Telephone Interpreting in 2020: Industry trends

June 1, 2020 |

Telephone interpreting may have a relatively short history, but it is a field that is constantly evolving, and many interesting developments are currently underway.

In many settings, there are several driving forces that trigger change in the way services are delivered. Certain trends relate to supply and demand, as both the services themselves and the providers of the services are changing the way the services are delivered. Some trends come about as a result of the ever-changing market composition and changes in the types of services needed. Also, many trends are driven by advances in technology. Combined, these three elements help to explain most of the current trends in the telephone interpreting realm.

Trends in Human Resources

Call centers

While call centers have long been a part of the daily operations of many telephone interpreting companies, the way they are used is constantly evolving. In the past, many companies used call centers to house call center agents, who simply answered calls from incoming clients and forwarded them to interpreters who would, in turn, interpret the calls.

Call centers have also been used for decades by providers of telephone interpreting services in order to house telephone interpreters in a central location. Historically, this has been extremely important in emergency call settings in which connection time between the client and the interpreter is crucial. However, in more recent times, large telephone interpreting companies have set up call centers full of interpreters that handle calls for a variety of settings, not limited to emergency calls.

Home offices

As the popularity of telecommuting has increased over the years, many telephone interpreting companies have turned to work-at-home interpreters as a way of meeting a constantly-growing market demand for on-demand interpreting services in a large number of languages. While home-based interpreters have long been a staple in the telephone interpreting industry, changes in technology have improved the ability to manage such resources.

Some telephone interpreting companies began to equip their fulltime telephone interpreters with computers, specialized telephone headsets, and other equipment. Because the remote workforce was such a common feature of the industry, many companies began to specialize in providing over-the-phone training and testing for interpreters, combined with a plethora of written materials delivered in hard copy to the interpreters’ home offices. In addition, some companies continue to hold regional interpreter conferences and events that allow interpreters to interact in person and take training programs in a group setting.

In recent years, some telephone interpreting companies have taken things a step further. Taking advantage of the latest technology, employers now provide web-based training and testing to telephone interpreters in remote locations, maximizing resources and creating consistency independent of location. Some companies also provide access to special websites for their interpreters, with web access to glossaries, training materials, message boards, and more.

International growth

When many large companies began to move call center resources to offshore centers with several languages, the largest telephone interpreting companies began to mirror that trend. Initially, this served as a strategy for certain companies to decrease cost while maximizing profit, but the practice soon became more commonplace. Before long, some telephone interpreting companies were faced with a choice of either moving business off shore or being driven out of business entirely because of increasingly lower prices.

As a result, most major players in the telephone interpreting world operate at least one offshore call center. For companies based in the United States, these centers are located primarily in Latin American countries, because of the high demand for Spanish interpreting services in the US market.

However, costs and competition are not the only reasons for offshore interpreting resources. Given the shortage of interpreters throughout the United States and the ever-growing demand for services, many companies have found that recruiting in other countries helps to supplement in-country resources and provide the on-demand access that customers require.

Trends in Quality Improvement

Consumer education

By the late 1990s, consumers had become more sophisticated and better educated about interpreting services. Many organizations employed many types of language service providers, including on-site interpreters, and began to understand more about standards and method for providing high-quality interpreting services. As a result, consumers began to apply the same standards of quality to telephone interpreting services, and started to ask questions of their providers, such as ‘How do you train your interpreters?’, ‘How do you test them for interpreting skills?’ and ‘What are your quality control processes?’ Some providers already had extensive quality control mechanisms in place, complete with codes of ethics, standards, and more.

Given the highly competitive nature of the industry, providers were initially reluctant to share this information externally. However, as customers began to ask questions, providers knew that this would need to change. The need for secrecy began to decrease as the need for transparency to customers became a priority. As a result, some companies began to share information about their programs with customers and members of the interpreting community. Thankfully, most of the trends in quality improvement that the industry has witnessed over the past decade seem as if they are here to stay.

Training and testing

In part due to these changes in the market, and in part due to a genuine recognition of the need to improve quality on the part of certain telephone interpreting companies, some providers began to invest significant amounts of time and money in training and testing interpreters. Most large telephone interpreting companies had already been providing at least some form of training to their interpreters – they knew it was an essential part of their business. However, the type and amount of training began to shift.

Instead of developing all resources in-house, telephone interpreting companies began to look outside of their sphere at recognized programs in other areas. Many companies began to develop relationships with reputable individuals from other areas of interpreting (often in specialty areas, such as health care, conference, and court interpreting) that could contribute to their internal programs.

As well as changing the way they viewed training, telephone interpreting companies began to change the way they viewed assessment. As with training, they had been providing assessment, in many cases, from the onset, primarily as a recruiting mechanism. However, as customers grew more sophisticated, providers saw a need to create assessment tools that would uphold the scrutiny of experts in the interpreting field.

In fact, just as they had done for training, some of the larger companies created testing programs in conjunction with well-known consultants from other fields of interpreting, in order to ensure quality to their customers. Tests became common both for general interpreting skills and for industry-specific terminology knowledge in various fields, such as health care, insurance, finance, and court interpreting.


Monitoring of interpreter performance, conducted either via live observation or through call recording and post-call monitoring, was also a common industry practice for some of the larger telephone interpreting companies. Using monitoring specialists and a complex set of performance criteria, some telephone interpreting companies emulated standards for monitoring call center employees to ensure quality, while others created their own guidelines that were in some ways related to guidelines for interpreting in other fields.

Implementing a monitoring service was important, both for purposes of proving to large customers with call centers that their telephone interpreting provider was giving monitoring a similar priority, and for purposes of measuring and improving quality of performance.

Certification programs

As training, testing and monitoring programs grew more complex, companies began to introduce certification programs, as a new way of providing customers with peace of mind regarding quality, while packaging the diverse component types that comprised their quality programs. Some companies went so far as to develop long-term, continued relationships with panels of expert advisors in this area. Others began to offer their programs externally, primarily in response to the market demand for interpreter training and testing services.

Quality in telephone interpreting: Fact or fiction?

The short answer to the above question is: both. It is important to note that, while some telephone interpreting companies have gone to great lengths to develop training, testing, and monitoring programs in order to improve the quality of the services they provide, other telephone interpreting companies may still offer little, if any such programs to their interpreters.

In the field of community interpreting at large, it is not uncommon for interpreters to be hired for on-site positions without any training, testing or prior experience whatsoever. There is a common misconception that anyone who can speak two languages can work as an interpreter. In practice, even individuals who are fully fluent in two languages may not always be effective interpreters, even with training. Concerned individuals in all areas of interpreting struggle to correct the misconception that any bilingual person can interpret, and to educate individuals and organizations on the importance of quality. However, just as uninformed and/or unscrupulous organizations hire unqualified interpreters to interpret in hospitals and courts across the nation, some telephone interpreting providers do not place a value on the quality of their interpreters, and will simply hire anyone who claims to have interpreting experience.

With good reason, some members of the interpreting community have expressed concern over the quality of telephone interpreting. A concern for quality is always a positive sign for the professionalization of the field. Low-quality bargain-basement providers who do not put an emphasis on quality exist in every industry. However, to judge the entire industry on those companies would be neither fair nor accurate, taking into consideration that some providers have gone to great lengths to ensure quality. Sharing information with consumers on the importance of quality is one strategy for addressing this problem, and various sections of this book may help to accomplish this.

Some telephone interpreting providers have no concern for quality or simply lack the knowledge, experience, and resources to ensure it, but this is not unique to telephone interpreting and is commonplace in many areas of interpreting in the United States. For example, in the legal field, where testing and training programs have existed for decades, there are still reports of interpreters for state courts who were hired to interpret without any prior experience or training. In the health care field, bilingual staff members are often asked to interpret without any training, simply because they are already present and seem to fit the job description. In the field of educational interpreting, even fewer training and testing programs exist for spoken language interpreters.

In general, the same basic rule applies to telephone interpreting that applies to all areas of interpreting. Interpreters must first be provided with a code of ethics and professional standards of practice. Once this material is in place, interpreters can be trained on it, and they can then be evaluated (both through testing and monitoring) on how well they adhere to those guiding ethical principles and standards.

Some telephone interpreting providers have shared their codes of ethics with customers and via websites and brochures for marketing and sales purposes, but neither a published non­company-specific code of ethics nor a standards document for telephone interpreting was previously available that would serve as a foundation for the field at large.

It is imperative, for all stakeholders – professional companies concerned with quality, consumers of telephone interpreting services, and the interpreters themselves – to request that such ethical principles and standards be implemented and followed across the entire industry. If this does not take place, all stakeholders continue to remain at risk.

For example, even though most professional interpreting associations require the use of first person interpretation and many educators and associations actually advise strongly against using reported (third person) speech (see NAJIT, 2004), some telephone interpreting companies continue to train interpreters to use this as an interpreting method. This is presumably because it increases the length of billable minutes, and because some consumers are so accustomed to this method that they actually request it. This practice on the part of any provider goes against the professional standards of the field at large. Until telephone interpreting companies can be held to a common set of ethical principles and standards, it may be difficult to ascertain quality.

As a rough estimate, approximately 80% of telephone interpreting services provided within the United States are handled by only a handful of large-scale providers who have long-standing quality programs in place for testing, training, monitoring, and certifying their interpreters. Therefore, the answer to any query about the quality of telephone interpreting services is that it varies, depending on the provider. For this reason, it is important for consumers to become more informed and not only request copies of their providers’ standards and codes of ethics, but to hold the providers accountable for following them.

To download the Guide to Telephone Interpreting by Nataly Kelly, click here

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