How the Pandemic Changed Interpreting Forever With Anja Peschel

Anja Peschel SlatorPod podcast Interpreting Services and Remote Simultaneous Interpreting

In this week’s SlatorPod, we’re joined by Anja Peschel, Managing Director of Peschel Communications, a Germany-based boutique languages service provider (LSP) that offers translation and interpreting.

Anja outlines the similarities and differences between servicing the needs of customers requiring written translation vs. interpreting. Interpreting is a more personal experience, she points out, with clients sometimes requesting specific interpreters for their assignments.

From the perspective of a practicing interpreter, Anja discusses her initial experience of providing consecutive interpreting via Zoom when the pandemic first prevented in-person meetings and conferences from taking place. She also talks about the learning curve with remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI), its pros and cons, and shares her views on automated tools for interpreters.

First up, Florian and Esther discuss the language industry news of the week, with online text analysis software startup, Caplena, pitching at an IRL (!) startup event in Zurich, and how DeepL is a core part of their product.

Esther unpacks the research paper “Curb Your Carbon Emissions: Benchmarking Carbon Emissions in Machine Translation,” which evaluated the computational power required for training MT engines in six different language pairs.

The duo also discuss Keywords Studios’ appointment of Bertrand Bodson as CEO and Bodson’s plans to drive organic growth by combining the company’s range of services into a more integrated offer.

Florian talks about TransPerfect’s newest VP of Growth Strategies, Edgar Vargas-Castañeda, and the Super Agency’s latest win in court. Esther then touches on Google Meet’s live translated captions available for English into Spanish, French, Portuguese, and German. Florian gives an update on as the startup relaunches its web app for a fresh new look.

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Florian: Tell us a bit more about Peschel Communications, but also about the interpreting side. Then going back a bit further, what made you start in this industry?

Anja: My company, Peschel Communications is what you would call a Boutique LSP. Our client base is mostly SMEs and also a lot of public institutions like universities. We mainly focus on a few fields like law, medicine, marketing, science, academia and renewable energies which is a big one for us as Freiburg is very big on renewables. We offer translation in the traditional sense, but also conference interpreting. We do a lot of transcreation work and audiovisual translation. I am a conference interpreter myself. I have a degree in conference interpreting, so I wear two hats in a way. I am the Managing Director of my company, but I am also a freelance interpreter so I am one of the interpreters hired by my company.

Esther: What do you think are the key differences in running the written translation services business versus the interrupting services business?

Anja: The main difference is that interpreting is less anonymous. When clients want to book interpreters, very often they have specific people in mind. They want to book me or a specific colleague and they may ask for a name and that does not happen very often with written translations. Also, as conference interpreters, we work with teams. I get a lot of my assignments through my colleagues because they need a partner to go to a job and so you cannot send mass emails out to try and recruit interpreters and hope that someone qualified will answer and accept the job. It is a much more personal business than translation. Also, what I noticed is that there is very little overlap between our translation and our interpreting clients.

Esther: There must be a reason that companies offer both translation and interpreting? What key things do you think the two services have in common from a business perspective?

Anja: They are both language services and very highly skilled services. The other thing that they have in common is that they require a lot of explanation. Most clients do not know what it is that they need or what their expectations are and you have to take the time to talk to them, to find out what is that they need. With written translations, most clients do not know whether they want transcreation or translation or anything in between. You have to find out by talking to them and seeing what they want to do with the product and the same goes for interpreting. Clients might call in and say, I need an interpreter for a conference and then I have to start by explaining that we work in teams. With simultaneous interpreting, you have to have a team of two or three people per language combination. Maybe they need consecutive interpreting as it is better suited for their purpose. All of that takes quite a lot of time and patience. A lot of them do not even know the difference between translation and interpreting, to be honest. One other thing that the two have in common is as an agency, we need a good relationship with our suppliers. We need to look after them, stay in contact with them, and respect their professionalism.

Esther: How do you think that professional interpreters are dealing with the things that some of the technology might struggle with? Things like discontinued sentences, starting and stopping, how do interpreters handle that when they are interpreting live? 

Anja: It has a lot to do with what we call decalage, which is the distance that we have from the speaker so if a speaker has a lot of “ums” and “uhs” or speaks very slowly, then we will try and hold back a little bit and let the speaker say a bit more before we start. That way we summarize the sentence, or we leave out all the redundancies. We do not necessarily stick to the words in the way that you might think, or certainly in the way that a captioning software will stick to the words. Very often as interpreters, we say what a speaker wants to say, even if the speaker never said it, so there is a lot of reading between lines that the technology will always struggle with. Also, things like jokes. How do you deal with a joke that might not be politically correct and you do not really want to translate it? AI would just go ahead but as an interpreter, you have to make decisions like that, whether you want to tone something down or say it as it is or leave something out or maybe say the speaker just made a joke, please laugh.

Florian: Do you have to be extremely loyal to what the person says, even if it is a terrible joke or politically incorrect, but you need to transmit that? Do you have a general approach to this?

Anja: It is just intuition. I know what setting I am in when I am at a conference, I know who my audience is and then I will probably just take it from there.

Florian: During the pandemic, how did you experience the early days as interpreters and how have things developed since then?

Anja: When the first lockdown happened obviously everyone was in shock, including me and we spent quite a few weeks talking to customers who wanted to get out of their contracts because their meetings have been canceled and at the time it just seemed like we were doing damage control because nobody knew how long this whole situation was going to go on for. Then once all that had been done, suddenly things got worryingly quiet, and we started looking into maybe alternative services and offered pre-recorded interpreting for pre-recorded videos. That could be supplied to customers instead of a conference but it did not fill the void that had been left by all the conferences being canceled. Then clients started requesting remote interpreting more and more. 

First, it was mostly consecutive interpreting which took place via Zoom and then more and more simultaneous. I have to admit that I was very skeptical at the beginning and I thought, no, I am not going to do that. The first few meetings were, to be honest, a nightmare. The sound was bad. Connections just totally collapsed. Nobody knew what they were doing. It was a terrible situation. I had meetings where I just saw the tops of people’s heads but not their faces. There was another meeting where there were three people in the room wearing face masks. Their microphone was at the top of the ceiling somewhere so you could not hear them properly because of the masks and the microphone being meters away from them and then in the middle of the meeting, they started shifting tables for some reason. Situations like that made me wonder whether I wanted to do this at all but things did get better.

The learning curve was quite steep for most people and people started using headsets and muting themselves when they did not want to be heard. They started using the camera so that their faces could properly be seen so things got better and one thing that was noticeable is that it opened new opportunities for us as interpreters. Personally, I have been doing a lot of RSI meetings that are just an hour or so. Usually in internal meetings, employee information meetings, things like this, it suddenly occurs to people that they can be translated and therefore more people can be reached. On the other hand, I know of quite a few colleagues who decided this was not for them and this was not the job that they originally signed up for and just left the industry. 

Florian: What is the mood like among interpreters? It has been one and a half years now and who knows when it fully opens up. 

Anja: It has been a roller coaster but most of us are relatively positive now. I have had my first few in-person events, which is wonderful and the first time I was in a proper booth in the same room as the delegates, I was just ecstatic. I could not remember how good the sound could be. Also having my colleagues with me and being able to collaborate properly, being able to see what is going on in the room, all of that. We all know how much we have missed this and so most interpreters cannot wait to get back into proper conferences. At the same time, we are a bit apprehensive because there is no telling whether all the jobs that were lost as a result of the first lockdown are going to come back. We will just have to wait and see. One thing that I am personally hoping for is more hybrid events, where you have speakers, interpreters, and some of the audience in one location, but the whole conference then gets streamed to a larger audience much further afield. You could possibly add languages, for example, to reach a wider audience and that is a great opportunity for the whole events industry.

Esther: If you move past that initial challenge and learning curve, are there pros and cons that exist after you have overcome that initial hurdle of getting familiar with the whole setting? What pros and cons do you identify with RSI?

Anja: I have to be honest that I did not miss traveling all that much. I did not miss sleeping in hotels and having an ever-larger CO2 footprint and waiting on drafty train platforms for a delayed train. Not having that traveling stress is definitely a pro. Also, the possibilities that have opened up, despite the pandemic, of staying in touch over larger distances, of having shorter meetings to fill in a gap between in-person meetings. It is a real opportunity and a real advantage of now having learned how to do RSI. 

However, there are quite a lot of cons to RSI. There is a difference working from a hub which is like an interpreting studio where interpreters go work together and have technical support. The biggest problem working from home is always the sound in my opinion. The headsets that most conference participants now use have a noise-canceling technology, which is great when you have background noise. Although, this noise-canceling technology takes away some of the frequency that we need to give us more information as interpreters. What you get through that technology is a limited frequency and if the frequency that I hear is the same frequency as my own voice, I cannot hear the speaker anymore. This happened to me once. I could not hear the female speaker. She had a similar tone of voice to me and so I had to wait for her to finish and then quickly deliver the translation. Due to this lack of frequency, you hear less of the modulation. Sometimes of course there are bits missing, as we all know when the internet connection is bad, your brain has to fill in those bits which is an extra mental load or when you have people sitting in their garages with a big echo or people phoning in from their cars. That is still a problem because it is difficult to explain to clients that just because they feel that they can hear okay, this does not mean that the sound quality is sufficient for simultaneous interpreting. We need better quality. Another problem with RSI is a lack of control, especially working from home. I do not have very good windows, unfortunately, and so when there is an ambulance going past then everybody can hear it.

Esther: What do you think are some of the things that interpreters are in need of? What features do you want that you do not currently have whether it is hardware or software problems? What are the must-haves that you think might be lacking at the moment for RSI? 

Anja: The more hardware and software I have to use while I am interpreting, the more distracting it gets. That is just something that you have to keep in mind and in my opinion, also one of the problems with RSI platforms, because as an interpreter, I have to do most of it myself. I would say at the top of the list for me is technical support. Somebody else who worries if the internet connection fails, or if something else goes wrong so that I do not have that additional stress because my job of listening, translating, and delivering something that people want to listen to is hard enough as it is. The sound has to be good. 

Also, things like synchronicity between the video and the sound. Often if you use Zoom or another platform, there is this slight delay and it is irritating when you are interpreting because your brain just notices there is something confusing and has to work hard to not notice that in a way. Another thing that these platforms do not have is they need to imitate a real-life interpreting booth as well as possible and that means being able to listen to both the floor and the booth partner at the same time. Also the handover function. We take turns usually of 15 to 30 minutes with RSI because we need a break and usually when we are in the booth we just do that by hand signal. Either we need to see each other or have some other way of making sure that we do a proper handover so that nothing gets lost.

Florian: You mentioned remote interpreting hubs, so tell us a bit more about that. What does that hybrid setting look like?

Anja: I like working from remote hubs. You do not have to wear a suit because nobody is going to see you like when you go to a proper conference. The setup is we have proper interpreting booths like you would see at conferences and we work together. All interpreters go to the hub and then we have sound engineers who deal with the rest and our clients can just dial in and use their preferred video platform. We have clients who use Zoom, clients who use WebEx or whatever and then we just get the sound. It is almost as good as working at a real conference because we also have the hard console, which is quite important for us where we can dial the volume up and down with a proper dial and not fiddle around with a mouse which is a lot more distracting. That being said, if the participants of the video conference do not use proper equipment, or if the internet connection is bad, we still get mediocre sound and even the best sound engineer cannot do anything about that.

Esther: With all of the advances with RSI that has been happening over the past 18 months, do you think that client expectations and requirements have changed as it pertains to interpreting? 

Anja: Definitely. We have seen it everywhere that standards have relaxed. People do not mind if there is a cat walking across a desk or a child walks in while people are in the meeting. That kind of thing has just become acceptable and people even like it in a way because it shows that everyone is human and the same has happened to us too. If the ambulance drives past while I am interpreting, my clients will forgive it because this is just the way things work at the moment, so that takes the pressure off a little bit. I think it will develop in the same way as expectations. Another change that I have noticed is that people do not want to sign contracts anymore until two days before the event. That makes planning difficult for us. Although, I understand why people do not want to commit any sooner. They paid the price before when they had to pay fees without needing the service so clients want a lot more flexibility, but they are also more flexible themselves in terms of the conditions.

Florian: Are there any aids that you are using, like interactive glossaries or tablets on the side? Or is it just like you are here, you see the speaker and you are processing, there are no other tools or aids or anything that helps?

Anja: I use what I use in the booths in an on-site conference as well. I use my laptop with glossaries and an internet connection, but that is pretty much it. What we do use in addition, is when we work via Zoom, we have a separate device and we set up a WhatsApp call so that my interpreting partner and I can see each other and hear each other.

Florian: How has pricing changed or not changed? For RSI is there a standard now that was not there before? Do the prices for anything that is now coming back on site remain the same?

Anja: As far as interpreters fees are concerned, leaving aside the technology, not that much has changed. At the beginning of the pandemic when we realized that we were going to have to deal with RSI, whether we like to or not, there was a lot of discussion about adding to the fee because you had to get a better internet connection. You had to pay for your infrastructure. You had to get a dedicated laptop. All that is a cost for interpreters. I have not seen that happening personally. I would say that the fees are still more or less the same. What has changed, however, is that sometimes we have larger teams now. Where we would have a team of two interpreters in an onsite event, we now have a team of three, so that adds to the cost for the client. It is the same services and we deliver the same value to our customers so I do not see why the prices should be that different. 

Florian: Is there any general feeling in the interpreting space around these potential automated competitors that are coming in? Google is adding live translated captions, and Zoom are trying to do live speech translation as well. What are your thoughts on this? 

Anja: Most interpreters do not see it happening in the way that it would replace interpreters. All this spontaneity and creativity that we bring into our work just cannot be done by machines. However, I can see clients switching from interpreters to having live captions for their meetings, maybe not next year, but it will take work away from interpreters.

Esther: If you have accurate live captioning of the original language of the speaker, would that also help you as an interpreter if you are visually seeing the words that you need to interpret?

Anja: Definitely. That is what we do in the booth when we work with a booth partner. The booth partner writes down numbers, which are very difficult for some reason, or names, or even the odd word that we do not know. That is what humans do already and I read that there are some colleagues now experimenting with live captioning as an aid during an interpreting session. I suppose you would have to feed it with typical acronyms for that particular client. I can see that working.

Esther: Tell us a little bit about what is next for Peschel Communications going into 2022 and beyond.

Anja: More of the same. We are certainly doing more audiovisual translations now. I personally enjoy it because it brings spoken translation and written translation together so it is something that I find interesting so we are doing more of that. We have a few new members of staff that we are currently training and onboarding so looking forward to seeing how that works out and getting them into a routine. Currently looking for a translator for German, if anyone is out there and interested.