Video and Phone Interpreter Options

SWITS video interpreting

Language interpretation is essential, however, the COVID-19 crisis means that providing this service in person now carries a significant risk.

For decades, the use of video remote interpreting (VRI) has been debated. It is often considered the second best option when providing language access to Limited English Proficient (LEP) persons for medical and community settings. Some in the LEP community (mainly those who are deaf and hard of hearing) feel that VRI is not a good alternative to on-site interpreting, mainly due to screen limitations: the limited view of the screen, the quality of the connection, etc. The spoken language LEP community, however, may feel that using video has advantages over telephone.

There are significant differences between signed and spoken languages that we all must keep in mind. Although American Sign Language is a visual language, VRI gave an extra edge to spoken language interpreters that previously worked remotely via telephone. We could now see the visual cues and expressions. This extra context helps us to understand the meaning and to render a more accurate interpretation. There are also disadvantages to remote interpreting. All interpreter training programs advise that interpreters should prepare as much as they can when taking an assignment, to minimize errors and allow a more smooth interpreting service. With the expectation of connecting an interpreter in a matter of minutes, many times we skip that fundamental step.

Easy, safe access to interpreters is now more important than ever. Since these services will be delivered over phone or video for the unforeseeable time being, let’s review your options and how to get the most out of what is currently the best option.

Choose the Right Method

Video and telephone interpreting each have their own benefits.

When to Use VRI:
VRI uses videophones, video conferencing, or web-based video applications to access interpretation services for spoken and sign languages. Use video when possible, because it allows the interpreter to see and understand visual cues during the conversation.

VRI can occur through a number of available platforms at low or no cost, such as Zoom, Skype, or Duo. This fact has changed significantly in the last few days. In the past there were specific (and expensive) platforms that were dictated by the language provider, but now customers are dictating the best platform to suit their needs. The pandemic has sped up an inevitable process that would increase the use of remote interpreting. We’ll discuss how remote methods are affecting interpreters as a whole in a future blog. For now, I suggest the following:

Use video when the equipment situation is right:

  • Portable equipment is readily available, or…
  • A video-equipped meeting room is ready
  •  There’s time to ensure the equipment is all working properly

In many cases, video interpretation will be done by appointment, making it the better choice when you have a meeting at a known time and place, such as a court hearing or clinical appointment.

When to Use Telephone Interpretation:

The best thing about phone interpretation is that a phone is always nearby, either in your pocket, on an office desk, or in a room that has speakers, as is often the case with courtrooms. This makes it the superior choice when video equipment is unavailable or in use, and the number of phone meetings that can go on at a given site is essentially unlimited.

Use the phone when you have concerns about internet reliability or available bandwidth.

Use the phone when you need to put a meeting together quickly; phone interpreters are available on-demand, 24/7/365.

In Both Cases
Be sure to select a service that provides interpretation without monthly minimum charges. At a time when the number of interpretations you need may vary widely but will probably be less than pre-COVID, this will be the most economical option.

Best Practices

When dealing with an interpreter over phone or video, follow these procedures to ensure an effective and smooth conversation:

  • If the meeting was set up on short notice, briefly provide the interpreter with the context they need to understand the situation.
  • Allow the interpreter time to introduce him or herself to the Limited English Proficient (LEP) person they are interpreting for, and to provide any ID numbers and other identification you will need for your records.
  • When you speak to the LEP the interpreter is working with, be sure to speak to them directly and maintain eye contact. Speak to them just as you would if you needed no interpreter.
  • Avoid, when possible, the use of jargon, slang, idiom, metaphors, and acronyms, as they may be difficult to translate. Keep your speech as literal and simple as possible for easy understanding.
  • Speak in short, complete sentences, and pause between them to allow the interpreter time to relate what you’ve said.
  • When clarifying spelling use the NATO phonetic alphabet “A as in alpha, B as in bravo, C as in Charlie,” etc., since the subtleties of the letters may not sound clear over the phone.

Get to Know Your Interpreter

While phone and video are versatile and powerful, the rapport of in-person interpretation is the best option. One smart practice is to choose a language services provider like SWITS that provides onsite interpreters, and use this time to build a solid working relationship with interpreters from your local area. Then, when the current crisis passes, you’ll work together even more smoothly in person.