Remote interpreting – how one EC team leader responded to the lockdowns

Natalia Fedorenkova, Russian > English interpreter and Naomi Bowman, CEO of DS-Interpretation, Inc., interview interpreter team leaders. This month they turn the spotlight on Carlos Hoyos, the European Commission's Head of Unit for Spanish interpretation, and probes how he and his team's working practices have changed as a result of the pandemic.

How have the lockdowns affected your work?

When lockdowns were first introduced, all physical meetings were cancelled overnight. It totally changed the way we work. But we had to fulfil the mission of our Directorate General and guarantee business continuity, it was more important than ever since major decisions had to be taken to tackle the health crisis.

We explored RSI options already in 2019 and ran a comparison exercise, by the time lockdowns started, fortunately the preparatory work had been done. Though, of course, nobody knew ahead of time that we would need to go full-on remote so soon

What is the advantage for the interpreters to work onsite?

With professional hardware and soundproofing, we have better sound quality and fewer issues. Moreover, working from familiar conditions is less disruptive for the interpreters.

With this in mind, we arranged that both the staff and the freelance interpreters in Brussels work from booths. To allow for this setup, interpreters were assigned critical staff status and granted access to physical facilities.

The big change was the one-person-per-booth rule for Commission meetings. Interpreters used to work in pairs or in groups of three from the same booth, and with the new setup, when working alone   in a booth, they had to learn to communicate with partners by writing in instant messaging apps, or via chat and/or gestures.

Now that remote meetings with interpreting have become streamlined, what are the issues that you’re still facing?

The biggest challenge is sound quality coming from the participants. Working from home or from remote offices, participants do not always have the most appropriate microphones and cameras for videoconferences with interpretation. For the interpreters, degraded sound quality means difficulties carrying out our work, and over a prolonged period of time, they might lead to acoustic fatigue and hearing issues. Some Interpreters have reported platform-sound fatigue and discomfort.

To counteract this, we have been deploying from the very beginning a very significant awareness-raising effort: we developed guidelines for users of our services and video clips advocating wearing headsets and using professional microphones. We are also conducting training sessions for delegates on this subject continuously and we perform sound tests with meeting organizers before meetings. Additionally, we developed specific guidelines for interpreters and Heads of Interpretation Team, enabling them to stop interpretation when sound quality is deemed of too poor quality. We also issued a disclaimer to that effect that is communicated in advance to all meeting organizers and participants, However, given the fact that the DG Interpretation of the European Commission has serviced around 50.000 participants in meetings over SIDP since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, perfect sound quality from all participants will likely remain a long-term goal. We have also introduced special temporary arrangements for works with SIDPs, limiting interpreters’ exposure, while, at the same time, we are gathering feedback from our staff from a very detailed questionnaire, which will enable us to have a critical mass of data on which to base future decisions.

The physical limitations of our facilities, together with the corporate health measures and the way they translate to work in the booth entails a reduction of the number of languages we can offer in some Commission meetings. .

Will interpreting stay remote after lockdowns are lifted? 

It is hard to tell. Now, remote interpreting via RSI platforms is a contingency service, not a permanent solution. It can be used in future if certain speakers are unable to attend for various reasons, but it will probably not become the mainstay.

I believe that major political meetings will be conducted on the premises due to the advantages of in-person negotiations and work. On the contrary, the meetings of experts may shift to a more remote or hybrid mode, with some experts participating from Brussels and others participating from their Member State, especially shorter meetings. The silver lining of that might be that, with the reduced requirement for travel and cost, meetings that happened without interpretation before could be serviced with interpreting in the future.

The plan for the EU to go carbon-neutral by 2050 is likely to contribute to the effort of decreasing non-essential travel and increasing the ratio of remote or hybrid meetings.

Next month Natalia Fedorenkova and Naomi Bowman will be interviewing Pedro-José Espinosa, Chief Interpreter at the United Nations Office in Nairobi