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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 he 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 nd 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 “nterpretation 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) 

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