Telephone interpreting dates back to 1973, when the Department of Immigration in Australia created a 24-hour Emergency Telephone Interpreting Service. Since that time, telephone and other means of remote interpretation has become commonplace and widespread. But, it isn't without its critics. Telephone interpreting has experienced mixed reactions, even outright disdain. This has led to an increasingly vocal minority of hand ringers bemoaning the decline of language services. However, studies show absolutely no fundamental problems with telephone interpretation, nor do first-hand stories indicate that instances of poor language services were due to the use of the telephone.

Varied Responses

Overwhelmingly, administrators of public service agencies have met remote interpreting with open arms. This is hardly a surprise, as interpreting via telephone or via a computer of tablet allows all members of a community to equally access services and to participate in their community at all levels and it does so affordably. In smaller communities or those that simply lack qualified interpreters, hiring language services staff simply is not an option.

The late 90s marked a period filled with professional interpretation associations decrying telephone interpretation and its limitations. But, logically, why wouldn't they? Associations are made up of long-time members of a working community. In this instance, they were made up of people who had spent the majority of their working lives doing in-person interpretation. This means both that it would be their preferred method of working and that they had consistently occupied an occupational sphere with the infrastructure to employ them. They wouldn't know the plight of those in an area without access to their services, nor would they take kindly to a complete paradigm shift in the way their work was performed. Some two decades later, the debate remains, but overall professional acceptance of telephone interpretation is firmly in place.

Potential Disadvantages

No interpretation method is without its weaknesses and these are some of the complaints directed at remote interpreting:

  • When the parties do not know the interpreter and have never worked with him/her before, they have no way of knowing whether he/she is qualified or trustworthy.

  • There is a lack of visual cues and when the interpreter is not present, it is more difficult to develop a rhythm for turn-taking.

  • Poor acoustics may be the result of bad connections or faulty equipment.

But, the reality is that these disadvantages can almost all be offset with the use of an agency that ensures proper training and the proper training of those fields that most often use interpreters For example:

  • Regarding the trustworthiness of an interpreter, a reputable platform, like Ablio will guarantee they only represent ethical language service providers.

  • Interpreters need training in regulating turn-taking, compensating for the lack of visual cues, and alerting the parties to problems that arise. A professional agency will arrange for coaching of its interpreters and on-going education.

  • As with any type of interpreting, interpreters need training in the specialized terminology of the field they serve. All of Ablio's interpreters indicate the fields in which they work, guaranteeing that they are prepared and expert.

Regarding the possibility of equipment malfunction, these are easily worked around if preparations are put in place when using technology such as computers, microphones, and headsets to make them a non-issue.

Advantages

As most of the supposed disadvantages are easily avoided when using a reputable agency, it's worth examining the advantages and the way that they dwarf possible disadvantages.

  1. Interpretation can occur all day, every day 24/7.
  2. There are a wider range of languages available.
  3. It allows interpreters to have consistent work in their field, which guarantees they maintain their skills through constant exercise and ongoing engagements
  4. Interpreters can choose when to work and where to live, leading to a better quality of life and professionals who enjoy what they do.
  5. In situations that might be embarrassing to the parties, a remote interpreter can do their job without being seen as an interloper.
  6. When the interpreter is not in the same room as the speakers, it may be easier to concentrate on the interpreting task and not become emotionally involved in the situation being discussed.

Remote interpretation via phone, compute, or mobile device isn't perfect in every single scenario, but there isn't a form of interpreting that is. It is important that the villagers put down the pitchforks and stop trying to run remote interpreting out of town. Instead, people should embrace the new technologies that make it possible, and prepare for it in the ways that will make it most successful.


Graham Bell photo courtesy of the Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.