Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Diasporas, Smart Mobs, and the Creation of a Digital Interpreting Commons

“When we change the way we communicate, we change society.” –Clay Shirky

I have spent the last few years observing macro trends in technology, communication, and social interaction wondering when and how these larger trends would eventually affect the world of interpreting. Last week at the annual SCIC Universities Conference held in Brussels, I no longer had to wonder. 

A new initiative called SpeechPool.net is poised to help student interpreters and their trainers alleviate one of the vexing problems of interpreter training efforts around the world—a lack of quality, level-appropriate speeches for beginning and intermediate interpreting students to practice with.

The idea is strikingly simple, as most revolutionary ideas are—provide a simple, easy, universally accessible platform where students and trainers from around the globe can upload audio and video recordings of speeches being given in classes and practice groups in a myriad of languages at training institutions the world over so they can be used by students and trainers everywhere. The initiative is the brainchild of conference interpreter and trainer Sophie Llewellyn Smith. You can watch her introduction of the platform here or read a recent interview about it on The Interpreter Diaries

Speech banks have been around for years at individual schools and institutions. But due to the rapid advance of technology and the time-sensitive nature of much of the speech content, these platforms were quick to obsolesce and the speeches grew stale. So what’s so groundbreaking about this initiative? Put simply, it has the potential to harness the collective creative power of the diaspora of thousands of interpreting students and trainers around the globe to the benefit of all, thereby encouraging mutual improvement and success while allowing competition at a higher level of competency.[1] It is a clear example of win-win thinking, which is the basis of the emerging sharing economy. This is not one group offering content to others out of the goodness of its heart. It is not altruism. It is a platform for a dynamic exchange of value between equally interested parties, and that makes all the difference because SpeechPool.net will only succeed if there is sustained value generated by all who contribute to and benefit from the platform.

Of course, there are many unknowns in this budding effort. But that is not the point. The days of certainty and a near perfect product before going to market are over. This platform can adapt and change as new needs and ideas emerge. Serial iteration in the new hyper-connected digital world where everything is software based and resides in the cloud makes it easier than ever to adapt and evolve. 

To my knowledge, this is the first bona fide example of intelligent crowdsourcing that has the potential to improve the quality of interpreting services around the world, not to dumb down or cheapen the profession. That is powerful.

 The key to the success of this endeavor is participation and meaningful contribution, so dust off those old video and audio files that are languishing on your hard drives, digital recorders and smartphones and contribute them to the greater good of a growing profession, and while you are at it, practice some consecutive with notes. Oh, and fasten your seatbelts, this is just the beginning of a coming wave of innovation that is already affecting our noble profession.

Barry Slaughter Olsen

Interested in learning about how today’s technologies are changing how interpreters work and promote their careers? Then join us at InterpretAmerica 4 on June 14-15, 2013, in Reston, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. Register today! Early-bird registration ends May 12, 2013.

[1] See Leaders Make the Future by Bob Johansen, p. 165.


  1. Barry,

    I understand that many are already using the YouTube videos we produced in the Endless Possibilities Talks between January and July 2012 for training purposes:


    The 38 videos in this series provide great training ground: Many of our guests had wonderful, non-U.S. "accents" that will help train the ear in short order.

    Al Navas

  2. Your readers will also find a few other playlists that include:

    1. "Learn to Use an Interpreter"
    2. "United Kingdom and the Framework Agreement"
    3. "The Sim-Consec Tour"

    The videos on my YouTube channel are free to everyone. Enjoy!

    Al Navas
    My Google+ page

    1. Al,

      Thanks for pointing to the additional resources.