The Truth about Interpreting on the Phone

Sep 11, 2018

Jonathan Rechtman

Teal Flower
Teal Flower
Teal Flower

It's time for some real talk about interpreting over the telephone (and conference calls, webinars, etc).

Remote interpreting is a hot (and, let's be honest, somewhat controversial) topic in the conference interpreting world, and I've heard all sorts of gushing praise and woeful gnashing of teeth about it.

I myself am a properly trained Chinese-English conference interpreter with about a decade of relatively high-level experience, and my company Cadence Translate has completed several thousand remote interpreting assignments over the past few years, so I feel somewhat qualified to weigh in here.

The Obvious Advantages

There are a few obvious advantages to remote interpreting that should be self-evident but are worth articulating:

Monetize Your Idle-Time: You don't have conferences every day, do you? Remote interpreting helps you pick up some extra cash during your down-time.

Work From Home: Got kids? Hate traffic? Just love your place and don't want to leave? This is a no-brainer from a lifestyle, comfort, and convenience standpoint.

Stay Innovative: The biggest advances in interpreting technology and practice are taking place in the remote space. No one is saying you should give up your on-site practice, but at least keep yourself up to date with new trends.

Okay cool — glad we're on the same page about the advantages.

But what about the disadvantages?

There are a few common objections, both market and technical, that I hear raised whenever telephone interpreting comes up. Let's take a look at them separately.

“The Telephone Interpreting Market is Below Me — and Below My Pay Grade”

Many professional conference interpreters associate remote interpreting with what's often referred to as “community interpreting,” or the high-volume, low-value OPI (over-the-phone interpreting) market. Community and OPI interpreters typically serve clients in healthcare, courts, and public services, or in some cases provide multilingual customer service for large companies. This is entirely respectable work and provides a valuable function to society, but it indeed does often entail less rigorous training (and lower pay) than conference interpreting work.

But the truth is, there is more and more bona fide conference interpreting work taking place over the phone now — both in consecutive and simultaneous modes. These are not short, bilingual facilitations about stomach aches and traffic tickets, but rather sophisticated, in-depth exchanges about future trends in politics, technology, and the global economy. A lot of this interpreting is done to support investor due diligence and requires strong industry context, keen logical comprehension, and the ability to capture numbers and names with a high degree of precision. (If you want to learn more about this style of interpreting, we run regular webinars on the knowledge, protocol, and skills you need to succeed when interpreting for due diligence).

The pay is also significantly higher (often several x) than that of your typical OPI arrangement; on an hourly basis it's much closer to full conference rates, especially when you factor in the time saved traveling to and from venues and waiting on standby for conferences to begin.

“The Audio Quality's Not Good Enough / I Can't See the Speaker”

Okay, first of all, we're not in the 1980's anymore. Almost all modern organizations — especially institutions doing businesses across borders — have access to state-of-the-art telephony systems that work equally well over dial-in or high-speed internet; many even have high-def video conferencing capabilities for full visual.

Second of all, remember it takes two to tango when it comes to audio quality — make sure you are doing your part! Yes, interpreting over the phone means you can make good money from the comfort of your home, but it doesn't mean you can dial-in over Skype with spotty cell reception from your favorite coffee shop. Find a quiet, secure space with a landline or stable Wi-Fi, no distractions, and use a proper headset with microphone. The difference between a built-in computer mic and a professional one is striking.

Even if you do everything right, will you sometimes experience a dropped call or patchy audio? Yes, occasionally. Just like when you interpret on-site at conferences, there's always a mic that doesn't work or some tinny feedback in one of the speakers. You ask a technician for help, you fix it as best you can, and you move on.

It's the same for situations in which you really can't see the speaker. Remember, there are plenty of times you have to interpret on-site for a speaker buried deep in a crowd somewhere with their back turned to you; you somehow manage, don't you?

It's Not About You

I know it's a bit cruel, but it's worth repeating: “Interpreting is not for interpreters. It's for clients.” The primary point of interpreting is not for the interpreters to feel good about themselves having done their very best work possible — it is to help their clients achieve communication across a language barrier. That means being flexible in adapting to how clients choose to communicate — which these days, unsurprisingly, is often via conference call.

And of course, it's not just interpreters that have to adapt to these shifts -- a lot of services that were traditionally delivered on-site are moving into the cloud. Veteran doctors are learning to practice telesurgery. Tennis pros coach their students' backhands over Skype. Church sermons are webcast. Hot-pot is served over video-conference.

It's not that remote interpreting is replacing on-site interpreting; it's that the meetings themselves — the communication itself — is taking place remotely.

That's not a matter of professional standards; it's just a reality.

Fortunately, it's a reality that we can profit from!