What Over-the-Phone Interpreters Need to Know about Interpreting over Video Platforms

A coffee cup sitting next to a laptop with a Zoom meeting in progress. The computer screen displays several people in the video call.
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A telephone interpreter tasked with interpreting for a video meeting?

Sounds like an oxymoron.

While it seems counterintuitive — an audio interpreter conferenced into a video call — over-the-phone interpreters are seeing these types of encounters more and more.

If you haven’t been involved in one of these calls yet, chances are, you will be soon. Though spurred by the pandemic, phone interpreters added into video calls will likely continue as remote work, telehealth, and virtual events become commonplace.

We wanted to help you navigate these situations, so we outlined some useful tips below. Understanding these dynamics will help you maneuver these challenging situations with ease.

First, lay down some ground rules

The most challenging aspect of these calls is managing conversation turn-taking. Phone interpreters working in video meetings or appointments cannot see the conversation like the other participants can, so it’s hard to tell when speakers are done speaking.

When video meetings take place, an English-speaking individual usually moderates the call, but this person may not be very experienced using interpreters.

When there are multiple parties on the call, it’s always a great idea to lay down some ground rules for orderly communication. Addressing this before issues begin will set you up for success.

What to say: This is the interpreter; I noticed there are multiple participants in this conference. May I request that all parties allow the interpreter a moment to interpret everybody’s message before responding?”

If audio issues are present, or someone has loud background noise, suggest that all parties mute themselves when they are not speaking.

Related: 4 Helpful Tips on How to Rock Remote Interpreting

Clarify when interpretation is needed

It is often the case that side conversations will come up when there are multiple parties in a video call.

When this happens, it’s always a good idea to interject to confirm what the client’s expectation are. Is the interpreter expected to interpreter the side conversation between English speakers to the limited English proficient (LEP) individual? Getting clarification will help you ensure that everything is interpreted as needed by the client.

What to say:This is the interpreter; I noticed there is a side conversation going on in English/Spanish.  Do you need me to interpret it for all parties to hear?”

If the response is “yes,” you may want to clarify what was spoken and remind parties to give you enough time to interpret after each statement.

Keep calm

It’s important to stay calm and focused in these calls. Having the skill to remain calm and polite when communication challenges come up is a strong indicator that you have mastered your craft and can control the chaos.

What NOT to do

Avoid loud sighs or scoffing. Don’t use a “scolding” tone or blame others in the call for not following turn-taking directions. Remember that it’s not always intuitive to use the services of a telephone interpreter.

Most people forget that they have to pause after each statement to allow the interpreter to communicate to the LEP individual. Luckily, they have an expert (YOU) who is there to help guide them through the process.

Do you encounter challenging calls in your day to day? If so, what is your strategy?

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