Remote interpreting at a Federal Ministry

Remote interpreting at a Federal Ministry

My last blog post was published quite a while ago, the reason being that there was lots of extra work to be done for my employer, a German Federal Ministry in Berlin. As Germany currently holds the Chair of the EU Council Presidency, there are plenty of international meetings and conferences taking place – and naturally, they are all affected by the global pandemic with its travel restrictions and social distancing rules. In what way has the COVID-19 situation affected the work of government-employed interpreters, and how have we adapted our working conditions to the need of the Ministry?

Source: Annika Belisle
Source: German Federal Ministry of Transport
Soure: Annika Belisle
Source: Annika Belisle

Working in the new normal

Much like everyone else, the language department was hit largely unprepared when asked to offer remote interpreting services. Therefore, in one of the first settings that I was asked to interpret, we did not have a remote interpreting platform available that would meet the Ministry’s high security requirements. For this reason, a colleague and me ended up having to interpret in a very unfamiliar setting: we used a screen to see the video conference participants and two telephones to 1) hear the participants speak and 2) simultaneously interpret into the other language. This involved a lot more „channel“ switching, aka muting and unmuting (the telephones) as usual. In addition to the fact that for the first time, we interpreted from two separate booths, you can probably image how stressful this meeting was for us. 

We knew that a more professional solution needed to be found as soon as possible, and after many consultations and technical tests, a remote interpreting platform and technical set-up that lived up to the Ministry’s safety requirements was found (kindly understand that the platform will not be named here).

Source: Annika Belisle

What's new?

Source: Instagram Wolfgang Ainetter

Since we offer a lot of consecutive interpreting at the Ministry, I was familiar with certain remote interpreting set-ups. For instance, we had often interpreted phone or video calls for our „clients“ at the Ministry. In these cases, we would sit next to the client and interpret other remote participants‘ statements for them, as well as our client’s statement into the phone or microphone for the others to hear. Hence, we were familiar with semi-remote set-ups. The new element now was that we were no longer allowed to be in the same room with our clients, and for the first time, we were also asked to offer simultaneous interpretation for  remote settings.

Tried and tested

What we did is we established a hub at the Ministry that offered individual booths for each interpreter (will I ever be able to share a booth again, after having had the joy of having so much space to myself?!). There were initial difficulties, for instance when the booths were constructed in a way that every interpreter sat facing the wall instead of facing the other booths to see their colleagues, yet eventually, the technical set-up was fine from our side. Every interpreter had their own proper equipment and screen in the booth to see the speakers. Now, the only problem that remained to be solved was the technical set-up of the remote participants. I admit that the technical solution and platform we had chosen was not the easiest one, yet we did not expect that we would be confronted with so many difficulties along the way.

Before every major conference, we blocked several days for technical tests with the participants, during which we checked their set-up, established all necessary connections, explained the necessity to mute oneself, gave explanations on the chat and the raise-hand-function and analysed their sound quality. As you can image, countless participants did not feel the need to use a proper headset, an external microphone, a well lit room, and so one. This only underlined the need for all the testing that we did prior to a conference – and gave me the chance to record this video during one the tests.

And then, it all fails...

If there is more than one person involved, things can potentially go wrong. And if there is more than one institution involved, the chances are even higher. During a conference that, from a technological perspective, was hosted by the EU, the EU’s interpretation service was not properly connected to the video call. I attended the meeting to provide emergency consecutive services, if needed, but of course, during a conference where all EU languages may be spoken, I was of no help, either. Due to these technical problems, the conference had to be postponed.


Source: Federal Ministry of Transport

In other cases, it was not the system that caused problems, but the technical set-ups of the participants. Despite days spent on technical tests, during several conferences, a speaker’s statement had to be postponed because of technical difficulties. Others did not manage to turn on their camera and spoke without giving the others (including the interpreters) a proper view of the speaker. The sound quality caused trouble as well, with and without headsets and external microphones. Then again, some speakers forget the time and continue their speech without hearing the host interrupting them. In some cases, these speakers were muted by the technicians to continue the conference. And these are only some of the difficulties that we have encountered.

In this video (skip to around 2:06:00h, if it did not happen automatically), for example, a speaker with questionable sound quality and a tricky accent does not hear the host who is trying to interrupt him, as he has passed the end of his speaking time. The sound is then interrupted, the host tries to understand what happened, the speaker did not notice there was an interruption and continues to speak until the end of his statement. Imagine the stress the interpreters felt, particularly when providing relay, knowing they have to provide a relay for their team, but also interpret the words of the host to make the speaker understand that he needs to stop speaking…

Other issues include that we have to work alone in the booth. And although I already mentioned that I have become quite a fan of the extra space you gain when working alone in the booth, the communication with your booth partner simply is not the same, no matter how many tricks you use to hear each other and to help each other. Another issue is that channels get easily blocked if your team mates do not switch channels quickly enough. Since there is only this one source of sound for them, they can either hear your relay or the original, never both.

So in the end, just like everyone else, be it on the other side of the camera, the laptop or the microphone, be it in public administration or the free market, we had to adapt to the situation and have been doing our best to deliver proper interpretation services despite the difficulties. And yet, I surely am not the only one who is ready for this pandemic to be over – and move out of the hub into normal interpreting booths again. Having said that, let’s end this blog post on a lighter note – and what could be better than some fresh memes?

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