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Telephone interpreting

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Title: Telephone interpreting  
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Subject: Language interpretation, Video relay service, Contrastive linguistics, Language localisation, Linguistic validation
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Telephone interpreting

Telephone interpreting is a service that 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.

Historical timeline

  • 1973: Australia introduces telephone interpretation as a fee-free service to respond to its growing immigrant communities.[1]
  • 1981: The first Over-the-Phone Interpretation (OPI) service is offered in the United States.[2]
  • 1981–1990: Telephone interpretation enters major U.S. industries including financial services, telecommunications, healthcare, and public safety.[3]
  • 1990's: The demand for telephone interpretation grows significantly; contributing factors include decreased prices in long distance calls, toll-free number access, and immigration trends.[3]
  • 1995: Language services company Kevmark, later known as CyraCom, patents a multiple-handset phone adapted for telephone interpreting.[4]
  • 1999: AT&T sells language services company Language Line Services.[5]
  • 2000's: Telephone interpretation becomes more sophisticated; quality of interpretation, faster connection speeds, and customer service become important to consumers.[3]
  • 2005: The U.S. telephone interpreting market is estimated at approximately $200 million.[3]
  • 2013: Language Lines Services acquires Pacific Interpreters.[6]


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,[7] as do the governments of South Africa and New Zealand.[8][9]

United States

In the United States, telephone interpreting is widely used by its federal courts.[10] 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.[11]

Major providers of telephone interpretation in the United States include Language Line Services, CyraCom International and 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.[12]

In 2013, Language Line Services acquired Pacific Interpreters.[6]

United Kingdom

Language Line Inc. is an American commercial interpreting provider that in 2006 acquired a UK charity of the same name: 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.[13]

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.

The dual handset phone was first offered by a company called CyraCom, a provider of telephone interpreting services, and is now widely available. There is also a variant made specifically for the U.K. Government by their telephone interpreting providers.[14] These companies usually either lease or sell the phones to their telephone interpreting customers but have been known to give them to key accounts as part of a contract.[15] Dual-handset phones can be bought directly by customers, enabling them to obtain the phones without obtaining them through a telephone interpreting company.

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.

Some providers, such as CyraCom, have developed mobile apps to access their service.[16] CyraCom’s mobile app allows healthcare providers to connect to an interpreter with a mobile device, saving time in patient interactions.


The provisioning of telephone interpreting generally fits into two main categories:

  • Automated: an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) application is employed to convert spoken or keyed Dual Tone Multi Frequency (DTMF) data into a request for connecting to an interpreter in a specific language (identified by unique language-codes). Companies such as CyraCom developed this voice recognition technology to save time for customers who may have the need for very fast (and sometimes a fully integrated) connections to an interpreting service. Previously, customers had to look up the three digit code for a language in order to access an interpreter.[17]
  • Operator-led: utilise customer-care staff to answer the call, gather the required information from the caller, and facilitate the connection to the interpreter. A service of this nature can be preferred by organisations such as emergency services, where the client's knowledge of language codes is absent.

Additionally, some of the companies that have the required capability will offer a hybrid of the two principles, where for example a customer can:

  • Call in to the service
  • Input their "account code" into a single-layer Interactive Voice Response (IVR) using the phone keypad
  • Be connected to a call-centre agent who will already know who the caller is, and will facilitate other data capture relevant to the call (including the required language)


Telephone interpreting is widely used in a number of settings, including health care,[18] 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.[19]

See also

  • Language interpretation
  • Video Relay Service: for use where a deaf/hard-of-hearing/speech-impaired person is not located at the same place as the hearing person. The sign language interpreter is additionally situated in a third location, typically a video-enabled relay call centre.
  • Video Remote Interpreting: for use where a deaf/hard-of-hearing/speech-impaired person and the hearing person are located at the same place, such as a hospital, with the sign language interpreter located off-site.


  1. ^ Mikkelson, Holly. "Telephone Interpreting: Boon or Bane?". Universitat de Valencia. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  2. ^ Kelly, Nataly (2008). Telephone Interpreting: A Comprehensive Guide to the Profession. Trafford Publishing. p. 302.  
  3. ^ a b c d Kelly, Nataly (2008). Telephone Interpreting: A Comprehensive Guide to the Profession. Trafford Publishing.  
  4. ^ "Single-Line Multi-Handset Phone". , Google Patents listing.
  5. ^ Wallace, Lane. "Language Line Sees More Need For Interpreters". Monterey Herald. Retrieved November 4, 2011. 
  6. ^ a b "LanguageLine Solutions Acquires Pacific Interpreters in New Year’s Deal". Language Line. Retrieved January 7, 2013. 
  7. ^ Australian Telephone Interpreting Service
  8. ^ South Africa Interpretation Service
  9. ^ New Zealand Interpretation Service
  10. ^ "Telephone Interpreting Now Available to All District Courts". United States Federal District Courts. 
  11. ^ Kelly, N (August 2008). A Medical Interpreter's Guide to Telephone Interpreting "A Medical Interpreter's Guide to Telephone Interpreting". International Medical Interpreters Association. 
  12. ^ Kelly, Nataly; DePalma, Donald A. "Top 15 Telephone Interpreting Suppliers" Common Sense Advisory (September, 2009)
  13. ^ Language Line History, Language Line website.
  14. ^ TheBigWord Group website
  15. ^ Telephone Interpreting | K International
  16. ^ CyraCom website
  17. ^ "InfoWorld 100 CyraCom International Named Winner of 2004 InfoWorld 100 Award". 
  18. ^ Kelly, N (June 2007). "Telephone Interpreting in Health Care Settings". American Translators Association Chronicle. 
  19. ^ "Common Sense Advisory Releases Ranking of Top 15 Telephone Interpreting Providers Worldwide". Common Sense Advisory. 2008-06-21. 
  • Kelly, Nataly: Telephone Interpreting: A Comprehensive Guide to the Profession, 2008, ISBN 1-4251-8501-0.
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