Interpreters and technology: the future of simultaneous interpretation

Simultaneous interpretation has been strongly linked to technology since its early days, serving the speakers of different languages participating in conferences and needing to understand each other.

The emergence of new technological tools has meant the interpretation sector has been evolving and adapting to the increasing need for proximity and connection between people and services worldwide.

The advances in technology have, however, generated speculation within the industry about the future of simultaneous interpretation at conferences. Will it be an opportunity or a challenge for interpreters?


Simultaneous interpretation: a technology-dependent profession

Simultaneous interpreting is the most recent service of interpretation work and it is, at root, truly linked to technology, or even dependent on its use for the success of the services provided by interpreters.

It first appeared in 1925, as an answer for the strenuous efforts at consecutive interpreting – taking notes of a speech and translating it in the end – in the political meetings of the League of Nations.

The simultaneous interpreting proposal submitted by the US businessman Edward Filene suggested setting up a booth with microphones attached to headphones of the participants through an amplifier.

The idea was accepted and this system was successfully used in the League of Nations and later on by the United Nations and at the Nuremberg Trials, after World War II.

These interpreters were not initially isolated in the booth: they were organised into groups of three, behind a glass panel without sound insulation and only with poor quality microphone and headphones.

The interpreters, with no specific training and equipment that still had to be tested, had to adapt to this innovation, which made technology available that eventually aided their work, almost replacing consecutive interpreting.

The natural evolution from early simultaneous interpreting at conferences was to place the interpreters in a space that is not shared with the speakers, i.e. the remote interpretation of the speeches and interventions at the conference.

Remote interpretation gained strength, especially from the 2000s, with the introduction of better audio connections and video transmission and responding to space constraints that required interpreters to be located in other rooms.


The present and the future of conference interpreting

Simultaneous interpreting at conferences is today radically different from the initial decades, even though the technology has always been present in soundproof booths, in the interpreting consoles and the audio connection to headphones.

Over nearly one hundred years of simultaneous interpreting, interpreters have been adopting new technologies in their lives and in their work, innovating processes and creating new possibilities for remote interpretation.

Computerized systems have revolutionized remote interpreting, allowing interpreters to have more control over their notes and the linking of monitors with video of the speakers and auxiliary presentations.

Internet use has, of course, become widespread in the prior preparation of interpretation services at conferences, for updating language skills and providing access to dictionaries and other online terminology sources.

An interpreter can use a tablet or smartphone, both easy to carry and silent, to have access to apps of notes and useful terminology for interpretation work on very specific topics and with difficult vocabulary.

Technology is also at the service of simultaneous interpreting breaking down physical barriers since the interpreter and speakers can be a great distance from each other. The internet can be used to establish a video and audio connection for the interpreting.

It is remote interpretation raised to another level: the interpreter does not have to go to the place of interpretation, which saves time and money, performing the interpretation through a video conference link as though in the same room.

This method is widely used for more unusual languages and in hospitals, for example, for patients that do not speak the language of that country, or even in courts, in trials of foreign defendants.

Other remote interpreting systems have been developed, such as interpreting software via video in which video participants in a web or telephone conference are connected to a device and choose the language they want to speak in.

All communicate and have access to the communications of the other speakers in their own language, without any additional hardware or the assistance of an interpreter. These innovative systems work with the aid of machine interpreting software.

Machine interpreting is based on previously translated terms and a history that is being built up and improved, combining two existing technologies: machine translation and voice recognition software.

The technology captures the voice, converts the content into text, translates it and then formulates the content through an electronic voice in the target language.

Such machine interpreting software is multiplying, and it is moving ever closer to simultaneous interpreting at conferences as its processing speed increases and it becomes progressively better.

Despite the limitations in terms of efficiency and above all quality that still exist, interpreters see these technologies as an opportunity in the present and a challenge to be faced, due to the possibilities of greater automation in the future.

Sources: AIIC and AIIC

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