On February 17-19, 2011, the AVIDICUS Consortium (Assessment of Videoconference Interpreting in the Criminal Justice Services) held the first international symposium dedicated exclusively to the provision of interpreting services using videoconferencing equipment. To my knowledge and to that of the others in attendance at the sold-out Symposium that took place at the British Computer Society in the heart of London, it was the first of its kind—a bellwether of things to come for our profession. After three days of presentations on the reasons for using videoconference interpreting (VCI) and remote interpreting (RI) as well as the pros and cons of providing interpreting services in this way, everyone concluded that more research needs to be done. Perhaps Symposium organizer Sabine Braun put it best when referring to VCI and RI she said: “There is a huge demand for something we know very little about.”
Long story short, videoconference technology is going to have a significant impact on the way we interpreters do our job in the coming years. The courtship of these technologies with interpreting, if you’ll allow me to use that metaphor, is just beginning. And like any incipient relationship, there are and will be ups and downs, misunderstandings, as well as moments of euphoria. The relationship will be long lasting, but if we want it to be a meaningful relationship rather than a marriage of convenience, we had better get involved in a constructive way, and soon.
My own take is that we, the interpreters, need to be more active in helping the technologists understand what the requirements are for us to do our job and do it well, otherwise we are going to be plugged in at the end of the design process like an afterthought, kind of like indoor plumbing and water closets in Victorian-era homes—the indoor WC soon became a necessity in homes but often didn’t work well or stood out horribly because the houses of the era were never designed to include indoor plumbing in the first place. Such is the case with current off-the-shelf videoconferencing solutions. As architectural design progressed over the years, bathrooms and indoor plumbing became the norm in most homes, so the unsightly pipes and poorly placed privies eventually became a thing of the past. Yesterday’s luxury became today’s necessity.
Even so, when it comes to working together, there are plenty of naysayers and foot draggers among interpreters and technologists alike. But the sterile arguments that have led to bouts of intellectual head butting between technophiles and technophobes (i.e. “computers will never replace us” vs. “buy our software program, no translator or interpreter needed”) is missing the point. By working together, both sides stand to gain. One thing is for sure, neither side understands the other very well at all. So a little rapprochement could go a long way, because in today’s globalized world, the need for multilingual communication in all its known and yet-to-be known forms is only going to grow.
Many interpreters feel they should always be physically present whenever their services are needed and that anything less is simply unacceptable. While I agree that being physically present is almost always preferable, demanding that this always be the case is impractical and ignores the fact that XXI-century communication technologies have created a new paradigm for interaction between people who may be half a block or half a world away. Interpreters stand to play a key role in facilitating multilingual communication in this era of increased international and cross cultural interaction, but only if we are ready to respond constructively to innovation and are willing to shape, and in some cases, accept the new realities that will inevitably have an effect on how and where we do our job.
This is the main reason why InterpretAmerica chose to focus on technology and professional identity for the 2nd North American Summit on Interpreting this June in Washington, D.C. If you are interested in helping shape the future of interpreting, you won’t want to miss it. My co-president, Katharine Allen, and I hope to see you there.
Co-President of InterpretAmerica