Working Smarter

An Easy, Inexpensive Solution for Simultaneous Translation

How the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences is providing low-cost, real-time translation.

As associations continue to grow their international membership, simultaneous translation at events is moving from a nice-to-have to a must-have feature — even as translation can be expensive and a logistical headache. But Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences Manager of Congress Terry D’Angelo has found a simple, low-cost solution.

Because her organization is headquartered in Ottawa, in bilingual Canada, simultaneous English-to-French and French-to-English translations of the Federation’s Big Thinking lecture series — eight talks given by high-profile speakers at the 8,000-attendee-plus, seven-day Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences — are required. And the unique character of the event makes a seamless translation process essential. Now in its 84th year, this “convergence of over 70 scholarly associations, each holding their annual conference under one umbrella,” D’Angelo said, “is the largest multidisciplinary academic gathering in Canada — indeed, one of the largest in the world. Congress brings together academics, researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners to share findings, refine ideas, and build partnerships that will help shape the Canada of tomorrow.”

It is like a massive conference call.

Traditionally, the Congress has had interpreters working in a booth on site, and distributed headsets to attendees so they could listen to speakers in their language of choice. D’Angelo balked at the high cost of this setup, especially because the number of attendees who made use of it varied widely from year to year.

For this year’s meeting, held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, on May 24–30, she decided to try something new: having attendees use their smartphones to listen to lectures being translated in real time. Off-site translators had a direct feed from the podium microphone, and attendees who dialed in muted their phones to minimize ambient noise on the conference line and used earbuds to listen in. “It is like a massive conference call,” D’Angelo said. “The translator is the ‘host’ of the call, and the attendees are the participants.” Phone-based translation also cut down on expensive AV extras such as headsets and a wired, on-site booth for interpreters. The only special equipment D’Angelo needed on site was a signal converter, which her AV contractor was able to provide.

“Our Big Thinking lectures are typically not presented in highly technical language, and do not require interpreters with specific subject-matter expertise,” she said. Still, D’Angelo and her team did their best to connect with translators well before the conference to explain the process and to describe each presentation and topic.

D’Angelo road-tested the new translation system at two lectures that took place in Ottawa several months ahead of the annual Congress. There were some hitches on the first go-round — one interpreter thought that no one was listening and hung up, while another repeatedly asked if anyone was on the line, which meant listeners missed some of what was being said onstage. To avoid these problems, D’Angelo communicated the technical details of the simultaneous-translation process with her Congress interpreters well in advance of the event.

Kate Mulcrone

Kate Mulcrone is digital editor of Convene.