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Using a mixed-methods approach to research remote interpreting

Sabine Braun, Director of the Centre for
Translation Studies at the
University of Surrey

By Sabine Braun, Director of the Centre for Translation Studies at the University of Surrey

Remote interpreting covers a range of evolving methods to deliver interpreting services in distributed communication settings. It includes tele- and videoconference interpreting between clients in situations such as virtual meetings or video links between prisons and courts, and distance interpreting for clients in different locations; for example, remote medical interpreting.

Remote interpreting is not new but has increased and diversified in recent years through evolving demand and technological innovation, but also as a result of cost-cutting in public services. Improvements in videoconferencing technology and improved access to this technology, for instance cloud-based videoconferencing services, have supported a shift from telephone-based to video-mediated interpreting.

Remote interpreting is often perceived as a double-edged sword by those who work with it. On the one hand, its use as an alternative to on-site interpreting raises questions about interpreting quality and communicative dynamics, as well as broader questions concerning the training and skills required of interpreters and their clients, the interpreters’ working conditions and the clients’ perception of the interpreter. On the other hand, remote interpreting clearly opens up new opportunities for gaining access to interpreters, meeting linguistic demand, increasing the efficiency of interpreting service provision, and maintaining the sustainability of the interpreting profession.

Research into remote interpreting has analysed the quality of the interpreter’s performance and a range of psychological and physiological factors associated with this method of delivery, the dynamics of participant interaction, and the strategies that interpreters develop. In addition, remote interpreting methods have been investigated in terms of efficiency gains compared to on-site interpreting. The knowledge that has been accumulated by research to date has been instrumental in advancing our understanding of the complexities of remote interpreting.

However, there are also some striking discrepancies in the research results, which require careful analysis. Studies investigating remote interpreting in supranational institutions, for example, have found differences between on-site and remote interpreting in relation to a number of psychological and physiological variables, but few differences in the quality of the interpreters’ performance; whilst our studies into European AVIDICUS projects, which relate to remote interpreting in legal settings, have found precisely such differences. Studies in healthcare settings claim that remote interpreting produces appropriate levels of quality, although they have investigated quality only indirectly by canvassing participants’ opinions. The AVIDICUS research, however, shows discrepancies between participants’ subjective perceptions and objective assessments of interpreting quality.

If research is expected to provide a reliable basis for informing policies and improving the practice of remote interpreting, these findings need to be assessed in terms of the settings to which they pertain, the modes of interpreting used and the background and training of those involved, amongst others. It is equally important to evaluate current findings in relation to the research methods that were used to generate them.

Given the complexity of remote interpreting, it is crucial that future research uses interdisciplinary and mixed-methods approaches, and that it involves the participation of all stakeholders to identify not only the key challenges of remote interpreting in terms of interpreting quality but also, for example, the ways in which remote interpreting changes the interaction between the participants, the potential consequences that such changes are likely to have (e.g. legal and medical) and how these can be mitigated. At the same time we need further insights into the techniques and strategies that participants develop to overcome problems, as much as we need a better understanding of the extent to which adaptation to remote interpreting is possible and the factors that contribute to or prevent adaptation. Ultimately, a combination of methods and approaches is needed to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate uses of remote interpreting and to identify the key elements for designing systems that are fit for the purposes of bilingual or multilingual videoconferencing.

Mixed-method approaches to research also help us fine-tune the ways in which we train and educate future interpreters and their clients in how to use communication technologies effectively. Our qualitative research, for instance, which involves observations of authentic settings, role-play simulations of professional practice and reflective discussions with users, has generated a wealth of data that we have analysed for research purposes and used as a basis for developing training. In the European IVY and EVIVA projects, for example, we have developed and evaluated different virtual learning environments, including videoconferencing environments and a 3D virtual world, along with a range of role-play simulations based on real-life settings to explore how virtual environments can meet the educational and professional needs of interpreter students and clients. The participants’ reactions show that plausible virtual locations like a 3D virtual medical consultation room, or simulations of interpreter-mediated court-prison video links, can go a long way to sensitise the participants to such work environments and to acquire the type of digital literacy that is needed in the interpreting market of the future.

You can hear more from Sabine Braun at InDialog 2015, in a session titled: ‘Combining Quantitative and Qualitative Methods to Research Videoconference-Based Remote Interpreting’, taking place on Friday, November 20.


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