It’s no secret that COVID-19 has transformed the conference industry. Restrictions on travel and large gatherings have left organizers scrambling to switch to a virtual format. But multilingual events include an additional challenge: the need for remote conference interpreters.

Conference interpreters, also known as simultaneous interpreters, typically work onsite. They use specialized technology to listen in one language as they speak in another and convey the message over an audio distribution system. (Think a U.N. meeting with interpreters sitting in glass boxes.) Recreating this arrangement via remote simultaneous interpreting is vital for making these events a success.

While this may seem like a short-term problem, companies such as Microsoft have announced that their events will remain virtual through July 2021. Risk-aversion and uncertainty over when the pandemic will end have caused other organizations to follow a similar timeline.

Fortunately, improvements in technology have made it easier than ever to host multilingual conferences online. The real question is: will organizers bring simultaneous interpreters back when onsite events resume?

The Rise of Interpreting Platforms

As everything from business meetings to international conferences went virtual, platforms such as Skype and Zoom exploded in popularity. Yet they weren’t built with interpreters in mind. Enter Interprefy and KUDO, two interpreting platform startups that include remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) capabilities.

The Switzerland-based Interprefy has already helped thousands of multilingual events move online since the start of the pandemic, with the platform’s usage increasing by seven-fold. Meanwhile, the New York-based KUDO raised over $6 million in July, exceeding its original goal of $2 to $4 million. The company currently facilitates around 650 meetings per week.

The Pros and Cons of Simultaneous Remote Interpreting

Like anything, RSI includes both pros and cons.

Let’s start with the pros. Given the savings on overhead costs, RSI is a better value for some events. Organizations no longer need to pay an interpreter’s travel expenses nor do they need to invest in the technology to enable onsite conference interpreting. It also makes it easier to connect with an interpreter on short notice. 

And last, but certainly not least, remote options give organizations access to a much wider talent pool. Given the specialized training and skill set required, conference interpreters are a rare breed.

Now for the cons. If you’ve ever attended a Zoom meeting, you know how much can go wrong. Poor audio, frozen screens, and lost connections are just a few problems that can arise. Now, image you not only need to listen, but simultaneously interpret as well. Even minor technical problems may cause the interpreter to miss parts of a conversation. 

Zoom fatigue is another common problem for both interpreters and attendees. Video calls not only require more concentration, but also make it more difficult to connect with the speaker. As a result, remote interpreters report that they experience work-related ailments such as headaches, nausea, and Tinnitus.

Finally, RSI isn’t an option everywhere. It requires a dedicated broadband connection to stream video. Depending on the location, broadband may or may not be available. Some rural regions in the U.S., for example, still rely on a dial-up internet connection.  

Will Remote Simultaneous Interpreting Replace the Onsite Interpreter?  

The short answer? Probably not entirely. Large international conferences and events will likely continue hiring onsite interpreters. There are still advantages to working in-person, including the ability to better read facial cues and body language, and avoid delays due to remote communication. However, some smaller companies and organizers may find that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

We want to know what you think. Will conference interpreting return to the way it was pre-COVID or will it continue to shift toward RSI? Vote in our poll below:

Will conference interpreting return to the way it was pre-COVID or will it continue to shift toward RSI? Vote in our poll below:
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