On April 19, 2021, the European Commission’s Knowledge Centre on Interpretation shared initial results from a survey carried out by Paris-based École Supérieure d’Interprètes et de Traducteurs (ESIT).
The research project, led by ESIT lecturer Camille Collard and freelance conference interpreter Marta Bujan, was aimed at quantitatively understanding the experiences of conference interpreters with remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI).
They collected responses between March 10 and April 11, 2021, wrapping up just over a year after the coronavirus pandemic began to significantly impact life across the world.
ESIT described the over 850 professional interpreters in 19 countries who responded to the survey as “representing both staff and freelance interpreters working for the private market, international organizations, European institutions and public administrations” — but it is worth noting that 87% of respondents work exclusively as freelancers (i.e., contract interpreters). Nearly a quarter were also based outside Europe.
Within the language industry, conference interpreters have undoubtedly been hit the hardest by the pandemic — and these are not just newbies trying to break into the market.
Sixty-three percent of respondents have been working as interpreters for over 15 years. A majority (68%) reported working fewer days during the pandemic, and almost half (46%) said they now have fewer clients.
Nonetheless, RSI has been a saving grace for many, allowing conference interpreters to continue their work, albeit with significant modifications.
For the clients and assignments that interpreters have been able to keep, work setups have changed quickly and dramatically. Nearly 80% of respondents reported working exclusively on-site for simultaneous interpreting tasks prior to the pandemic; in the post-pandemic world, only 3% of respondents said all their simultaneous interpreting takes place on-site.
Interestingly, the shift to RSI does not preclude traveling for assignments. Most interpreters (85%) had to travel “always” (20%) or “sometimes” (65%) for their work before the pandemic; only 1% said they “never” traveled.
There has been a slight (and perhaps counterintuitive) uptick in the percentage of interpreters who “always” travel (22%), while a fifth of respondents said they now never travel for work.
Of the respondents who work both at home and in hubs, whether external or belonging to the client, 57% prefer to work from a hub. Only 26% said they prefer working from home.
Home or away, interpreters reported struggling to adjust to the new normal. Sixty-seven percent of respondents believe RSI working conditions are worse than on-site, and 50% of respondents think they perform worse via RSI. Overall, 83% said they consider RSI “more difficult” than on-site interpreting.
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Compensation and customer expectations rarely correspond to these sentiments. Seventy-five percent of respondents think users’ expectations of RSI are the same or higher than their expectations of on-site interpreting, while 77% said fees for RSI are similar to or lower than fees for on-site work.
The researchers were heartened to find that, in keeping with industry recommendations, sessions (periods of work without a break longer than 30 minutes) are shorter for three-fourths of interpreters when working via RSI.
Almost half (49%) said an average session lasts two hours, while 42% reported three-hour sessions. Most respondents (63%) work just one session per day; a third typically work two sessions daily.
So far, the ZOOM interpretation feature is the leading platform among these respondents — almost three-quarters (73%) said they have used it for more than half of their RSI assignments. Interprefy (7%), Interactio (6%), and KUDO (5%) were the next most-used platforms.
Despite the growing pains, most respondents (64%) said they would like to continue working on RSI assignments, potentially offering an opportunity for follow-up research.
“Of course, this quantitative overview of the results is only the first step. Many questions are not covered here or deserve a thorough qualitative analysis,” Collard and Bujan wrote. “Having a closer look at the links between interpreters’ profiles and their conditions or thoughts will help us have a better understanding of the current situation.”