The Urgency of Remote Interpretation Services in this Crisis

The coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak has strained medical services and business services worldwide. Lockdowns, quarantines, and shelter in place orders have fundamentally changed the way healthcare facilities and other businesses serve the public and customers. Why is interpretation important? Healthcare providers have difficulty communicating with those with Limited Language Proficiency. In fact, it’s legally mandated for interpretation services to be made available by hospitals and government offices for public briefings, press events, and for communicating with patients. In a pandemic, because of the risk of infection, there is a need to make interpretation available remotely, dispensed over the phone or via video, rather than in person.

Coming to Terms: Interpretation Services vs. Translation Services

Before getting into remote interpretation solutions, it’s important to distinguish interpreting from translating, terms often conflated. Translation converts documents from one language to another, while interpretation converts spoken speech. Unlike document translation, interpretation is performed in real-time. This is not to diminish the importance of medical translation and language services in general, estimated to be a $50 billion global marketplace in 2019. In days of the crisis, these skills are in high demand. 

Interpreters, by contrast, perform duties either simultaneously, as a speaker in the source language is talking, or consecutively, taking turns with the speaker. reports the average hourly of US medical interpreters in 2020 was $22, but you can expect rates to rise because of the urgent need for these services.

Also relevant in this context is transcription, the process of converting spoken speech into written text, including translated transcription. Transcreation renders one language into another but with the more creative freedom to not just translate literally but in a creative way that more accurately reflects the author’s intent, style, and tone in a foreign tongue.

How is interpretation done? Over the Phone vs. Video Remote Interpretation

A remote interpretation has been around for a long time. Over the phone interpretation (OPI) has a legacy almost as old as the telephone itself. A remote interpreter listens to a speaker and then translates to a foreign language interlocutor. That audio-only method is still being used, but it has several disadvantages. Many people have trouble understanding this method of communication: old people and children tend to be confused by OPI. In addition, the method is less hygienic. While the use of speakerphones is possible, the technique may bring speakers and listeners too close together.

The alternative to OPI is Video Remote Interpretation or VRI for short. VRI arose in the last decade with the rise of Voice over IP technologies and videoconferencing. Essentially, a 2 way or 3-way video conference is set up, with the interpreter located at a remote location, interpreting for two or more people who speak different languages. 

What is a remote interpretation strategy? Some real-world scenarios.

There are several strategic approaches to delivering remote interpretation. Let’s consider some that are relevant to the current crisis.

Paramedics and ambulance crews are in heavy demand in a pandemic. When they arrive at a call, they are often confronted with language problems. The availability of an interpretation available via smartphone can provide the essential communication life-line bridging language gaps between first responders and those on the scene. Willie Ramirez, a Cuban man reported by his family to be “intoxicado.” An English-only caregiver in Florida thought they meant that he was intoxicated by alcohol, when in fact that word meant “poisoned.” An English-Spanish translator on call could have translated Spanish to English or provided an English to Spanish translation, potentially clearing up any confusion at the scene. But there were no interpreters available: Mr. Ramirez was left quadriplegic and the $71 million dollar malpractice settlement was small consolation.

In a hospital or clinic, there is a regular need for inter-language communications of healthcare providers with patients and their families. Many such conversations involve critical matters of life and death. Errors caused by misinterpreting can be costly. There was a case reported in which a Danish physician was told by Norwegian associates that a man who had suffered a head injury was a haemophiliac but the doctor heard “homofil” meaning homosexual. He assured the man’s friends that this condition was perfectly normal and hardly life-threatening. Unfortunately, the victim bled internally and died two days later. To avoid such misunderstandings, healthcare facilities have set up rooms in which a patient (with family members) can communicate with a provider (possibly located in a secure remote location) and a qualified interpreter in a call center.

These days the use of a remote interpreter is as essential as the need for personal protective equipment. This also applies not just to the healthcare context but to any conference, briefing or gathering. The basic use case of VRI can be extended to multilingual one-to-many interpretation, where a speaker, perhaps at a conference or press briefing, will speak in one language and teams of interpreters at a remote location, will simultaneous translate that talk or briefing into multiple languages. 

How are Video Remote Interpretation Services Delivered?

Technology companies and service providers have fine-tuned over-the-phone and video remote interpretation into deliverable solutions, some available for free: 

Microsoft Translator provides a free online solution for one-to-many presentations in the scenario just cities: before a live event, listeners indicate their preferred language and receive the translation of a speech in that tongue as it is delivered in the original.

For a more permanent ongoing need inside a healthcare facility or, for that matter, connecting any business that has a need for interlingual communications – either internally or with clients – it probably makes sense to set up a dedicated VRI solution.

Stratus Video in Florida is a leading provider of remote interpretation solutions for the healthcare market, with over 1,900 hospitals and thousands of clinics supported. The company provides a turnkey solution that promises an average 30-second response for on-demand calls for an interpreter. The company partners with a translation company, which provides interpreters who are linguistic masters of specific language pairs. 

Another do-it-yourself solution is available free online for use in a pinch, or a crisis. Not everyone knows that Google Translate, both in its desktop and mobile versions, offers simultaneous voice interpretation. Use the app to speak in one language, select the language to which you wish to translation, and your voiced words are transformed into text, translated, then spoken in the desired language. The app may not be perfect, and the voice may not be human, but it can help in an emergency – or when we’re allowed to travel once again.

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