What exactly is “over-the-phone interpreting”?

Those new to the world of translation, or those simply curious as to how it all works, may come across the acronym over the phone interpreting and wonder to themselves, What exactly is this, and who needs it?

Believe it or not, OPI — or Over-the-Phone Interpretation — is an exceedingly common translation service that is used on a daily basis in a wide variety of industries around the globe. What’s more, the manner in which OPI is presented and applied has grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, allowing for more language options and a level of convenience that makes live interpretation easier than ever before.

How it works is given away in the title: over the phone interpreting is exactly what it sounds like — a facet of interpretation rendered over the phone. Of course, its configuration used to be much simpler than it is nowadays. Prior to the internet boom of the mid to late 1990’s, the operation was much more primitive. Companies that contracted translation firms would connect clients/customers and interpreters on three-way calls in order to effectively provide over the phone interpreting service. Anyone who remembers those days knows exactly what this looked like: the home caller would dial up one person, then another, and “click” everyone together. It was, to say, “old school”.

Once call centers became more sophisticated and adequately equipped with wide-ranging networking capabilities, the accessibility of OPI surged. For everyone. Gone was the cumbersome methodology of coordinating the availability of interpreters and clients, and then hoping to connect. Instead, the process was converted to “real time”. Access was, is, nearly instantaneous. A business or organization that contracts a translation firm offering OPI can have employees and clients connect to interpreters just by dialing a number followed by a specific code associated with a given language.

For example: an employee at a stock holding company may have a client who only speaks Spanish. If said employee does not understand Spanish, no problem. All he/she has to do is dial the number of their translation service and punch in the code for a Spanish interpreter. One more push of a button later, all three parties are connected and on the same proverbial page.

The Two Big Questions

The first question most want to know is What industries use OPI the most? In years past, that was easier to answer, but as pointed out above, OPI has expanded its reach into a multitude of industries. Still, there are several industries that are more prolific in their usage of OPI than others.

–> Finance

–> Legal

–> Healthcare

–> Shipping/export

The industry is not as important as what a particular company or organization may encounter relative to what they have to offer in addition to their geographic location, or the location of clientele. To put it plainly, if an entity receives a high number of callers who speak different languages, they may have to depend on OPI in order to meet their needs.

The second question might be What are the most common languages used in over-the-phone interpreting? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer to this one is often dependent on two primary factors: industry, and as just described, location. Businesses and government agencies operate differently with regard to their products, services, clientele, region, and so forth. In certain areas of the United States, such as the Northeast (which is densely-populated and extremely diverse both in terms of constituencies and industries), a variety of languages are spoken outside of English. The most prevalent is, of course, Spanish. But the Northeast is also beholden to a large Filipino population, making Tagalog a common choice for companies and over the phone interpreting firms. Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean also make plenty of appearances on the call sheets of businesses in this corner of the country.

The key when investigating over-the-phone interpretation is getting a sense of the scope of languages a translation firm has available, as well as the level of expertise involved. A reputable agency will usually have interpreters who boast significant credentials in this arena and have passed the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Oral Proficiency Interview or another similar certification process. Then it just becomes a matter of determining a budget that works based on scheduling and call volume, and moving forward when the time is right.

In any case, over the phone interpreting has certainly evolved from where it started, and is now one of the most common and practical methods of interpretation worldwide. Therefore, it is natural to be curious; even more so to try and decipher whether or not it is a good fit for your organization. When you are ready to take the next step, give The Language Doctors a call and we’ll help in any way that we can.

Timothy Hands – Writer at The Language Doctors

P.S. Looking for an over-the-phone service? We’ve got you covered! Check out our on-demand interpreting solutions at www.thelanguagedoctors.com/on-demand 

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