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E.g., 03/28/2020

Interpreting in the 21st Century: Bigger, More Diverse, Different

By: Barry Slaughter Olsen and Katharine Allen (InterpretAmerica)

04 September 2014

As technology expands to serve the evolving communication needs of the 21st century, language service companies have focused primarily on translation and localization. But where does interpreting fit in to the language enterprise? GALAxy guest editors Katharine Allen and Barry Slaughter Olsen explore the challenges, opportunities for growth, and changes within this exciting and often overlooked sector of the language industry. 

As the language enterprise continues to expand and specialize to adapt to the communication demands of the 21st century, language service companies have focused mostly on translation and localization. After all, the Internet has brought on a renaissance of written communication. Content management, localization, and internationalization are now industry watchwords. Industry associations and companies tend to focus on word counts, fuzzy matches, turnaround times, and bits and bytes. The written word is malleable, recordable, digitizeable, and reusable thanks to big data that reside in aligned corpora and can be served up to order by ever-faster computers with custom algorithms. But what about spoken communication? What about interpreting? Where does it fit in the language enterprise?

In the decade that GALAxy has been published, this will be the first edition to focus on interpreting—i.e., spoken language services. When we were invited by GALA to guest edit this edition, the answer was clear—“Yes, of course!” The task aligned perfectly with InterpretAmerica’s core mission of “raising the profile of interpreting.” What wasn’t so clear was where to focus our readers’ attention. Shining a spotlight on one of the most dynamic and yet disparate sectors of the language industry has been long overdue.

This edition of GALAxy comes on the heels of the first edition of think! Interpreting, co-organized by GALA and InterpretAmerica, which took place in Istanbul, Turkey, in March of this year. And if participant feedback is any indication, the GALA membership is interested in interpreting.

Interpreting is inextricably linked to individuals’ and organizations’ needs to communicate with people who do not speak the same language. In the mid-20th century, users of interpreting were mainly diplomats and world leaders deciding the fate of peoples and nations, leaders at the helm of a handful of corporations doing business abroad and scientists and doctors at international congresses. The main interaction between countries and cultures had been war, followed by the Cold War. As a result, interpreting, and in a broader sense spoken language services, has often been viewed by the larger language industry as a niche.

All of that has changed. In the 21st century, while governments and international organizations continue to rely on interpreters on a daily basis, the need for interpreting has grown far beyond its lofty origins, exploding out in all directions with the advent of mobile technologies, just as translation did when the Internet arrived.

In this issue we’ll take a look at four specializations in interpreting that are experiencing both growth and change, problems and opportunities: Conference interpreting; public service interpreting; over-the-phone interpreting; and interpreter training.

Conference interpreting is going through significant change as the old way of doing things begins to give way to greater flexibility and new models of meeting management. How can language service companies match high-level interpreting expertise to the new demands placed on them to provide interpreting services in interactions that don’t fit the traditional “international conference” setting, like conference calls, small meetings, and videoconferences? What about audio and video recording of the interpretation? Read the article by industry veteran Naomi Bowman to gain an insider’s take on the changes afoot in conference interpreting.

Public service interpreting (or PSI, also known as community interpreting in the United States) is arguably the fastest growing specialization in interpreting, as immigrants the world over cross borders in search of a better life and better opportunities. Countries that have traditionally received immigrants through their history, like Australia, Canada, and the United States, have worked to create frameworks for this new and growing specialization.

With the growth in migration from inside and outside of Europe and the pressures it places on EU member countries’ social infrastructure, the European Union has begun to tackle the need for quality language services in the public sector. Read Pascal Riloff’s article on the newly created European Network for Public Service Interpreting and Translation (ENPSIT) to learn more about how the industry is getting involved in this growing specialization in Europe.

Over-the-phone interpreting (or OPI) is not new. Its annual revenue is estimated at close to US$1 billion. The on-demand nature of OPI brought interpreting to new markets and continues to be a driver for growth in both the public and private sectors. Is OPI right for your company? Could this service offering be right for your portfolio? Be sure to read Kristin Quinlan’s article on OPI as an opportunity for growth in both existing and emerging markets.

With the growth in the demand for interpreting, the pressure placed on language service companies to find qualified, competent interpreters in a long list of languages has only grown. Qualified, competent interpreters must be trained and training requires education. How can academe address the need when traditional higher education models change at what can seem like a glacial pace? And what about the myriad language combinations needed? With expert interpreter trainers scattered the world over, how can a university staff a quality training program? (Hint: it has a lot to do with cooperation between academe and industry.) Read Andrew Clifford’s article to learn of one fresh new approach launched recently in Canada.

Finally, one specialization that receives the most attention in the mainstream media is absent here—machine interpreting. This is more commonly known as speech-to-speech translation, because it is a mashup of speech recognition, speech-to-text, machine translation and speech synthesis or near real-time subtitles. Truth be told, the process does not involve any “interpreting” at all. Interpreting, or cross-language spoken communication, is arguably the most complex language service for machines to tackle. Even so, significant advances are being made, and the technology giants (Microsoft, Google, and Facebook) as well as some innovative “little guys” are dedicating significant time and resources to make it a reality. By all accounts, they have made significant headway but are still far from reaching accuracy levels acceptable for anything beyond informal conversation where translation mistakes usually produce laughter and smiles rather than frustration and confusion.

Given the seemingly ceaseless march of technology across every industry and field of human endeavor, language service companies should keep an eye on speech-to-speech translation technology for possible threats and opportunities. In fact, it may well make a great topic for a future edition of GALAxy.

Now more than ever, the world needs to communicate in many languages. Now more than ever, governments, businesses, and NGOs operate daily at a multinational level. Now more than ever, international migration has led to multilingual and multicultural societies where diasporas of linguistically diverse immigrant communities need to access justice and healthcare, which  is generally provided in a language that is not their own. On every level—government, corporate, and individual—interpreting is in demand more than ever before.  The tried and true face-to-face service delivery models, while still useful and widely effective, aren’t necessarily keeping up with growing demand, as human interaction increasingly takes place in the virtual world. The cost and complexity of providing interpreting services with traditional methods keeps interpreting from being used in a broad range of different scenarios.

The challenge before the language industry today is to find ways to provide quality spoken language services for the new ways that individuals and organizations meet and communicate both physically and virtually. If industry can rise to this challenge we can literally help the world communicate faster and more accurately than ever before. If we do not innovate and adapt, then we can expect innovation and disruption to come from outside the traditional language services space.

If you are interested in shaping the future of interpreting and the topics in this edition of GALAxy have struck a chord with you then be sure to join us in Sevilla for the second installment of think! Interpreting on March 22-25, 2015, where we will continue the conversation with industry leaders from around the globe. 


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 an associate professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), General Manager of Multilingual Operations at ZipDX, and the founder and co-president of InterpretAmerica.

Katharine Allen is a healthcare interpreter, trainer and curriculum developer. With over 20 years experience, she provides language access consulting to hospitals and creates interpreter curricula for academic institutions, HMOs and the US armed forces. Katharine is currently an instructor at the Glendon College of Translation and lead consultant for Indigenous Interpreting +. She is co-president of InterpretAmerica.