Academic journal article Translation & Interpreting

Telephone Interpreting: Understanding Practice and Identifying Research Needs

Academic journal article Translation & Interpreting

Telephone Interpreting: Understanding Practice and Identifying Research Needs

Article excerpt

1. Setting the scene--Slow growth; one TIS in each country

From the first Telephone Interpreting Service (TIS) established in 1973 by the Immigration Department in Australia, TI spread slowly, with predominantly one major service in each country--in Europe (e.g. the Netherlands, Sweden) this tended to be a public sector organisation, in the UK it was a charity-led social enterprise, while in the USA the community-initiated Language Line, begun in 1981, became a private corporation (Kelly 2008, p. 5ff).

An accompanying feature over the 1980s to 1990s was the increased use of TI by some institutions (e.g. hospitals) who utilised TI with their in-house staff, thus avoiding lengthy walking from clinic to clinic or ward to ward, or contracting outside agencies (Angelelli 2004).

Telephone interpreting at that time reflected the state of telephony: services tended to operate out of central call centres attended by the interpreters, at least in the major languages; lesser demand languages were sourced from off-site interpreters. Phone call costs were high in countries which had timed local calls, and long distance calls were expensive, placing an emphasis on sourcing local interpreters. This resulted in relatively slow growth and innovation in TI, until telephony itself started to radically change as a field from the mid-1990s, seeing a corresponding growth in TI.

1.1 The telephony revolution

The recent significant increase of TI needs to be seen in the context of the even more dramatic rise of telephony as a major contributor to economic growth and its transformation from a necessary but highly regulated and monopolised aspect of national infrastructure, to a market characterised by diversity, massive global interpenetration and radical innovation.

Two features here are critical. First, the rise of mobile telephony (and now internet-based voice and image carrying capacity) has transformed telephone usage and market organisation. This is the aspect of telephony change perhaps most noticeable to the general public. Where it may have made sense once to see fixed line telephone provision, with its massive infrastructure costs, as a natural monopoly heavily controlled by governments around the world, the advent of mobile telephony, internet telephony and other innovations have led to deregulated markets. Yet interestingly, while the advent of mobile telephony has had some impact on TI, this has been less than the impact of the changing economics of fixed-line telephony.

By far the most important innovation that has supported TI has been the second major change in recent decades--the steep fall in the price of telephony, particularly fixed-line telephony. This has come about partly from the rise of mobile telephony, partly from greater competition in provision and deregulation, and partly from greater capacity of new technologies (fibre optics, broadband provision, etc) to carry simple fixed line telephone connections at far lower rates among all other channels carried. As Herbert Ungerer, of the Directorate-General of Competition of the European Commission has argued, this combination of factors

has effectively taken distance out of the telephony pricing structure, with a dramatic fall of voice telephony long distance and international rates--with Voice over the Internet now at the end of this process. (Ungerer, 2005, p.5)

This feature has liberated telephone interpreting from being an essentially local and very expensive exercise to one able to source both clients and interpreters beyond the confines of local telephone networks; sourcing has become at least national and in many cases international.

1.2 Large and small TI services

A direct effect of this technological and economic shift has been the development of TI services in two distinct directions. First, we have seen the growth of extremely large operators--of which Language Line in the USA is only the largest. …

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