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On-Demand Interpretation? There's an App for That
Posted by Nataly Kelly on December 14, 2009  in the following blogs: Interpreting, Technology, Business Globalization, Best Practices
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In September 2009, we wrote, "...we anxiously await the arrival of a Blackberry, iPhone, or Palm application that will be marketed to the masses, to enable the average consumer to dial an interpreter from anywhere in the world. Putting this power into the hands of millions could radically and drastically boost awareness of the availability of telephone interpreting (TI) services, and create revenue streams from previously untapped sources" (see "TI Supply-Side Outlook"). The wait is over.

Language Line has developed an iPhone application to give consumers on-demand access to interpretation technology. Of course, Language Line is not the first company to grant our wish for a telephone interpreting integration with mobile devices. Codetalker Technologies has an application for Blackberry users, as we reported back in June 2008 (see "Telephone Interpretation: the Supply Side"). However, Mobile Interpreter does more than just connect consumers to an interpreter -- it also provides translations to over 300 common phrases in 10 languages and allows users to "hear" an audio version of the phrase pronounced by a native speaker.

Last week, we got our hands on a pre-release copy of the app and tested it among members of Common Sense Advisory's multilingual staff. The pre-interpreted audio recordings of common phrases (what we call "interpretation memory") in the languages we tested were clear and simple to use -- and according to our in-house Italian, Russian, and Spanish speakers, easy to understand.

Hindi was the language that confused us a bit -- some of the phrases were recorded at louder volumes than others, and some were not actually in Hindi, but rather, in English. For example, when the user chooses "good morning," instead of "suprabhaat," the application plays "good morning" in English with an Indian accent.

However, the real value of the app is the near-instant access to an interpreter. When it came time to dial an interpreter for Russian, the connection speed was impressive -- just a few seconds. Oddly, when we tried for Spanish, a more commonly requested language, we waited on hold for nearly four minutes before we hung up and dialed back. On our second try, we were connected to a Spanish interpreter in less than 10 seconds. It may be that the discrepancy between connection speeds was related to the fact that we were using a pre-release test account.

As for the interpreters, they all did an admirable job of interpreting our somewhat non-standard (forced) test conversations with our colleagues, which ranged from a Russian speaker who needed directions to the nearest pharmacy and a Guatemalan foreign exchange student at a computer lab trying to find a lost file.

Where should developers go from here? Aside from working out the bugs that inevitably accompany any new technology and making it easier to use, we recommend that Language Line -- and its competitors -- focus their future releases with features that target not only the consumers, but users in more traditional TI market segments:
  • Emergency personnel. Give law enforcement officers, paramedics, and others the ability to access commonly-used interpretation memory segments at the touch of a button. These individuals are already mobile professionals, and need such multilingual support before they dial the interpreter, or even while they are waiting for one to be connected.
  • Visiting nurses. Countless nurses make "house calls" to patients who do not speak their languages. Give them some of the standard phrases in pre-recorded form while they are carrying out standard tasks for which a telephone interpreter is not usually present, such as, "I would like to take your temperature now," and "Please stand up."
  • Insurance adjusters. When an adjuster travels to carry out an inspection of damages to an automobile or a home, there are many phrases that could make their lives easier, even ones as simple as, "I am here to inspect the damages to your home" in order to get access to do a visual inspection prior to calling an interpreter.
  • Government workers. Countless federal, state, and city workers could benefit from customized apps. Disaster relief workers, including representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), could benefit tremendously from a few pre-interpreted phrases. And, how about a customized application to help with the next U.S. Census?
These are just a few of the possibilities for where this type of technology could lead, but there are countless opportunities for Language Line and its peers to find new ways to bring language services to customers. Eventually, we envision customized telephone interpreting apps for travelers, businesspeople -- and yes, even for international dating services, for which these services are already widely used. And of course, there are the possibilities for bringing in speech technology elements, such as the Sakhr Software Language Buddy app.

Another item that pleases us regarding this announcement is that an interpreting company is using branding that departs from the tired old "over-the-phone interpretation" that has been around since the 1980s. Using verbiage that better resonates with current technology and realities, such as "mobile interpreter," "virtual interpreter," and "remote interpreter," more clearly conveys the value proposition.

Language Line's new iPhone application is one of the most important innovations in the field of telephone interpreting in recent years -- at least since the invention of the dual handset phone. Bringing on-demand interpretation to the hands of more consumers is an important step toward expanding language access, seeing as how the demand for these services is not going away anytime soon. The possibilities for building upon this concept further are limited only by the creativity of development teams.


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