The human side of interpretation: Rethinking the role of the interpreter in virtual events

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7 mins

Simultaneous interpreters are at the core of multilingual events: they are the ones who bridge different cultures and help connect the world in participants’ preferred language. 

However, the shift towards virtual participation changed the view of interpreters quite a lot: some participants and event organizers rarely see them, meet them, or interact with them, besides receiving the interpretation itself. 

How has that changed the way interpreters are viewed? What are some of the challenges and common misconceptions they experience, and how can event organizers and RSI platforms help? 

We decided to talk with Giuliana Mazziotti, Interactio Operations Manager in the RSI Unit, about the role of the modern remote simultaneous interpreter and some common challenges. 

Just like interpreters, many event organizers have never worked in a virtual setting before the pandemic. In your opinion, how did their perception of interpretation change once we moved online?

In the pre-pandemic world, event organizers and participants interacted with interpreters: they saw them during in-person events, observed how they handle equipment and work in booths, isolated from the rest of the audience. This brought at least some sort of understanding about the seriousness of their work. I feel like before, in an on-site setting when you encountered interpreters in person, it was easier to understand that they are real people: you can talk to them, see their setup, and appreciate their impact on the event.

But in the virtual world, in many cases, this minimal interaction disappears. The participants hear the interpretation right in their ears, without seeing the person on the other end. Some organizers also often have little to no contact with the interpreters and judge them by their job during the conference. Others forget to consider the days and weeks of preparation that this session might need. 

This mental distance between the interpreters and the organizers can dehumanize their work: some view the interpreter as a machine without even realizing it. They are not and, I believe, they never will be replaced by machines - communication is a human act. Although AI can get an idea about the message, it is impossible for it to correctly interpret the context and emotion of the message. The human element is irreplaceable and, unfortunately, can be unappreciated in this virtual reality.

What are some of the misconceptions about interpreters that are not true? 

I believe that interpretation is not just a profession, it is a craft or, even, fine art. Just like in art, you can practice getting your skill to perfection, but without some talent, you’ll never create a masterpiece, and vice versa - without hard practice, talent for languages cannot be enough. 

Some people have this misconception that if you speak two or more languages, you can become an interpreter in no time. But it is not only the knowledge of languages that makes an interpreter a professional; it is also the countless hours of preparation, practice, and talent. They need to have it in them, be on top of their game, and be mentally agile and prepared for all sorts of situations. 

In the event industry, even if you have a meeting agenda and a specific speech prepared, something can always go off-script, and it is expected. Interpretation is a cognitively demanding job, and interpreters need to take good rest, always be in control of their stress levels, continuously learn, and maintain a healthy lifestyle in general.

What are some of the things we need to consider and overcome to accommodate the needs of the interpreter community in RSI platforms?

Due to this understanding of the job’s complexity, we try to create the best possible conditions for them. It involves having interpreters in mind every step of the way: asking and providing the meeting agenda and event materials for interpreters in advance, ensuring appropriate breaks, and tailoring the interpreter console to their needs. 

It’s really important for us to improve our product not only with the participants but also with the interpreters in mind. We’ve come a long way since the first version of the Interpreter Console, and I can proudly say that interpreters love it now. That’s because we take their feedback into consideration, from adjusting the handover function to volume options. 

Interpreters need to be focusing on their craft instead of spending energy on navigating the platform - and the more feedback we get, the more our panel is interpreter-centered. Giedre, our UX Designer from the Interpreter Team, elaborated more on the platform design. 

What would interpreters like the event organizers to know?

So, going back to the metaphor of interpreters as artists, they can be very skilled, but they will always need materials to create something great. For a two-hour conference, one might need a week of preparation for the specific topic to be on top of their game and have crystal-clear interpretation using all the right terms. People need to go all the way back to what they studied before, including very specific vocabulary and industry knowledge. 

It seems like a very obvious statement, “Not a single person in the world knows everything,” right? However, it is common for interpreters not to receive preparation materials for niche topic conferences. A necessary fix? Providing preparation materials, such as event agenda, bio of speakers, any visual aid (such as presentations), and speeches themselves to interpreters in advance. That way, they have enough time and information to prepare for the topic at hand.

On a more general level, what do interpreters need in the virtual world? To be treated as people, not machines. Whenever you have interpretation during your event or listen to one during a conference, remember that it's not only a simple voice in your headphones - it's years of education and hours of work that made that multilingual bridge possible.

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Published on

Dec 28, 2021

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Giuliana Mazziotti

RSI Unit Operations Manager at Interactio

Giuliana is the Operations Manager for the RSI Unit. After joining Interactio in early 2021 as an Interpreter Coordinator, she later took over this new role, where she focused on leading and improving the Interpretation Department. She's an EN<>ES translator and proofreader herself, motivated by the passion for the language industry and connecting the multilingual world.