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E.g., 04/05/2020

Emerging Business Models in the Interpreting Space

By: Barry Slaughter Olsen (InterpretAmerica)

24 February 2014

Is there really much room for innovation or new business models when it comes to providing interpreting services? The answer is a resounding “yes!” Read on and find out why.

Interpreting is a growing, dynamic segment of the language services market. In fact, spoken language services are in demand like never before as a result of an increasingly globalized marketplace and a dramatic increase in migrant flows around the world. These factors have expanded the need for interpreting services far beyond the rarified air of diplomatic circles, where modern interpreting began, and taken it into boardrooms, courtrooms, jails, hospitals, schools, and even cyberspace. This diversification has led to a wide range of interactions that need to be interpreted, creating new opportunities for language service companies willing to innovate to find new ways to meet clients’ interpreting needs.  

At first glance, providing interpreting services can look deceptively simple. Match the right linguist to the job and you’re done, right? But with the diversification and expansion of interpreted interactions come new complexities. Interpreted interactions can last a few minutes or go on for several days. Clients may meet face-to-face or via teleconference or videoconference. And, in some countries, interpreters may need to hold certain certifications to work for your clients. So, getting the right interpreters to the right job at the right time and providing them with the tools to do their job is actually what makes providing the service complex. It is this complexity that some innovative companies are seeking to address. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Video Remote Interpreting (VRI)

Remote interpreting is not new. Over-the-phone interpreting has been around since the 1970s and continues to thrive. However, with the introduction of wireless technologies and tablet computing, video remote interpreting, or VRI, is beginning to revolutionize the way interpreting services are being provided in schools, hospitals, and courtrooms. Largely fueled by the need to provide sign language interpreting, which requires both audio and video, this delivery model is being developed by enterprising companies searching for ways to “innovate the adjacent possible” 1 by providing spoken language services on the same platform.

Two different business models are developing in this space: an on-demand call-center-based approach similar to what has been employed in the over-the-phone sector and an innovative platform that allows both language service companies and individual interpreters to provide scheduled interpreting services to new and existing clients.

One startup is using the latter model to build an online ecosystem for remote consecutive interpreting that covers a wide range of possibilities. For example, it leverages elements of crowdsourcing to allow clients to post interpreting jobs, and individual interpreters registered on the system to receive notifications on jobs that fit their profiles, similar to very successful online work sites like eLance.com. These “do it yourself” ecosystems also include scheduling and payment tools as well, which make it possible for end users to retain and pay interpreting talent from all over the world. Even so, interpreters hoping to work on such platforms will have to have a quiet place to work, the appropriate hardware, and dependable broadband Internet access. No interpreting from poolside or between flights!

Innovation in this area is closely tied to technological developments that have made high-quality, low-bandwidth video and VOIP a reality, while dramatically lowering barriers to entry. Different VRI companies make use of different technologies and network infrastructure, some of which require proprietary hardware and codecs. However, others are taking advantage of platform-agnostic technologies that only require access to a browser or a native app on a smartphone or tablet computer, which expands the potential market enormously. Of particular interest is the evolution of webRTC (web real-time communications) an open-source project that seeks to make browser-based audio, video and data communications a standard feature of any web browser.  

Remote Simultaneous Interpreting for Virtual Meetings 2

There are myriad ways for people to communicate and do business, and just because video is a viable option does not mean that other types of communication are dead. In fact, telephone calls and audio conferencing still remain the most popular ways to communicate live over long distances. Add online collaboration platforms to the mix with their chat windows, whiteboards and screen sharing and you have a suite of powerful tools to get work done with geographically dispersed teams or to get a message out to large audiences around the globe. None of these tools, however, take into account the growing demand for simultaneous interpreting for teleconferences and webinars.

For years, creative language service companies have been piecing together solutions for conference calls and webinars in multiple languages using existing telephone infrastructure to provide remote simultaneous interpreting. These “solutions” often require interpreters to juggle multiple telephones while watching a presentation on a computer screen, monitoring a Skype chat window and remembering to mute one phone and unmute the other while interpreting—far from ideal. Even so, this has been better than the alternative of not being able to communicate with clients in their preferred language.

Such technical acrobatics undertaken by many language service companies indicates pent-up demand for these services. A small number of companies 3 are working to service this growing market segment by providing remote simultaneous interpreting platforms for teleconferences and webinars, most of which work in tandem with existing collaboration platforms like Cisco WebEx, Adobe Connect, and Citrix GoToMeeting. The demand for this kind of multilingual collaboration spans both the public and private sectors, but unlocking this market segment has everything to do with ensuring ease of use and a simplified experience for both end users and interpreters.

Providing the right technical conditions for this kind of remote interaction is only half the battle. It will be up to language service companies to staff these multilingual virtual meetings with a new generation of competent, tech-savvy interpreters.

Smaller, Better, Easier

With all the excitement around remote interpreting, you might think that on-site or face-to-face interpreting is declining. Not so. Although face-to-face interpreting in certain instances is being replaced by remote, the number of interactions where interpreting is required is on the rise. If consecutive interpreting is an option for these interactions, little or no technology is required. However, many circumstances require the use of simultaneous interpreting, which cannot be provided for even small groups without the help of technology.

Traditionally, this technology has been bulky, cumbersome and often cost prohibitive for smaller, shorter interactions. Installing interpreting booths and high-fidelity sound equipment monitored by technicians works well for large and often high-level events like a G-20 Summit or an annual sales meeting of a Fortune 500 company. But what if it’s a sales presentation for three Spanish-speaking clients from South America? Portable FM or infrared audio transmitters and receivers make simultaneous interpreting both feasible and affordable in such instances.

Portable interpreting equipment has been around for many years, but recent advances in digital audio technology have improved its quality and ease of use. One company, Williams Sound, has introduced some significant innovations in this space worthy of mention here. From a “plug-and-play” simultaneous interpreter console to a pocket-sized multi-channel digital FM transceiver that allows interpreters to receive source audio and transmit their simultaneous interpretation at same time, this company’s innovations have addressed some of the biggest technical and logistical challenges in providing on-site simultaneous interpretation. The resulting reduction in cost and complexity of portable interpreting equipment has helped lower the cost and improve the quality and availability of interpreting services—all of which are key to expanding the interpreting market.

Full Spectrum Solutions

Spoken language services can be described as a continuum. On one end you have fully automated solutions that provide speech-to-speech machine translation (think Google Translate or Bing Translator). On the other is high-quality human interpreting. All of the solutions mentioned so far fall somewhere along this continuum closer to the high-quality human end. But there is a place for end-to-end language service solutions that run the gamut from full automation to interaction with a live interpreter. One intriguing example of this kind of solution is the “Multilingual Information Line” designed by Victorian Interpreting and Translating Service (VITS) in Australia, which initially provides prerecorded information in the chosen language but also provides for automatic connection to customer service through a live interpreter, if required at some point during the experience.

This kind of end-to-end solution may well play a more prominent role as companies doing business internationally need to grapple with increased client interaction in multiple languages while keeping customer relationship management costs low.

Conclusion: Technology Drives Innovation but Don’t Believe the Hype

On an almost daily basis, news stories, blogs, and tweets tout the end of language barriers thanks to some new machine translation service or handy-dandy smartphone app. Hyperbolic headlines aside, these articles and posts still fail to recognize the complexity of language and human communication and are quick to ascribe human capabilities to machines. Nothing could be further from the truth.

That said, there is much to be gained by using recent technological advances to expand the availability of spoken language services, thereby improving user experience and reducing the cost and complexity of providing high-quality human interpreting.

The recent surge in innovation in the interpreting space is a sign of growth. With growth comes change, and with change, opportunity. It is still unclear which of these new platforms and business models will eventually come out on top and which will be cast aside. But one thing is clear—the world needs to communicate across languages more than ever before, and it will be up to the innovators to help make it happen.  

Barry Slaughter Olsen, is a veteran conference interpreter and technophile with over two decades of experience interpreting, training interpreters and organizing language services. He is the founder and co-president of InterpretAmerica, a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and General Manager of multilingual at ZipDX.

1 This term was coined by James McQuivey in his book Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation, 2013, Amazon Publishing.

2 Remote interpreting is a broad concept that covers a multitude of scenarios. Readers may wish to consult “Remote Interpreting: How Would You Define It?” for a more detailed analysis of the types of remote interpreting.

3 Full disclosure: I am a partner in ZipDX, a company that provides a multichannel audio conferencing platform for remote simultaneous interpreting.