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Telephone interpreting connects human interpreters via telephone to individuals who wish to speak to each other but do not share a common language. The telephone interpreter converts the spoken language from one language to another, enabling listeners and speakers to understand each other. Interpretation over the telephone most often takes place in consecutive mode, which means that the interpreter waits until the speaker finishes an utterance before rendering the interpretation into the other language.
Telephone interpreting is one modality or delivery mechanism for providing interpreting services. Other forms of delivering interpreting services include in-person interpreting and video interpreting for the deaf and hard of hearing.
There are many types of organizations that provide telephone interpreting services, including for-profit companies, governmental organizations, non-profit groups, and internal divisions within organizations. For example, the government of Australia operates a telephone interpreting service, as do the governments of South Africa and New Zealand.
In the United States, telephone interpreting is widely used by its federal courts. Numerous commercial providers are also available and commonly used. Many of the commercial telephone interpreting providers connect users with interpreters for more than 150 languages. Some providers claim to have the ability to connect an interpreter at any time of day, within a matter of seconds. Some hospitals and health care systems also provide telephone interpreting services.
Major providers of telephone interpretation in the United States include Language Line Services, Lionbridge, CyraCom International, Pacific Interpreters. In 2009, CyraCom was the second largest supplier of telephone interpretation in the world behind Language Line Services ranked #1, while Pacific Interpreters was the fifth largest.
In 2013, Language Line Services acquired Pacific Interpreters.
Language Line Inc. is an American commercial interpreting provider that in 2006 acquired a UK company Language Line Limited: British social activist Michael Young noticed that language barriers were leading to substandard services for ethnic minorities at Royal London Hospital, so he obtained grant funding to provide free telephone interpreters starting in 1990. Police on the Isle of Dogs became his second client, and he later began serving corporate clients and converted the charity into a commercial service.
There is now a prevalence of companies that offer this service, many on a more global basis which is a natural benefit of "virtualising" interpretation. Similarly to translation, the diversity of organisations cover generic interpretation, as well as domain-specific services such as legal, medical, pharmaceutical and other technical.
Users typically access telephone interpreting services with a telephone or computer with VoIP. However, if the two parties wishing to communicate are in the same location, using a dual handset phone, a phone with two receivers, can relieve the two parties from passing a phone back and forth. Speakerphones are also sometimes used, but these can create challenges both in terms of confidentiality, and for the interpreter, especially due to background noise, which can hinder the interpreter's ability to hear.
Where one party is deaf, hard-of-hearing or speech-impaired, communication via an off-site sign language interpreter can be performed using a video link using the necessary video telecommunication equipment.
The provisioning of telephone interpreting generally fits into two main categories:
Additionally, some of the companies that have the required capability will offer a hybrid of the two principles, where for example a customer can:
Telephone interpreting is widely used in a number of settings, including health care, government, financial, emergency telephone call centres (e.g. '9-1-1' or '1-1-2'), and others. Telephone interpreting is especially helpful for settings in which the two parties would communicate via telephone anyway, such as interactions between call centers and consumers, calls between members of the public and emergency telephone call centres, etc. Telephone interpreting can be used to take applications over the phone and help individuals with account issues.
Telephone interpretation via Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) or a Video Relay Service (VRS) are also useful where one of the parties is deaf, hard-of-hearing or speech-impaired. In such cases the interpretation flow is normally within the same principal language, such as French Sign Language (FSL) to spoken French, Spanish Sign Language (SSL) to spoken Spanish, British Sign Language (BSL) to spoken English, and American Sign Language (ASL) also to spoken English (since BSL and ASL are completely distinct), etc. Multilingual sign language interpreters, who can also translate as well across principal languages (such as to and from SSL, to and from spoken English), are also available, albeit less frequently. Such activities involve considerable effort on the part of the translator, since sign languages are distinct natural languages with their own construction and syntax, which are different from the aural version of the same principal language.
In 2007, the global telephone interpreting market was worth $700 million, with an estimated $500 million generated in the United States. Industry analyst firm Common Sense Advisory estimates that in 2012, the market will be worth $1.2 billion, an increase of 70% from 2007. The market for telephone interpreting is global in scope and includes companies from the United States, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, India, China, Norway, Spain, and Hong Kong.