(Note: This blog post is long and detailed, and really only for facilitators or hosts who want to run bi-lingual meetings in Zoom. I’m capturing this learning mostly for myself so I can use it easily next time, and I’m happy to share with others exploring this useful functionality of Zoom. Feel free to ask questions in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer. Also, click on images to make them larger.)
My three, inter-connected virtual workshops this week were unique for a couple of reasons. First, I found it amusing that each workshop was held on two different dates – that was because the online participants were so spaced out in terms of time zones, that for one half we started on Tuesday but for the other half it was already Wednesday. Every workshop was held on two dates! (with the organizing team in the middle in Central European Time working from 21:30 – 00:00 or so every night.)
The other thing that made our three 2.5 hour workshops different was that we used interpretation online, and had two English-Russian interpreters join our meeting. This was new for everyone, including the interpreters and me, so I wanted to share this overwhelmingly positive experience (of course with a few challenges to overcome) and some thoughts about effectiveness from the perspective of the interpreters which I found insightful.
Our programme, spread over three days as it was, was a multi-sectoral discussion that needed to take place in 2 languages – English and Russian. This is a group of conservation scientists from different sectors located from the far east of Russia to the Bay area of the US, who have worked together face-to face in the past, always with translation. Now we needed to take their work into a virtual environment and chose Zoom as our platform particularly because of this new interpretation option. Our two interpreters joined us from their home offices in two different locations, and they translated in and out of both languages.
There were really only 5 steps to get interpretation working:
Step 1: Get the Zoom Business Plan
Zoom had recently offered an interpretation feature that we wanted to test. This option is only available to Zoom Business users. This is the plan above the Pro version that I already had. For this plan you need to pay for 10 hosts at the minimum, and it costs 199.99 USD per month. You can buy it by the month, which is what I did. Upgrading was incredibly easy to do on their website. You click the button and pay. You maintain your own account and all your details and just get the added features from the Zoom Business plan. Usefully, Zoom doesn’t force you to register the additional 8 hosts, just pay for them. I only have two hosts registered (me and my colleague Lizzie), I will go back to Zoom Pro next month, and when I work with translators again, I will simply upgrade for the time needed.
Step 2: Setting up your meeting for interpretation
With Zoom Business, now what I see as a host when I create a new Zoom meeting is a box to tick at the bottom of the meeting set-up screen that says “Enable interpretation”. Once you tick that box, you need to put in the email addresses of the interpreter(s) and the languages you will use. Currently Zoom offers options for 9 languages: English, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish and Korean. We needed Russian and English, so that was fine. I selected the languages that each interpreter would work in from a drop-down box. You can add many interpreters it seems using the “Add Interpreter” button – after clicking that 10 times I stopped.
Once you set up the meeting, the interpreters get an email message inviting them to join the Zoom meeting as interpreters. That’s really all that’s needed prior to your meeting – very simple!
Step 3: Once in your meeting: Start Interpretation
When you open the Zoom meeting as the host, you need to click on the Interpretation icon which shows up on your dashboard (bottom of the screen). Once that is open you need to “Start Interpretation”. This makes an Interpretation icon show up on the screen of every participant. This is relatively easy to forget the first few times you use this function, because as the host you already see the Interpretation button on your screen and assume that everyone else does too. You then might confidently declare that there is interpretation enabled, and then all participants will respond loudly and in unison that they don’t have the interpretation button, they can’t find it and that this doesn’t work. Then you say “sorry” and start interpretation and magically the icons appear and everyone is happy.
This extra step to turn on interpretation probably makes sense so as not to start it before your interpreters are there. My two interpreters were always in the room early, so I could start that even before the meeting officially opened.
Step 4: Participants choose their language
Once participants see the Interpretation icon on their screen at the panel at the bottom, they click on the icon to see the language choices for your meeting. Note that by default, interpretation is “off” and they just hear whatever is going on in the main room. They need to choose their language to start hearing the interpreter when he/she is speaking their chosen language.
Step 5: Mute original audio
This last step is very important and was an initial source of consternation, taking us a few tests to understand what was going on and what to do about it. So, only after selecting the language of choice, the option to “Mute original audio” becomes active (before you select the language you can see it but you cannot click on it). Unless you wish to hear both languages simultaneously (the speaker and the interpreter) you will want to select this.
When Zoom describes this feature, they make it sound appealing to listen to the interpreters while also having the original language going on softly in the background, simulating a real physical workshop room where you would hear the interpreter in your headset, and still have the original speaker going on in the front of the room at a distance. However, this wasn’t our experience. Both languages seem to be almost the same volume, and with headsets, it was maddening to listen to both languages in both ears at the same time. So other than just dropping in to see that the translation was working, everyone used “Mute original audio” and were happier for it.
Here’s another thing we learned in our testing, the “mute original audio button” is currently only available in the most recent Zoom updates. People with older versions, or company versions that were updated (or not updated) centrally found that they did not have this button and were relegated to either “Interpretation off” (hearing only the language of whoever is speaking – for perfectly bilingual people this is no big deal) or hearing the frustratingly loud mash-up of the speaker and interpreter. This lack of “mute original audio” button was the case in about 25% of our participant tests prior to the workshops. As soon as people updated Zoom they all had the option to “mute original audio”, and their blood pressure went down again.
Eventually, the system worked 100% for everyone, even those who were working in very remote areas. As we had substantive technical presentations in both English and Russian, and only a small subset of bilingual participants, the meeting would not have been possible without interpretation. Zoom made it easy through keeping it all on one platform, rather than having a work around with interpreters needing to set up a separate call, using Skype or other. Another option is always consecutive translation, but that essentially doubles the time needed for meetings and would have slowed us down considerably.
How it felt to participate
I am trying not to be effusive, but we were truly amazed at how well the whole thing worked and how easy it was once you got used to it and set up. One of organizers said that it should be explored even for face-to-face meetings as everyone always has a laptop in front of them and headphones anyways these days. Even sitting in the room, they could log into a Zoom meeting, turn off their video, mute their microphone and pick their preferred language on the Zoom screen. The speakers at the front of the room would just need to have Zoom too and a headset (no video needed as they are live). If participants had a question, they would unmute themselves, speak and the speaker would hear it. There would be no additional interpretation devices to check out and collect, no booths needed, and your interpreters could be anywhere in the world and not in the room. Ah, I get carried away. It is an interesting idea to ponder. Just to note – the interpreters had a completely different opinion on this! (See “How it felt for interpreters” below)
Testing, testing, 1,2,3
As this was new to all participants, hosts, and even the interpreters, we ran 5 interpretation zoom tests in advance of our meetings, where we invited people to join us, walk through the few steps to turn it on and check they had the latest version of Zoom. This also helped us check audio, video, and connectivity issues, which was helpful overall.
I set up the Interpretation tests as separate Zoom meetings, enabled interpretation, invited the two interpreters, and then we hosted a subset of participants each time so that they group was small enough to help and trouble shoot (note that our first two tests were just internal with our friendly and patient organizers). These tests lasted from 15-30 minutes and upon declaring success, greatly helped us move technical issues out of the actual workshop meetings, making starts smoother and punctual.
Final reminder in the meeting
Even with the tests, I opened the first of our three workshops with a few PPT slides to remind people what to do for interpretation, using screen shots. I also included the meeting norms (keep on mute unless speaking, raise hands, etc.), followed by some simple testing of these important functions (“give me a thumbs up if you have this”). I always opened the Zoom environment 15-20 min before the official start of the meeting to trouble shoot with all those who signed in early. And on the last day, where we had a few new external people joining to give presentations, I presented the Day 1 “How to” slides again in the 5 minutes preceding our start time for these newcomers. We had informed them to join us early during the interpretation test meeting.
This all might seem like overkill, but it helped significantly, and made for an effective workshop. The first few times you use interpretation (or even Zoom itself), you can still easily forget where to find things and what to do, and then not know why things aren’t working, descending quickly into general gloom and the potential of existential crisis about whether or not you are going to get this virtual stuff, ever. On a more practical note, even before you get a whiff that people are stuck, you as the facilitator can also invite people who need help to write you in the chat using the “private” option and you can help them individually. After a few times, it is very straightforward.
Ultimately, for participants, once they got there, it was smooth and easy and a little magical to see the videos of their colleagues speaking, mouths moving, and the smooth voice of the interpreter seemingly coming out of it in your very own language. This facilitates discussion and communication among people significantly – brilliant!
How it felt for the interpreters
Talking to our interpreters about these meetings was eye opening for me. I have always been in awe of people who can listen to one language and simultaneously speak another one. I continue to be impressed – our interpreters were excellent, and were themselves learning how to do their work in Zoom.
A number of focused debriefing meetings with them after the tests, and after the workshops themselves, helped us tweak things – but interestingly, not so much from the technology aspect. That worked fine. But more from the procedural perspective. It was interesting to hear them compare their work in a booth at the back of a workshop room, to being plugged in, in front of their computer screens during a virtual meeting.
For them, interpreting for Zoom meetings is now a reality, so they are eager to get up to speed on this. However, their observation is that it is more intense and stressful than providing this service for in-person meetings. Meetings in the Zoom environment, they observed, caused additional cognitive stress. First, because when they are interpreting, they cannot communicate with the host, participants or the other interpreter (who is not in their booth but 1000 km away in their own office). They cannot bang on the booth to get our attention, or visually signal to the other interpreter when they need something or are having a problem (e.g. if their system goes down, there is an issue with sound quality, or they lose connection – which can happen to anyone, necessitating the need to quickly log out and log back in). They cannot read the chat function when they are interpreting – the chat button lights up but they cannot easily see if it is a private message (e.g. about the sound, etc.) or just people chatting back and forth amongst one another.
Also, when someone is sharing their screen to present this obscures part of their dashboard so they cannot easily other things on their screen, like the time – so need to look at their watch or phone, etc. to know when it is time for the next interpreter to take over. That second interpreter is also not there with them physically to use visual communication to switch interpreters (they work in 30 min shifts). All these might seem like small things, but when you are using all your full attention to listen to one language and speak in another simultaneously, it is cognitively more demanding to keep track of all these other things going on at the same time.
The second reason that this is stressful is because the Zoom technology does not impose procedural discipline upon participants, which means that the facilitators and chairs need to do that more. In face-to-face environments, when using interpretation systems, some systems do not allow two people to speak at once, and also people raise their real hands, and then push on a button when called, and then they speak. In Zoom however, everyone can unmute themselves and speak at the same time (I’m sure we have all been on those family zoom calls when everyone is shouting at the same time). People can even speak over one another in two languages! In that case, what does an interpreter do?
To help, there needs to be an emphasis on procedural discipline, which might make the meeting feel more formal, but is really necessary when using interpretation. The Chair or facilitator needs to give voice to participants, and needs to insist on procedural compliance in terms of taking turns, and even trying to leave a bit of space between speakers and language changes, so that the interpreters can click on the other language button when they change languages. It is better for them, they said, if there is no direct contact between participants without the chair giving the floor to people. People also cannot mix the two languages which is very tempting for bilingual people – this is also a rule in F2F interpretation.
Notes for the Facilitator and Host
For the Facilitator of a Zoom meeting, you need to keep your eye on the interpreters’ names in the Participant Panel, and you can even check from time to time that all is going well by switching languages to hear the interpretation (or taking off for a minute “Mute original audio”). One tip for the Host is to rename each interpreter with a “__” (double underscore) before their first name, so that these names are always near the top of your participant screen, which is alphabetized by Zoom (after Host, Co-Hosts, those sharing screen and speaking). That way, you can easily see if for some reason they are not there/drop off the line, so you can stop and wait for them to come back in. If you don’t rename them in this way, their names are mixed in with all other participants and you might not notice if they aren’t there, with a speaker talking away but no interpretation.
This happened to us for a few seconds during one of our workshops, but we just asked the speaker to pause until the interpreter was back, and then to repeat a short segment. We went merrily on and it didn’t happen again. It has to be noted, that bandwidth and internet fluctuations can happen to anyone these days, when everyone in the world is at home and trying to get online simultaneously – whether they are working or watching Netflix, or both at the same time. We know that these little things always happen in virtual meetings, and of course it is a little more dramatic momentarily when it is the interpreter who drops off, but you just pause for a moment and work through it.
This is surmountable, and our interpreters navigated all this novelty elegantly. We, the organizers, only really knew how much work it was for them afterwards. I am sure that no one participating felt anything other than a great meeting, supported by equally great interpretation. For interpreters everywhere who want or need to make this transition to virtual meetings, the Zoom system will become easier to use as they have more and more practice, but the procedural discipline aspect needs to be firmly on the “To Do” list for facilitators.
Some final thoughts
It was exhilarating to try something new and have it work so well! This international group would have had to wait months to meet again in person, and this virtual option allowed them to continue their collaboration in the meantime, from the comfort of their own homes from the far east to the far west. It goes without saying that your interpreters are critical for the success of your bilingual Zoom meeting. As such, it is important to work closely with them, listen to their perspective and get their feedback through testing of the system in the preliminary stages of workshop development. And of course, remember to thank your interpreters at the end!
(BTW if you need recommendations for experienced Russian-English Zoom interpreters, I have some names to share!)