Recorded conference interpretations: translation or interpretation?

by Marion Fletcher and Andy Carmichael


Traditionally, interpretation and translation have been distinguished using binary concepts of:

  • Ephemerality vs permanence,
  • Spontaneous vs the possibility of editing and quality control,
  • Immediacy of service provision vs time to develop ownership/authorship.

Each of these binaries has been challenged by the Covid-19 pandemic and the boundaries between interpreting and translation further blurred. The previously enshrined concept of giving consent prior to being recorded is now assumed, as many meetings on Zoom and other online platforms are routinely recorded with no consideration of consent from the interpreters.

For example:

Sign language interpreter X is booked to provide a simultaneous interpretation of a conference presentation. She receives prep materials and has accepted to work on Zoom. Feeling well prepared, she enters the Zoom room ready to interpret and while she is poised to start, the ‘now recording’ notification appears. Not an issue for her as most Zoom meetings are currently recorded. The presentation finishes, she logs out, has a brief What’s App call with her co-worker and they are generally satisfied with a day’s work well done.

In terms of the traditional binaries, this rendition is a hybrid product. The ephemerality of the interpretation has been replaced with a permanent recording, so it starts to look like a translation. However, it was spontaneous, and the interpreter cannot edit the video, so now it is more of an interpretation. An immediate service was provided but without the quality controls normally required of translations – again this seems like interpreting. The interpreter has no control over the end-product, and to exemplify that, we can extend our case study.

In this hypothetical case study, it is possible that the recording of her interpretation was recycled and used to educate interpreting students. Also possible is that the original speaker presented at a large international conference and submitted the video rather than presenting live, avoiding the need to re-book interpreters for the talk and that additionally, the video was widely spread on Facebook as a funny example of the meme about sign language interpreters being particularly animated.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have had to re-evaluate many aspects of interpreting practice, particularly the effects of working almost exclusively online. This change has had a profound impact on the working practices, approaches, strategies and deployment of sign language interpreters and interpreting services nationwide across the UK.


By the nature of the work we do, most signed language interpreters (SLIs) are used to being visible, whether we are standing on the stage in front of an audience at a performance or conference, interpreting the news on television or standing up in a meeting when everyone else is seated; being seen is integral to our work.

When we interpret on new online platforms, from spoken to signed language and sometimes from signed to spoken language too, the interpreter is fully visible. This is unlike recordings of interpreted live events, where the interpreter is often in the distance, standing on a platform beside the presenter. These new recordings can be re-purposed any number of times for any number of reasons, sometimes without informed consent. Furthermore, the way the recordings are framed and reused often blurs the line between a historical recording of a live, simultaneous interpretation and a translation with all the expectations that label entails. We propose that such re-purposed renditions be labelled as asynchronous interpretations, rather than recorded simultaneous interpretations.

What the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced is a different type of visibility that sign language interpreters have not had to consider before. A recording of their simultaneous interpretation being available, forever in some cases, open to anyone who has access to the internet.

Most of us know that this is not entirely new and, even before the global pandemic, has been a growing phenomenon in our work as interpreters. SLIs have been recorded when interpreting on platforms at conferences many times. These recordings can sometimes then be found on public websites, YouTube and other social media, as do the interpretations of in-vision interpreters, working on television. So, what is the issue?

There are several facets to consider when working in the post-Covid paradigm.  

Before the pandemic, interpreters could reasonably expect to be asked for consent before being recorded. Equally, we could expect that, even given consent, most recorded content would be less public that it is now, given that many of us ‘live and work online’ under Covid restrictions.

Primarily, we want to consider whether there is now a dilemma facing sign language interpreters, this being the lack of a clear understanding of what now constitutes a translation and what constitutes an interpretation. What differentiates them and how?

This is not a new issue in the field of Interpreting and Translation (Wurm, 2018), particularly the field of signed language interpreting and translation. However, we believe the pandemic and subsequent changes to our working practice have brought the issue back into focus and are forcing us to revisit the boundaries between the two in a fresh light.

New terms for the new normal

Again, acknowledging the pandemic, we have borrowed from the lexicon of Responsive Blended Learning (RBL). This is the term used to describe the current pedagogical approach at Heriot-Watt University (as well as other universities). RBL uses the terms ‘synchronous learning’ to describe the experience of students and teachers being in the same space, whether face-to-face or online while delivering content. ‘Asynchronous learning’ encapsulates the experience of students watching pre-recorded videos online, as well as other self-study activities.

We would like to suggest that the terms ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’ could usefully be applied to widespread current SLI practice and to the interpreting/translating professions more widely. Given that in this new world of ‘blended delivery’, which we propose is likely to persist post-Covid, the traditional binaries of interpreting and translation have become blurred, we suggest that the terms synchronous and asynchronous interpreting may be more relevant.

At the point of delivery in our case study, discussed above, the interpreter delivers a synchronous interpretation. A simultaneous rendition of the target text, in real time (albeit online) in response to the source text delivered by the presenter. This fits comfortably into our understanding of an interpretation. What is less clear is what happens to this rendition after the fact, if recorded.

This is not just a matter of semantics which labels we apply. This issue brings into consideration the disclaimers we should rightly be asking for these products that are neither interpretation nor translation, but something in between. Furthermore, it forces us to interrogate the quality assurance of the work we leave behind in perpetuity and can leave us feeling disempowered.

We synchronously interpret recorded conferences and events where we often have little control over our preparation. Unlike a translation, we often have no control over access to the presenters or how much of the source text we have sight of in advance.

Interpreters are still being booked and paid accordingly as interpreters, yet our interpreted product is increasingly in our online professional life, little consideration is given to our consent, to our authorship/ownership or to the demands we have faced in creating the target text.

A further consideration is the concept of proximity/presence (for want of a better term). As interpreters, we are used to the physical context of working closely with our deaf clients in situ. Relationships are established and maintained in such settings, which often allow us to agree with our clients the use of temporary signs, initialised shortcuts and meta-commentary when the source text is highly accented, unintelligible or inaudible. This is not the case for a translation, yet asynchronous interpretations may have these features of ‘proximity’, while being treated as translations.

This creates new pressures on us, as individual practitioners whose work is now available to all in perpetuity, as well as pressures on the whole profession.

We hope that the introduction of the terms ‘synchronous’ (one-off, simultaneous interpretations that are not recorded) and ‘asynchronous’ (simultaneous interpretations that are recorded and may be re-used without the interpreter having any control of how that happens) recorded, interpretations may help us tease apart the definitions of interpreting and translation within this ‘new normality’.

One solution we would like to propose is that additional preparation resources and time, for asynchronous interpretation would enable the recorded product to be of a higher quality than a ‘traditional’ simultaneous, live interpretation – and that we should feel empowered to ask for such. We also propose that we should be asking for disclaimers at point of booking so we can take informed decisions about our involvement in the uses of the recorded target text.


There is the need for us to develop strategies to mitigate the pressures we are currently working with to deliver translation quality work in synchronous, although potentially to be used as asynchronous, interpretations and these will only come through open discussion and debate of the challenges facing us in delivering the best quality service to deaf clients.

We are left with further questions to explore, such as:

  • What is the experience of community interpreters who are booked to interpret, for example, an online training session, which is recorded, repurposed and used again to train others?
  • Is there a difference in the experiences of deaf and hearing interpreters, heritage and new signers in this context?
  • How does the ‘new normal’ affect the creators of the original content and how does the recording and repurposing of their content compare to the experience of the interpreters who are recorded rendering it in a different language?

Each of these is fascinating and will hopefully be considered in future blogs!

Andy Carmichael grew up in the Scottish Deaf community, trained and qualified as an interpreter in England first of all, and has since worked across the globe in a multitude of settings, his working languages being English, BSL, Auslan, and IS. Andy now works full time as an interpreter at Heriot-Watt University. He’s on Twitter as @AndyCar70

Marion Fletcher is a BSL/English interpreter (PGDip UCLan) who works as a full-time staff member at Heriot-Watt University, where she manages a small team of in-house interpreters. She achieved her Masters of Education from Stirling University in 2000 and has specialised in interpreting in academic settings.

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