Interpreting and the T Word

By Barry Slaugther Olsen, Co-President, InterpretAmerica

The word “technology” means different things to different people.  But when it comes to interpreters, the “T” word tends to conjure up all sorts of largely unfounded fear and denial. “Will I be replaced by a computer?” or “Oh, a computer can’t do what I do, it’s just not possible!” Neither of these approaches is constructive or helpful. So, in an effort to allay some of the fears in the interpreting community about technology, but more importantly to encourage interpreters to embrace it,  let me break technology into three distinct categories: 1. technologies for the delivery of interpreting services, 2. technologies that augment an interpreter’s performance, and 3. technologies designed to replace human interpreters altogether.

In today’s sensationalized media the latter category garners most, if not all, of the attention, and is the source of most interpreters’ fears. But I believe that we should be focusing on the first two, which is where the truly significant breakthroughs for our profession are and will be found.

Technologies for the Delivery of Interpreting Services

Large-scale simultaneous interpreting (anything beyond chuchotage to more than two people) has been dependent on technology since its inception in the early 20th century.  Interpreting in the 21st century is only becoming more technology dependent as human interaction continues to expand beyond the four walls of a court, conference or examination room.

Over the last 20 years there has been an explosion of potential platforms for delivering interpreting services. Over-the-phone interpreting (OTP) and video relay interpreting (VRI) are well established, and enterprising interpreters have been finding ways to use existing free services like Skype and Google Hangouts to provide interpreting services to their own clients.  However, none of these Internet-based collaboration platforms have yet hinted at including multiple audio channels or simultaneous interpretation into their suite of services.

Here again, enterprising language service organizations (LSOs) and interpreters are leading the way by creating hodgepodge ad hoc solutions that make it possible to provide simultaneous interpreting for webinars and on-line meetings using services like AdobeConnect, WebEx or GoToMeeting in combination with landlines and cell phones. The set-ups are far from perfect, as interpreters who have worked in this way can attest, but the laws of supply and demand are clearly at work, and it is only a matter of time until someone finally gets it right.

Some international organizations have implemented systems for remote interpreting, remote participation and multilingual webstreaming. However most of these solutions have been custom built to exact specifications within closed systems making them difficult to replicate and scale for use on the broader interpreting market. One interesting exception is a multilingual remote participation system implemented in 2011 by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

There are many more projects out there, and given the number of on-line meetings taking place and the increased level of interaction between countries and cultures, there is tremendous growth potential for on-line multilingual meetings.

Technologies that Augment an Interpreter’s Performance

Another area where interpreters are benefitting from technology is in their individual performance and continuing education. Laptop and tablet computers, webinar platforms, databases and search engines, parallel corpora, and even Google Translate are improving the quality of our work and the availability of interpreter training and education.

The days of interpreters lugging around printed dictionaries have long since passed, and as electronic documents become the norm in most venues where interpreters work, we will become more adept at handling large amounts of electronic information. The transition is not without its difficulties, but interpreters who “go electronic” will gain a competitive advantage over those who do not. The benefits of having access to the Internet while working are well established, so I will not go into detail about it here.

In the last two years on-line continuing education offerings for interpreters have mushroomed. Professional associations, private sector companies and even individual trainers are making it more convenient than ever to earn continuing education units. Language maintenance, once a serious challenge, is easier than ever before. Technology gives us every opportunity to improve professionally, but it is up to us as individuals to apply it wisely.

Finally, the Internet and social technologies provide interpreters with an unprecedented opportunity to market themselves and build a direct client base. However, this is a subject for an entirely separate blog entry.

Technologies Designed to Replace Human Interpreters Altogether

The financial and logistic incentives for creating a fully automated accurate machine interpreting system are enormous, and advances in statistical machine translation (SMT) have reinvigorated the search for this linguistic Holy Grail. In the last few years the private market has seen multiple offerings of purported “automatic translators” for smart phones, many of which disappeared just as quickly as they were introduced. Even so, the search continues, and apps like Google Translate and AT&T Translator are finding their way to more and more smart phones.

The US Defense Department has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on machine translation and interpretation research that has led to the creation of gadgets such as the Phraselator and IraqComm as well as programs like TransTac and BOLT. As has been the case for decades, we can expect more innovations from the military. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been enlisted to evaluate these technologies. A short video about how they do it can be watched here.


Interpreters should view these innovations with interest, not trepidation. I recommend a recent Slate article, Why Computers Still Can’t Translate Languages Automatically, to get a good overview as to why human interpreters should not worry about being replaced in the foreseeable future.

The Bottom Line

As an interpreter, if you want to expand your client base and remain relevant in a growing and changing linguistic services market, you can’t turn a blind eye to innovation. So the next time you come across a new technology that could have an effect on interpreting, ask yourself:  “In which of these three groups does it belong?” The answer may not only calm your fears but might just turn you into a technology enthusiast, or even better, help boost your performance, your productivity and maybe even your bottom line.



4 thoughts on “Interpreting and the T Word”

  1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    I saw a video recently of an interpreter in Spain (I think) discussing the wave of the future in video interpreting. This was the first time I’d heard an interpreter talking about it positively, and it really made me re-think my own attitudes. Having come from some time working for over-the-phone modes prior to court interpreting, I’m familiar with the pros and cons, and it gets very easy to see the cons before the pros because sometimes that means we need to polish our skills. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. What a great and informative write-up you have there. As an interpreter, I found it really beneficial to use electronic dictionaries to increase my knowledge especially when trying to choose precise words to elaborate on specific topics. I also like the ability to use Skype when interpreting because it enables me to provide services to other locations as well. However, I do not like to rely on Google Translate because quite often, the translations provided there are not very accurate because it is computer based. I agree that technology is good for interpreters. But it will never be able to replace a human interpreter completely.

  3. The same is true with respect to machine translation in general. For details please read: “Legal Translation Services,by Human Legal Translators: ,Watch Out for the Machines”

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