Remote interpretation
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Posted on 31 Aug 2020
Categories: Inside view
Study for a British university degree in Geneva

The COVID-19 changed drastically our way of working, the interpretation profession has not been exempt. We met with Ms. Marie Diur, Head of the Interpretation Section at UNOG to understand from her how the interpreters adapted themselves to this sudden change and continued servicing the multilateralism.

 

Prisca Chaoui: 
Before Covid-19, remote interpretation was an illusion. Recently, the situation has changed drastically. Can you tell us more about how remote interpretation works?
 

Marie Diur: 
For in-person meetings, participants are located in the meeting room, interpreters are in their booths, and UNOG technicians have full control over the audio equipment being used. Remote meetings require the use of Remote Simultaneous Interpretation (RSI) platforms to send the audio and video feeds via the internet to participants who can be located anywhere in the world. These platforms have existed for a while, but before Covid-19 they were not being used by the international organizations. In 2019, two organizations (the European Commission and the Council of Europe) tested several RSI platforms. They found that the platforms could most usefully be deployed in smaller meetings with only two languages. Meetings with many participants and multiple languages present significant complications which can make it difficult to run these meetings smoothly using RSI platforms. Covid-19 obviously changed things and made it necessary for the organizations to start using RSI platforms for large multilingual meetings right away in spite of the numerous challenges. The learning curve has been very steep for all involved: organizers, participants and interpreters. We have all had very little time to adapt to the new situation and learn how to use these platforms for meetings.

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Tests were carried out in the different duty stations, including Geneva, in order to introduce remote interpretation. Were they conclusive?

Over the last few months, the duty stations conducted tests of three RSI platforms, with a view to using them in meetings during the Covid crisis. The tests conducted were only preliminary ones, very limited in their scope. Extensive live testing of the platforms during real meetings will be required, and that is the phase we are now entering.

The tests conducted so far have been very useful. They enabled us to learn about how the platforms work and identify potential problems that may arise and need to be addressed. One major problem encountered during the tests was that the quality of the audio feed from remote participants varies greatly, as it depends upon the microphone they are using and their internet connection. Based on experience gathered during testing, the Remote Interpretation Task Forces in the four duty stations drafted documents containing recommendations about the microphones and equipment that should be used by remote participants during remote meetings, in order to help them achieve the best possible sound quality.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the task forces for the excellent work that has been and is being done and in particular Geneva task force members and the chair Amy Brady. She was a precious help in writing this article. 

In your view, what are the constraints which mean that remote interpretation cannot replace traditional modes of interpretation?

Remote meetings pose challenges for both interpreters and participants which make it unlikely that they will replace in-person meetings over the long term. Interpreters find that their work is made more difficult by the often-poor sound quality caused by the use of unsuitable microphones and equipment by remote participants, and by the fact that the audio feed is transmitted via the public internet. Internet speed is unpredictable and varies from one location to the next.

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Interpreters require above average sound quality in order to be able to do their job, as they have to speak and listen at the same time. This level of sound quality is difficult to achieve in remote meetings.

Meeting participants are finding that remote meetings require adaptation on their part. Interaction is not as easy as when all participants are in a room together; discussions take longer and are less productive. There can be technical problems – participants may find that they are interrupted when their internet connection cuts out, people may have difficulty understanding each other due to poor sound quality. The experience can be a frustrating one. RSI platforms have played an important role during the Covid crisis, as they enable participants to conduct multilingual meetings even when they cannot meet in person. However, people are increasingly seeing that these remote meetings are not a replacement for in-person meetings. Many are looking forward to a time when they can once again meet in person at the Palais and have face-to-face discussions. 

We know that negotiations are at the heart of multilateralism, which is the cornerstone of the UN’s mandate. Do you think that virtual meetings can preserve multilateralism as we have known it up until now?

Multilateralism means to be able to meet. To be able to speak to each other, to be able to discuss together and to be able to see each other. Multilateralism means us. Each and anyone of us. Thanks to technology, international conferences continued to take place during the Covid crisis, but nothing can replace in-person meetings. As indicated during the second edition of # UN75 dialogues organized by UNOG “multilateralism can play a great role in resolving today ‘s challenges and leveraging opportunities that come with global collaboration “ and this is more true than ever. This is why I am so happy to see UNOG resuming its operations as a conference center and a convener for multilateralism.

* Prisca Chaoui is Executive Secretary of the UNOG Staff Coordinating Council. Prisca Chaoui est Secrétaire exécutive du conseil de coordination du personnel de l’Office des Nations Unies à Genève (ONUG).