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Technology and interpreting: New opportunities raise new questions


The integration of new technologies in interpreter training and practice is helping the industry meet increasing demands more swiftly and reliably. More opportunities are emerging to train humanitarian interpreters in the field, and access to technology to support communication for those living in fragile contexts is leading to improved livelihoods.

However, Barbara Moser-Mercer, Professor of Conference Interpreting and Founder and Director of the University of Geneva Center for Interpreting in Conflict Zones (InZone), points out that research into the cognitive impact of these new work contexts is not keeping up with the pace of technological change.

In the lead up to her keynote address on the 'ABCs of technology' at InDialog in November 2015, we interviewed Moser-Mercer to hear about some of the innovative pedagogical approaches being developed for interpreter training, how new technologies are being utilised and the importance of research to understand how learners acquire interpreting skills in technologically rich environments.

How has the integration of new technologies in interpreter training shaped the industry - what's possible now that wasn't before?

The concept of anytime-anywhere learning supports the acquisition of complex cognitive skills, such as interpreting. Connectivity is ubiquitous and the practice required for skill acquisition and improvement can now more easily be incorporated into today's mobile lifestyles.

When learning materials become portable, the settings and contexts in which skills are reinforced can change, thus allowing trainees to become eminently adaptable as they acquire skills not merely in one set context, or with one type of equipment. This has already benefited the industry, as interpreters who are capable and competent to work in a variety of settings, and with a variety of devices, are being solicited to meet increasing demand. This has of course the potential to ensure that legal requirements for interpreting services can be met more swiftly and reliably.

The potential downside is that little if any empirical evidence is as yet available that will allow us to assess the measure the short- and long-term cognitive impact these new work contexts have on the interpreting brain. While our brains are eminently adaptable, i.e. demonstrate considerable plasticity, the manipulation of different devices, the processing of a variety of visual and auditory inputs, the often less-than-perfect sound and image quality, all require the brain to compensate and adapt in order to maintain a high level of quality. I believe that the profession needs to invest in creating the empirical evidence that will shed light on these short- and long-term consequences.

What digital tools have you been experimenting with at the Virtual Institute?

The Virtual Institute is a collaborative learning platform that promotes self-regulated learning. The interface allows trainees to have their interpreting performances critiqued by teachers, tutors and peers through uploading their performance files via a web-based dual-track recording functionality.

Other digital tools that students are integrating into their learning are tablets for preparing, storing and accessing course-topic-related information while experimenting with access to such information while "on-task" (while interpreting). Even for those most adept at using tablets, information access via tablets during the early stages of skill acquisition in interpreting is cognitively too demanding and we do not recommend it. As their skills evolve, cognitive resources are freed up and can be redeployed to accessing information on screen. Our booths are all equipped with computers and screens, speakers are either presenting live or on screen, tablets thus represent additional visual input that is not synchronised with the main input. This type of multi-tasking requires considerable practice and increasingly interpreter trainers need to incorporate the acquisition of appropriate strategies into their course syllabus. Currently, the evidence-base for how to optimise work with multiple inputs is scant at best, and anecdotal evidence is usually the only source of information. Trainers thus need to invest in appropriate research projects to better understand how learners acquire interpreting skills in technologically rich environments.

What new pedagogical approaches are proving to be most effective for simultaneous interpreting training?

The expertise paradigm has certainly shaped the way trainees acquire interpreting skills at the University of Geneva. The cornerstone of this approach is an understanding of trainees' strengths and weaknesses, the development of clearly defined learning pathways and progression, a deliberate practice – i.e. a focus on enhancing a trainee's strengths and working to minimise the impact of a trainee's weaknesses, combined with regular feedback from teachers, tutors and peers. Feedback from different sources (teachers, tutors, peers) becomes the main pedagogical tool for ensuring that progress is made and higher levels of performance are reached and solidified.

How are new technologies improving interpreters' working conditions?

It is difficult to ascertain whether new technologies improve interpreters' working conditions; they certainly have had an impact on them. As we have embraced new technologies in our daily lives, in the hopes of automating chores, externalising our memory, remaining socially connected and becoming more productive, not everything that shines is actually gold. We are at the mercy of technology updates that require us to relearn how we use devices at ever shorter intervals. We need to stay connected – even in the booth – if we want to have a visual support for the presentation the speaker is about to present. We certainly won't be hired unless we were able to download an entire conference worth of presentations, nor would the world's largest employers of interpreters offer contracts to those who aren't reachable – even when they happen to be sun bathing on some distant beach while on vacation.

Much depends on how we define working conditions and which generation of interpreters we speak to. Quite a number of interpreters feel overwhelmed and prefer to rely on strategies they acquired a long time ago and leveraging only basic technologies for pre-conference preparation. Others, again, export the strategies they have acquired using technologies for a large number of daily tasks onto interpreting and maintain that these technologies have truly improved the way they work. Cognitive overload is a serious issue if not properly understood and managed; if it were to become too present in the interpreter's professional life, there is real potential for negative impact on working conditions. Just like traders on the stock exchange used to juggle multiple phones to do their job, interpreters are by definition able to juggle multiple tasks. But research into the long-term impact of this type of multi-tasking is needed in order to obtain the necessary evidence base to pass judgment on whether a technologically rich work environment translates into improved working conditions.

What kind of new research questions are being raised for interpreter teaching and learning in the digital age?

I think I have alluded to quite a few in answering the previous questions. Learning needs to support professional practice; our learning environments thus need to incorporate digitally rich contexts when that is appropriate in the learner's progression towards professional competence. Research projects tend to have a long lead-time and it can take several years from the moment of inception of the research project to the publication in a reputable scientific journal. These lead times are too long for the research results to have much impact on optimising work environments for interpreters. Instead, technology often appears to be leading the way, and adoption of new technologies far outpaces the production of scientific evidence. In spite of the fact that the language industry has been consolidated and has become a major economic player, research investment does not appear to be on the radar screen. Interpreting departments at universities do not usually have the critical mass to generate research interest into questions that are pertinent for the language industry, and thus are not usually capable of producing research results fast enough to have an impact on how the practice of interpreting and working conditions should evolve. This also means that training approaches are often not sufficiently responsive to changes in the workplace. This begs the question as to how practitioners and training institutions could best cooperate.

What doors do you see new technologies opening up for the industry in the future?

I don't have a crystal ball, but if the last 10 years are to predict what lies ahead, I think we will see how interpreting service provision continues to become increasingly ubiquitous, providing more and more reliable access to the law, to healthcare, to social services for millions of people who are not fully conversant with the language(s) of the country they have arrived in or live in.

The migration streams we have been witnessing this year are probably just the tip of the iceberg. Migrants also prefer to move on to countries whose languages are more easily acquired; until that happens, however, they are in real need of cultural and linguistic mediation and communication options such as texting and the use of other accessible social media will need to be leveraged fully in different languages in order to ensure that information is transmitted and understood.

Increasingly, those living in fragile contexts have access to new technologies in order to improve their livelihoods. The work of InZone and that of Translators without Borders are cases in point where new livelihoods can be created in the most dire of circumstances in an effort to support communication for all.

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