still okay under 100; there will be major problems if ping is above 150.
· Smaller computers which do not have internet cable port should be used with special USB/internet connectors.
· Home DI office environment should be arranged in a quiet, noise-controlled place;
· The interpreter is supposed to take up around 75% of the screen space (in case of operation with videos on); he or she should wear the clothes of solid, not flashy colors; the background should also be of solid neutral color;
· All our team members are instructed to have a second computer, second handset, or microphone and earphones set readily available before and during their RSI sessions.
Above requirements are generally accepted, however, the requirements of the interpreter platforms are stricter as they specify, in great detail, what brands and models of headsets and microphones interpreters can use and the rest. In addition, some will request installation of the TeamViewer software on your computer so that their technicians can monitor your technical conformity, on-going operation and help you in case something fails on the equipment part.
Anything may potentially go wrong causing disruption in the interpretation delivery process: abrupt loss of electric power and internet; computer malfunction; Zoom outage; sudden human unavailability. We have a number of organizational redundancy arrangements for that.
We strongly advise our clients to use the Monitor when virtual sessions last three or more hours. Monitor is the third interpreter on the team whose function is to stand by readily available to step in to immediately recover the process. In addition, the Monitor constantly follows the Zoom chat, maintaining constant communication with the host, translates questions typed by the participants on-line to that chat, helps (using e-mail, messengers and even phone calls at times) to bring back the participants who were disconnected from a session due to various reasons and provides overall administrative support to the host.
If Monitors are not used, and one of the interpreters becomes unavailable in process for a prolonged period of time or until the end of the session, our peers are instructed to switch to some kind of ‘economode’ and interpret solo to still sustain the delivery. Our internal live operational chats are usually monitored by someone from our team who is not currently interpreting, so it may well be possible that we can expeditiously deploy a replacement on-line to promptly remediate the sudden technical or human unavailability problem.
Thus the above system of technical and organizational arrangements creates quite a robust and reliable interpretation delivery stability system with multitier redundancy. We have had multiple technical issues occurring due to circumstances beyond our control during the 18 months, however, none of those resulted in an interrupted DI process.
Hosting, Administering and Client Support
Our all-out train-to-automation Zoom interpreting program generated a side effect which we synthesized into a separate marketing product: Zoom RSI sessions hosting, administering and support. We learned probably everything associated with scheduling sessions, assigning interpreting links, administering events and effectively troubleshooting issues. For some time in 2020, we hit alert and call-to-action button every time client representative said: okay, talk to our technical support. Everyone was new to virtual conferencing back then, in the inception phase of the process all learned how to operate Zoom, but not necessarily its RSI functionality. “Well, usually if we have problems with Zoom we go to Teams”, we heard from a technical support officer once. ‘To do what, read automatically translated captions?’, we thought to ourselves. We did no say that out loud, of course, but offered alternatives and live demonstrations.
There were instances when clients requested us to provide hosting and administering apart from interpreting. We have developed multi-lingual guides for participants on how to effectively collaborate in the RSI-supported events as well as a brief instruction on how to schedule conferences involving simultaneous interpretation. Since then we offer our clients free dress-up rehearsals and dry runs with participation of the interpreters who will actually be working, so that the client’s representative and foreign-language counterparts can assure themselves that given interpreters are RSI-trained, well operationally integrated as a team and have the necessary background and specialist knowledge relevant to the assignment.
It is for a purpose that working with the interpreter platforms is not really addressed in this report as this represents a totally different ‘marketing format’. It is indeed advisable to get yourself registered with such platforms, get certified to use them, formally or informally (Interpreters Reveal series, for instance, are very educational and insightful from this perspective) as being in their roster is an advantage since one can get an occasional work this way, and clients may choose to use such platforms for the reasons to be mentioned later. Some of the platforms, like Kudo, evolved from an interpreter platform to a full-scope event platform. Most of them are intended for video-based RSI, however, Ablio is also used for Simultaneous Interpreting over Telephone (SI OTP). Still, this will happen only if the clients are prepared to pay quite substantial amount of money for the use of a platform. If the issue in question is a three-four day 8 hours per day workshop this amount of money becomes an obvious demotivator driving many to opt out from getting involved with such platforms. Of course, we use Kudo, Interprefy and Verspeak when clients need that.
Zoom is a cloud-based event platform offering RSI functionality. It is the only one of the kind that has this solution to date (October 2021). The only exception is Cisco Webex Legislate, but it is a very special version of the ‘ordinary’ Webex intended to be used by users like national governments and international organizations. The standard Webex does not have the RSI functionality, just like Microsoft Teams (there is on-line translated captioning system but it is not RSI).
Since Zoom is a cloud-based software, which means it is less than perfect from data security standpoint, it is disallowed, or, to put that right, is not approved for use by many national government agencies and international organizations, as the United Nations Agencies where only Cisco Webex and Microsoft Teams seem to have been vetted and approved.
The interpreter folk are quite ingenious in finding ways around of the problem coming up with different solutions to still use Webex or Teams for remote simultaneous interpreting. Some are building so-called Audio Bridges which is an arrangement combining e.g. Webex, maybe some other software and internet or landline telephony so interpreter audition is taken care of by one technical channel and rendition is provided involving another. Another way of getting around Zoom is to use event platforms such as Webex and Teams and a dedicated interpreter platform to support RSI functions; this will usually involve using two computers, headset, stand-alone microphone and headphones.
At times you have to improvise on the fly and do it really fast. My personal story can be called something like HyperHybrid, Into Virtual Vertex and Back Again. I was supposed to interpret at a hybrid technical expert mission, and the client strongly insisted that the simultaneous mode should be used to expedite exchange. Assignment was for three days, four hours each session, one interpreter. This is pretty challenging but there are clients you are most unwilling to say ‘no’ to or even to start you sentence with a ‘but’.
Local experts were concentrated in one conference room; international specialists were participating in the sessions virtually from their home offices. Technicians at the site told me that building audio bridge is not practically achievable, no way. To make things worse, almost no one at the other end of the virtual reality was using anything but the built-in computer microphones; some obviously had bandwidth problems causing speech interruption and much noise. I realized that I will hear but 60% of what they say at maximum; the subject matter was very technical, lots of figures and project-critical information. Catastrophe was looming in the air just about to unveil.
At times you have to educate and lead clients through what is or is not possible, honestly pointing on pitfalls and how the whole thing may totally collapse, so that the task becomes a success. Local experts were cooperative enough to put trust in me to ‘have it my way’. My way was to plug by USB headset in their conference equipment-control computer and rely just on me speaking for all of the international experts. So I was a single voice of all the collective international expertise from the virtual world. Pretty exotic, but functional. I was able to hear enough to make everyone happy, was even able to ask to repeat certain phrases where interference and noise made some statements inaudible. Thus everything went well, and we were always finishing in less time than four hours. On the funny part, my performance even involved some voice acting, so local experts could differentiate who was talking at a given time.
Harvard Model of Negotiation implies that in order to achieve cooperation and not competition at the final negotiation phase you have to present to your counterparts not just one single solution which is best only because it is the only one available, but offer a number of alternative solutions to choose from, so that people have a chance to go through the pros and cons analysis themselves in the process of selecting the optimal one to feel involved, included and responsible for their choice.
Thus when clients approach us for a consultation with regard to what arrangements are most practical for organizing virtual events, we offer them Zoom (‘free’ in essence, data security concerns), interpretation platforms (good, rather pricey), Webex-based audio bridges (technically complex), thinking about changing modality from RSI to VRI and using anything from GoToMeeting to Blue Jeans.
However, this is not all in the ‘menu’ we can offer.
There is really fantastic technology that exists and it is called ZipDX). It is a teleconference system that has amazing Simultaneous Interpreting over Telephone functionality. Excellent, almost hi-fi sound; approved for secure use by many; you can set up audio conferences in literally dozens of languages; interpreters hear their virtual booth mates.
It even includes the visual function, so while in the audio conference and being simultaneously interpreted you can see and share visual presentation.
ZipDX client support service is excellent. We own two accounts with ZipDX, operational and training. Training account means that you can train interpreters and hosts as much time as you want for free. We have spent very much time in training, and this was a thrill as we were able to hear in parallel crisply voices in five languages which we involved in our sessions.
This kind of simultaneous interpretation can be delivered to everywhere where there is any type of telephony, landline or VoIP. It can be excellent to support, for instance, site visits in very remote and hard-to-reach locations.
Another system of interpretation delivery is using your own IP PBX (internet telephony Private Branch eXchange), a telephone switch system you can use when purchasing VoIP IP-telephone numbers from an IP-telephony company; you can include multiple participants in a conference internet call albeit it will not be simultaneous modality.
Summary and Results
According to certain prognostications, not prognosis as such, but rather intuitive assumption of the projection that we also share: on-site interpreting jobs will be back to 40% of the pre-pandemic level. There will be multiple factors causing such substantial (ever)lasting decrease, and much of this is discussed in press now in the context of the future of business travel, in situ activities, advance of virtual collaboration technology and so forth. Thus, DI is here to stay, so it is only logical to continually remain focused on developing, strengthening and improving your RSI capabilities and skills.
So, was our response to challenge successful? Well. It was definitely satisfactory. Good is something that is not bad, excellent is so much better than good.
· Response Time from Panic to Regained Control (2 months, including high-level strategizing, follow-on specific strategizing, masterminding tactics and infrastructural development until operational in full);
· New Scope of Operation (55% decrease from pre-pandemic level, both in terms of number of assignments and revenue)
· Retention of Old/Acquisition of New Clients:
- According to our Plan of Operations for the 18 months we have provided interpreting support totaling over 600 hours online to date, October 2021;
- 40% of clients never went virtual with us;
- We acquired five new clients; all for RSI projects;
- Rates, revenue in DI world are substantially lower than that in the on-site world.
Written by Andreas (Andrey Parkalov), Z4T Integrated Text and Voice
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