More than ever, telephones are central to translation. Thanks to the arrival of translation apps like Google Translate, and even language-learning apps like Duolingo, the mobile phone might be more important to the world of translation than it ever has been. But what about the world of interpreting?
Though they are closely related, translation and interpreting are distinct entities, and phone technology has affected them in very different ways. So what do the recent developments in phone translation technology mean for interpreting?
What is over the phone interpreting?
Telephones and mobile phones have been a part of interpreting for many years. According to Global Voices, phone interpreting involves an interpreter joining a meeting or conversation over the telephone, providing the same service as they would were they present in person — i.e. facilitating cross-language conversation in real time, either at the same time as or after each of the speakers.
Phone interpreting is essential in situations when an interpreter can’t be present in person. In practice, this can often be during emergencies, when arranging the presence of an interpreter at very short notice can be difficult.
Since phones and interpreting already have a long history, the developments in phone technology are bound to have had an impact. But one of the biggest of these impacts has nothing to do with Google Translate.
Better satellite connections in remote locations have broadened availability
Putting the flashier tech advances aside, one of the biggest ways phone tech has changed interpreting is with the better connections to remote areas. By its very nature, it is only possible for phone interpreting services to take place in areas with reliable telephone signal. Over time, the number of places falling into this category has grown, but there are some places that had very little phone coverage until very recently — and some places that still don’t have any.
Even in a country with as many mobile users as the UK, phone signal is still patchy in many places. In Australia, many hard-to-reach areas suffered from low-to-no signal levels for many years, until the government-backed Mobile Black Spot Programme kicked into gear two years ago encouraging network providers to build more signal towers in remote regions.
Upgrades like this are taking place all over the world, and it’s helping bring phone interpreting to those who never had access to it before.
AI translation apps have made an interpreter’s job even clearer
Although Google Translate did bring out a new “interpreter” speaking function in 2015, the app was never built to replace human interpreters. Its strengths lie in translating the occasional googled phrase, or, to some extent, foreign-language web pages.
Some translation apps though, using similar algorithms to those of Google Translate, have tried to stray into interpreting territory. Microsoft’s “Star Trek-style” translator was added to Skype in late 2015. Like an in-person or over-the-phone interpreter, this function translates speech from one language to another in real time. It was hailed as surprisingly accurate upon release, but anyone familiar with professional interpreting services will know there is a lot more to it than accuracy.
It’s unlikely that apps like these will be taking jobs from interpreters soon, no matter how accurate they become. If anything, they have cast a light on the true role of an interpreter, which is to do much more than accurately translate one language into another. Interpreters, especially those who speak foreign languages natively or who have spent time living and working in different countries, have cultural knowledge that no app could ever hope to emulate. This can help inform their translations, making them closer to the speaker’s initial meaning.
Then there are other human benefits that machines will likely be unable to replicate for a very long time, including a sense of humour, a sense of empathy, and the ability to treat sensitive information with the appropriate gravity. Thanks to mobile phone translation apps, these qualities have never been more obviously necessary.