Who wants to be a ninja? RSI and the (in)visible interpreter

The issue of interpreter visibility has been discussed many times, and it remains an ongoing discussion. I was reminded of it just recently when I read an interview with an interpreter who repeated the old mantra of the invisible interpreter. It was something along the lines of, “I know I’ve done a good job when no one knows I was there.” So, it’s not just about not being seen but about not being noticed, a belief that stems back to the conduit theory of interpreting where the interpreter is there as a passive/neutral element, only facilitating communication between two parties without having any other role to play. This concept makes us ninjas; we are tools enabling seamless communication. 

But in interpreting, in my view, meta-communication is equally important, as there are situations where an interpreter needs to make themselves known or to intervene in order to help with the communication on a higher level. Take an example from the good old days of on-site interpreting: you might be in a conference with several booths in the meeting room. The meeting is in full flow, a speaker takes the floor and they are clicking their pen endlessly right next to the microphone while speaking. The interpreters can just about manage but it is challenging. Luckily, there will usually be a colleague who is able to leave the booth, discreetly go up to the speaker in question and politely ask them to stop clicking the pen. This may well be the chef d’équipe. My experience is that everybody will be very grateful that something has been said, but it does take courage to be the person who enters the meeting room and be the one who is noticed and seen.  

How does this translate to the modern world of remote simultaneous interpreting?

Visibility as such is not really the issue here as interpreters are usually not shown via a video feed. It is the chats on the online platforms that are used for metacommunication. It is worth our while to run through four well-known RSI platforms as well as Zoom to see how they differ in terms of chat functions, not including those used for the purpose of booth partner communication. 

Kudo has an operator chat, accessible to all interpreters as well as to the moderator of the event. 

Interprefy has an event chat, however, this tends to bedisabled for interpreters in virtually all cases,  so usually interpreters can only communicate with the moderator/technician via their booth chat.

Voiceboxer has the interpreter chat (in which only interpreters exchange messages), the interpreter-plus-moderator chat and also an event chat where usually everybody, both participants and interpreters alike, can contribute. 

Interactio has an interpreter chat, however – misnomer alert! – in my experience, both moderators and clients have access to this chat as well. It also has technical support chat (which is often not monitored), and it has a general chat for everyone, where interpreters, if they wish to, can also contribute.  

Then there is Zoom, which only has a general chat. It will depend on the settings selected by the host who is able to contribute to this general chat. Thus as an interpreter you may be able to comment in the chat or only chat with selected participants, or not have access at all.

The question we need to ask at this point is whether a certain etiquette on contributions by interpreters exists or should exist. What should you as an interpreter do in a situation that requires potential intervention, along the lines of the case of the clicking pen in the on-site job? What do you do in case of sound issues? How do you react if the sound needs to be improved to make interpreting easier and the sound less harmful? How do you indicate that the sound is so bad that you need to stop interpreting? How do you deal with the fact that a speaker has not turned on their camera? I’m sure most interpreters are very familiar with all these issues in remote simultaneous interpreting. How do you see your role in such scenarios? Should you be passive (other people might call it polite)? Or should you be proactive and point out issues in your own and your colleagues’ interest? 

Let’s assume you do take a proactive stance: where exactly do you then point out issues, in which of the chats? An interpreter-only chat is pointless, any contribution would amount to no action being taken. So, you would have to be able to use  a moderator/team/operator chat. This necessitates someone constantly monitoring this chat to take action. In the absence of such an option, it may be necessary to write comments in the general chat so that speakers can see straight away that interpreters are struggling. I may be wrong, but my experience has shown that many interpreters take a more passive approach online as though they feared being perceived as too cheeky or too insistent. We must also not forget that any contribution from an interpreter usually reveals their identity as their name will be displayed with their comments. So a reluctance to intervene can be understandable, since colleagues may worry that the client will ‘blacklist’ them if they come across as too critical or someone who could be perceived as interrupting or hampering the flow of the meeting. There may also be an element of individual/different resilience thresholds. Yet many interpreters will continue to try their best under suboptimal circumstances whilst secretly hoping someone else will take care of the issue. I, for one, wish that we all were a bit more confident in feeling able to express ourselves in the chat. It is important that we improve communication however we can, and speak up when needed. 

As an alternative to using a chat function, you can also express verbally what the issue is. You might inform your listeners of the problem  and request that one of the delegates intervene to let the speaker or technician know. This option is perhaps a difficult decision  to make, as it can be quite disruptive to the meeting. You also have no idea if the delegate to whom you are ‘outsourcing’ the request to take action is willing to speak up on your behalf. 

As interpreters we need to ask ourselves how we make our voice heard when necessary in online meetings. These RSI assignments provide us with a welcome source of income during the pandemic and can be very successful and enjoyable, but sound issues still are far too frequent. They stand in the way of a positive user experience and they endanger the health of interpreters. Poor and toxic sound causes hearing loss and other health issues. And that is not a price worth paying for any perceived benefits of invisibility.

Some final food for thought: could video feeds of interpreters help us in the quest for increased awareness of the role of interpreters? Zoom already has the option of interpreters activating their cameras. It may be of benefit for everybody to see the interpreters at the start and end of the meeting. This hi-and-bye approach might help people realise we are there, working hard  and that there are real humans speaking to them, not machines?

in the wordcloud: OpenClipart-Vectors – Pixabay; Jan Rausch
All posts on InterpreterSoapbox reflect the views of their authors.

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Jan Rausch

Jan is a Manchester-based native speaker of German and holds an honours degree in English & French as well as an MA in Interpreting & Translating. A former Head of Modern Foreign Languages in a secondary school, Jan has been a freelance conference and business interpreter since 2010 and interpreted at conferences from Dublin to Dubai, Manchester to Mauritius and Rocester to Rio as well as online.

1 CommentLeave a comment

  • You make some good points, Jan. I very much assume that it has similar for all RSI interpreters in the past 12 months. There is not a meeting without bad sound.

    If you follow the money, you can guess that it’s all about the customer experience and event organisers feel too replaceable, so interpreters end up shouldering poor working conditions.

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