The rise of technology within the language services industry can be a difficult subject for some interpreters. For them it marks a huge change in the industry and in the way clients may expect them to work.

When speaking with some interpreters, the question ‘Will I be replaced by technology?’ is often raised, and searching online for information on the topic brings up articles about interpreters ‘versus’ technology, as if the two are constantly at odds with one another; the rise of one meaning the demise of the other. But let’s face it, that does sound like the plot of a pretty bad sci-fi movie.

However, it’s never an easy step to take to make changes to working habits that you have perfected over years, or even decades. Yet, the jump interpreters have to make to incorporate technology into their work is neither as far, or as daunting, as they may first think. They may also be using technology inadvertently, with positive results.
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A few weeks ago we spoke to Barry Slaughter Olsen about the technologies he thought had had the most positive impact on interpreting (you can listen to the podcast here). He told us that when discussing this subject, he likes to divide the all encompassing theme of technology into three different categories; ‘Technology that helps interpreters work better’, ‘Technology to deliver interpreting services’ and ‘Technology to replace interpreters’.

Here is an overview of some of the technologies we spoke about that have had a positive impact on the interpreting industry.

Technology that helps interpreters work better: The Internet

It may seem like a simple one, but it’s a good place to start. Before the internet, interpreters really were at the mercy of event organisers and clients, they could find themselves in a difficult position if they weren’t sent information or documents beforehand. Now, with the internet the responsibility has shifted and with a little bit of research, you can find a lot of information and materials to help you prepare for an assignment.

Barry thinks having the power to be better prepared and having the ability to access information wherever you are has been a game changer for interpreters, “the onus (now) rests squarely on our shoulders. We have to do the prep work and we have to factor that into what we charge and everything else, but being able to have that access before and during (assignments), having access in the booth with either a tablet or a computer and being able to do terminology research online, is great.”

Technology to deliver interpreting services: Web Real Time Communication (WebRTC)

The greatest boost for startups trying to provide interpreting services in new ways over the internet? This has to be WebRTC. It has multiple uses, but one of it’s primary benefits is real-time video and audio communication.

In the past, the whole process was difficult and time consuming; you had to download a certain program, install a different plug in, then update your java, just to find out that platform A isn’t compatible with platform B. This has all been resolved with WebRTC and browser based communication; having access to audio, video and other elements from a laptop has made a huge difference for interpreters.

“I think (WebRTC) is going to allow us to really see these platforms be successful, both for interpreters to get what they need to do there job and also for clients be able to access them with greater ease and start to have the habit of multilingual communication in these new ways…We’re going to get to where it will be ubiquitous and easy and you can hire some good coders, explain what it is that you want built and they can build it. So the technical hurdle, we’re almost over that, and then it’s going to be an issue of PR and marketing.”

Technology to replace interpreters: Niche technologies

This is the most controversial of the categories, but efforts will continue to be made because whether or not it is a viable alternative, it is something that people want to be possible. Just look at Pilot, they have managed to crowdfunded over 3 million dollars in an attempt to create ‘an earpiece which translates between languages.

A little more realistically, there are some very focused attempts to provide cross linguistic communication without a human interpreter, but only for times when it’s not feasible to have an interpreter present.

“It’s good to experiment, I think we will continue to see a lot of dismal failures in the future because people will get into it thinking ‘Oh, there is money to be made here, we can code something up and throw it out there, and that will fail.’ But I am aware of at least one company in particular who is carefully looking at the healthcare sector and where interactions need to take place quickly and it isn’t feasible to bring in even a telephonic interpreter. So they are figuring out how they can address that niche, specific use case; how can you solve a specific problem and do it well. If you can do that I think there is a future and that is how you have to look at it.”

Which technologies do you think have had the most positive effect on your work? Get in touch with us via twitter at @linguali