Distance Interpreting

Helke Heino | 15.06.2018 | , , ,

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Distance Interpreting – Digitale Kommunikationstechnologien


Digitale Kommunikationstechnologien wie Telefonie, Telekonferenzen und Videokonferenzen haben die Fernkommunikation in allen Bereichen der Gesellschaft erleichtert und haben dabei auch die Art und Weise, in der Dolmetschdienstleistungen erbracht werden, verändert. Einerseits hat die Verbreitung von Kommunikationstechnologien zu einer Nachfrage nach Dolmetschleistungen in Situationen geführt, in denen sich die Dienstleistungsempfänger an verschiedenen Orten befinden und über technische Kanäle interagieren. Beispiele hierfür sind virtuelle Treffen, Online-Konferenzen, Videoverbindungen zwischen Gerichten und Haftanstalten oder Telefonate zwischen Ärzten und Patienten. Andererseits haben dieselben Kommunikationstechnologien auch Situationen ermöglicht, in denen Dolmetscher ihre Dienstleistung per Telefon oder Videoverbindung zur Verfügung stellen.


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Distance Interpreting

Digital communication technologies such as telephony, teleconferencing and videoconferencing have facilitated distance communication in all sectors of society and have also begun to permeate the way interpreting services are delivered. On the one hand, the spread of communication technologies has generated a demand for interpreting services in situations where clients are in different locations and interact through technical channels. Examples include virtual meetings, online conferences, video links between courts and defendants in custody, and phone calls between doctors and patients in tele-healthcare. On the other hand, the same technologies have enabled situations whereby the interpreter delivers his/her service via telephone or video link.

A growing practice

The terminology used to refer to the emerging variants of technology-mediated interpreting is not yet standardised, but the term ‘distance interpreting’ has begun to establish itself as a cover term. An important distinction concerns the physical distribution of the interpreter(s) and their clients in different variants of distance interpreting. Based on this, two main configurations of distance interpreting can be distinguished:

Teleconference interpreting: The clients are in two or more locations, and the interpreter is at one of the client sites or at a separate site. If the event involves more than one interpreter, the interpreters themselves may be in different locations as well.

Remote interpreting: All clients share the same location, while the interpreter is offsite, i.e. working from a different location. If multiple interpreters are involved, they can either all be at the same location or at different locations. The traditional medium of communication for distance interpreting has been the telephone, but in many situations, this has been replaced by different types of audio- and videoconferencing. Two modalities of distance interpreting can therefore be distinguished, i.e. telephone-mediated (or audio-mediated) and videomediated interpreting, often simply called telephone interpreting and video interpreting respectively.

The simplest uses of telephone- and video-mediated interpreting occur in community and business settings where interpreting services are needed for only one language pair and delivered in consecutive mode. In settings involving simultaneous interpreting, telephone- and videomediated solutions require additional equipment and/or functionality. Such solutions have been developed for conference interpreting and, to a lesser extent, court interpreting.

Distance interpreting in community settings

The systematic application of distance interpreting in community settings started in the 1970s. It was closely associated with both improving access to language support for those with limited proficiency of a country’s official language, and reducing the cost of this support. The first telephone interpreting service was established by the Australian immigration service in 1973. By the 1980s and 1990s, it had become commonplace in the US and Europe, especially in healthcare settings.

Despite its gradual replacement by video-mediated services, telephone interpreting has a large market, especially in the form of telephone remote interpreting where the interlocutors are in the same room and the interpreter works offsite. The technological basis for telephone remote interpreting has improved over time, particularly through a move towards using dual-headset phones at the clients’ end as opposed to passing the receiver between the interlocutors or using speaker phones.

The shift towards video-mediated interpreting began in the 1990s with the arrival of ISDN-based videoconferencing. In healthcare settings, video links are at present mainly used to deliver remote interpreting for doctors and patients in hospitals, but recent developments in telehealthcare, allowing video links between doctors and home-based patients, will also require the integration of interpreters into such video links.

In legal settings, the main reason for the occurrence of video-mediated interpreting was initially the spread of videoconferencing technology in the justice sector, especially for links between courts and defendants in custody or witnesses since the 1990s. This created a demand for videoconference interpreting, with the interpreter located either in court or co-located with the remote participant. Video remote interpreting has been introduced more recently by courts and police to improve access to interpreters, especially for rare languages, and generally to reduce interpreter travel time and cost.

As with telephone interpreting, the technological basis for video-mediated interpreting has improved over time. ISDN videoconferencing technology offered low bandwidth and led to problems with sound and image quality. Broadband internet provides better and more stable audio and video quality, making it more conducive to video-mediated interpreting.

However, recent practices using smartphones and mobile networks create new challenges, although they also further improve access to interpreting services. This is particularly relevant for interpreting in medical emergencies and humanitarian crises.

The videoconferencing solutions used in community settings normally only support consecutive interpreting. This leads to a change in the interpreters’ working practices in court proceedings insofar as whispered interpreting is confined to configurations where the interpreter is co-located with the otherlanguage speaker. However, some videoconference systems used in US courts support a combination of consecutive and simultaneous interpreting, replicating the combination of modes in traditional interpretermediated court proceedings, and likening the solution to those developed for remote simultaneous interpreting in conference settings.

Distance interpreting in conference settings

The beginnings of distance interpreting in simultaneous mode, as used in conference settings, can also be traced back to the 1970s. Supra-national institutions were interested in distance interpreting as a means of meeting linguistic demand and mitigating logistical difficulties associated with displacing large teams of interpreters. Early experiments used satellite technology for the transmission of video images and telephone lines for audio, and tested different configurations of participant distribution.

From the 1990s onwards, the interest of the supra-national institutions focused on video remote interpreting. Physical building constraints, i.e. insufficient space for interpreting booths in major international venues, became an important driver. Several feasibility studies were organised. One of the first reallife events drawing on video remote interpreting was an informal EU Heads of State meeting at Hampton Court Palace in London in 2005.

In the experiments taking place from the 1990s, satellite technology was replaced first by ISDN-based videoconferencing solutions and subsequently by high-quality custom video links. However, regardless of the technological parameters, the participating interpreters consistently reported physiological and psychological discomfort.

Generally, the uptake of distance interpreting in conference settings has been slower and more controlled than in community interpreting. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) has been sceptical of distance interpreting, as evidenced by its original code of practice for the use of communication technologies in conference interpreting, published in 2000. However, at the time of writing, the code is being revised. Moreover, a new international standard relating to simultaneous interpreting, ISO 20108:2017, sets out requirements for the quality and transmission of sound and image including in settings of distance interpreting.

There are other differences between distance interpreting in community and conference settings. For example, videoconferencing solutions in6 community settings normally provide mutual visibility of all involved, while solutions for conference interpreting are generally asymmetrical in that the interpreters receive an audio and video feed from the delegates’ location(s), whilst the delegates only have an audio feed from the interpreters.

Whilst this replicates the situation in onsite interpreting in each setting, a different picture emerges with regard to the interpreters’ working environment. In community interpreting, the use of technologies has entailed a shift from direct (faceto- face) interaction with the participants to indirect interaction through a screen, camera and microphone. In conference settings, distance interpreting has, up until recently, still involved working in the traditional environment in this setting, i.e. an interpreting booth, even though the audio feed comes from the remote participants and the direct view of the audience is replaced by one or several video feeds.

However, a more recent development is beginning to change this. A new generation of cloud-based interpreting delivery platforms for remote simultaneous interpreting aims to recreate the interpreter’s work environment as a ‘virtual booth’, i.e. as a software-based solution. Some platforms currently offer the interpreter an audio feed from the remote delegates only, whilst others provide an audio and video feed. The platforms support team work between interpreters, who can themselves be remote from each other.

Along with these developments, the conferencing technology that provides the link between speakers, audiences and interpreters has also evolved. Traditional headsets with infrared/radio transmitters have been complemented by smartphone apps to listen to the interpretation. The same apps also allow remote speakers to speak offsite and have their speech interpreted for the audience. Hybrid solutions combine inter alia onsite and offsite speakers, audiences and interpreters, as well as traditional and web-/app-based conferencing technology.

Research on distance interpreting

The different variants of distance interpreting have been the subject of a small but growing body of research. They have been analysed in terms of efficiency gains and user satisfaction; performance quality; associated ergonomic, psychological and physiological factors; the dynamics of the communication; working conditions and adaptation.

Efficiency gains and user satisfaction

The gradual replacement of telephone with video interpreting in healthcare settings triggered research comparing telephone, video and onsite interpreting. Several surveys of medical interpreters, physicians and patients show that interpreters and physicians generally prefer onsite interpreting, and that among the technology-mediated modalities, video is preferred to telephone. Notably, however, the interpreters surveyed in one study1 found all three modalities satisfactory for conveying information, but they rated the technology-mediated modalities as less satisfactory for interpersonal aspects of communication, due to greater difficulties in establishing a rapport with the remote participants.

Interpreting quality

Research into interpreting quality in distance interpreting has drawn on both objective measures such as the systematic analysis of interpreting problems and subjective measures such as the interpreters’ perceptions of their performance, but the pertinent studies are not directly comparable. It is therefore currently difficult to assess how the quality achieved in distance interpreting compares to that in onsite interpreting.

An early study in the healthcare setting compared onsite consecutive with remote simultaneous interpreting using an audio-only link, and found higher accuracy levels in the latter,2 although the use of a different mode of interpreting in each test condition may have skewed the results. Two studies comparing the quality of onsite and video-mediated remote simultaneous interpreting in conference settings, conducted by the University of Geneva and the European Parliament respectively, yield a different result.3,4 Whilst the participating interpreters rated their own performance in remote interpreting as inferior, statistical analyses of interpreting problems revealed few differences between the two modalities. A significant exception was the earlier onset of fatigue in remote interpreting.

By contrast, the studies conducted in the European AVIDICUS projects,5 comparing different configurations of video-mediated interpreting in legal settings, revealed a tendency of video-mediated interpreting to magnify interpreting problems. A comparison specifically between onsite and video remote interpreting showed a significantly higher number of problems in remote interpreting along with a faster onset of fatigue.6 These findings are corroborated by qualitative analyses of the remote interpreting data, which highlight, for example, lexical activation problems and over-elaboration tendencies on the part of the interpreters as a way of coping with problems.

Ergonomic, psychological and physiological factors

The studies by the University of Geneva and the European Parliament also show that the interpreters perceived remote interpreting to be more stressful than onsite interpreting. Although not corroborated by objective stress hormone measures, this result coincides with other problems repeatedly reported by interpreters in relation to remote interpreting, including a sense of discomfort, fatigue, eye strain and nausea.

Whilst it has been difficult to identify the exact source of each of these problems, they are likely to be linked to the overarching condition of remoteness, i.e. a reduced sense of presence or togetherness, which is well documented for distance communication.

Distance communication disrupts the sense of presence because the non-verbal cues that interlocutors normally use become invisible or less effective, resulting in a latent uncertainty about what ‘the other side’ does. Distance interpreting may therefore make it more difficult for interpreters to process information, causing stress and fatigue. However, research has also highlighted possible benefits of remoteness, including, for example, the removal of distractions that interpreters normally experience in hospital environments, enabling them to focus better on the interpreting task.

Communicative interaction and dynamics

The physical separation of the interpreter from some or all participants also reduces the interpreter’s ability to engage with the participants and affects turn-taking patterns. For example, interpreters have been found spending considerable effort coordinating the conversation in telephone-mediated interpreting. Moreover, interpreter-mediated court hearings with remote participants on video link tend to be more fragmented than traditional court communication, and the location of the interpreter (in court vs. being colocated with the remote participant) seems to have an impact on the communicative dynamics in this configuration, with possible ethical and moral implications.

However, a recent survey of videomediated interpreting in legal settings, involving over 100 legal stakeholders and interpreters across the EU, shows that opinions about the interpreter’s location are divided within each of these two groups, with some believing that the inter preter should be co-located with the other language speaker while others advocated the view that the interpreter should be in court.7

Working conditions and adaptation

Research has also begun to investigate the working conditions of interpreters in technology-mediated settings. Generally, interpreters have mixed feelings about distance interpreting. Legal interpreters cite their own safety and the contribution of distance interpreting to reducing the procedural costs as advantages, and the changes in the communicative dynamics and dependence on technology as drawbacks. Some interpreters highlight benefits of working remotely and the ability to adapt to this environment.

Adaptation to distance interpreting has also been studied in its own right, suggesting that adaptation is possible at the level of using the technology, as evidenced by adapted strategies for coordinating the interaction, whilst barriers to adaptation mainly result from system design flaws, e.g. poor sound quality, which lead to greater processing effort and a reduction in the interpreter’s performance. Experienced interpreters may find it more difficult to adapt to distance interpreting because they rely on automated processes, whilst novice interpreters, especially when exposed to new modalities of interpreting during their training, may have a greater potential for adaptation.

Future directions

The use of communication technologies to deliver interpreting services has improved access to language support and, arguably, the sustainability of the interpreting profession, but it has also added a further layer of complexity to interpreter-mediated communication.

The rise of distance interpreting has therefore sparked debate and requires careful consideration. The research areas outlined above warrant further investigation. Equally important, the most recent developments, such as the evolution of remote simultaneous interpreting owing to a new generation of cloudbased interpreting platforms, have yet to be investigated systematically.

Given the rapid evolution of communication technologies, the future is likely to bring an increase and diversification of distance interpreting. In the light of this, questions about system design, working conditions, skills and training for all stakeholders will become more pertinent. One of the questions is whether technologymediated multilingual communication will work best when it replicates traditional configurations as closely as possible or whether adaptation will lead to more effective solutions.

Moreover, if the notion of ‘presence’ is the key to explaining the many problems that have been observed in distance interpreting, it will be important to identify the elements that increase the sense of presence for all involved. Finally, robust research methods will be required to consolidate current insights and to ensure that apparent discrepancies in current research findings can be resolved.


  1. Price, E. et al. (2012). Interpreter perspectives of in-person, telephonic, and videoconferencing medical interpretation in clinical encounters. Patient Education and Counseling, 87(2), 226-232.
  2. Hornberger, J. et al. (1996). Eliminating language barriers for non-English-speaking patients. Medical Care, 34(8), 845-856.
  3. Moser-Mercer, B. (2003). Remote interpreting: assessment of human factors and performance parameters. Communicate! Summer 2003. https://aiic.net/page/1125/remote-interpreting-assessment- of-human-factors-and-pe/lang/1.
  4. Roziner, I., & Shlesinger, M. (2010). Much ado about something remote: Stress and performance in remote interpreting. Interpreting, 12(2), 214-247.
  5. Braun, S. & Taylor, J. (eds) (2012). Videoconference and remote interpreting in criminal proceedings. Antwerp: Intersentia.
  6. Braun, S. (2013). Keep your distance? Remote interpreting in legal proceedings: A critical assessment of a growing practice. Interpreting, 15(2), 200-228.
  7. Braun, S. et al. (2016). The use of videoconferencing in proceedings conducted with the assistance of an interpreter. Research Report. AVIDICUS 3 project. AVIDICUS3 Research Report (PDF)

Sabine Braun

Sabine Braun ist Professorin für Translationswissenschaft und Leiterin des Zentrums für Translationswissenschaft an der University of Surrey. Ihr Forschungsschwerpunkt sind neue Formen des Dolmetschens und Übersetzens, insbesondere Videokonferenz- und Teledolmetschen. Prof. Braun hat mehrere multinationale europäische Projekte zum Einsatz von Videokonferenztechnologie im Behördendolmetschen geleitet. Im Ergebnis dieser Tätigkeit hat sie in enger Zusammenarbeit mit der Arbeitsgruppe E-Recht (E-Justiz) des Europäischen Rates europäische Leitlinien zum Videokonferenz- und Teledolmetschen in Strafverfahren entwickelt und u. a. als Beraterin für die Londoner Polizei und die Londoner Bewährungshilfe bei der Einführung videokonferenzbasierter Dolmetschlösungen fungiert.

Dieser Artikel erschien im FORUM 1/2018.