Conferences management and interpretation in times of Covid

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16 min

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The Covid pandemic had disrupted the operations of the UN and the European Institutions, pressuring them to urgently adapt and switch to a business continuity model. As pandemic regulations ease throughout the globe, event organizers start defining what the post-pandemic “normal” might look like. 

On December 15th, 2021, we decided to come together with five industry professionals who pushed through the transition to the virtual world in a panel discussion on Conferences Management and Interpretation in the times of Covid. 

We were joined by: 

  • Uroš Peterc, President of International Association of Conference Interpreters;
  • Nader Ibrahim, Representative of Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity;
  • Naomi Bowman, CEO at DS-Interpretation;
  • Frédéric Pirotte, Head of Compliance at European Commission;
  • Agnieszka Kurant, Head of the Remote Conference Service Unit at European Parliament.

Throughout the session, we discussed the challenges faced during the pandemic, lessons learned, as well as the obstacles that are still faced by the industry, and the trends for the upcoming year. 

Challenges and implemented solutions

Both the multilateral institutions and language professionals all around the world experienced a crisis in the wake of COVID-19. Looking back on almost two years since the pandemic broke out, what are some of the challenges that the two sides of the industry faced, and how did they tackle them?

Challenges for institutions

At the start of the pandemic, the business continuity was at risk because of the inability to meet up in person. In the words of Frédéric Pirotte, “We wanted our interpreters to keep working in compliant physical installations at the time, but with distant participation from all over Europe.” The main challenges arose with integrating remote participation within the network infrastructure and RSI platforms, maintaining a secure connection, navigating the remote platforms, and moderating them.

Once the institutions discovered the new virtual world and the challenges that go with it, the need for a much larger conference team with very specific skills became apparent. Nader Ibrahim spoke about the many more roles and positions that opened up: moderators, background and communication professionals, technical support, delegators’ trainers, the IT team, and others. Creating the new methods of communication between delegates, interpreters, and organizers required more people with varied skillsets. Because of that, many conference teams grew exponentially: from 2-3 people per conference to 15-20. 

The speed of introducing and implementing remote participation was unprecedented. Since people could not travel anymore, operations and processes were put at risk. Additionally, even when remote participation was integrated, another challenge was to accept that there is still a lot to learn about the virtual setup, and the stakeholders required a lot of support in this process. Working in a remote environment was, as described by Agnieszka Kurant, “learning by doing”. 

Satisfying the demand for interpretation in multilateral organizations has been a prominent challenge as well: from the biggest conference halls that could support 25 languages per event, the physical restrictions on on-site interpretation have limited that number to 8 and, in many cases, even less. Virtual meetings still needed professional interpretation from the booth, but there was no ability to physically host so many language professionals.

Challenges for the interpreters’ community 

Uroš Peterc described the pandemic as a complete shock to the business model, with many people left without income and the industry – in crisis. The situation urged for dramatic changes in the approach, so AIIC tried to facilitate the transition to RSI platforms by advising partners and institutions in the industry. 

Compared to a controlled environment of a conference room, where the equipment is provided, and the sound quality is monitored by professionals, remote participants were left to their own devices, and toxic sound quality was the result. Uroš Peterc and Naomi Bowman highlighted that healthcare concerns were at an all-time high and still remain a big issue: for professionals whose hearing is the essence of their job, bad sound quality is disastrous to the working conditions. 

Recommendations and lessons learned

Speaking from experience in virtual and hybrid events throughout the pandemic, the panelists also shared the best practices and lessons learned: from setting up virtual environments to tips for new remote cooperation. 

Infrastructure and resources 

Building a robust and stable solution for conferences means having an infrastructure with a robust power supply. A stable solution requires many aspects to be taken into account: electricity, IT resources, skilled staff, user-friendly platform, and much more. It’s important to find a suitable remote meeting solution that would accommodate all these needs. 

Another condition for a successful operation is transmission security. Standards for the meetings’ security are very high, especially at large governmental institutions, meaning that highly qualified professionals are a must for managing the equipment.

New skillset for the new world

Continuous learning and cooperation lie at the heart of virtual meetings. It all starts with understanding both sides of your meeting and the priority list of what you can and cannot do in a virtual world. Then, find the matching platform with the support you need, and cooperate with them to find the best solution. 

There was no way for people to transition to the new normal in an instant, so mock sessions, learning from mistakes, continuous communication, and training for interpreters, delegates, technicians, and other stakeholders were and remain crucial. 

Agnieszka Kurant, Head of the Remote Conference Service Unit at European Parliament, highlighted the importance of testing and learning from feedback. That includes easing in interpreters and users into the virtual environments with education, awareness, and technical help, as well as testing each event and preparation beforehand

Sound is the priority 

In the pre-pandemic world, visual content was of the highest priority, making sure that the photo you post online is of good quality. The pandemic is a gamechanger; it is not only about how you look, it is more about how you sound. 

When speakers use low-quality equipment, they do not hear themselves, so showing the difference, advising them, and having researched recommendations are key to increasing sound quality among attendees. 

Seeking help

Not every business or organization has the same resources and expertise to run a successful virtual meeting, and it is okay to seek help. There is a big difference between the on-site conference, where the technical support is available to control the process, and the online setting, where the participants have their own set-ups. Professionals are needed to help service remote meetings and ensure clear output and functionality. 

However, it is also important to raise awareness about the clear guidelines for speakers. “Make sure you have somebody who is a professional that your participants can turn to, and make sure they have the right instructions beforehand,” said Uroš Peterc.

Screenshot of the webinar on the Interactio platform

Challenges that are yet to be solved

Industry professionals made significant progress in adapting to the new normal with remote and hybrid events, but there are still many questions to be answered. The panelists have shared some insights on the ongoing challenges below. 

Defining the hybrid event 

As we return to the physical world with virtual elements in mind, the dilemma arises: how do you define a hybrid event? Where does it start and end? Almost every event today has physical and remote components. 

Both interpreters and organizers question what makes a hybrid event: partial remote participation of attendees? Remote simultaneous interpretation? The conversation is ongoing, and the industry is shaping the term as we go. 

Toxic sound 

Toxic sound from the side of participants and speakers remains a challenge. As most of the panelists agreed, user compliance is needed yet is very time-consuming. For that, the industry leaders need to come together to research empirical evidence on the issue and implement international standards on sound quality and acceptable equipment. 

Lack of accountability for the event’s success still stands: both interpreters and RSI platforms do their best in meeting technical requirements for virtual or hybrid events, but the same level of compliance is yet to be achieved on a participant and speaker level. 

Using laptop microphones or tuning into a conference while commuting can both generate excessive and dangerous sound as a result. There are still real issues that need to be addressed by raising awareness on necessary practices to make any event a success, good sound quality being the central one. 

The time zone challenge 

Nader Ibrahim brought up time zone sensitivity as an emerging issue, especially when talking about international meetings where participants join from all over the world. What should be the standard time zone for the conference remains a question. 

For example, in the United Nations, Nader noted, the virtual conferences get shortened to 5-6 hours that accommodate all the time zones involved, from Africa to Asia. When we transition to hybrid, however, what would be the lens of the day? In some institutions like the United Nations, a typical day can start at 8 AM and end as late as 2 AM, which would mean people from some parts of the world would have to be working overnight. 

Trends and main directions for the future

We got a grasp on what the current RSI landscape looks like within the institutions and beyond, but what about the future? With unresolved challenges and lessons from the past in mind, the panelists discussed the main directions of the language industry for the upcoming year. 

Hybrid is the future

In the words of Frédéric Pirotte, “The future will not bring us back to the pre-pandemic normal. My vision of the future is a fully flexible system, combining remote and physical participation.”  What does it mean for event organizers and multilateral organizations? 

Redefining hybrid solutions and bringing agile participation to life. Traveling for international conferences, like in the context of the European Commission, will no longer be encouraged nor expected. The ideal option is having a system where both participants and interpreters can equally participate online and on-site.

A growing need to link physical equipment and virtual software, allowing some interpreters to return to the booths and some – to continue interpreting virtually. That brings some challenges in terms of coordination: how do you invite some interpreters to the physical location while letting others remain online? What are the bases of these working conditions for interpreters? These are some questions still to be answered.

New use cases for RSI

Broadening the inclusivity of remote multilingual meetings from institutions to a more global and private scale is another prominent trend that Naomi Bowman and Ibrahim Nader have brought up. 

Commercial and institutional clients are now recognizing that RSI can be used as an effective tool in a way that they haven’t thought of before. RSI meetings allow global engagement and are a way of bringing international teams together. For example, businesses can now have monthly casual meetings with 3,000 employees from all over the globe – a possibility that hasn’t been available before but will certainly be explored more in the coming years. 

Research: Auditory health and AI

One thing to expect in the near future is more research on auditory health within the RSI context to protect the well-being of interpreters and minimize the issue of toxic sound. 

Another direction is more thorough research on cognitive load and AI solutions, especially the speech-to-text tools and live captioning, for helping the interpreters and designing the virtual interpreter booth of tomorrow. Though some advancements are already done, there is a long way to go for technology to be helpful and inclusive for all languages, situations, and contexts. The initiative is already ongoing, as AIIC is financing studies in this field and will be announcing the winners of the 2022 research grant very soon.

Competition model in RSI 

The time when the price of interpretation depended on the event’s location is shifting. In the virtual world, there is a need for a conversation on new pricing strategies. Though, as Uroš Peterc highlighted, there are many conflicting opinions on what has to be considered fair pay. This conversation should happen soon, and the language community needs the courage to take on this issue and find a global systemic understanding. 

Sound quality assurance and standardization 

The issue with varying sound quality in RSI from the sides of the participants remains ongoing. There are examples from institutions where interpreters are not liable for interpreting attendees and speakers whose sound is not up to standard and poses an auditory risk for interpreters and other participants. The Panel agreed that sound quality assurance and standardization of equipment used from all sides is the next step the industry needs to take. 

There is no doubt that the world of virtual and hybrid events in the post-pandemic world still poses many challenges and uncovered problems. Yet, going forward with lessons from the past is a valuable starting point for building an evidence-based and effective strategy. You can listen to the full panel discussion here.

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Published on

Dec 17, 2021

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