E.g., 04/02/2020
E.g., 04/02/2020

Current Trends in the High-End Conference Interpreting Market

By: Naomi Bowman (DS-Interpretation) - DS-Interpretation, Inc

04 September 2014

Over the past 15 years conference interpreting has evolved, responding to changes in technology, IT, and the global economy. A critical shortage of talent needed to meet the current demand raises questions about where this field is headed, and how it can continue to adapt to this new reality. Naomi Bowman brings experience and insight to her analysis of this niche industry.


Conference interpreting is the segment of the language services market that deals with interpreting at high level events – usually on-site.  Conference interpreters work for major sporting events, global Fortune 100 companies, and heads of state, to name a few examples, and provide either consecutive or simultaneous interpretation.This article will provide a brief background on this dynamic, high-end market and discuss the current trends.


The simultaneous interpreting side of conference interpreting has a relatively short history. Wide-spread use began in the 1960s with the development of infrared and radio frequency equipment, creating a market for wireless services to transmit interpretation over headsets. Little has changed since then in how this service is handled:  send a truck load of equipment and a group of trained technical staff to a conference venue, set the equipment up on-site and bring in the freelance interpreters to work at the event – sometimes from great distances. It is an expensive endeavor used primarily by high-end entities that can afford it. It is an inherently conservative niche of the larger language services market. 

Much of the world is unaware of the service at all, other than its use in the United Nations.  Many of us still struggle to explain to friends and family, exactly what it is that we in this industry do. Well, it is rather like managing a backstage crew for show business --  we work at ‘shows’  and are part of the backstage lights, camera and action.   It is all about talent, technology, and production values.

Interpreters are the talent. And that talent is special: there are relatively few actual conference interpreters in the world.  

I sometimes ask a new client how many Spanish conference interpreters they think there are in California. The answer is almost always ‘hundreds’ or ‘thousands’ since California has so many Spanish speakers. The true answer is: fewer than a dozen.  There are certainly hundreds and possibly thousands of interpreters in California but they are not conference interpreters. Conference interpreting requires specialized education and years of experience to work at the highest level and conference interpreters command hefty daily fees. The truth is that it is extremely difficult to do well, and most people without specialized training will last fewer than five minutes on the job.  It is a highly developed and often misunderstood skill.


In the last fifteen years or so, obvious changes in technology, IT, and the global economy have resulted  in a new market that is hungry for efficiency at lower costs.  Providers are trying hard to catch up and are simply struggling to keep up with demand.  We are all doing more work and there are many more providers entering the market, yet many of us struggle to maintain and assure standards of quality.

We also have to be more creative about what we offer:  there is more demand for interpreters in general and for exotic languages; there is demand for more flexibility in what interpreters charge and what a day of work consists of.  There is a need for recording interpreters with fewer imposed limitations than tradition has called for; for short-notice solutions; and most of all for new and creative technology solutions.


The conference interpreting market relies entirely on the human talent of trained, qualified specialists and there simply are not enough interpreters to meet the demand.  For most US conference interpreter providers, the top language for a very long time was Japanese. Now it is Chinese, according to a recent market survey at the AIIC Private market conference held in San Francisco in July, 2014.  There has been an increase in demand not only for other Asian languages such as Korean, Thai and Vietnamese but also for Turkish, Arabic and Portuguese. And there is a shortage of trained interpreters even in more prevalent languages such as Spanish. 

Providers are resorting to using interpreters who are not trained as conference interpreters due to a simple lack of resources. Some of these interpreters have the aptitude and gain experience and skills and some do not.  The flooding of the market with less qualified interpreters has resulted in a broader range of quality offered by providers and a ‘you get what you pay for’ mentality. Even with general growth in the market, it means the competition among providers is more complex and challenging. Educating clients has become a big part of the job.

Thankfully, training opportunities are increasing to meet this demand in North America. In addition to the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), which has been training conference interpreters for over 50 years, many colleges and universities are developing or now offering M.A. degrees in Translation & Interpretation (University of Maryland, York University, University of Illinois to name a few). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be 42% growth in the job market for interpreters and translators from 2010 to 2020.   In the coming years, we can expect continued growth in the number of training programs available and expansion of languages they offer to meet the increasing demand and fill the void. This in turn creates a market for new and better technology to be developed by the top manufacturers.  


Historically conference interpreters have worked based on a fixed daily rate for six hours of work. The US market in particular is looking for a change: the US work day is longer than it used to be and many conferences have days that involve overtime. Clients do not want to be charged overtime for what they consider to be a ‘normal’ work day. Anything else is simply a hard sell in today’s work-focused, productive world.  The six-hour day for interpreters was based on a typical working day in Europe in past decades and was adopted by many freelance interpreters in the private market.

There are many more agencies offering hourly rates as well, often with a 2 hour minimum. This is likewise being driven by the clients – even though the normal work day is getting longer, clients who have short meetings and needs do not want to pay a ‘daily fee’ when they have an hour or two of work.  Many agencies are complying and a younger generation of conference interpreters is ready to step in and comply with that need for short, local events. 

The need for providers to resort to using non-trained conference interpreters has put downward pressure on the daily fee concept – there is a genuine market for interpreters who charge less than the ‘going’ rates, and qualified interpreters who want more work are agreeing to lower rates… and down they go.  Conference interpreters who accept lower rates need to know that they are helping to set new precedents but they may also be working more than in the past.  

Flexibility is the new key word: clients are demanding flexibility not only in what defines a ‘day’ and how interpreters charge for their services, but they also expect flexibility in the services provided. More and more, we are seeing situations where clients need simultaneous, consecutive, tour guide simultaneous, and assisting at a dinner table all at the same event. The needs are more complex and the interpreters have to be willing to work in ways which are different than the typical conference of years past. In the near future we can expect changes in the traditional concept of how the daily fee is defined, what the ‘market’ rates are, and what that day of work will entail.


With the ability to use devices to record anything via audio and video and upload it instantly to the web, and the ability of clients to webcast to an audience of millions, the topic of recording interpreters has become a heated debate. The fact that interpretation is protected by international and local intellectual property laws is a surprise to many clients and listeners in the field.  As time goes on, it is becoming more and more difficult to control what happens to the end product. The challenge now is for interpreters and providers alike to change the rules and definitions to match the new technology.

In the past, it was easy to create a contract that limited the use of a recording of an interpreted event and pay the interpreter for being recorded.  Today, the lack of control of who records in a conference due to the proliferation of recording devices,  and what happens to that recording,  means that serious thought must be given to the entire process. Telling delegates that they cannot record does not assure a lack of recording. There are two directions of thought:

  1. Interpretation in the future will not be protected by Intellectual Property Laws and will not be controlled. Daily fees will increase or include compensation for the assumption of recording.
  2. Any recording of interpretation will require additional compensation with a recording waiver signed by the interpreter prior to recording. Clients who choose not to inform their audience that recording is prohibited will pay a fee and will assume recording will occur.

The current trend is heading in the direction of extra compensation for any and all recording, at least among the top providers. Still, this is difficult to put into practice on the ground and unauthorized recording is increasingly common.

This issue will continue to be debated but over time, the trend among the younger generation, based on informal surveys, is that recording in the future will be an accepted and expected part of the job without additional compensation.  This is also known as ‘work made for hire,’ meaning that the interpreter releases all intellectual property claims on the interpretation.  Anything else is going to be increasingly difficult to control.


One of the major impacts on our industry in recent decades has been a trend towards the last-minute conference. That has changed exponentially in recent years. In the early 1990s, it was not uncommon to have 2 years of notice for a major event.  Now events of the same size are rarely planned more than a few months out, and sometimes only a few weeks out.  We are now responding to requests during evenings, weekends and holidays for events both large and small that are a few days away.  As a result, confirmation also occurs closer to an event date now, due to the need to account for last minute changes.  It is common to get a contract signed only days in advance.

Such short time frames put enormous stress on the limited resource pool, and make it difficult to uphold quality levels.   In many cases those who are available and accessible 24/7, and able to act on short notice, are the ones who will get the job.   Interpreters and providers who can manage and balance their responsiveness well, while avoiding the stress of always being ready and able to respond, are the ones who will be most successful.


The most prominent market trend is surely the change in interpretation technology.  Affordable remote interpretation, where nobody actually goes on-site, and new types of devices to replace the current technology are becoming realities after decades of development.  Although remote interpretation is nothing new, cost-effective and reliable remote is still a big challenge.  Currently, the biggest most important events are still using the same technology approaches of decades past.   The reason is simple: it works -- and in show business there is no room for error.  Failure is not an option.  The alternative technology world is still young, raw, and lacks the sufficient guarantee of success that can be assured with the old school approach.  

Still, that gap is narrowing – and quickly. Clients are asking the questions and driving the manufacturers to develop solutions:   Can we have a conference using ‘fewer devices’? Can voting devices be combined with interpretation or better yet, can smart phones be used with an app?  Why can’t we use the internet for interpreting? Can interpreters stay at home and work remotely for a meeting?  Can’t you give me an audio feed from your interpreters without them being present? 

Some of the recent product roll-outs for remote services from the top manufacturers as well as new start-ups are certain to become game-changers.  Short, simple and small meetings are where the change will likely first be seen: smart phones have battery life limitations that do not allow for a full day’s use; internet-based approaches currently are limited in terms of the number of users at one time; video and audio interfacing for remote simultaneous still needs refinement to work well. But the future that has been talked about for so long is about to arrive and in the coming months - not years- we will begin to see the new approaches at work in the market as conference interpreting catches up with the hi-tech world.

The world of conference interpreting is continuing to grow with the rest of the language services market. But the growth is complex and the traditional ways of doing things are changing fast. Some conference interpreters are concerned that they will be completely replaced by technology. Even so, conference interpreters are far from becoming a commodity because the human element remains so vital to the end product and speech in any language is so dynamic.

As Bill Wood, the founder of DS-Interpretation, said at the 2nd North American Summit on Interpreting in Washington, DC in 2011, “Interpreters will not be replaced by technology – they will be replaced by interpreters who use technology.”  For those of us who are providers of this service, a similar adage holds true: those who succeed will be the ones who embrace new technology and are willing to explore new, creative solutions for working with interpreters. Current market trends are complex and fast-paced, and mirror the world we live in. The challenge for providers and interpreters is to maintain standards of quality in this rapidly changing environment.

Naomi Bowman is President of DS-Interpretation, Inc. and has over 25 years of experience in the conference interpreting world as both an interpreter organizer and manager of equipment services. She lived overseas for 9 years and earned her M.A. degree in International Relations while living in the U.K. She is known for her strong alliances with interpreters and support of improving interpreter working conditions, as well as her depth of knowledge on the technology side. Her goal is to provide clients with world-class interpretation services while upholding the standards of the conference interpreting profession.