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Occasional ramblings about #1nt

My talk at the OCPE conference in Utrecht

Last week, I went to Utrecht to attend the First OCPE Conference at the Nieuwegein Business Center. OCPE (Opleidingscentrum Permanente Educatie) offers continuous training for translators and interpreters in the Netherlands. The event in Utrecht was the first ever conference organised by Danuta Jong, the mastermind behind OCPE, and Iulianna van der Lek, who runs the TradFlow language consultancy. Intitled "Translation technology - opportunity or threat?" it was certainly one of the most interesting and best organised conferences I have been to. You can consult the programme here.

I was invited as opening speaker to talk about the often difficult relationship between interpreters and technology. My slides are embedded below, along with my speaker notes, which should give you a rough idea of my talk. I hope to post a video with slides and audio commentary soon. Watch this space.

More coverage of the conference can be found on Twitter (hashtags #ocpe14 and #ocpe2014) and in this post written by one of the participants (in Dutch).

Getting better

2014 still is, or at least feels, rather fresh to me. And there is one topic currently taking shape that I may just be crazy about this year: Getting better at what I do and doing the best work possible. I have heard from several colleagues so far that they want to do less this year, but do what they do better.

Over the holidays, I read (well, listened to) Cal Newport's excellent book "So good they can't ignore you". It was comedian Steve Martin who originally coined the phrase, and I think it is absolutely spot on. Although Newport's book is not about interpreting, it contains several concepts that I plan to apply to my work, and maybe you'll also want to:

  • "Follow your passion" is BS. How I became a conference interpreter is a topic for another post. Suffice it to say that I never said to myself this was the only career I would ever pursue. Newport argues that finding a job to match your passion is bad advice, and I agree. Having a passion for languages/communication/helping people/whatever does not make you a good interpreter. Working hard does.
  • Try to create work you love. This is not only about external factors and circumstances (such as low rates, unappreciative clients, bad working environments). While we all have to pay the bills, we should strive as much as possible to make our work worthwhile.
  • Practice deliberately. I won't even attempt to discuss how interpreters should practice - people like Andrew Clifford or Andy Gillies do a stellar job at that. And Elisabet Tiselius (of Tulkur fame) has given a very insightful talk at last year's InterpretAmerica conference where she points out that many things we don't even consider practice actually are. Why don't you watch her talk right now?

So how do I get better as an interpreter? 

You can’t just practice blindly. You have to develop an inner yardstick. You have to identify problems in your performance and correct them before they become too deeply ingrained to change.

Presumably, there has been just as much discussion about what a good interpreter is as about whether interpreters are born or made. In her talk, Elisabet points to habits that interpreters develop during training (such as reading differently). I really like how she posits that all these habits are practice and make up a whole. In order to make practice effective, both Tiselius and Newport point out, it has to be deliberate and conscious: Know what exactly you want to practice and what your goal is. During training, this is relatively easy because we have several external incentives (trainer, fellow students, exams).

Once we start our career, though, it gets more difficult. "Just working" is not necessarily the same as practice, but might - as Andrew Clifford points out - serve "to fossilize the hallmarks of low quality into [one's] interpreting". The work routine (and other things in life, such as becoming a parent) often makes it harder to work on one's interpreting technique, note-taking chops or intonation. Some may even feel they don't need to do that anymore. We may even feel uncomfortable about challenging ourselves, examining our own performance under the microscope, exposing ourselves to criticism. At some point, we all have taken interpreting tests and we know how difficult it can be not to take criticism too personal.

Still, most of us work on our languages, add new ones, get into new topics and terminology out of sheer personal motivation. We feel good when communication succeeds because we are involved. Elisabet calls this "internal incentives". But which external incentives exist for working interpreters? A few points:

While I'm not convinced of Elisabet's idea to endow an "Oscar for interpreting", I do like her other suggestions (platforms for continuous training, "boot camps", coaches). I believe there is a large untapped potential here. Now, what do you think? How are you trying to get better? And how good is "good enough"?

A day in the life of a tablet interpreter

A slightly exaggerated account.

My electronic wristband wakes me up again. With gentle vibrations, it pulls me away from the warm beach of what I think is a tropical island, making me drop what I think is a non-alcoholic cocktail in the process. I press the button to make the wristband stop buzzing and roll out of bed. My feet carefully avoid stepping on my iPad, which - as usual - is propped up in a charging dock by the side of my bed. After I put on my glasses, I start my usual morning routine: checking email, browsing my Twitter timeline, reading the latest posts of my favourite publications in my RSS reader and checking my sleep quality using the data that my wristband continuously synchronises to its companion app on the tablet.
Minutes later, I emerge from the bathroom looking, hopefully, like a presentable human being and soldier on to breakfast. I have a bowl of cereals and a cup of coffee in the hope of recharging my batteries, careful not to spill either organic milk nor fair-trade coffee on my precious touchscreen. The last night was short, after all, but it was not what you think (i.e. delegates fighting over commas). Apple launched a new version of the iPad software and I, of course, had to have it as soon as possible. You idiot, I silently curse myself, as I launch the Documents app to look at my preparation material for today. One agenda and 31 files later, I am done and have looked up what felt like hundreds of fish species and fishing gear. Time to put the tablet in the backpack, together with its charger and a bunch of cables (better safe than sorry). It is a nice day for riding the bike to work. No need to consult Google Maps, I know the route by heart and have carefully planned it to lead me past a few electronics shops to be able to check out the latest gadgets during my commute.
One badge swipe at a time, I make my way to the meeting room. But not without stopping by the coffee bar to top up my caffeine level and repeat my iPad morning routine. Then I go to the booth for the first round of the day. Did I mention I can't help feeling a bit proud when I see that many colleagues are now using tablets at work? Feels a wee bit like having started a revolution. Anyway, enough with the daydreaming, it's my turn now. I am very happy to have my fish glossary ready in Interplex HD. Whenever the delegates mention fish species I have never heard of (which, despite my preparation, happens quite often), all I have to do is type in the term. Somehow, I make it until lunch break. Time for a quick bite and my iPad mid-day routine (email, Twitter, you get the idea…). I also try to squeeze in a few podcasts and articles to keep up with my working languages and recent developments in the tech universe and the normal world.
Before I jump back on my bike after the afternoon round of the meeting, I check the electronic grocery list I share with my wife to see if I need to get some shopping done on the way home. I don't. So I just start the activity tracker for my bike commute and hit the road. Right at the last roundabout, it happens. That pothole, I swear it wasn't there two seconds ago. I drive right through, or in, rather, and loose balance and fall. My backpack wasn't zipped up properly, so the unfathomable happens. My iPad slips right out. It's bizarre to see it flying through the air in slow-motion, just like in the movies. Smack! It lands on the street. In the corner of my eye, I see a car approaching. In slow-motion, obviously. I can make out the pattern on the tyres. Just a few centimeters to go before the retina screen shatters.

My electronic wristband wakes me up again. With gentle vibrations, it pulls me away…

[Link] Is the future of interpreting remote?

I invited the people behind four different platforms — Babelverse, Capiche, Vicki, and ZipDX — to come to our virtual classroom. They described how they provide interpreting services using the web or other distance solutions. [... W]hether you like it or not, remote interpreting is already here. And if interpreters turn a blind eye, they’re simply allowing someone else to get into the driver’s seat. So I had my Year One students listen to what each of the developers had to say about their platforms, and then I asked them for their analysis, to see what they thought were the advantages and disadvantages of remote interpreting. That’s where things got lively.

An extremely interesting post by Andrew Clifford at Glendon. His students clearly identified the risks of remote, but also thought about how to approach the challenges: band together, engage with other stakeholders, get savvy.

Learn English or stay home?

I came across an article the other day titled "Learn English or stay home". It was written by Olav Øye for the European Voice website, but unfortunately sits behind the paywall. According to the byline, Øye is a consultant and has dedicated his masters thesis ("E pluribus English") to the study of how English is used in the European Parliament. There has been much discussion in recent months and years about the role of English and the question whether it should and could become the one and only lingua franca of the Union. I think there's no easy answer to that question. So first of all, I offer you this quick reading list. Go ahead, I'll wait here ;-)

Speech of German president Gauck:

To date, Europe does not have a single European public space which could be compared to what we regard as a public sphere at national level. First of all we lack a lingua franca. There are 23 official languages in Europe, plus countless other languages and dialects. A German who does not also speak English or French will find it difficult to communicate with someone from Portugal, or from Lithuania or Hungary. It is true to say that young people are growing up with English as the lingua franca. However, I feel that we should not simply let things take their course when it comes to linguistic integration. For more Europe means multilingualism not only for the elites but also for ever larger sections of the population, for ever more people, ultimately for everyone! I am convinced that feeling at home in one’s native language and its magic and being able to speak enough English to get by in all situations and at all ages can exist alongside each other in Europe.

To me, saying "everybody should learn English as their first foreign language" is not multilingualism, but that's another matter entirely...

PRI's The World: European Union prepares to adopt 24th official language as costs mount, calls for English rise

Officially, deputies and delegates will only speak in their national languages, as a matter of principle. Attending them is a small army of translators and interpreters who assure their message is translated into the languages of the rest of the union — at a current cost of $1.4 billion per year. The big irony, though, is that once they are away from the podium or the microphone, and they are hanging out with other European bureaucrats by the water cooler, they comfortably switch into English, the de facto lingua franca of the union. You might wonder then, when most, if not all, EU bureaucrats master English, what’s the point in maintaining 23 official languages, especially at such expense? Why not just use a single language and, what’s more, why not use the language all EU bureaucrats master — English?

Ulrike Guérot: Why English is it

That's why the EU, why Europa quite simply needs English as an official language, as a second official language in addition to each country's official language. It should be possible to get along with pidgin English, or "kitchen-table English", at any given local or regional authority, one should be able to apply for a passport, be admitted to a hospital, give evidence to the police. Using English as a lingua franca is the most pragmatic solution of all because the language is being taught almost everywhere in Europe.

Ronny Patz: How the dominance of English kills the European debate

But there’s a second problem with English [...]: It makes us (whoever “us” may be) focus too much on British debates. Daniel Hannan today blogging the same old story of why the UK would and should not be in the EU is getting 100x more attention than a Polish politician/writer writing about how the future EU agriculture should look like. [...] Instead of discussing the actual problems of European politics – and to the credit of many EU-critics there are many – the dominance of English makes us have the old debates over and over again. (Emphasis mine)

Christiane Keilig: English as the language of Europe?

Business is not all. Especially in Europe and in times of crisis, it is important that we understand each other – we cannot afford to threaten a construct which, although fraught with bureaucracy, is also there to maintain peace. Personally, I sometimes think that aspect is sadly underrated.

Before we finish off with a lighter take on the subject, let's get back to Øye's text. In a nutshell, he says that English has become the dominant language in the European Parliament and that MEPs who don't speak it at all or not well enough have a serious disadvantage. His conclusion:

Voters and the press should therefore ask the candidates for the European Parliament if they have mastery of English, the language of politics in Europe. Otherwise citizens risk wasting their vote.

While Øye certainly has a point, it boils down to this: All that matters for a candidate to be elected is whether he or she speaks English well enough. Really? Citing feedback from MEP assistants, Øye also dismisses interpretation in one fell swoop:

Almost none of the assistants I interviewed listen to interpretation into their mother tongue. The reason is that they do not think that interpreters can render speech adequately. Mistakes are made. Body language is lost. In politics, such nuances matter greatly.

Is that so? I would venture to say that even if English is not your mother tongue and you speak it very, very well, quite a lot will be lost. Mistakes will be made (believe me, I sit in those meetings every day). Body language, in fact, is not lost with simultaneous interpretation. Nuances do indeed matter greatly. Just another reason to make use of interpretation. The system overall is certainly not perfect since interpretation is often not available where it is needed. But we are not even close to a European Union that works flawlessly with English only.

Will you Capiche?

Screenshot of Capiche homepage


As I have pointed out in a recent post, technology is (again) disrupting our profession. More specifically, several "translation apps" have entered the scene as mobile devices conquer our lives. Google's Translate service has been available for a while. Next, Word Lens made a big splash as the first mobile app able to translate what the users saw through the lens of their smartphone camera. The last wave is that of "interpreting apps" such as Babelverse (here's my take on it) that want to provide a platform where supply (i.e. interpreters) and demand (i.e. clients) meet and work together. Video Remote Interpreting (VRI), it seems, is not a fad but here to stay.

However, as the Babelverse controversy clearly showed, the approach chosen by some aspiring disruptors wasn't quite right. If you want to read a thoughtful piece about this, look no further than Jonathan Downie's "Crowdsourcing and the Shrinking Middle".


Today, I want to write about a new interpretation app that has launched its beta version just in time for the 54th ATA Annual Conference. It goes by the quirky name Capiche and, in my humble opinion, is doing a lot of things right. A few weeks ago, Frederick Marx - CEO of Keylingo Translations and co-founder of Capiche - contacted me and gave me an in-depth presentation of his project.

First off, I like the name Capiche. There have been too many references to the Tower of Babel in translation and interpretation anyway and I never found them particularly suitable. Capiche also keeps it simple for now. It works similarly to a two-party video call: the client and their communication partner on one side and the interpreter on the other, working in consecutive mode. This would make make sense for settings in public health (doctor's office) or law enforcement (questioning at police office, deposition).

In order to be successful, such a platform must use rock-solid technology. Capiche has chosen to use an innovative technology called WebRTC (real-time communication on the web). But what is so great about WebRTC?

Proprietary software and plugins are the bane of internet communications, [...] as you spend more time negotiating over what tool to use than on the eventual conversation. [...] WebRTC [...] is intended to be an open standard for video and voice communication, embedded in the software that is on every desktop – the browser. [...] You will be able to use a web-based communications service to start a conversation with a friend or colleague (or even a one-to-many or many-to-many web conference), with voice and video, as well as sharing files over a peer-to-peer connection. While a web service will mediate the call, the browser you are using will not matter, as the technology to work with your computer’s camera and microphone will be built-in, with no plugins needed.

Source: ComputerWeekly

I have done several tests of Capiche and WebRTC and found it very good. It was certainly more reliable and less fiddly than Skype or Google Hangouts. But in addition to providing a stable technological platform, Capiche will try to make the matching between clients and interpreters easier. Both can sign up with the service indicating what they want or offer. The system then informs the interpreter of new "opportunities" and he/she can accept or decline. Currently, Capiche comes in two flavours:

  • Open: Interpreters register and are vetted (how and by whom is unclear). Then, they have access to job offers from clients. Interpreters can establish links with regular clients to get priority access to new jobs.
  • Private: Interpreters bring their own clients to the platform and maintain a private relationship with them. Private clients are not exposed to other interpreters.

On top of that, interpreters can also build "links" to their peers and form trusted relationships, i.e. when it comes to working together on jobs or replacing a colleague in case of sickness or other problems. There is also a feedback feature for clients and interpreters, but it is intentionally limited at this early stage.

Money, money, money

Pricing information is available on the Capiche website. I will not discuss pricing in this post because I think it will be subject to further developments - the Capiche team will probably have to diversify their fee structure according to where interpreters and/or clients are based. In addition, the users will have to decide on whether the added value of platform justifies the one-third/two-thirds split. Capiche offers several channels to pay interpreters (including the not-so-uncontroversial PayPal), while clients just enter their credit card details to pay for services used. According to Capiche, payments are processed every Friday and within 7-10 days.

Further developments

There are a few things that could be improved on the Capiche platform. I have transmitted my suggestions to the developers already, and here they are for your information:

  • client-interpreter relations: send preparation material; make list of subjects more precise (currently: general, legal, medical)
  • interpreter-interpreter relations: exchange of documents and information (including terminology)
  • explain the vetting process

The Capiche team also has an iPhone app in the works. I will report on that as soon as I have tested it.

I am curious to see how Capiche will be doing in the coming weeks and months. Will you be giving it a try?

On the road with an Android tablet

Introduction 20131021-162046.jpg

It was about time I did this. But so far, I have always been reluctant to go "cold turkey". Last week, however, I was on a mission (that's what business trips are called here in the EU institutions) to Switzerland and it seemed like the ideal opportunity to put my 7-inch Asus MemoPad through its paces during an actual interpreting job. The first thing I already noticed at home, and it delighted me: The MemoPad is actually small enough to fit right in the pocket of my favourite travel jacket. And the portability continued to delight me throughout the whole journey, from bus to plane. The MemoPad is much lighter than my (9.7-inch) iPad 2 and feels more like an e-reader. It certainly doesn't have the great finish of an Apple tablet, but it's solid and good enough. The MemoPad actually belongs to my wife, so I only use it occasionally - mainly for browsing the web or reading the articles I have saved to Pocket. Using it for work is a completely different game. I tried to prepare as best as possible by installing a bunch of apps before I leave. But let's go through this step by step.

Android vs iOS

There are a few things I really, really like about Android, some of which are rather subjective. It looks better than iOS - certainly better than iOS 6, but also better than iOS 7, which looks unfinished. Another big plus are widgets - little windows that give access to content or functionalities of apps. For example, it allows me to display a handy list of all the reminders I have buried in my thousands of Evernote notes. They can also display the time, your calendar, the weather or your email inbox. In a similar vein, Asus has equipped the MemoPad with mini-apps (browser, calculator, alarm clock etc.) that can float over the app you are currently using. So when you are creating a glossary (more on that later), you can use the floating browser to quickly look things up without having to switch to another app. A big plus of Android over iOS is that it's much more flexible and powerful when it comes to exchanging files or bits of information between apps - a process that's notoriously cumbersome on iOS, because you end up with several copies of one and the same object. Android tablets seem to work fine with accessories, too, such as the Apple Wireless Keyboard or the Cosmonaut Stylus.

Working with files


The first thing I usually do is gather meeting documents and other relevant material into a folder on my device. While I appreciate the portability that cloud services like Dropbox afford, I make it a point to keep work-related stuff offline. Most Android tablets already come with a file manager or at least a "Downloads" app pre-installed, but those apps are often confusing, too limited in their functionality or both. After some googling, I settled with Clean File Manager and have been quite happy so far. As you can see in the screenshot, you have access to files by file type. You can manage files, add folders, zip and unzip files, just to mention a few handy features. Folders you need often can be added to the "Bookmarks" section in the left navigation, which I find very useful. Unlike "Documents", my favourite file manager on the iPad, Clean File Manager does not actually let you view documents. That's alright, since your Android tablet probably came with some sort of document viewer or Office software like Polaris Office. If you want document annotation (and why wouldn't you?), you'll have to install another app. I went with the rather popular Adobe Reader which works fine, albeit not as smoothly as "Documents" on the iPad. For example, selecting text is sometimes a bit fiddly and not as easy as in other Android applications.



Unfortunately, my favourite terminology software - Interplex - is not available on the Android platform (yet?). I am not a fan of using tables in Word or Excel spreadsheets for terminology, so I searched the Play Store for database apps. And I must say, I found a true gem called "Memento". This is a multi-purpose database app for managing all kinds of things from contacts to collector's items. But since it is so flexible it works great for terminology management. Just create a database for your topic and language combination and you're good to go. Great features of Memento include:

  • simplicity
  • starring entries to create a list of favourites (nice for listing terms that are very important or hard to memorize)
  • adding a direct link (shortcut) to any glossary in Memento to the Android home screen
  • synchronisation with Google Drive spreadsheets which allows for easy desktop entry, collaboration with colleagues and backup.

Reference apps

The only reference apps I tried during my test were and Linguee. works great, allows you to download language packs for offline use and was reliable content-wise. Linguee, however, was completely unusable for me (and my colleague, too) as it kept crashing while I tried to look up words.

What about handwriting?

I don't know about you, but for me, a seven-inch tablet almost begs to be used as a digital notepad. And I have used the MemoPad as exactly that, in combination with my beloved Cosmonaut stylus - but not in an actual meeting (yet). For me to dare using it in a mission-critical situation, the note-taking apps and the tablet itself must be rock-solid. I am still afraid of hitting the wrong button in the heat of the action, inadvertently sending my valuable notes into digital nirvana. But that may just be a question of adaptation and practice on my part. After all, other interpreters have already proven that it's feasible. Also, Asus has added added a setting to its MemoPad that lets the user deactivate the "home bar" (back/home buttons, task manager) which should be very useful in this context. My iPad favourite for handwriting is Penultimate, which is part of the Evernote family, but not available on Android. From the apps I have tried, I liked Handwriting best, mainly because of the uncluttered and functional interface and because of how easy it is to add new pages and navigate between them. For reference, here are the other apps I played with:


All in all, this experiment was really fun. I will definitely do this again and put the Asus to the test during a week of meetings here in Brussels. Stay tuned!

A Twitter primer for interpreters

scott_hampson on flickr

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have inevitably heard about Twitter, that poster child of the social media age. The little blue birdie, Twitter's logo, is just as ubiquitous as the so-called hashtags, keywords preceded by the pound sign. So why should you, as an interpreter, care about Twitter? Because, quite simply, it is a great way to keep up with what's going on in the world and to have conversations with a lot of people, even ones you have never met in real life. Here are a few quick use cases:

  • Follow your favourite newspaper or publication on Twitter to know what happens in the world and be notified when interesting articles are published.
  • Keep an eye on your home airport's tweets to know when renovation projects or sudden strike measures may impact your journey.
  • Strike up a conversation with somebody you have always wanted to talk to, but never had the chance to, by replying to what they post.
  • Follow the proceedings of that highly interesting conference you could not attend by reading what the participants write ("live tweeting").

What is Twitter, anyway?

At its core, Twitter is an interesting hybrid of a social network, a messaging service and a broadcasting platform. You can write whatever you like but it cannot be longer than 140 characters. That may seem like an arbitrary limit (it really is not), but it forces you to KISS (keep it short and simple) and that's always good for an interpreter, right? If you want to keep reading what a particular person writes, you can follow him or her. You can also add photos or videos to your tweets, or even your current geographical location if you were so inclined (I am not). If you're confused by the myriad of privacy settings on Facebook (like me), you will appreciate Twitter's approach: Everything you post is public by default. Direct messages, however, can only be read by you and the person you sent them to. On top of that, you can "protect" your tweets so that only users you have approved can see them). In my humble opinion, that defeats the purpose of Twitter, but you decide for yourself. For now, that's all you need to know. Getting started could not be easier. If you just want to get your feet wet, you don't have to sign up anywhere.

OK, I'll sign up. What next?

Once you're ready to join the conversation, just sign up here, upload your photo (yes, of you, not your cute cat!) and add a short bio to introduce yourself and link to your website. If you want to, you can download the offical Twitter app for your device. It's basic, but it works just fine. And then:

  • Read... what people you find interesting have to say.
  • Write... about what you do, what you find interesting.
  • Retweet... what you want others to read.
  • Link... to interesting stuff on the web (articles, photos, videos etc.).
  • Connect... by replying to what others post or joining conversations.

To get you started, here are some (highly subjective) recommendations:

Topics, i.e. hashtags

Accounts to follow

Twitter lingo

  • tweet - Any message posted publicly to Twitter
  • DM (direct message) - a message exchanged between two people that is not public
  • @ reply - a tweet directed to one or more other Twitter users starting with their username
  • mention - a tweet that contains one or more usernames
  • twerp - an interpreter using Twitter
  • TL (timeline)
  • RT (retweet) - a message from another Twitter user that you post to your own timeline
  • More Twitter lingo

Recommended reading: Recommendations on social media issued by Heads of Interpreting Services

See you soon on Twitter!

Interpreters versus technology? Reflections on a difficult relationship

DISCLAIMER: This article represents purely the author's own views and in no way engages DG Interpretation or the Commission. It was written in a completely private capacity.

Interpreting is caught in tsunami currents of technological and social change that are sweeping away whole industries in a matter of years and replacing them with structures never before seen in human history.

Katherine Allen on “21st century skills”1

What Katherine Allen describes in that quote can be summarized using just one word: disruption. And massive disruption is what Interpreters currently face, albeit not for the first time. A radical step is upon us: the general roll-out of information and communication technology in the field of conference interpreting (cf. Berber 2008:52). In analogy to the paradigm shifts described in Vladimir Kutz’s competence model of interpreting studies3, I would call this the “technological paradigm shift”. To be able to cope with these impending challenges, interpreters must be introduced to new technologies already during their training. As Kiraly4 put it: „An important part of the education of any professional must entail practical training in learning how to use the everyday tools of the profession”.

This piece looks at some of the many shifts and changes in the interpreter’s profession. I will make suggestions as to how interpreter training can adapt. Saying that today’s students bring a lot of curiosity and skills to the table when starting their studies is stating the obvious. We do not need blind euphoria, but rather a reasonable and critical curiosity. Curiosity, after all, is one trait of character that makes a good interpreter.

Past: The Nuremberg Trials

Simultaneous interpretation is the most recent form of interpreting which, in turn, is considered the second-oldest profession in the world. SI, as it is usually abbreviated, was only made possible by progress in conference technology. It is fair to say that the profession of the conference interpreter is closely linked to technology. And the War Tribunal in Nuremberg after WWII is considered the breakthrough event for modern SI. (I say “modern SI” because “chuchotage” as a low-tech form of simultaneous has been around forever.)

SI was not invented for dealing with Nazi crimes at the Nuremberg court, though. Decades before, the League of Nations in Geneva had already looked into alternatives to the time-consuming consecutive interpretation, which had always been part and parcel of international diplomacy. An American business man called Edward Filene played a key part in this quest. As an ardent supporter of the League of Nations and as a participant in meetings of the International Labour Conference, he knew how complicated things could get with consecutive and submitted a proposal in 1925. Filene envisaged a simple interpreting booth with a high-quality microphone that would be connected – via an amplifier – to the earphones worn by delegates in the room. Oral contributions would have to be translated beforehand and then read out by the interpreter while the delegate gave his speech. Since Filene was no technical expert, he enlisted the help of British electrical engineer Gordon Finlay. Finley cobbled together a first prototype using telephone components. IBM eventually took over the “Filene-Finley System” and developed it further. IBM’s “Hushaphone” was used successfully at both the League of Nations and the United Nations (cf. UN Resolution 152). Later on, French military Léon Dostert (Eisenhower’s personal interpreter) was tasked with solving the language issue at the Nuremberg trials and picked the IBM system (cf. Moggio-Ortiz5).

Now try, just for a second, to imagine what it must have been like for those brave interpreters enrolled to work in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice. Many of them had no formal training as interpreters (which was the rule back then, and not the exception) and mastered several languages because of their biography. Try to imagine you would have to interpret one of the darkest chapters of world history with mostly untested equipment for months on end with no special training whatsoever. (Some of the Nuremberg interpreters had experienced persecution first-hand because they were Jews or refugees.) Consecutive was the established standard and many of the more conservative interpreters were rather skeptical. They feared a loss of quality and went as far as belittling their progressive colleagues as “telephonists” (cf. Moggio-Ortiz5). And indeed, the working conditions were all but ideal. Interpreters did not sit in a closed-off booth, but rather, in groups of three, behind a simple shade of glass with absolutely no sound insulation. They had to put up with bad earphones and had to share a single microphone. The system often provided only poor sound quality or broke down completely. On top of that, “monitors” were hovering over them, listening to the interpretation and even correcting it occasionally. A second team was always on stand-by in an adjacent room, following the proceedings through loudspeakers (cf. Vander Elst6).

Present: Remote Interpreting

In a way, history is about to repeat itself. In recent years, remote interpreting has become more and more important. In this form of interpreting, speakers and interpreters are not in the same room. Audio and video are transmitted over short or even long distances. Remote is gaining ground in both the private and the institutional interpretation sector. While the European Parliament and the European Commission have done ground-breaking work with comprehensive tests under scientific oversight using custom technological set-ups, the private market uses mainly existing solutions for phone or video conferences, even Skype. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity so far to gain personal experience with the system used in the European institutions. However, I have talked to many colleagues who have tried it (remote interpreting teams are put together from a pool of volunteers). As pointed out in relevant literature (e.g. Moser-Mercer7, Mouzourakis8), remote interpreting has inherent disadvantages. Interpreters are no longer an integral part of the proceedings, they get tired more quickly and suffer from a higher level of stress, both physically and mentally. They can no longer decide on their visual input.

Be that as it may, I shall not discuss remote interpreting itself in this piece but rather how interpreters deal with this challenge. The “big bang” for remote would probably be 27 October 2005, when the British EU presidency held a summit meeting at Hampton Court Palace. (Update: The very first time remote was used in the European Institutions was the November 2003 Parliament plenary in Strasbourg. The languages of the candidate countries were present, but had to be implemented via remote because of lack of space.) The venue is of historical significance and provides only limited space which is why the decision was taken to relocate the interpreting booths and the interpreters. Extensive technical preparations were necessary and long negotiations with interpreter representatives ensued. Today, the institutions have a common agreement on remote interpreting. Due to its strictness and level of detail, remote was rarely used in the past. That changed in 2011 when the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers requested a limited exception to the agreement for working dinners of the heads of state and government (cf. Vereycken9). This exception was subject of heated debates among EU interpreters, who were afraid that quality would suffer and that they would be removed from the actual meetings for good. After a few “remote working dinners”, both interpreters and customers evaluated the outcome: while some interpreters were critical, customers were found to be speaking more languages than usual. Several improvements are currently being implemented – which could mean that remote interpreting may become more of a standard practice in the future.

My intention is not to generate blind euphoria. I continue to believe that the disadvantages of remote interpreting must be pointed out, researched and, if possible, removed. But in my opinion, the tipping point for remote interpreting is not for away. When that day comes, many questions will pop up: Will interpreters swap the booth with their home office, working exclusively from the comfort of their own home? How do they deal with being physically separated from the meeting venue? With possible problems caused by a lack of lip synchronicity or by technical problems? Are we ready to have our visual input managed by technicians? Some of these questions touch on the very foundations of our profession in much the same way simultaneous interpreting did when it came up decades ago. The former AIIC honorary president Hans Jacob bemoaned in 196210 that the widespread adoption of SI had “de-personalised and mechanised” the interpreter’s profession. Skeptics may say the same thing about remote interpretation today. But if you ask me, remote is here to stay and will gain more ground as economic and ecological needs develop. Technology has already disrupted many industries and will continue to do so. We have no reason to believe that our profession will be the exception to the rule. I am convinced that we have to maintain a sensible and critical approach towards these developments. But we can only do that when we are well-prepared, having developed a certain degree of expertise in terms of technology that we can apply specifically to what it does to our profession. “Understand the wave, and you can ride it. Refuse to adjust, and you will be swallowed,” as Michael Saylor11 put it.

Are we ready to “ride the wave”? After WWII, a group of bold and courageous interpreters was willing to ride the wave called simultaneous interpretation at the Nuremberg trials, some of them without any significant preparation. Today, interpreter training is much more formalized and has developed strong institutions. But my impression is that curious and courageous interpreters are still a minority. This minority must become a majority!

So, what do students know?

In my diploma thesis12, I discussed the question of how training could close the gap between the skills interpreting students bring and the (technology) competencies that are required to be a professional conference interpreter. Quite some time has passed since my research and technology has been evolving quickly. Smartphones and tablets, such as the iPhone and the iPad, have entered the scene, bringing us ever closer to pervasive computing. While students are most certainly more aware of technology and possibly more skilled, too, their skills will vary considerably. Interpreter training must therefore strive to bring all students up to a certain level and pave the way for technology adoption in the profession. During the course of study, T&I-related technology literacy should be developed and applied in the classroom.

There are several platforms to bring together practitioners, teachers and researchers. One of them is “Transforum”, a platform established in 1984 by the German T&I association BDÜ. In 2002, a Transforum working group compiled a list of skills that future translators should have. The list includes, among others, mastery of TM systems, terminology tools or machine translation software. This one example shows how translators may be more likely to be accustomed to IT relevant for their everyday work.

In my conclusions on the use of IT in interpreter training at the five major universities in Germany, I noted that all of them provided training in new technologies and new media with varying priorities (such as electronic speech processing at Saarland University). I also found differences between traditional institutes and “newcomers” and, within a given university, between “bigger” and “smaller” languages. In brief, English departments are ahead of other departments, which may be due to a wider offer in software and to the fact that English is the de-facto default language used in new technologies.

Putting skills to use

For decades, translators have been integrating a wide range of new technologies into their daily work, maybe because they had to. But the work of interpreters remains remarkably technology-free – apart from the conference technology required for simultaneous interpretation. A quick glance at the software available is revealing: Translators can find a wide and diversified range of solutions, such as Translation Memories (Berber2). But solutions tailored to the needs of interpreters are few and far between. Interpreters use IT to prepare their assignments and follow up on them afterwards, to manage their free-lance business, but increasingly also as an information tool on the job. Translators can hardly do their job without technical assistance in a time where source texts become increasingly technical and complex but the time available keeps shrinking. What is more, they often have to work with the tools that their clients use or demand. Interpreters, however, could get by without much technology: Terminology can be managed in notebooks (or is printed out at home before the assignment), notes are taken on paper. This tradition may lead to a certain degree of skepticism among the talking kind when it comes to new technologies. Our consoles we know inside out, yes. But there is not much to know, after all, and they haven’t changed all that much in the past.

Skepticism in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. I knew quite a few “tech skeptics” back in university, both teachers and students. I know quite a few today, both young and old. But new technologies can be incredibly useful. Nobody would claim they can replace interpreters altogether – at least not yet. And not even the best computer in the world will turn an unqualified interpreter into a genius. New technologies should be explored in the safe environment of the classroom. Once the daily grind sets in, making time for this is much harder.

Attaining competence in a professional domain means acquiring the expertise and thus the authority to make professional decisions; assuming responsibility for one’s actions; and achieving autonomy to follow a path of lifelong learning. This is empowerment.


I will now discuss the following three use cases:

  1. Ways of using hardware and software in interpreter training
  2. Using a Smartpen for pedagogical purposes and for the new interpretation mode of “simultaneous consecutive”
  3. Information management

1. Ways of using hardware and software in interpreter training

While notebooks have become very popular in booths, a new category has been making inroads in recent years: tablet computers. They are a perfect fit for interpreters. Compared to traditional notebooks, they are small and lightweight. Since they have neither fan nor keyboard, they are silent and they last for a long time without a charger. Internet access is possible via WiFi or a mobile phone module. They may not be as multifunctional as a computer – that’s the point, and it’s also an advantage. Users are usually restricted to just one application at a time, which can aid concentration. A tablet put to good use is indeed an “infallible information butler”13.

Most students will carry a more or less smart phone in their pocket nowadays. Those smartphones can be a very useful tool for budding interpreters: dictionary, notepad, dictaphone for self-study and much more. I see a huge potential here for mutual learning and teaching among students and with trainers.

Software has gone through what can be called a revolution. Social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, and platforms for virtual collaboration have mushroomed. Those tools could be integrated with the suggestions In my diploma thesis, I have looked at mock conferences. Mock conferences are part and parcel of interpreter training at all major schools and provide an excellent opportunity to simulate an interpretation assignment “as close as possible to real-life situations”14 and from various perspectives (client/interpreter). The complete preparation, including organisation, time management, documentation, collaborative terminology work etc., could be handled available via an online platform like Google Drive or also available via Basecamp or similar functions in their respective university IT. An additional benefit from the didactic point of view is the automatic documentation of all work that may be valuable for reviewing and follow-up.

2. Smartpens

In 2008, the Livescribe company launched its first “smart pen”, a slightly oversized writing contraption full of electronics providing additional features. An infrared camera just below the writing tip records the movements of the pen on special paper and a built-in microphone continuously picks up ambient sound. Handwritten notes are synchronized with the sound recordings using a digital time signature. After the fact, just tap anywhere in your notes with the pen and it will play the sound recorded at that point in time – either through the built-in speaker or through headphones. Printed on the special paper are “buttons” for play, rewind, fast-forward, volume and playback speed.

Marc Orlando, the coordinator of the T&I Studies Program at Monash University in Australia, has turned the Livescribe Smartpen into a formidable tool for teaching students how to take notes. Beyond the note-taking systems devised by Matyssek or Rozan, every interpreting student needs to develop a technique that works for him or her (cf. Orlando15). According to Marc (Orlando 2011), the Smartpen enables us to not only focus on the actual interpretation or the notes that were taken in the process, but also on how the notes were taken over time. A video recording of the student only permits an evaluation of external appearance. The Smartpen’s time signature, however, is an easy way to listen to what was actually said when the student noted down something. Additionally, the audio recording of the original speech and the notes taken can be bundled together as a multimedia file called “pencast” and then stored and reused. This would allow students to compare and discuss their individual performances outside the classroom.

Michele Ferrari, an interpreter of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Interpretation, also leverages the Smartpen technology: for a novel hybrid mode of interpretation dubbed “simultaneous consecutive” (cf. Hiebl16 and Ferrari17). Instead of capturing a speech by taking notes the traditional way, the interpreter records it and uses that recording almost as if she were interpreting simultaneously. But since the interpreter has already heard and processed it, she can adapt the rendering and, let’s say, leave out redundant elements (as she would in a classic consecutive). Whenever there are difficult elements in the speech (numbers, names or particularly dense thoughts), she can slow down the playback – or accelerate it to skip repetitions in the original text. The idea here is not to do away completely with the notation. The interpreter can write as much or as little as she wants. Rather, the Smartpen is a support that can reduce stress through the safety net of a sound recording (and notes on top of that). Especially in “typical” consec settings, where accuracy is key (healthcare, police, courts), it could be extremely useful. The Smartpen’s inconspicuousness could be an asset when it comes to how it is embraced by interpreters. Michele has suggested additional use cases such as the use of the pen by members of selection panels in accreditation tests or the creation of audio glossaries.

3. Information Management


p>The internet has become an indispensable tool for interpreters: communicating with clients and colleagues, obtaining information for the next assignment, learning new languages and maintaining them. In several ways it is similar to that most classic fount of all knowledge, the library. To start your search, all you have to do is enter. But to really find, you need a certain degree of expertise. In a library, you can consult comprehensive catalogues or ask one of the librarians. However, on the Internet, you’re more or less on your own. That is why knowing how to research information is now more important than ever before. In the age of the internet and ubiquitous information, preparing for an assignment is both much easier and much harder. We now no longer need to pore over encyclopedias and specialized literature – everything is just a quick web search away. We are rather confronted with the risk of information overload. For any given topic, an encyclopedia may give us a well-researched, concise article and the internet floods us with anything from a Wikipedia article to a highly technical scientific paper. What is needed to search (and find!) efficiently is the right toolbox: knowing how to translate the required information into the right search terms, being familiar with search operators (in order to exclude terms or search within a specific website, for example) and knowing that simply running an image search for an unknown word can give useful results quickly. Finally, the results of the search need to be properly evaluated (cf. November18). Other components of information management (cf. Gillies19) include the use of concordance software to go through comprehensive preparatory material or methods of terminology management. Unfortunately, terminology management often plays only a minor role in interpreter training (cf. Veisbergs20).

In this context, I would like to refer quickly to the idea of an “interpretation portfolio” which I have developed earlier12. In analogy to longer texts that translation students have to translate during their studies, interpreting students draw up an “interpretation portfolio” as a means of recording how they prepare for a simulated conference on a given topic. Firstly, it should contain all relevant documents used for preparation, such as their own and others’ glossaries and parallel texts or background information. Secondly, students should write a commentary describing which research strategies they applied, which sources they found useful, which difficulties they faced and how they were able to overcome them. Another use-case for the portfolio could be the compilation of practice material (such as video and audio recordings) for self-study and a documentation of how it was used.


Interpreters today stand right in the middle of a “tsunami” of technological and social change. We must act and “understand the wave” to be able to ride it and not drown. Translators, it seems to me, are ahead of us interpreters. We now have to catch up in both education and professional practice – most likely through the combined efforts of everybody involved (interpreters, clients, trainers, researchers). There already are highly promising examples, such as the pedagogical support provided by the interpretation services of the European institutions or projects such as the “Speech repository” or the “Virtual classes”. Practitioners and trainers should continue to examine, use, modify and further develop existing and new technologies, in particular remote Interpreting. These activities should be accompanied by interpreting studies. Cooperation platforms, such as CIUTI, the SCIC Universities Conference or the EP’s Rectors’ Conference should continue and intensify their work against the backdrop of a single European higher education area, while professional associations such as AIIC continue to make valuable contributions. Unfounded fear of technology can simply disappear when trust is built through constant contact with the new (through training, colleagues and clients). When we are forced to deal with the new and when we experience what a difference technology can make, we may be more willing to make good use of it.


  1. Allen, Katherine (2012): „21st Century Skills“. (Consulted on 30/11/2012) 
  2. Berber, Diana (2008): „ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) in Conference Interpreting. A survey of their usage in professional and educational settings“. CETRA Research Seminar in Translation Studies 2007. 
  3. Kutz, Wladimir (2003): Lecture on Interpreting Studies at the Institute of Applied Linguistics and Translatology at Leipzig University. 
  4. Kiraly, Don (2000): A social constructivist approach to translator education. Manchester: St. Jerome. 
  5. Moggio-Ortiz, Evelyn (2008): „Interpreters Meet History“. (consulted on 28/12/2012) 
  6. Vander Elst, Patricia (2002): „The Nuremberg trial“. (Consulted on 27/12/2012) 
  7. Moser-Mercer, Barbara (2005): „Remote interpreting: The crucial role of presence“. Künzli, Alexander (Hrsg.): Empirical research into translation and interpreting: processes and products. Bulletin suisse de linguistique appliquée. Neuchâtel: Vereinigung für angewandte Linguistik in der Schweiz, 73-97. 
  8. Mouzourakis, Takis (2003): „That Feeling of Being There: Vision and Presence in Remote Interpreting“. remote-interpreting/lang/1 (Consulted on 27/12/2012) 
  9. Vereycken, Hilde (2012): „Remote Interpreting. The Council Experience“. Presentation at the 16. SCIC Universities Conference on 16/03/2012. ( - consulted on 27/12/2012) 
  10. AIIC Private Market Sector Standing Committee (2011): „Conference and Remote Interpreting: a New Turning Point?“. point/lang/1 (Consulted on 27/12/2012) 
  11. Saylor, Michael (2012): "The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything". New York: Vanguard Press. 
  12. Drechsel, Alexander (2004): „Computereinsatz beim Dolmetschen in Ausbildung und Praxis. Ein Beitrag zur Dolmetschdidaktik“. Diploma thesis. Leipzig: IALT, Schmitt/Stoll. 
  13. Rütten, Anja (2003): „Computer-based Information Management for Conference Interpreters“. Presentation at the 25. International Conference on Translating and the Computer on 20/21 November 2003. 
  14. Gile, Daniel (1995): Basic concepts and models for interpreter and translator training. Am- sterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 
  15. Orlando, Marc (2010): „Digital Technology Advances for Consecutive Interpreting. A New Dimension in Note-taking Training and Assessment“. Presentation at the AUSIT Biennial Conference 2010. ( - Consulted on 27/12/2013) 
  16. Hiebl, Bettina (2011): „Simultanes Konsekutivdolmetschen mit dem Livescribe(TM) Echo(TM) Smartpen“. Master thesis. Vienna: Zentrum für Translationswissenschaft, Pöchhacker. 
  17. Ferrari, Michele (2011): „Practical Applications of the SmartPen in the Working Life of an Interpreter“. Presentation at the 15th SCIC Universities Conference on 17 March 2011. ( - consulted on 27/12/2013) 
  18. November, Alan (2012): „Teaching Zach to Think“. November Learning. ( - consulted on 23/09/2013) 
  19. Gillies, Andrew (2012): „The Impact of Technological Advances on the Teaching of Conference Interpreting“. Presentation at the 16. SCIC Universities Conference on 16/03/2012. ( - consulted on 23/09/2013) 
  20. Veisbergs, Andrejs (2007): „Terminology Issues in Interpreter Training“. Documents of the Baltic Sea Region University Network „Quality and Qualifications in Translation and Interpreting II“. ( - consulted on 23/09/2013) 

On Babelverse

It's an old dream of mankind: to finally overcome the confusion of tongues, supposedly caused by an incident at the tower of Babel. Even if you're not a huge fan of science fiction, you will probably have come across one incarnation or another of the "universal translator". A London-based startup called Babelverse (see their Crunchbase entry for more info) currently tries to become exactly that: a universal translator "in your pocket". If you haven't heard of them, I recommend you watch this video to learn more before we dig in deeper:

The three guys behind Babelverse (Josef Dunne, Mayel de Borniol and Zachary Zorbas) have set out to bring us a revolution in communication that would make interpretation accessible to everyone at the price of a mobile phone call. They "aim to do to language barriers what the airplane did to geographical barriers". How? Let's recap: Build a tiered community of "Trainee Enthusiasts", "Skilled Enthusiasts" and "Professionals" and match them with people who need interpreting services on various levels of difficulty using consumer technology such as Skype and Google Hangouts. "Trainee enthusiasts" work for free in "casual conversations" and can work their way up to the next level where they can charge by the minute. "Professionals" have to show extensive experience and/or training. Client demand and interpreter supply are to be matched by a "smart algorithm", the Babelverse people say.

Sounds great, you say? Well, several blogs and Twitter accounts of interpreters are currently abuzz with discussion of the disruptors. Elisabeth Tiselius (aka @tulkur) and Michelle Hof (of Interpreter Diaries fame) have contributed the posts "Babel Precarity", "Babel Precarity - more questions" and "An open letter to the founders of Babelverse" respectively. Katherine Allen has chimed in over at InterpretAmerica with her post on the (potentially positive) power of disruption. The Babelverse team have replied here. I really recommend you read those posts and also the comments, if you're interested in the topic.

Update: "The Babelverse polemic", by Mirna Soares of Corpora Translations

To join the discussion, here are my two (or so) eurocents in no particular order.

  1. Babelverse enters the interpretation scene during an interesting time, where there is a lot of discussion about new technologies and especially remote interpretation. Many of us see the profession put into question on many levels. This is obviously not the founders' fault.
  2. Watching the coverage of tech conferences, you can tell that the Babelverse guys get the technorati excited by using buzzwords such as "disruption", "crowdsourcing", "revolution" and "platform" (more on that later). They use a revenue-sharing model that - thanks to Apple - has become well-established for smartphone apps and digital books. Given how quickly smartphone adoption will develop in the next years, they have a potentially huge user base. The thing is: Entrepreneurship, Google-type beta status and the Facebook approach of "move fast and break things" seem to rub many professional interpreters the wrong way. They (we!) have been told and taught over and over again how do this job professionally (for starters: only accept assignments you are competent for and prepare thoroughly).
  3. I believe, however, that Babelverse is on to something with volunteer language mediation in other contexts such as natural disasters. If they teamed up with Red T or Inzone, the center for interpreting in conflict zones at the renowned ETI Geneva, that could be a really useful first phase that they can build upon later. And they actually did join relief efforts after the Japanese tsunami (according to the company, 150 bilingual people contributed by interpreting or translating websites). The thing is: Natural disaster areas and conflict zones tend to lack the necessary IT infrastructure that Babelverse requires.
  4. Babelverse presents itself as providing a solution for any interpretation setting. It may well work for making yourself understood in a Greek pharmacy (leaving roaming fees aside for the moment). The thing is: You don't do business interpreting just by whipping out your smartphone.What about quality (of both the audio and the interpretation), confidentiality, company-specific jargon or correctly rendering numbers and facts?
  5. "Babelverse is being used today for events and conferences, for both attendees and remote viewers. There’s no more need for expensive specialised equipment and on–site interpreters." The thing is: There's a reason why we have that equipment and why we prefer to be on-site. It's called quality. There is quite a bit of research on remote interpretation so no need to go into detail here. The Virtual Booth Guide, I'm afraid, does not convince me.
  6. Babelverse eventually wants to become a platform that provides interpretation to other apps or services, almost like an API. The thing is: Even if they manage to build a big pool of available interpreters, I reckon it will be almost impossible to maintain a steady supply of available people. Twitter is only fun as long as there's no fail whale.
  7. Here's the elephant in the room: money. Language services have been under price pressure for some time and many interpreters wonder if there is enough money for them to make ends meet. Publicly, Babelverse promises to bring down interpretation costs "down to a mobile phone call", citing a price for 0,50 €/minute for the French/English language pair. When calculating rates, Babelverse looks at the cost of living in the country where a given language is spoken the most. Also, they set the rates themselves to avoid a "bid to the bottom" and "preserve quality". The thing is: If we take Spanish as an example and look at the many Spanish-speaking countries throughout the world, we'll see that the standard of living varies greatly among them. Which one do you chose for calculating the rate? During a Skype call, Josef and Mayel pointed out that they do not consider themselves an agency. But what do you call an intermediate who keeps 30 percent of the money for himself? As Marta Piera Martin pointed out: "Most companies can budget for interpretation and don't need to give 30% to Babelverse. They can negotiate a price with smaller companies or individualtranslators and interpreters who already work at home alone or with'boothmates' at low/'reasonable' rates."

It may well be that we are on the brink of a technological revolution similar to the, well, disruption that the Nuremburg Trials helped bring about with simultaneous interpretation. But right now I have the feeling Babelverse may have bitten off more than they can chew. I doubt that consumer IT is up to this task yet. However, I look forward to continuing the discussion between them and the interpreting profession (they will participate in a panel at the InterpretAmerica Summit). How we perceive the disruptors will largely depend on how the react to the concerns that many of us have voiced.