The European Parliament (EP) has adopted a new platform for remote interpretation, a move necessitated and accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to Anna Grzybowska, the EP’s Director for Conference Organization, prior to the pandemic, the institution had been planning to offer a remote option for conference participants. Covid mainstreamed what the EP had initially envisioned as an additional service to expand limited meeting capacity.
“Once Covid struck, and the need for languages in meetings struck, we had to squeeze into months something we were planning to deliver in two years’ time,” Grzybowska told Slator.
In pivoting to remote multilingual technology, the EP also had to take into consideration the needs of staff and freelance interpreters who continued to work in person in Brussels. Interpreters had to work separately from one another and conference equipment was limited to just one interpreter at a time, rather than being shared among two or three. The tool the EP selected had to interface with its existing on-site equipment.
The EP considered three candidate platforms before moving forward with Interactio. With the goal of enabling conference participants to access interpretation and interact meaningfully in each meeting, Grzybowska’s team looked closely at chat functions, in-meeting networking, and access to language services and interpretation. “We knew these platforms were able to deliver that,” she said.
Geography presented a hurdle for one platform, whose servers were located in America. “From the point of view of our general regulations of data protection, that would have slowed us down considerably,” Grzybowska explained. (She noted, however, that issues related to transfer over the ocean have since been resolved.)
The EP’s search also prioritized finding a provider with round-the-clock service and the ability to address technical issues in real time, which is especially critical in high-ranking meetings.
Into the Deep End
“From early March to Easter we had this really difficult phase, culminating in a service migration,” Grzybowska recalled. “We all underestimated the impact it would have on the functioning of the whole tool. Version 1 was stable by the summer.”
A major contributing factor to the time pressure was the need to pass legislation to unblock relief funds from the EU. To that end, Grzybowska said, the first trial meetings were actually the highest ranking. This also allowed top authorities to lead by example by trying out new remote solutions before other users. As expected, there were challenges from the get-go.
Covid mainstreamed what the EP had initially envisioned as an additional service to expand limited meeting capacity
For instance, Grzybowska said, “We started with a completely not-optimal way of connecting to those meetings, which is tablets. That was the fastest way to go through the firewall that we have here.” Delegates’ other equipment was configured with specifications that blocked the platform and tools, preventing delegates from connecting to or participating in meetings.
Grzybowska’s team introduced a simple red (negative) / green (positive) feedback system to gauge user satisfaction with the remote platform on a meeting-by-meeting basis. Grzybowska reported that the EP is now enjoying weeks with a majority of green ratings.
Though the EP slowed down the rollout for the second version, in part due to lessons learned during the initial service migration, Grzybowska said the improvements were worth the wait — as evidenced by a recent meeting with 700 remote participants.
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In a departure from “standard” settings, the updated version increased the bandwidth from its original calibration to improve sound. A better view of participants within Interactio, although not critical from a technical perspective, was very important to the client experience.
For EP participants, the updates related to how the EP runs meetings, such as adjusting how people asking for the floor appear and what the speaker can see.
A significant portion of the work for interpreters meant improving how sound gets to interpreters, refining how the platform interfaces with the EP’s conference equipment, and dealing with interfering audio feedback. Grzybowska noted that the EP is now discussing fine-tuning these features.
Through January 2021, interpreters were working on-site in Brussels only — the EP had installed mobile booths with screens, and each interpreter required a considerable amount of space, limiting the number of interpreters. “If we couldn’t fit them on the premises, we just wouldn’t offer the language to our clients,” Grzybowska said.
“If we get our delegates used to not having the languages, in the long-term that’s very bad for demand”
These limitations had a greater impact on languages spoken by fewer delegates, such as Swedish, Finnish, Maltese, and Lithuanian. Grzybowska noted that the EP’s goal is to reestablish interpreting to its pre-Covid levels, thus giving equal rights to all members.
“If we get our delegates used to not having the languages, in the long-term that’s very bad for demand,” she said, “but we hope we’re going to manage to get there.”
Setting up additional interpreters in the EP’s currently empty Strasbourg, France location, however, has expanded the offerings. It may also serve as a trial run for several regional hubs the EP is considering establishing in cities such as Vienna, Riga, and Ljubljana.
The availability of local or nearby freelancers will be a factor in the selection of any locations for future regional hubs. Prior to the expansion to Strasbourg, severe travel restrictions meant that the bulk of the EP’s work went to interpreters based in Brussels. (The EP canceled contracts with contract interpreters starting in May 2020, providing a one-off payment for deferred contracts. As of October 2020, the EP continued to cancel contracts on a rolling basis, and offered to pay qualified interpreters for taking online courses in the meantime.)
Grzybowska emphasized that the EP’s plans must include interpreters who have been left out of interpreting work during the pandemic: “We really need to think, if this goes on for much longer, how are we going to keep our capacity to provide going? How are we going to keep those people in the profession? If they need to pay rent and there is no work coming their way, are they going to disappear completely and move on to other things?”
Of course, establishing regional hubs will come with its own complications. Grzybowska said the EP will try to replicate the Strasbourg model wherever possible, but “it gets more complicated because the further we move away from our premises, the less we can guarantee the quality of the network and the equipment.”
Shaking Off ‘Zoom Fatigue’
Despite vaccine rollouts the world over, the EP — like everyone else — is trying to plan ahead around an evolving and unpredictable situation. Grzybowska doubts the EP’s conferences and meetings will return to normal before the summer.
Until then, she said, the greatest challenge has been “Zoom fatigue,” experienced by both clients and interpreters. Beyond that frustration, however, remote multilingual technology could afford the EP new opportunities, such as bringing in speakers from overseas who would otherwise be unable to attend meetings.
“We thought it was a niche market,” Grzybowska said. “We didn’t think it was a mainstream extension of our activity.”