The hidden cost of remote interpreting: is it really a cost-saving solution?

After Covid, everyone scrambled to adapt to the new way of life, trying to restore a certain level of normalcy. Life as we knew it disappeared, at least for a while, and although the world is slowly returning to a greater degree of familiarity, certain things remain in that 2020 lockdown mode.

Many organizations had to think outside the box looking for ways to compensate for the loss of business during the pandemic. Some decided to cut operating costs, while others went into survival mode because they could not persuade people to return to their physical offices. Pandora’s box had been opened; employees could work from home and produce just as much with less overhead costs to the business. In many cases, these changes have brought advantages, but not for all. A simple example is the large number of office maintenance staff in Washington, D.C., and New York who have lost their jobs.

Let’s consider this from the interpreter’s point of view. According to a 2020 report from Nimdzi Insights, the oldest method of remote interpreting is over-the-phone interpreting (OPI), which dates to the 1970s or 1980s1.

With the advancement of modern world connectivity and high-speed internet, Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) was heavily adopted during COVID-19 to bring back large group meetings. With RSI, interpreters can work from the comfort of their home office, and attendees, too, can be in their own homes or large conference rooms. There’s a dedicated team of technical support personnel online and/or onsite to provide help around the clock to troubleshoot various problems, ranging from connectivity issues to sound quality. But is this enough to carry out a successful event? That depends on the definition of success, beyond money alone.

Admittedly, I am also guilty of enjoying the convenience of remote hearings. Interpreting from the comfort of my own office and dodging the long hours of traffic congestion in the DC metro area can make a workday much less stressful. But without a universal playbook for virtual hearings, each court in each state has its protocols and practices. There are no clear guidelines for the parties involved. In my opinion, sometimes hearings are held in such a mediocre and confusing manner because of small ‘technical issues’ that are deemed unimportant.

There are many training courses out there to help interpreters learn about these platforms. However, these courses are done in a ‘one size fits all’ manner without consideration of the learner’s level of IT literacy, let alone the type of devices and equipment knowledge of the learner, who is usually participating remotely. Also, one of the most important elements is consideration of the different kinds of learning styles for everyone – for example, whether the person is a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner. I have seen people who have undergone such training courses and still have comprehension problems just because the knowledge never ‘clicked.’

Court audio settings and systems also vary by location. In certain instances, these differences can prevent interpreters who are supporting remotely from being able to hear everything. Of course, the proximity of the attorneys to the microphones and the size of the room are also contributing factors that make remote hearings difficult. It is already quite hard to get the attorney’s attention in the courtroom, let alone from a remote location. So, when these obstacles occur and prevent interpreters from fully participating in the hearing, are we doing any justice to the LEPs?

In some cases where simultaneous interpreting is needed for the hearing, interpreters have to toggle between a cell phone and Zoom. The cell phone will function like the transmitter that LEPs would use in court to listen to the interpreter. When they need to respond in their native language, the interpreter will then listen to them from that cell phone and relay them to the courtroom via Zoom. When two devices are used to conduct simultaneous interpreting in a virtual courtroom, the microphone on Zoom will have to be muted so the interpretation (that’s going into the cell phone) doesn’t interfere with the proceedings. The microphone would only be turned on when the LEP needs to respond to the court through the interpreter. I admit that this type of proceeding doesn’t happen frequently but when it does, it creates an extra load on the interpreter whose primary focus should be the essence of the language he or she is interpreting instead of playing the role of the courtroom’s disc jockey. Add to that any technical issues, and that interpreter has to assume the additional role of tech support as well.

Again, when this happens, no matter how proficient an interpreter is at multitasking, all the side jobs take away attention from their main duty: to deliver an accurate, complete, and impartial interpretation. Again, the question arises: Are we doing any justice to the LEP?

These examples are just situations that we commonly find in court settings, but sadly I am seeing a fast-growing trend towards using remote interpreting where it would be best to have interpreters present on location, such as mediations, inspections, ‘hands-on’ training, certain medical procedures, etc. Looking at this solely from a cost-cutting perspective is short-sighted. Are values like human interactions, quality products, and upholding the highest standards no longer part of this new high-speed world?



2 Interpreter’s oath

Ann (Jiraporn) Heath-Huynh grew up in a bilingual Thai-English household, using both languages in day-to-day life. Having lived on four continents, she now calls the U.S. home. Following the birth of her daughter in 2010, the chance to work in the language field afforded her an opportunity to change career directions; what began as a part-time job became a career that she is passionate about. After being added to the Maryland Judiciary’s roster of interpreters in 2015, many opportunities opened up to her, eventually leading to Department of State Conference Interpretation for Thai and English. Although she works mostly as a conference interpreter, she has always considered Maryland courts to be her home. Whenever an assignment is offered, she is always pleased to accept it and proudly wear her first-ever interpreter’s badge as a Maryland Judiciary Court Interpreter. Contact:

5 thoughts on “The hidden cost of remote interpreting: is it really a cost-saving solution?”

  1. Sylvia J. Andrade says:

    VRI is usually good for Workers – Comp depositions. I do a lot of these. These are consecutive interpretations. They would be, anyway, if done in person. The Court Reporter needs for it to be that way in order to be able to write everything down.

  2. “Are values like human interactions, quality products, and upholding the highest standards no longer part of this new high-speed world?”
    It would appear so…
    Thank you for this piece, Ann!

  3. Carmen L. Saenz says:

    Very insightful and true! Thank you for expressing many of our concerns.

  4. Genevieve N. Franklin says:

    Spot on, Ann! Clearly thought out and well-written. I especially appreciated your reference to being the courts’ “disc jockey.” (-:

  5. Sandra Aidar-McDermott says:

    I couldn’t agree more! Let’s add bond court hearings or hearings when the defendant is incarcerated and the sound reverberates or is at barely audible levels. We do work wonders!

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