In last month’s Tech-savvy interpreter 2.0 column, we shared the first part of our discussion with Barry S. Olsen on the history of interpreting technology.

This month, read on to hear Barry’s take on the present and future of technology in interpreting.

You can also check out the full video interview on our YouTube channel.


The future of interpreting technology - An interview with Barry Olsen

In a seminal article, you looked at the three T’s: technology for delivering interpreting services, technology that augments interpreter performance, and technology that might replace us altogether. First, let‘s focus on how the technology that augments interpreter performance has changed over the years.

In reality, that's where we have seen the least movement. Databases enabled us to take our glossaries digital. We didn't have to lug around dictionaries. Word processing and presentation software have also radically changed the way we work.

Specific technologies are only now beginning to emerge because of artificial intelligence. Some platforms are using AI for terminology extraction, quickly aligning documents, or practicing vocabulary. Anything that can streamline interpreter preparation will increase our performance.

The greatest opportunity is with AI and speech recognition. Speech recognition is improving significantly, and the data for different dialects and accents is getting better and better.

As computing power increases, speech recognition will improve, and include recognition of proper names and numbers. Claudio Fantinuoli has been experimenting with this for some time at Germersheim. We've seen some pretty amazing videos.

If correct numbers and proper names popped up on a screen while I'm interpreting, my cognitive load would decrease notably. AI programs that could go to a website, pull out information and extract terminology would help us prepare more efficiently.

The most exciting area right now is artificial intelligence. We shouldn’t be afraid of it or dismissive. Neither extreme is productive.

Understanding what AI can and can’t do will leave us in a much better position. We should see what the tech is doing, what we are doing, and how the two can go hand in hand.

Are fears of being replaced reasonable?

I am not afraid of being replaced for high-level conference interpreting. It is incredibly complex. Even we don't fully understand it.

I’m asking researchers at big companies like Microsoft, Baidu, and Google to educate themselves about what interpreters do. What mechanisms do we use to cope with information and overload? How do we manage cognitive load?

Baidu is actually replicating - to the extent possible - the ability to adjust décalage. They're trying to figure out how to have the program wait three, five, or seven words before deciding on the translation. Human interpreters do that automatically all the time.

There's an opportunity to educate some very smart people about something they don't know a lot about. Many of the people on the engineering side of language technology are very interested in hearing the interpreter's perspective. It's worth engaging in that conversation.

In your experience, to what extent do interpreters adopt these tools?

Dedicated, interpreter-specific tools for terminology seem to be getting a lot of traction. The same applies to general consumer tech. We've never thought seriously about the effect of YouTube and streaming video on interpreting.

When I was studying at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in the mid ‘90s, you would hope to get some kind of document to prepare for assignments. Video on the internet? YouTube wasn't even around yet! You did what you could with some photocopies. Now, my students research the person they’ll interpret, find a keynote address, listen to snippets of their motivational speech and jokes and get used to their accent and speaking style. That was unheard of just 20 years ago!

Even though there are tens of thousands of professional interpreters - probably in the hundred thousand range - in the grand scheme of things, that’s still small for a large software company.

But because of the virtualization of everything - software eating the world - the Interpreters' Helps and the InterpretBanks of the world exist. We need to support these developers, reach out to them, use these products. That will all come back, be a positive influence on our profession and help us move things forward.

What are you up to now and what brought you there?

This May, KUDO approached me. They were looking for someone to educate their users and help ensure client success on the platform. I realized this was another opportunity to influence technological development. It would mean some radical changes. I can't write the Tech-Savvy Interpreter column if I'm wearing the KUDO jersey, which I wear very proudly. We need you guys to maintain the distance between products and providers.

I think you two are the ideal team to - cliché alert - take it to 2.0, with video and more.

I will continue to teach at the Middlebury Institute. It is wonderful to work with the next generation of interpreters and help them in their journey, and it breathes life into what I do.

What does the future of remote interpreting hold?

Given the current situation, I don't see web meetings with interpretation disappearing until we have a vaccine and can get back to regular travel. Until then, we are going to see more and more hybrid meetings. Attendees and interpreters may be onsite or join in remotely. There will be a blending of online platforms and onsite rooms.

Individuals and the international organizations have adjusted to online work. People are saying, "We're doing this online anyways, Why don't we just add languages?" The net effect is going to be more work, but it's going to be different work: streaming video and providing live simultaneous interpretation remotely. People will just select their language of choice. We're going to see both smaller and larger meetings. When people realize the efficiencies of the online format, some meetings will remain online.

I wonder if there's a cautionary tale to be found in the coronavirus situation for interpreters. We’ve had a reticent attitude. But we had to make it work quickly. Can we learn from that as a community and improve on it?

How does this compare to past changes in interpreting technology?

What I'm reading in some blogs echoes almost to the letter the comments made about the “telephonists” in the official League of Nations reports. I showed quotes from those reports at a presentation. When I said they were from July 1930, the jaw dropped.

Initially, there was no need for simultaneous and plenty of reasons to avoid it. Interpreters were happy doing consecutive. But during the Nuremberg trials, they needed multiple languages quickly. Consecutive just wouldn't do.

People saw a job opportunity. They had the skills. The tech was there. The need was there.

I am not conflating Covid with World War Two, but both are global and have changed the way we work. The old way is no longer possible. Suddenly, we have to adapt. Otherwise, you can sit at home and try to wait it out.

What are you most proud of from your tenure as the Tech-Savvy Interpreter?

Opening people's minds to the possible was gratifying.

I started this column at a time when I could reach out to innovators easily. They would respond almost immediately and were happy to show me their platform.

I'd get the CEO from the company on a video chat with my students in the Remote Simultaneous Interpretation Technologies and Practice course at the Middlebury Institute. They were able to ask direct questions to the CEO and founder. That was magical.

What would you like to see us cover in the years to come?

Stay abreast of technological changes. The software development cycle is fast. Watch it and share new developments with readers.

Other tips and tricks for making the most of general purpose as well as specific technologies would also be really helpful.

Keep an eye on artificial intelligence. Before Covid, I felt like AI came up and passed us by. Technology-powered subtitling for conferences in real time was a thing. It wasn't perfect, but there were people paying money to do it at their conferences. The use of AI for dialogic interaction in places where an interpreter would never be hired is the toehold for AI. We need to keep an eye on that.

PS. Questions or ideas about interpreting technology? Drop us a line at [email protected]! We do the research, so you don’t have to.